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Thai Army Cracks Down On Protesters

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Thailand, protesters took to the streets today, blocking roads and challenging government troops in the heart of Bangkok. The demonstrators are demanding new elections because they claim the government installed four months ago is illegitimate.

The riots are taking place the day after the country's ousted prime minister called for a revolution.

Joining us now from Bangkok is NPR's Michael Sullivan. Hello, Michael.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, the prime minister today called for demonstrators to return to their homes. He said he was using the softest measures possible to control the crowds. How does it look from your point of view?

SULLIVAN: I think it does look pretty soft. I mean, there's been some pretty dramatic pictures on Thai TV of soldiers firing into crowds of protesters that were blocking a key intersection here. But I think this has only happened a few times.

And from what I've seen, many of the troops, in fact most of them, appear to be firing over the heads of the protesters. And while several dozen people on both sides have been injured, no deaths have been reported so far. And the military, of course, says they were provoked by demonstrators throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails and the like.

The protesters have been pushed back from that particular intersection, but they're still occupying several others. I think the military is trying hard not to use excessive force, because they know it could quickly get out of hand. It could turn public opinion against them. They don't want it.

And they've made no attempt so far to go after the core of the demonstrators gathered at the prime minister's compound, government house. There's thousands of them there. They've erected barricades using commandeered buses, taxis, whatever they can get their hands on. And going in after them would be very, very difficult.

Let me add one more thing. Aside from these scattered confrontations around the city, by and large, it's pretty peaceful here. You're far more likely to get soaked by people with water guns celebrating the New Year water festival Songkran than you are to run into these demonstrators. Bangkok is not a city on the brink, at least not yet.

MONTAGNE: Is there anything the government can do? You know, those demonstrators that are around the prime minister's house, I guess you're saying, anything to quell those demonstrations?

SULLIVAN: Short of going in heavy, I don't think that - I don't think they can. I think they've pretty much ruled that out. I think they'll probably try to continue the softly, softly approach for a while longer and hope the demonstrators just lose steam.

But I don't think it's going to happen. I think Prime Minister Abhisit has got a huge problem on his hands here. He needs to act decisively to show he's in charge. But if he orders the army in big time and they listen - which isn't a given, by the way; they refused the last time they were asked, last year - then he runs an even bigger risk of this thing spreading. His government miscalculated this one badly. They underestimated the strength of the opposition.

MONTAGNE: Now, what are these long-running demonstrations doing to Thailand's economy and tourism? I mean, there's people out here who might be traveling there. I mean, what are they to think?

SULLIVAN: Well, I think a lot of them are starting to think that Thailand is a place that they might want to stay away from. And several governments have issued travel warnings to that effect already. I mean, you have to remember the tourism industry here was already reeling from last December's airport closures, which helped bring down the last Thaksin-friendly government here and install the new Prime Minister Abhisit. That was at the beginning of high season. This isn't going to help, either.

And not only that, it's not going to make foreign investors too keen on putting their money here - if there's any money left after the global economic meltdown, at least.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, civil war, is that actually a possibility?

SULLIVAN: I don't think it's out of the question, you know. Deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra - and these are his supporters out on the streets -he remains deeply popular among his supporters, who are mainly the urban and rural poor who make up the majority in Thailand.

And on the other side, you have the Abhisit supporters, the traditional political elite here, the middle class, the upper middle class, and they are diametrically opposed to everything that Thaksin stands for. So there's no middle ground here. And the possibility for widespread violence is definitely there.

MONTAGNE: Michael, thanks very much.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Michael Sullivan, reporting from Bangkok. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Sullivan
Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.
Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.