BANGKOK — Thousands of anti-government protesters refused to leave the commercial heart of Thailand's capital that they occupied for a second day Sunday, defying threats of arrest and vowing to hang on until new elections are called.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva appealed on national television for the demonstrators to return to the area where they have been encamped in recent weeks, saying Sunday morning that the government and protest leaders were close to reaching a compromise. But at the rally site, the protesters tore up police leaflets and showed no signs of leaving.
Army spokesman Col. Sansern Kawekamnerd said authorities would use tougher measures if the protesters refused to budge but did not provide details. Police said the protesters could face up to one year in prison and fines since they violated emergency decrees by disrupting traffic and commerce.
Office buildings and more than a half-dozen shopping malls, normally packed with weekend shoppers, were closed for security reasons for a second day Sunday. Local newspapers quoted the Thai Chamber of Commerce as saying the economic losses could reach 500 million baht ($15 million) per day.
Many of the mainly poor, rural protesters known as the Red Shirts slept the night on trash-strewn pavements in the shadow of luxury hotels and shopping centers.
"I'm impressed by the leaders. They've shown the tough stuff that we so need," said Thongyoi Jitmun, a protester from northeastern Thailand. "For the government's part, their effort has been futile. What else can they do to us? We're told what we're doing is legal. I'm not going to give up so easily. We only live once."
But many showed signs of fatigue. To escape the scorching sun, weary protesters huddled in the shade of an entrance way to a closed shopping mall.
The Red Shirts' fourth weekend demonstration in Bangkok targeted the district of upscale hotels and glitzy shopping malls in an attempt to force Abhisit to meet their demands, after failing to oust his government through mass marches and negotiations.
Among the businesses affected were the Siam Paragon, among the fanciest shopping malls in Asia, and hotels like the Grant Hyatt Erawan Hotel and the InterContinental Bangkok.
Pam Napsri, a manager with the InterContinental Hotel Group in Thailand, said the protesters have so far been cooperative and allowed guests to freely go in and out of the deluxe, 381-room hotel.
But hotel functions, like Easter Sunday lunch at the InterContinental, were canceled and some hotels guests left before their scheduled departure.
About 10,000 had protesters gathered in the area Saturday, but by Sunday morning, the numbers had dropped considerably. Mobile toilets, food and water were brought in, some of it from Bangkok's historic quarter where the protesters have camped since March 12.
The Red Shirt movement — known formally as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship — consists largely of supporters of ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-democracy activists who opposed a 2006 military coup that ousted him.
In a video phone-in Saturday night, Thaksin repeated his calls for the protesters to stay the course.
"Fight and be tired for a few more days. This is better than being tired for the rest of your lives due to injustice," he said. "Please be patient. Victory is just around the corner."
Protest leaders have portrayed the demonstrations as a struggle between Thailand's impoverished, mainly rural masses — who benefited from Thaksin policies of cheap health care and low-interest village loans — and a Bangkok-based elite impervious to their plight.
Thaksin's allies won elections in December 2007 to restore democracy, but two resulting governments were forced out by court rulings. A parliamentary vote brought Abhisit's party to power in December 2008. The Red Shirts say his rule is undemocratic and that only new elections can restore integrity to Thai democracy.
Abhisit must call new elections by the end of 2011, and many believe Thaksin's allies are likely to win — which could spark new protests by Thaksin's opponents.
Residents of the sprawling Thai capital are divided in their view of the Red Shirts, with some merely fed up with the loss of business and traffic jams.
The protesters, whose numbers have peaked at about 100,000, have received support from lower-middle-class residents, many of them migrants from rural areas, but they are detested by many in professional, business and senior government ranks.
While some in the middle and upper classes have expressed sympathy for the Red Shirts' demands for a better economic deal and an end to inequalities in Thai society, they don't support the movement outright because Thaksin is its shadow leader.
Thaksin, a multimillionaire convicted of corruption and abuse of power, is a fugitive abroad but encourages the Red Shirts with frequent messages. His six years in office were riddled by accusations of nepotism and an erosion of democratic institutions.