BANGKOK — Thai protesters forced a shutdown of Bangkok’s busy elevated train system today and promised to expand their street demonstrations, escalating weeks of anti-government demonstrations that have paralyzed much of the capital.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said he hoped to resolve the standoff peacefully even as the government canceled garbage collection in the barricaded encampment in the city’s commercial district that thousands of protesters have occupied since last month.
With many Thais losing patience, the government has yet to outline a clear plan on how to end the sporadically violent crisis after calling off negotiations with the protesters, who consider the government illegitimate and want Parliament disbanded.
“We recognize that as every day passes by, the people of Thailand suffer, the country suffers, but we want to make sure that there is rule of law,” Abhisit told CNN. “We will try to enforce the law with minimum losses and we will try to find a political resolution, but it takes time, patience and cooperation.”
At least 26 people have been killed and nearly 1,000 wounded since protesters known as the Red Shirts began occupying parts of Bangkok in mid-March, closing down five-star hotels and shopping malls and devastating the country’s vital tourism industry.
The Red Shirts have since fortified their stronghold, erecting barricades of tires, bamboo sticks and fencing along the streets. Inside their camp, thousands of supporters huddle under broad tents, eating curry and ice cream dished out from pots on the back of trucks and listening to their leaders’ speeches on a network of speakers that stretches nearly a mile.
The area, which already reeks of garbage and urine, could become far filthier after Bangkok’s deputy governor, Pornthep Techapaiboon, ordered a halt to trash collection there until the Red Shirts — who briefly blocked an intersection with stolen garbage trucks — promise to stop interfering with sanitation workers.
Red Shirts have set up barricades on roads leading to the capital in recent days to prevent police reinforcements from being sent to assist in a possible crack down.
Before sunrise Tuesday, protesters entered a downtown Skytrain station and placed 30 tires on the platform, prompting authorities to suspend service for four hours, the Bangkok Mass Transit System said. Authorities restarted the trains after the morning rush hour, but closed the stations after dark amid fears of violence.
A Red Shirt leader said his group raided the station after hearing that soldiers would use the trains to send reinforcements to their main protest site.
“Bangkok people, please understand we did not want it to affect you, but we only want safety,” said Nattawut Saikua.
Nattawut said the Red Shirts planned to spread out into other parts of the city Wednesday, sending teams with speaker trucks to distribute leaflets and video CDs explaining their side of the story.
“We are going out tomorrow. We’ll go out everyday until the government dissolves Parliament and returns power to the people,” he said. “If there are police and military units blocking the way, using weapons, we are going to fight with peaceful means.”
Such actions also could provoke friction with a group of pro-government counter-protesters known as the Yellow Shirts.
In his interview with CNN, recorded Monday, Abhisit called on the Yellow Shirts to exercise restraint.
“We will do all we can to make sure that no clashes occur between the two groups of people,” he said.
Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban warned that security forces would “intensify operations,” but did not elaborate or say whether authorities would try to evict protesters from the streets, which would almost certainly lead to more bloodshed.
“We have been patient for almost two months,” he told reporters. “If there was a way we could reason with them, we would try. However, we have seen that these are people we cannot talk with.”
The government has also accused the protesters of trying to undermine the monarchy and the nation’s revered king. Such a charge, which protest leaders strongly deny, could weaken their support.
On Monday evening, the government distributed an elaborate diagram outlining what was described as a network of opposition politicians, academics and media involved in an anti-monarchy movement.
Suthep said those listed would be investigated and, if found to have violated the law, arrested, the newspaper Matichon reported.
Thailand’s lese majeste law mandates a jail term of up to 15 years for anyone who “defames, insults, or threatens” the royal family.
Thailand’s ailing King Bhumibhol Adulyadej, who is seen as the best hope to end the crisis, spoke publicly Monday evening for the first time since the crisis began, but did not directly address the situation.
The Red Shirts consist largely of poor, rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-democracy activists who opposed the military coup that ousted him in 2006 on corruption allegations. The group believes that Abhisit’s government — backed by the urban elite — is illegitimate, having been helped into power by the country’s powerful military.