BANGKOK—Fears are rising that Thailand’s embattled prime minister will have to launch a military crackdown—or call new elections sooner than anticipated—after antigovernment protesters temporarily stormed the nation’s Parliament and the government responded by declaring a state of emergency.
The declaration—ordered for the city and surrounding areas late Wednesday—gives the government wider leeway to ban mass gatherings and detain protesters, who are consolidating their control over key areas of the Thai capital.
But it was unclear what, if any, steps the government would take to enforce the rules after previously allowing protesters to roam the city more or less at will, blocking traffic and leaving some businesses shuttered for days.
Analysts say momentum is gathering for the red-shirt protesters, who appear increasingly willing to defy the police and military as they seek to bring down the government of army-backed Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
On Tuesday, protesters easily pushed past lines of police and soldiers deployed to prevent them from clogging 11 key thoroughfares across the city.
They followed that move by swarming Thailand’s Parliament on Wednesday, forcing besieged lawmakers to escape over walls while others were evacuated by Black Hawk helicopter. At one point, protesters were seen wielding guns they said were seized from police, though the red-shirts left the site soon afterward.
The protesters also tightened their control over one of Bangkok’s main shopping districts, near the U.S. and British embassies and several of Bangkok’s top five-star hotels, leaving several malls closed for the fifth straight day. Red-shirt sentries searched pedestrians and manned their own security barricades into the area on Wednesday, holding rallies late into the evening, while police officers sat around reading newspapers or eating snacks.
European Pressphoto AgencyThai anti-government protesters, known as ‘red shirts’, break into the Parliament building in Bangkok, Thailand.
The crowds of protesters appeared to be smaller on Wednesday than on previous days. Even so, the latest incidents have underscored the breakdown of public order in some areas, with police and army officials unable or unwilling to control mobs that have vowed to invent new ways to paralyze Bangkok until Mr. Abhisit agrees to call fresh elections.
“The momentum has shifted in favor of the red shirts,” says Somchai Phagaphasvivat, a political scientist at Thailand’s Thammasat University. “They have the upper hand because law enforcement could not be used against them.”
Government officials say they have held back so far in order to avoid bloodshed.
The protesters are mainly backers of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup four years ago. He now spends most of his time in self-imposed exile in Dubai evading imprisonment on a corruption conviction back home. Thailand’s voters have elected either Mr. Thaksin or his supporters in every election since late 2000, and political analysts generally agree that pattern would continue if new elections were held today.
Wason Wanichakorn/Associated PressAnti-government protesters kicked a security guard at the Parliament building in Bangkok Wednesday.
Backers of the current government, established by parliamentary vote in 2008 after a previous bout of political instability, regard Mr. Thaksin as a divisive populist who circumvented Thailand’s system of democratic checks and balances to expand his power and business interests. Many of them wear yellow shirts to signal their allegiance to the country’s royalist and military establishment, which settled on the Oxford-educated Mr. Abhisit as a compromise figure in hopes he could bridge the country’s deep social and economic divides.
There are signs, however, that support for Mr. Abhisit may be eroding. In a front-page editorial Wednesday, The Nation, an English-language newspaper in Bangkok, said the prime minister’s “gentlemanly strategy” of avoiding a crackdown was “on the verge of backfiring, if it has not backfired already.”
Business leaders are likewise calling on Mr. Abhisit to take more decisive action to end the protests, which began March 12. But analysts say it’s unclear whether he has full control over the police and armed forces, factions of which are believed to be sympathetic to the red shirts’ demands for new elections.
In announcing the state of emergency Wednesday, Mr. Abhisit called the protesters’ activities “unlawful” but said it would “not mean an imminent crackdown on people.” A day earlier, he said the situation required “careful maneuvering” and that he wanted to be sure the standoff didn’t “spiral out of control.”
Mr. Abhisit also on Wednesday canceled a planned trip to Washington next week to attend international nuclear summit meetings there, the Associated Press reported.
Although Mr. Abhisit isn’t required to call elections until late 2011, he has offered to do so earlier, perhaps by the end of this year. But he has resisted protesters’ requests to dissolve Parliament within a matter of days, saying the government needs more time to prepare the country for an election.
But as the red-shirt protesters tighten their grip on parts of the city, the odds of an earlier election are “much greater” than before, says Christopher Bruton, an analyst at Dataconsult Ltd., a Bangkok advisory concern.
It was unclear Wednesday whether protest leaders would be altering their strategy. Many protesters have vowed to continue.
“I will be here until we have a new government,” said Waan Tosuk, a 51-year-old potato and rice farmer from northern Thailand who came to Bangkok with her family for the protests and occupied the red shirt-controlled Rachaprasong shopping area Wednesday.
“Staying here is difficult,” she said. But “the current government is unacceptable.”