Thailand turmoil shuts down scores of businesses

BANGKOK (AP) — Yoga studios have canceled classes. Luxury hotels are turning away guests. Shopping malls and office buildings are shut down.

As Thailand's political turmoil enters its seventh week, the economic toll is spreading. Ordinary workers, parents and shoppers often reach their destinations to find signs that say: "Sorry, closed due to political unrest."

The "Red Shirt" protesters have occupied various parts of Bangkok since March 12 to demand the government's resignation. Twenty-six people have died in the political violence.

The protests are concentrated now in about a square mile of the Thai capital. In early April, protesters pitched tents along the city's swankiest shopping street — the equivalent of Paris' Champs-Elysees or New York's Fifth Avenue.

Thousands of supporters have slept on sidewalks ever since. Four luxury hotels and a half-dozen towering shopping malls in the area have closed, losing millions of dollars a day.

The latest casualty is nearby Silom Road, the city's financial district, which transforms after-hours into a nighttime bazaar with a popular bar scene, notably the lewd kind for which Bangkok is infamous.

On Friday, Silom was filled with riot police, and many of its banks, restaurants, offices and a major shopping complex were shut after a night of bloody chaos that resulted in one death and more than 80 people wounded.

Clashes on April 10 left 25 dead and more than 800 hurt, damaging Thailand's image as a tourist paradise.

"I still can't believe it," said Somchay Chaitosa, a bank employee whose bank was one of many in the Silom area that closed Friday. "This is like in the movies that we watch of civil wars and shootings in Africa, but it happened right here in the heart of Bangkok."

Five grenade explosions on Thursday blasted holes through the roof of an elevated Skytrain station and shattered cafe windows near the landmark Dusit Thani hotel. Authorities immediately closed the elevated rail line that runs down Silom. The trains serve thousands of daily commuters, but the station has also been an overhead bunker for soldiers to monitor protesters.

The soldiers were sent there Monday to keep the protesters from spilling onto Silom. Adding to the volatile mix are rival demonstrators hurling insults and bottles at the Red Shirts, who have barricaded themselves behind a wall of tires and homemade bamboo spears.

The Red Shirts claim a noble cause, demanding greater equality in Thai society and characterizing their movement as a class struggle pitting the country's vast rural poor against an elite that has traditionally held power. They claim Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva gained power illegitimately and should step aside so new elections can be held.

But more and more Bangkok residents say they are fed up with the Red Shirts, the violence and the ongoing damage to Thailand's image.

Tourism accounts for 6 percent of the country's economy and has steeply declined since the protests started.

Cancelations are pouring in from tourists and business travelers. Thailand has already lost more than $31 million (1 billion baht) from event cancellations and is projected to lose several times that in coming months, according to the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau.

The stock market has tumbled 7 percent since just before the violence erupted. The Thai stock exchange says 34 listed companies that had planned annual shareholder meetings in the city have changed their plans because of safety concerns.

"Don't say this is a fight for democracy. What they are doing is terrorism," said Sangrawee Tapananon, 55, a bank employee who says she felt compelled to join the anti-Red protests. "My family has begged me not to join the protests. But if we don't come out, it means we succumb to the thugs."

The Bangkok Post ran a graphic Friday with seven tips for businesses to prepare for emergencies, including rehearsing evacuations and training staff in first aid.

Most of Bangkok remains untouched, but the violence has rippled into life beyond the protest zone.

Several international schools, all outside the protest area, have closed periodically since the rallies started. Some of the city's biggest gyms are in the shopping malls and streets near the Rajprasong shopping area.

The website for Absolute Yoga, a popular Bangkok yoga studio, apologizes to customers for the closure of its biggest branch. "Due to the ongoing political unrest ... our studio will remain closed until the situation is clear."

The sprawling Royal Bangkok Sport Club, a green oasis for the elite adjacent to the "occupation zone," closed Friday as a security precaution, but may reopen Monday.

"This demonstration has changed my way of life," said Apiruedee Apiwattanaporn, 29, a financial officer and gym buff who now has nowhere to work out. "My gym shut down, so I went to another branch at Silom, but now the Skytrain station at Silom is closed."

"My favorite restaurants are closed and so are my hair and nail salons," she said. Instead, she has turned to her hobby — photography. "I go take pictures of the Red Shirts these days."


Associated Press Writer Thanyarat Doksone contributed to this report.