Protests Intensify In Thailand

Demonstrators in Thailand's capital Sunday have intensified their protests, deepening a crisis that threatens to swamp the country's government. Thailand's prime minister declared a state of emergency in Bangkok after being forced to cancel a high-profile summit of Asian leaders. NPR's Michael Sullivan talks to Rebecca Roberts about the unrest caused by protesters aiming to restore their exiled leader.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Demonstrators in Thailand's capital today commandeered buses, stopped traffic and deepened a crisis that threatens to swamp the country's government.

Thailand's prime minister declared a state of emergency in Bangkok after the protestors forced him to cancel a high-profile summit of Asian leaders. The state of emergency bans public gatherings of more than five people, but tell that to the thousands of anti-government red shirts gathered outside the prime minister's office this evening.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

(Soundbite of applause)

ROBERTS: NPR's Michael Sullivan was at the government house.

Michael, what's the scene like there?

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Well, as you can probably tell from what we just heard, it's festive, it's defiant. But, you know, lurking in the background is that sense that the security forces are going to try to come and do something, and they think they're probably going to do it tonight.

ROBERTS: Now, the prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, he declared the state of emergency, but he's only been in office for four months. Are the security forces at his beck and call?

SULLIVAN: That's the $64,000 question. I mean, I think it's pretty likely that they'll try to get the demonstrators to disperse. What's not clear is how far they are prepared to go to do so.

I mean, the police are not going to do it by themselves, even if they wanted to. And there's some question about the loyalty of the rank and file, the police rank and file.

The second option is the Thai military, but they like to manipulate things from behind the scenes. They don't like to get involved overtly. They're loath to use force against civilians. They did it in 1992, people died, it damaged the institution, and they know this. They don't want to do it again, but at the same time, this government of Prime Minister Abhisit is one that they helped put in power. And if they don't, then what are they left with? So it's a difficult question for the prime minister and it's a difficult question for the military too.

ROBERTS: And even if he is able to regain some control over the situation, does he have any ability left to govern?

SULLIVAN: I think if the army is onboard, yes. I mean, a lot of people are upset about what's happened over the past week or so, especially what happened yesterday. I mean, a lot of people are deeply embarrassed that Thailand could not host this summit of Asian leaders, that these people disrupted it, but at the same time, you know, support for the deposed prime minister, Thaksin, is still very strong.

There's still this very deep divide between the prime minister's supporters, mainly the urban elite, the political elite, the business elite, and the Thaksin supporters, the red shirts, who are mostly the rural and urban poor who make up the majority of the people in Thailand. And that divide, that's not going to go away either way.

So even if the prime minister does manage to somehow solve this crisis, he's going to have a really, really hard time trying to address that divide.

ROBERTS: And what is former Prime Minister Thaksin's role here?

SULLIVAN: His role is chief instigator. I mean, he's been appearing via videophone at these rallies here in Bangkok all week long, exhorting his supporters to go out and get Prime Minister Abhisit to step down, to have new elections held. And presumably, of course, Thaksin wants his supporters to make it back into power so he can come back from his exile.

And, in fact, he said tonight, when he addressed the crowd tonight, he told them that he would be very willing to come back to help them in their struggle, which seemed to be code for don't give up even if the army and the police come tonight.

ROBERTS: NPR's Michael Sullivan in Bangkok.

Thanks, Michael.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome.

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