BANGKOK — Soldiers in full combat gear garrisoned the Thai capital's central business district Tuesday as thousands of anti-government protesters nearby threatened to disrupt Bangkok with a major rally.
More offices closed and at least one hotel reportedly shut down temporarily in face of another possible eruption of violence and a dramatic drop in tourist arrivals.
Leaders of the so-called "Red Shirt" protesters said they would stage an "important" demonstration Tuesday but did not disclose their specific plans.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva — speaking on government-run television channels — said he would not set a date for protesters to be forced out of their encampment at a busy intersection in the heart of Bangkok's shopping and hotel district. The demonstrators have camped out on the streets of the Thai capital since March 12.
The Red Shirt protesters, formally known as the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, initially were camped in a historic district of Bangkok. A failed April 10 attempt by security forces to flush protesters from that neighborhood erupted into the worst political violence Thailand has seen in 18 years, leaving 25 dead and more than 800 wounded.
"Let's not draw a deadline (to remove the Red Shirts)," Abhisit said. "I do realize Thais are troubled, that everyone wants it to be quick ... But there are many factors they have to take into account."
Rumors have been rife, however, about an imminent military crackdown.
The protesters consist mainly of poor rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-democracy activists who opposed the military coup that ousted him in 2006. They want Abhisit to dissolve Parliament immediately and call new elections.
They believe Abhisit's government is illegitimate because it came to power through a parliamentary vote after disputed court rulings ousted two elected, pro-Thaksin administrations. The conflict has been characterized by some as class warfare, pitting the country's vast rural poor against an elite that has traditionally held power.
Armed troops initially moved before dawn Monday to block entry to Silom Road in the heart of the central business district, patrolling some of the city's most famous bar strips just off the main street. Some took positions atop buildings after searching for possible snipers and along a skywalk running above the road. Others guarded bank buildings, ATM machines and entrances to subway and elevated rail stations.
"I'm worried about the force allocation pattern here. It looks greater than necessary for just guarding the Silom area," said a protest leader, Nattawut Saikua. "They are making it into a killing field." Demonstrators braced for battle by stockpiling paving stones.
After a tense face-off early Monday, the troops pulled back almost halfway down the road's 1.5-mile (2.5-kilometer) length to protect a key target of the protesters, the headquarters of the Bangkok Bank, which was barricaded by razor wire. The Red Shirts claim Bangkok Bank has close ties to the government, and have protested in front of the building previously on a smaller scale.
Many of the demonstrators also pulled back, but piled rudimentary weapons at the intersection where the road begins.
Buapeuan Puisuwan, a jewelry craftsman who works in the Silom area, held a 2-feet (0.6-meter) long bamboo rod tightly in his right hand. His eyes were locked on a pedestrian bridge on the other side of the road where security forces stood.
About 100 bamboo poles, some sharpened, were distributed to protesters standing at one of the entrances leading to their main stage.
"I'm sure the soldiers will storm in. We don't really have anything to fight against them," Buapeuan acknowledged. "I know a bamboo pole can't handle whatever they have, but I'll stick with it anyway."
Tensions were also heightened a day earlier, when the rival, establishment-backed "Yellow Shirt" protest movement vowed to take action unless the government deals with the crisis. The group, formally known as the People's Alliance for Democracy, occupied Bangkok's airports for a week in 2008 to protest a Thaksin-allied government. They retreated after Abhisit became prime minister, but many fear their return if he is forced out.
"The situation at the moment is even more difficult to solve than before April 10 because deaths and injuries have occurred. The government and the protesters have confronted one another more often. Another round of crackdown is still possible," said Prinya Thewanaruemitkul from the law faculty of Bangkok's Thammasat University.
During the earlier street battles, the military lost a senior officer and suffered scores of other casualties among its troops, who were mostly equipped for riot control rather than lethal combat. The majority of the dead, however, were civilians.
The government accused "terrorists" armed with guns and other weapons of orchestrating the earlier violence and says weapons were stolen from the military that have not been returned.
Army Spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd said Monday that the officers deployed on Silom Road "have the right to carry weapons to protect themselves, and (I) believe the society finds it acceptable."
The virtual occupation of key areas of Bangkok by the Red Shirts has hit Thailand's lucrative tourist industry hard.
"All (hotels) are in bad shape as there are no tourists coming to the country," The Nation newspaper quoted Prakit Chinamourphong, president of the Thai Hotels Association, as saying. The newspaper said The Holiday Inn Bangkok closed down temporarily and others were expected to follow.