BANGKOK – Thailand’s prime minister talked tough and handed more law and order powers to the army Friday after security forces were humiliated when an anti-government protest leader escaped a police raid by clambering down a rope from a hotel balcony in broad daylight as supporters cheered.
The escape by Arisman Pongruangrong – and the temporary taking as hostages of two senior police officers to secure his getaway – was the latest demonstration of the government’s inability to rein in the so-called Red Shirt protesters, who have been blocking Bangkok’s streets for more than a month demanding a change in government.
The Red Shirts are supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a bloodless coup in 2006, and pro-democracy activists who opposed the military takeover. They accuse Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of heading an illegitimate government because it came to power in December 2008 without winning an election.
Abhisit, speaking Friday night in a special television broadcast, placed army commander Gen. Anupong Paochinda in charge of the peacekeeping force meant to stop violence by the increasingly aggressive Red Shirts.
While their protest began nonviolently, the stalemate over their demand – they want Abhisit to dissolve parliament and call new elections immediately, while he has offered to do so only at the end of the year – has ratcheted up tension.
Abhisit’s latest move seemed intended to demonstrate his resolve in ending the crisis by taking away command of the Center for the Resolution of Emergency Situations from Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban and handing it over to Anupong.
The move could also be seen as a way of shoring up both men’s positions. Thai media have reported widespread rumors that junior commanders are itching to crush the protesters and may seek to push Anupong aside, and Abhisit as well, by a coup if necessary.