Thailand's prime minister talked tough and handed more law and order powers to the army 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 with the help of supporters.
The escape by Arisman Pongruangrong — and the temporary hostage-takings 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 and pro-democracy activists who opposed the bloodless military coup that ousted him in 2006. Thaksin is living in overseas exile to avoid a two-year prison term for corruption.
They believe Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva heads an illegitimate government because it came to power in December 2008 through parliamentary procedure, replacing an elected pro-Thaksin administration.
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, formally known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship.
Last weekend, a major attempt to clear one of the two main protest sites ended in fierce clashes, 24 deaths and hundreds of injuries. It also failed to dislodge the protesters, although they since moved out and consolidated at their second camp in an upscale shopping and hotel district.
Violence was largely absent the first month of the protest. But the stalemate over the protesters' demand for Abhisit to dissolve Parliament and call new elections he has offered to do so only at the end of the year — has ratcheted up tension, especially as some of Abhisit's own supporters have pushed him to sweep the protesters from the street at any cost.
"I wouldn't be at all surprised to see another attempt to break the red camp," said Andrew Brown, a political scientist at Australia's University of New England. "I think we are in a period where the shock of the violence has forced everyone to step back and take stock of things. But both sides have cause for outrage and opponents of the Red Shirts are certainly calling on the government to crackdown in more decisive fashion."
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. Abhisit and Anupong have come under increasing criticism for failing to take a harder line against the demonstrators. 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.
With the appointment, Abhisit could be sending a message that he backs Anupong over his hotheaded subordinates, and Anupong _willingly or not — ends up endorsing Abhisit's approach.
Abhisit also spoke several times of cracking down on "terrorists," a frequent theme of government propaganda since last weekend's street battles, in which several unidentified masked men using heavy weapons and acting with military precision fired back on soldiers who were trying to sweep the protesters from the streets.
Abhisit said the peacekeeping center will be able to "call in forces in a more united and integrated way, so that they can handle the terrorism-related activities specifically." He also said authorities would go after those behind the violence, meaning those who they believe finance and aid the protest movement.
"Given the potential for increased state use of violence signaled by Abhisit's pervasive use of the term 'terrorist' to refer to the red-shirted ... protesters, this shake-up should be a cause of concern," said Tyrell Haberkorn, a researcher at The Australian National University in Canberra.
Thaksin's policies of cheap health care and low-interest village loans benefited Thailand's rural poor from which many of the Red Shirt protesters are drawn. But his six years in office were riddled by accusations of nepotism and an erosion of democratic institutions.
Protests from the Red Shirts or the rival Yellow Shirts have targeted each government formed since the coup that ousted Thaksin, sometimes sparking violence.
The Yellow Shirts represent Thailand's traditional royalist and military elite and are popular with Bangkok's middle class. They occupied Government House for three months in 2008 and then shut Bangkok's airports for two weeks.
Associated Press writers Thanyarat Doksone, Grant Peck, Jocelyn Gecker and Vijay Joshi contributed to this report.