Thai forces use tear gas against protesters

Thai forces use tear gas against protesters

Thai security forces fired tear gas and water cannon Friday as thousands of “Red Shirt” protesters stormed a television broadcaster to try to put an anti-government channel

The authorities said about 12,000 demonstrators massed outside Thaicom, a day after the government pulled the plug on their People Television (PTV) under emergency rule aimed at quelling the almost month long rallies.

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A tense stand-off ensued with thousands of security personnel at the site on the outskirts of Bangkok. Some protesters managed to force their way into the compound of the broadcaster, which was protected by barbed wire.

It was the first time tear gas and water cannon have been used since the mass demonstrations began in mid-March.

Earlier the government had warned it would not tolerate any intrusion.

“We will use every means to keep PTV off the air,” said Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, who is overseeing security.

“If protesters turn violent, security officials are ready to retaliate with tear gas and rubber bullets,” he said.

The authorities mobilised tens of thousands more security personnel to try to restore order in the capital, where rallies have highlighted Thailand’s deep rift pitting Bangkok’s ruling elite against the mainly poor and rural Reds.

Red shirts defy state

The Red Shirt protesters have defied a state of emergency announced by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Arrest warrants have been issued for 24 leaders of the “Red Shirt” demonstrators, who have occupied the capital’s commercial district for almost a week, paralysing traffic and causing major stores to shut.

The army said it had called up 33,000 extra police and troops in and around the capital, where supporters of fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra — ousted in a 2006 coup — have been staging rolling rallies for about a month.

“It’s crucial for the military and police to bring the situation under control,” army spokesman Sunsern Kaewkumnerd told a news conference. “Police and soldiers will decisively enforce the law.”

Security beefed up

There are now more than 80,000 security personnel in Bangkok — more than the number of protesters, whose number peaked at about 60,000 on Thursday night at two locations, according to police estimates.

The Reds want immediate elections, arguing the government is illegitimate because it came to power with army backing through a parliamentary vote in December 2008 after a court decision ousted Thaksin’s allies from power.

“The government is not concerned about people’s lives but worries that glass at shopping malls may be shattered. That’s why the government has not yet used force to crack down,” said one of the Reds’ leaders, Jatuporn Prompan, who himself has immunity from arrest because he is a member of parliament.

Emergency rule in place

The government announced emergency rule Wednesday after protesters briefly forced their way into the parliament compound. Lawmakers fled and several senior government figures were evacuated by military helicopter.

Abhisit was due to attend a Southeast Asian summit in Vietnam this week but cancelled the visit because of the mass rallies and remained holed up at an army barracks.

His government has banned public gatherings of more than five people and given broad powers to police and military under emergency rule in the capital and surrounding areas.

But it is anxious to avoid a repeat of clashes last April that left two people dead.

Rights groups condemned the media clampdown.

“It is deplorable that the authorities are using the state of emergency to censor neutral or opposition news outlets,” Reporters Without Borders said.