Thailand declares state of emergency amid protests

After weeks of demonstrations that saw glitzy shopping malls blocked, blood splattered on the prime minister’s residence and tourism dented, Thailand’s leader on Wednesday declared a state of emergency in Bangkok, handing the army broad power to restore order.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva made the move after anti-government protesters broke into the parliament building, leading some lawmakers to make a rooftop escape aboard a Black Hawk helicopter as other parliament members scaled compound walls.

“Red shirt” protesters, as opposed to the “yellow shirts,” in Thailand’s color-coded political system, who generally favor the status quo, are calling for the dissolution of parliament and a new election within 15 days.

In response to the emergency decree, red shirt leaders urged supporters to stay in place, wait for the military to arrive and prepare for another major rally Friday.

Abhisit, struggling with a weak political mandate, offered his reasoning for the decree in a televised statement that broke into scheduled programming.

“The government has tried its best to enforce the law, but violations of the law have increased,” the Oxford-educated leader said. “Our main goal is to bring the country back to normal and make our law sacred once again.”

Abhisit did not explain how the emergency decree would be applied. Bangkok, the Thai capital, was already under the Internal Security Act, but a state of emergency allows the government to impose curfews, ban public gatherings of more than five people, restrict or ban coverage of news likely to “cause panic,” and detain suspects without charges for up to 30 days.

The government has blinked in the protracted standoff, said Thongchai Winichakul, a professor at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

“They can arrest or suppress the crowd, but they still have a problem with legitimacy and how to rule,” he said. “I don’t see any good outcome.”

A key determinant in the political brinkmanship between the two sides will be the support they gain from the public and the army.

The red shirts, who draw much of their strength from farmers and laborers largely left out of Thailand’s economic boom, contend that Abhisit came to power illegitimately. Tens of thousands have camped out in the capital since March 12, sleeping in traffic circles and ignoring calls to disband.

The protesters, already emboldened by the effect of such tactics, might gain even more ground if the government’s efforts to contain them fail and Abhisit thus looks even weaker. However, they run the risk of alienating significant segments of the society if things turn violent.

“It’s a lose-lose situation for all,” Winichakul said. “The best hope is to find a compromise.”

Many red shirts support former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup in 2006. His overthrow has led to deep political divisions in Thai society that have hurt the country’s economy, tourism trade and international reputation.