BANGKOK – BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's beleaguered government insisted it had no plan for an immediate crackdown on protesters despite handing over security operations to the army chief, saying Saturday too many people are camped in central Bangkok to use force.
A failed attempt by security forces last weekend to flush thousands of anti-government protesters from the historic district of the capital erupted into the worse political violence the country has seen in two decades. At least 24 people were killed and 800 wounded.
Since then, the protesters have consolidated in Bangkok's main business and hotel neighborhood and calls have mounted for a harder government stance against the demonstrators whose presence is scaring away tourists and rattling the stock market.
Despite a Saturday morning downpour, thousands of protesters maintained their base in the Rajprasong shopping area and vowed to stay until they bring down Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government. They held a Buddhist ceremony to pay respects to those killed in last Saturday's clashes, with pictures of the dead displayed on a protest stage as monks chanted blessings.
Abhisit abruptly put his army chief, Gen. Anupong Paochinda, in charge of security operations late Friday after a botched police attempt to arrest leaders of the protesters, who are known as the Red Shirts. One protest leader escaped from a hotel balcony by rope, while at least two others took the stairs, to escape a police raid that the deputy prime minister had announced on television just minutes earlier.
While the army chief's new powers prompted speculation that the government was planning a crackdown, government spokesman Panitan Wattanyagorn appeared to rule out imminent force against the crowd. He noted the strategic difficulties of removing protesters from a congested part of the city that includes luxury hotels and some of Bangkok's fanciest shops.
"People want this settled quickly, but the authorities also face their limitations," Panitan told The Associated Press. "There are a lot of people out there, and we cannot do anything harsh."
"Some newspapers have reported that now the government plans to use force again. This is not true," Panitan said. "The use of force to disperse the protesters was not in the order (given to Anupong)."
Panitan said the government's primary goal is to identify "terrorists" it says have infiltrated the Red Shirt organization and orchestrated violence last Saturday. The government says some protesters used "war weapons" in the clashes that broke out with security forces.
Protesters on Thursday vacated the site of the deadly clashes and shifted to their second encampment in the Rajprasong shopping area, home to gleaming malls and several luxury hotels that have been under virtual siege for more than two weeks.
The Red Shirt protesters say they are bracing for a final showdown in their campaign to oust Abhisit, dissolve Parliament and call new elections. Different protest leaders offer conflicting calls for how to resolve the crisis.
"The Abhisit government is now struggling for its last breath as the finale looms," Weng Tojirakan, one of the Red Shirt's more moderate leaders, told supporters Saturday. "I urge you all to adhere to a nonviolent approach. Soon we will win."
One of the group's most militant leaders, Arisman Pongruangrong, has a more aggressive tone.
Arisman has gained hero status among the Reds after his Hollywood-style escape from police on Friday. A former pop singer and heartthrob, he repelled from a third-floor hotel balcony into the waiting arms of cheering supporters who whisked him away and briefly took two senior police officers hostage.
"From now on our mission is to hunt down Abhisit," Arisman said after his escape. "This is a war between the government and the Red Shirts."
Police have issued 24 arrest warrants for Red Shirt leaders it accuses of inciting violence. So far none have been arrested.
One protest leader Nattawut Saikua told supporters Saturday that protest leaders would surrender to police on May 15, after they had achieved their goal of bringing down the government.
Thousands of Red Shirts, mostly rural poor, have congregated in Bangkok since March 12. They consist mainly of supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-democracy activists who opposed the bloodless military coup that ousted him in 2006. Thaksin is living in overseas exile to avoid a two-year prison term for corruption.
They believe Abhisit heads an illegitimate government because it came to power in December 2008 through parliamentary procedure, replacing an elected pro-Thaksin administration. The conflict has been characterized by some as class warfare, pitting the country's vast rural poor against an elite that has traditionally held power.