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NEWS UPDATES 22 March 2010

Thai govt keeps security law in place as red shirts linger

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Thailand Monday escalated its response to red-shirted protesters as their anti-government rally entered its second week, extending a tough security law and arming military guarding key sites, reported AFP.

The "Red Shirts" loyal to deposed former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, buoyed after staging a carnival-like parade through Bangkok on Saturday, have rejected offers of talks with the government and called for immediate elections.

On Sunday they won more headlines by painting poems, pictures and political slogans on white canvas with remnants of the blood they had donated and had earlier splattered on the prime minister's house and offices.

An army spokesman said the government was "very concerned" after several minor grenade attacks including two small blasts that hit after the Saturday parade, which drew 65,000 people and revived a movement that had begun to wane.

"Starting from today, the military deployed at checkpoints, government buildings and military bases will be armed in order to prevent ill-intentioned people from inciting unrest," Colonel Sunsern Kaewkumnerd told reporters.

Sunsern said that only army officers at the sensitive locations would be supplied with firearms. Previously the 30,000 military personnel deployed for the protests did not carry weapons.

The army spokesman also threatened "decisive action" against demonstrators if they tried to disrupt a cabinet meeting scheduled for Tuesday at a ministry on the outskirts of Bangkok.

Deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban said separately that the government would extend a stringent security law enacted ahead of the mass protests for an additional week in Bangkok and two other provinces.

The Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows authorities to set up checkpoints, impose curfews and limit movement, had been enforced across eight provinces since March 11 and was due to expire on March 23.

Suthep said the extension in Bangkok and two nearby provinces, including one where the nation's main airport is located, would allow authorities "to better handle the situation."

Red Shirts leader Nattawut Saikur was taken aback by the escalation of security measures against a protest movement which has passed off largely peacefully in recent months despite fears of violence.

"The government always says they will not hurt the people, they will not attack people. Why do they have to be armed when we demonstrate peacefully?" he told AFP.

The Reds, mainly from Thailand's impoverished rural regions, are calling for fresh elections on claims that current premier Abhisit Vejjajiva's government is illegitimate and backed only by the nation's elite.

They have rejected Abhisit's offer of dialogue with one of his ministers, saying they will only meet with the premier and only to discuss the dissolution of the lower house.

Lertrat Rattanavanich, a senator organising any possible negotiations, warned the deadlock would only inflict further harm on Thailand, which has had its economy and reputation battered by the protests.

"The talks aim to narrow the distance between the government and protesters before reaching the step of talks with the prime minister. It is a pity that the discussions can't be held today because everyone wanted it to happen," he said.

"Even though they couldn't be held today I'm still willing to do it later because a longer protest will cause more damage."

Police said there were 10,000 demonstrators camped out Monday morning at their base in Bangkok's old quarter, down from 45,000 late Sunday, but with numbers certain to swell again in the cool of the evening.

"We guarantee that Abhisit will not get bored," Nattawut said late Sunday when asked about their next step. He said they had "several plans" afoot, without giving further details.

Thaksin, who was deposed in a coup in 2006, still enjoys strong support for the populist policies he introduced when in power.

In what they have dubbed a "class war," the Reds say they are fighting Thailand's elite in bureaucratic, military and palace circles, whom they accuse of ousting elected governments.


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