Thailand's Cabinet to hold emergency meeting amid fears of growing unrest from street protests
BANGKOK – BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's Cabinet was due to hold an emergency meeting Sunday in the face of unrelenting anti-government street protests that have blocked off much of the capital and raised fears of broader civil unrest across the country.
With negotiations between the protesters and the government on hold and hopes for a peaceful end to the standoff dwindling, calls have grown for international mediators to be involved.
Government spokesman Panithan Wattanayagorn said Saturday the Cabinet would meet Sunday morning in a special session. The agenda was widely expected to focus on the seven-week crisis that has paralyzed parts of Bangkok.
In recent days, pro-establishment protesters have called on the government to declare martial law and crack down on the Red Shirt protesters, whose barricaded camp occupies streets in Bangkok's commercial center.
The Red Shirts are demanding the government disband Parliament and call elections, and they said Saturday they would ignore any imposition of martial law.
"Even if they announce that we are not going to go home, we are going to stay put," said Nattawut Saikua, a Red Shirt leader.
At least 27 people have been killed and nearly 1,000 wounded in sporadic violence between protesters and security forces.
Some officials have expressed hopes the protesters will grow weary and go home soon, but Weng Tojirakarn, another Red Shirt leader, said Saturday that reinforcements were coming to increase their presence in the streets of the capital.
"Red Shirts, people from the provinces, are coming in to Bangkok, starting from today. And this time they will stay a long time," he said.
The Red Shirts, drawn mostly from the rural and urban poor, are demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, saying he came to power through the connivance of Bangkok's elite bureaucrats and the military.
The International Crisis Group think tank said Thailand's political system had broken down and expressed fears the standoff could "deteriorate into an undeclared civil war."
The group appealed for foreign mediation, possibly led by East Timor President Jose Ramos Horta, to encourage both sides to stand down and help prepare for new elections and a government of national unity.
"It is time for Thailand to consider help from international friends to avoid a slide into wider violence. Even the most advanced democracies have accepted this," the think tank said in a statement.
The government has repeatedly rejected efforts to bring in foreign mediators.
"This is a domestic situation with sensitivities and complexities that the international community may not be fully aware of," said Panithan.
New York-based Human Rights Watch also called on the protesters and security forces to end the violence.
"All sides need to rein in their supporters, order the attacks to stop and negotiate a political solution before the situation escalates," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Wednesday that U.S. diplomats were "intensively engaged in discussions" with Thai government officials and opposition forces, and EU diplomats said they have met with opposition figures as well.
Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya censured some foreign diplomats for meeting with Red Shirt leaders this week. "We do not want to see that happening again," Kasit told reporters.
The Red Shirts drew intense criticism in recent days for breaking into a hospital in the protest zone, prompting medical officials to evacuate it of patients.
On Saturday, one of the king's daughters, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, went to the hospital to visit the only remaining patient, the head of the Thai Buddhist clergy Supreme Patriarch Nyanasamvara Suvaddhana Mahathera, Thai media reported.
The government has stepped up accusations the protesters were trying to undermine Thailand's much revered monarchy — which the Red Shirts deny — and said Friday that a grenade attack last month near the Defense Ministry actually targeted a highly sacred Buddhist shrine nearby.
The hospital raid exposed a possible rift among the protest leaders, some of whom tried to make amends by removing barricades blocking the hospital only to be overruled by others who had them restored. On Saturday afternoon, they were again removed.