Red Shirts prepare for battle with Thai army

Thailand's prime minister and protest leaders are defiant as analysts warn that only new elections can quash the unease engulfing the nation.

BANGKOK // More than 20,000 anti-government protesters are preparing to do battle with Thailand's security forces after tentative talks between the two sides collapsed, sending the political crisis closer to violent confrontation.

The demonstrators, who call themselves Red Shirts because of the colour of their attire, have armed themselves with sharpened bamboo poles and piles of small rocks. At their sprawling encampment in central Bangkok yesterday, they had built barriers using bamboo, tyres and plastic sheeting and doused them with petrol in readiness for any military assault on their positions. Tens of thousands of troops and police are now positioned around the Red Shirt rally raising fears of an imminent crack down.

"The troops are massing at either end of our rally," the Red Shirt leader Jaran Ditapichai said. "The Enemy is at the Gate," he told The National, "but we are ready for them, and we are all prepared to die if necessary to regain democracy." In the past few days fears have been growing that the stand-off between the anti-government protesters who are occupying the city's commercial centre and the country's security forces was going to end in bloodshed. Hopes that the confrontation between the two sides might be prevented, after it emerged that they had been talking to each other in recent days, were quickly dashed when Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva dismissed the Red Shirts' offer, saying he would not be intimidated with threats.

"There can be no more talks and no more compromises," a leader of the anti-government protest movement, Weng Tojirakan told The National yesterday. "They plan to kill thousands of us," he added. "Abhisit will be the Pol Pot of Thailand." The Red Shirts had offered to allow the government 30 days to dissolve the parliament in an effort to avert an assault on the protesters. But the political stand-off between the two sides worsened after Mr Abhisit rejected the Red Shirts' offer to give the government more time to prepare for elections. "The point is not how many days from now. The point is what's needed to be done to have a peaceful election," Mr Abhisit said in a taped address broadcast on national television yesterday morning. He appeared alongside the army chief, Gen Anupong Paojinda, a move seen as an attempt to quash speculation of a rift between the two men on how to deal with the crisis.

"The door to talks is always open," the government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said. "But not in the face of threats and terrorists mingling with the crowd." Until recently the Red Shirt leaders had insisted that there was no room for manoeuvre. "We will not talk to the government," Mr Weng told The National only a few days ago. "The prime minister knows, everyone knows, what we want - the immediate dissolution of parliament and the power returned to the people," he said. "We won't negotiate. Nothing short of his resignation will do."

But things changed, said Mr Ditapichai, the Red Shirts' leading strategist after last week's violence. Last Thursday, one person died and nearly a hundred others were injured when at least five grenades were fired into a crowd of pro-government protesters in Bangkok's business district on the edge of a Red Shirt protest. Both sides blamed each other for the attack which followed serious clashes between the Red Shirts and security forces two weeks ago in which 25 people died, including four soldiers, and more than 800 were injured from tear gas, handgrenades and live bullets.

The two sides met face-to-face twice earlier this week at Chulalongkorn University, arranged through an intermediary. These meetings involved lower level representatives. But they were halted abruptly on Friday. Both sides accused each other of causing the breakdown, with the premier calling the Red Shirts offer a publicity stunt for the international media and the protest leaders accusing the government of never being sincere about the negotiations in the first place.

Most of the protesters are poor farmers from the north and north-east who feel they have been cheated by the wealthy middle class and social elite who live in Bangkok. Many of the Red Shirts, who form the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) group, support the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in September 2006. He fled Thailand some 20 months ago while on bail for corruption charges.

Already academics and politicians are calling on both sides to resume talks. "It's the only way to avert any further violence or loss of life," said the veteran politician Chaturon Chaisang, a former deputy prime minister and Thaksin ally who speaks frequently at the Red Shirt rallies. The prime minister is coming under increasing pressure to remove the Red Shirts. For the last three weeks they have paralysed the commercial centre, causing the major shopping malls to close. Millions of dollars a day in business is being lost, according to the Thai Chamber of Commerce.

"Talks are the only way out of this [political] crisis as the country heads for a catastrophe," advised the highly-respected former prime minister, Anand Panyarachun, last week. "As soon as Abhisit dissolves parliament and sets an acceptable date for new elections, the Red Shirt protesters will go home," said Mr Jaran. But while most political pundits think an election is the only way out - few believe it will solve the underlying problems. "Elections could create a temporary respite - and persuade those Red Shirts from outside Bangkok to go home," a former British Ambassador to Thailand, Derek Tonkin, told The National.

"While elections will not solve what is now a deep-seated polarisation, it should give both sides sufficient pause for thought, before another bloody confrontation takes place," he added.