BANGKOK – BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's beleaguered prime minister declared a state of emergency to quell weeks of paralyzing protests costing businesses tens of millions of dollars. But the demonstrators championing the rights of the rural poor remained uncowed, and whether the showdown can end without violence is unknown.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva acted after mostly peaceful protests escalated Wednesday when demonstrators burst into parliament and forced lawmakers to flee on ladders over a back wall, with senior officials hastily evacuated by helicopter.
Wednesday's chaos was a continuation of the long-running battle between partisans of the country's former leader — Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a 2006 military coup — and those who oppose him. Thaksin was accused of corruption and showing disrespect to the country's revered monarch.
The demonstrators, called the Red Shirts for their attire, benefited from Thaksin's populist policies such as cheap health care and village loans. They have demanded that Abhisit dissolve parliament within 15 days and call new elections, claiming he took office illegitimately in December 2008 with the help of military pressure on parliament.
Instead, the prime minister has offered to do so by the end of the year.
Protesters have camped out in Bangkok since March 12, ignoring court orders and a massive security presence.
Abhisit has been harshly criticized for failing to take strong measures to end the disruptive demonstrations. He has entered negotiations with the Red Shirts and ordered security forces pull back from possible confrontations.
Several shopping malls have closed and luxury hotels put under virtual siege since Saturday, when demonstrators moved to a busy intersection at the heart of Bangkok's commercial district.
Merchants have complained the boisterous demonstrations have cost billions of baht (tens of millions of dollars), and economists have expressed concern continuing protests will hurt the GDP.
Abhisit, in a televised broadcast that interrupted regular programming, said the aim of the emergency decree was to restore normalcy to Bangkok, and prevent "further related crime and disaster."
"I want you to understand and stop taking part in any illegal demonstration," the prime minister told the protesters.
The state of emergency decree allows "the performing of an act to the extent that is necessary to maintain the security of the State, the safety of the country or the safety of the people." Security officials can detain suspects without charge for up to 30 days.
The effectiveness of the decree is debatable. Although it gives the military greater powers to restore order, both Abhisit and the army know a crackdown could result in bloodshed that would be political poison.
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the protesters have a right to express their views, but he urged them to avoid violence.
"We respect the right of freedom of expression, however, forcibly entering government buildings is not an appropriate means of protest," Crowley said.
Surat Horachaikul, a political science lecturer at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, said the state of emergency announcement can be interpreted in two ways.
"First, it might be an attempt by the government to buy some time. Or it might actually mean that the government and the army have reached an agreement in solving the current problem," he said.
Red Shirt leaders responded to the decree by telling protesters to stay put and wait for the military to arrive. They have called a major rally for Friday.
Protest leader Veera Muksikapong directed his message to the army: "If you want to meet an army of nonviolent people, please come here. But I believe that ultimately the military will not listen to the government's order."
One of the most radical protest leaders, Arisman Pongruengrong, led a small group in smashing through parliament's gate and rushing into the building Wednesday. But the protesters later withdrew at the request of opposition legislators, their political allies.
A Black Hawk helicopter carrying five soldiers armed with M-16 rifles was deployed to fly ministers and lawmakers to safety.
Abhisit left Parliament before the break-in to attend a scheduled meeting. Aide Sirichoke Sopa said the prime minister canceled a trip to Washington for an April 12-13 international nuclear summit.
The Red Shirts' confrontational tactics mimic those of their ideological opposites, the Yellow Shirts, who staged the original anti-Thaksin protests. In 2008 they occupied the prime minister's offices for three months and seized Bangkok's two airports for a week, causing hundreds of millions dollars in economic losses.
The Yellow Shirts represent Thailand's traditional royalist and military elite and are popular with Bangkok's middle class.
Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker, Thanyarat Doksone, Kinan Suchaovanich, and Denis Gray contributed to this report from Bangkok. Foster Klug contributed from Washington.