Thailand vows crackdown after weekend killings

By Nick Macfie and Nopporn Wong-Anan

BANGKOK (BestGrowthStock) – Thailand said it would hunt down “terrorists” it blames for the country’s worst violence in 18 years in which 21 people were killed, but anti-government protesters say the army is to blame.

A Thai “red shirt” protest leader threatened a mass march on army barracks where Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has been based, but that plan seemed up in the air as the country celebrates its new year.

Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thuagsuban ordered police to hunt for “terrorists” the government blames for the killings in Bangkok’s old quarter which came after a month of generally festive protests and shocked the world.

“We can’t let terrorists walk freely in this country,” he said. “We have enough evidence from still pictures and video footage that we can identify those carrying M-16 or AK-47 rifles where they live.”

The “red shirt” demonstrators, who want Abhisit to stand down immediately, said they would step up their protests, with plans to send out hundreds of motorcyclists handing out leaflets and pictures from the clashes in which 21 people were killed.

Abhisit, who came to power in 2008 when the army brokered a deal in parliament, would have to step down if the Constitutional Court found his Democrat Party guilty of funding irregularities.

The Election Commission on Monday unexpectedly recommended his party be dissolved for suspected funding irregularities. It is now in the court’s hands.

Surin Pitsuwan, secretary-general of the Association of South East Asian Nations, said the situation was deteriorating and must not be left to “fester.”

“The deteriorating situation in Thailand between demonstrators and government security forces in Bangkok has caused serious concern among ASEAN member states and the world at large,” he said in an unusually bold statement for a group that tends not to criticize its members.

“The situation is affecting the confidence in the security and stability in the region and if it is left to fester and escalate, it could lead to more violence and loss of life.” U.S.-based rights group Human Rights Watch urged the Thai government to “keep its promise” to set up an independent commission to investigate the “violence and abuses by all sides.”

About 300 “yellow shirts” gathered at the Victory Monument war memorial, calling on the red shirts to go home.

“We are asking for peace. We don’t want the government to dissolve parliament and we want the red shirts to stop damaging the country,” said Suthep Wongta, 33, carrying a picture of the country’s revered king over his head.

The yellow shirts are made up of academics, businessmen, royalists and urban middle-class activists opposed to ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra and the political parties he has backed from exile.

Foreign Minister Kasin Piromya urged the international community to crack down on what he described as illicit money transfers made by Thaksin, a former telecoms tycoon beloved by the rural poor for populist policies.

Kasit said Thaksin was illicitly providing the red shirts with $3 million a day, describing him as a “bloody terrorist.”

“It would be nice to have a look at where the money is going,” he told reporters in Washington. Thaksin has denied the charge.

Further isolating the embattled Abhisit, army chief Anupong Paochinda said on Monday early elections could end the impasse.

It was Anupong’s first public comment since his forces failed on Saturday to eject protesters from their base in central Bangkok. The violence was Thailand’s worst in two decades.

“It looks like Abhisit’s fortune may be waning,” said Sukhum Nuansakul, an independent political scientist.

Didier Duret, CIO of ABN Amro Private Bank, said he was “underweight” Thailand. “We don’t like the political risk,” he said.

Standard & Poor’s retained Thailand’s BBB-plus foreign currency (Read more about trading foreign currency. rating on Tuesday but also kept the outlook at negative, highlighting the risks. S&P also maintained the local currency rating at A-minus.

“Since 2006, the country has seen a number of abrupt changes of government. This has distracted from long-term policy planning and implementation,” Kim Eng Tan, sovereign analyst for Thailand, said in a statement. But he said the risk of widespread violence was low.

SURPRISE DECISION

The red shirts, mostly rural and working-class supporters of Thaksin who was ousted in a 2006 coup, want Abhisit to call polls immediately.

The electoral fraud case could take months as prosecutors and the Constitutional Court act on the commission’s recommendation. A guilty verdict could lead to the dissolution of Abhisit’s Democrats, the country’s oldest party, and Abhisit and party executives would be banned from politics for five years.

The court found two Thaksin-allied parties guilty of fraud in 2007 and 2008.

On Monday, coalition partners proposed Abhisit dissolve parliament in six months. He had already offered nine months.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged both sides to talk. “The challenges you are facing cannot be resolved by force, but only by dialogue,” she said.

Financial markets were closed on Tuesday at the start of the Songkran new year festival. Stocks fell 3.6 percent on Monday.

DIVIDED MILITARY?

Despite army commander Anupong’s comment that “parliamentary dissolution seems to be a reasonable step,” some questioned whether the army agreed on the way forward.

“It’s not clear if the army is speaking with one voice,” said Charnvit Kasertsiri, a prominent Thai political historian.

The deadlock brought back speculation of another coup in a country that has seen 18 since 1932.

Bangkok has been calm since Sunday but thousands of red shirts remain camped out in two areas of Bangkok, including an upmarket shopping district whose big malls have had to stay closed for much of the past 10 days.

Red shirt guards man checkpoints, direct traffic and check the identity of passers by. Pick-up trucks, taxis and motorcycles are parked on streets, stopping traffic from entering areas under red shirt control. Police and soldiers were nowhere in sight.

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(Additional reporting by Kevin Lim in Singapore, Umesh Desai in Hong Kong and Debbie Charles in Washington; Editing by Jerry Norton)

Thailand vows crackdown after weekend killings