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NEWS UPDATES 4 April 2010

"Red Shirts" asked to leave Bangkok business hub

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Thailand's prime minister Sunday urged anti-government protesters to end a crippling picket in Bangkok's tourist hub but stopped short of ordering their forced dispersal, reported AFP.

The "Red Shirts", who are demanding elections to pave the way for the return of fugitive deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra, escalated their three-week rally Saturday, massing in the main shopping and luxury hotel district.

With businesses and tourism threatened, the government banned the gathering under a strict security law invoked to cover the protests, and threatened protesters with a year in jail.

But thousands of "Red Shirts", most of whom have travelled from Thailand's poorer rural northern provinces, defied the warning and refused to budge overnight.

In a televised address, Premier Abhisit Vejjajiva urged the "Red Shirts", so called because of the colour of their trademark clothing, to return to their main protest site in the capital's government quarter.

"The gathering is violating laws. (We) have issued an announcement asking protesters to leave. The announcement does not mean the government will disperse the protest," said Abhisit.

"(We) know that some people want the government to use tough measures but we are all Thai. The government will use international standards starting with soft measures," he said.

Abhisit said the government hoped to end the standoff through dialogue but he has refused to rule out invoking emergency rule -- which would ban gatherings of more than five people -- if the situation worsens.

The "Red Shirts", who accuse the government of being elitist and army-backed, insisted they would stay put until Abhisit dissolved the Lower House.

"The police can hand us an order but we will continue to stay here to call for our demand to be met," said protest leader Nattawut Saikuar.

Despite sweltering temperatures, police estimated that about 60,000 people joined Saturday's protest.

The demonstrations snarled traffic and forced many shopping malls and stores to close, but tourists seemed largely unfazed by the rally, which had a carnival-like atmosphere with dancing and live music in the streets.

Thailand has been wracked in recent years by a string of protests by the "Red Shirts" and their rival "Yellow Shirts", whose campaign in 2008 led to a crippling nine-day blockade of the country's airports.

The military has mounted a heavy security response involving 50,000 personnel for the protests.

The "Red Shirts" oppose the coup that toppled Thaksin in 2006 and say Abhisit's government is undemocratic because it took office through a parliamentary vote after a court stripped Thaksin's allies of power.

Thaksin, a billionaire former telecoms tycoon who lives abroad to avoid a jail term for graft at home, has regularly addressed the protesters via videolink, urging them not to back down.

"All people in Bangkok as well as the provinces please come out... to fight for equality," he said in his Saturday speech. "Victory belongs not only to the Red Shirts but the entire Thai nation."

The "Red Shirts" have staged a series of dramatic stunts to press their demands, including throwing their own blood at Abhisit's offices.

They rioted in Bangkok in April last year, leaving two dead and scores injured. 


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