Asia-Pacific

Stark warnings over Thai emergency laws

A supporter of detained red-shirt leader Kokaew Pikulthong faces police outside Bangkok district office on 28 June 2010
Image caption Protesters say the government is trying to silence dissent

With a state of emergency extended, there have been suggestions that underground groups are getting prepared to use violence in Thailand.

The details are unspecific and hard to verify, but pose a stark warning for the government to act with caution.

A "red-shirt" security guard during the protest in Bangkok city centre, who has been in hiding since the army ended the demonstrations six weeks ago, has told the BBC he has been asked to join an organisation training to make bombs.

"We have been approached by two or three groups who used violence during the protest and shot at soldiers," he said, over the telephone from an unknown location.

"They said they are operating underground and would like us to join them but we are waiting for now.

"I understand from the discussions among these groups that there will be bombs. There are 30 to 40 people being trained in how to use petrol to make a big explosion."

Most protesters on the streets of Bangkok from March to May were peaceful, but there was a violent element responsible for firing grenades and automatic weapons at soldiers and police.

There have been a number of small blasts in the last week, but it is not known who is responsible. A grenade attack on an empty gas storage vessel in Bangkok is suspected to have been carried out by serving troops.

'No more instability'

Fears over security was the reason given by the Thai government for extending a State of Emergency in Bangkok and 18 other provinces for another three months.

Five provinces previously under the Emergency Decree, which gives security forces extra powers, had the laws relaxed.

A recent report from the International Crisis Group recommended the government remove these laws, described as "draconian", across the whole country in order to prevent forcing opposition underground.

It also called on protest leaders to have charges of terrorism dropped in order to achieve effective reconciliation.

Ahead of the cabinet decision, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told the BBC: "There will be a gradual lifting of the state of emergency in the various provinces.

"We need to restore order, the last thing we need now is a repeat of violence or clashes," he said.

"We will do all we can to get back to normalcy as soon as possible. The last thing the country wants now is more instability."

The account from the unnamed former red-shirt security worker suggests the government has reason to worry about the threat of violence, but Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, disagrees.

"The continued imposition of the State of Emergency is alarming, it violates basic civil liberties," he said, speaking before the cabinet decision.

"It is being used increasingly as a political instrument of the government and the powers-that-be in Thailand to maintain control, to try to put a lid on the opposition, to stifle dissent.

"It will not allow space for dissent, disagreements and grievances to be expressed. If those exist they will be pent up and when they have a chance to come back they will be much more furious than we have seen."

'Repressed'

Opposition media has also been silenced in much of north-eastern Thailand, where the red-shirt movement originates.

It is here the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra focused his spending efforts and gained popular support while in power.

Image caption Samyos Phruksakasemsuk says the media curbs force critics underground

He is seen as a hero by many poorer people who gained from his populist policies of cheap healthcare and credit, but treated as a manipulative and corrupt leader by his opponents, who removed him from power in a coup in 2006. He has been convicted of abuse of power while in office.

Thaksin is blamed by the government for funding and encouraging the anti-government rallies in Bangkok and the efforts to force the current prime minister to stand down.

Many of the community radio and TV stations which were platforms for the anti-government red-shirt message have been shut down by the government and there is anger among people there who feel they have been silenced.

Samyos Phruksakasemsuk is an activist who produced a magazine called Voice of Thaksin, which was also banned, and has recently brought out a new publication called Red Power.

He expects it to be banned as well, but warned the government: "People feel repressed as they can't voice their opinions openly, so the fear is they will go underground and there'll be more violence."

Mr Abhisit said more space would be provided for opposition media.

"The stations closed have been involved in incitement of violence. That's not something I think the country can afford."

A number of commissions have been set up to look at national, constitutional and media reform, as well as a truth inquiry to establish exactly what happened during the protests. He says reconciliation is a priority.

But the red-shirt security guard sent a stark warning.

"What happens depends on what the government does against us. How much pressure they put on us and how patient we will be.

"I don't want anything to happen to our country, but when that day comes it might not be as we hope - the violence will be double what we have seen in the past."

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