Protesters defy siege of key Bangkok district

Protesters defy siege of key Bangkok district

Anti-government demonstrators gather to listen to speeches outside one of Bangkok’s many upscale shopping malls on Sunday. AP

The government said the red-shirted protesters who overran a district housing sleek upmarket department stores and five-star hotels on Saturday could each face up to a year in jail and a 20,000 baht ($620) fine if they don’t leave.

The gathering was in clear violation of a tough Internal Security Act imposed last month, said the Centre for Administration of Peace and Order, a special government body set up to keep security during the protests.

“The blockade of roads around the intersection is an exercise of public rights beyond what the constitution provides,” Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said after talks between authorities and the protesters yielded nothing substantive.

More than 50,000 protesters also ignored a deadline at 9 pm (local time) on Saturday to leave the area where Central World, the second-largest shopping complex in Southeast Asia, and half a dozen other big malls and retailers shut their doors in response to the threats by the protesters to stay for days.

The mostly rural and working-class demonstrators have said that they will not leave until Abhisit’s government dissolves parliament and calls elections.

Protest leader Veera Musikapong told Reuters his “red shirts” would remain until at least Monday. “We have no choice but to step up civil disobedience until the government listens,” he said.

Backed by Thailand’s powerful military and royalist establishment, Abhisit said a peaceful poll now would be difficult given the tensions and repeated his recent offer to dissolve parliament in December, a year early.

“I am not trying to do anything simply to cling to my job, nor do I attache priority to staying full term,” he said.

Analysts say Abhisit would likely lose an election if it were held now, raising investment risks in Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy following a $1.6 billion surge of foreign investment in Thai stocks over the past five weeks on expectations Abhisit will survive the showdown.

The “red shirts”, supporters of twice-elected and now fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, say Abhisit has no popular mandate and came to power illegitimately, heading a coalition the military cobbled together after courts dissolved a pro-Thaksin party that led the previous government.

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