Thailand protesters get satellite TV channel back on the air

Protesters in Thailand overran a satellite TV station Friday and muscled their anti-government TV channel back on the air in a sign of rising defiance two days after authorities declared a state of emergency in Bangkok, the capital.

Thousands of protesters, known as “Red Shirts,” dodged water cannons and tear gas as they scrambled over barbed wire to open the gates of the secure site.

Most troops quickly dropped their bid to defend the Thaicom satellite station, about 35 miles north of Bangkok, allowing the People’s Channel to resume transmissions to about 10 million viewers.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has said the channel incites violence.

The show of force was among the boldest yet by the Red Shirts, who have occupied key parts of Bangkok since mid-March. Despite arrest warrants for 17 of the movement’s leaders, and an emergency decree authorizing censorship and forbidding large gatherings, the group remains encamped in a high-end shopping district lined with stores such as Gucci and Prada.

Many Red Shirts, largely drawn from rural and working-class communities, support former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and condemn his ouster in a 2006 coup amid corruption charges.

“They want to shut down democracy, just like in Burma,” top Red Shirt leader Jatuporn Promphan said of government officials. “They think nothing of you, the people. So you don’t have to think anything of them.”

The state of emergency was declared Wednesday after protesters tore down the Thai parliament building’s gates and yanked guns away from security officers guarding politicians supportive of the government.

As Red Shirt leaders taunt the police, their followers appear to be convinced that Thai soldiers can’t or won’t disperse their gatherings, which have ranged from 30,000 to more than 100,000 protesters.

The government has assembled about 80,000 troops and police officers, though many of those deployed near protesters have been armed with only shields and batons.

“The soldiers don’t want to come after us,” said Santi Sarathai, 33, a Bangkok-area resident who sells knickknacks from a converted motorbike. “They’re poor, like us. They want to join our fight.”

The government has stopped short of using force against the protesters, who seek the dissolution of parliament, new elections and Abhisit’s resignation, leading some to question the administration’s ability to restore order even as others bridle at the snarled traffic and shuttered malls.

“They’ve made a big, noisy traffic jam in front of my house. I just want them to go home already,” said Pabhat-an Pitibhabhong, 18, a student at Bangkok’s Thammasat University. “I don’t want anyone to get hurt, but this is so horrible for our society.”

Since the shopping district was occupied last weekend, retailers have lost an estimated $31 million in revenue a day, the Thai Retailers Assn. said. But after nearly five years of political division, many investors were taking the protest in stride; stocks rose modestly Friday.

Winn is a special correspondent.

Times staff writer Mark Magnier in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, contributed to this report.