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Bangkok's State of Emergency to stop vigilante protesters

BANGKOK, Thailand -- The government clamped a "state of emergency" on Bangkok and surrounding provinces starting on Wednesday (Jan. 22), empowering security forces to detain people without charge, ban public gatherings, impose curfews, tighten media censorship, and establish no-go zones.

"The government has not yet specified what authorities it will invoke under the decree," the U.S. Embassy said in an e-mailed "Security Message for U.S. Citizens" on Tuesday (Jan. 21) hours after the announcement.

The 60-day-long emergency decree came in response to Bangkok's worsening political violence in which grenades and gunfire injured 29 people at an anti-government protest on Sunday (Jan. 19), two days after a grenade killed one protester and injured 36 others.

A total of 10 people on all sides have perished in Bangkok during the past 11 weeks of anti-government protests.

"The cabinet decided to invoke the emergency decree to take care of the situation and to enforce the law," Caretaker Deputy Prime Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said on Tuesday (Jan. 21).

"An ill-intentioned group is mobilizing weapons and bombs to stir up violence and attack its rivals," army spokesman Winthai Suwaree said on Monday (Jan. 20), after the latest killings.

"How dare this government claim to be legal and announce a state of emergency," said protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban on Tuesday (Jan. 21) in a speech to thousands of supporters.

"This is no longer a government. They are just a group of gangsters," said Mr. Suthep whose emotional rhetoric delights and invigorates his mostly middle-class and wealthy supporters who are boosted by southerners in Mr. Suthep's home region.

Mr. Suthep led hundreds of supporters through Bangkok's streets on Tuesday (Jan. 21) grinning, shaking hands with cheering crowds, and coyly posing for photographs.

A court has issued an arrest warrant charging Mr. Suthep with "insurrection" -- punishable by life imprisonment or lethal injection -- for leading the protest, but his 40 bodyguards and his supporters have inhibited authorities from grabbing him on the street.

Mr. Suthep began his rallies on Oct. 31 and, after attracting a peak of 150,000 supporters, launched an ongoing "shut down Bangkok" campaign on Jan. 13 to stop a nationwide election scheduled for February 2.

Caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved Parliament's House of Representatives so the snap election could be held.

Ms. Yingluck wants to prove she has a popular mandate, after Mr.

Suthep and the judicial system alleged that Ms. Yingluck and her administration were linked to massive corruption in government subsidies for rice and other schemes.

Security officials fear the confrontation between Mr. Suthep's supporters and the government will increase before the polls, because the protesters want to install a committee of appointees to run the country instead of elected politicians.

To destabilize Ms. Yingluck's government, Mr. Suthep's supporters have been occupying and looting government offices, blockading Bangkok's streets and threatening people, while the police and military stand back, unwilling to risk worse bloodshed and anarchy by confronting the crowds.

After vigilantes chained the doors to several government offices, retreating staff set up makeshift bureaus in shopping malls and convention centers to issue passports, collect taxes, print ballots and perform other key functions.

Protesters meanwhile stole computers, databases, criminal evidence against their leaders, and dossiers from government investigators' offices.

Tough, self-declared protest "guards" have erected roadblocks on several main streets in Bangkok by stacking automobile tires which are covered with nylon nets.

The men forcibly search some vehicles or angrily wave others away from busy, wealthy commercial areas controlled by the protesters.

On Monday, anti-government vigilantes seized Bangkok's central Lumpini Park, locked its gates, and reinforced fences so only protesters could congregate in the spacious green area where they camp in tents under trees alongside ponds.

On Tuesday (Jan. 21), protest leaders shouted speeches from hurriedly built stages in the park and in the middle of several main intersections, while the protesters' BlueSky TV broadcast their activities.

In past years, the police and military have enforced the emergency decree.

But during the current protest, police have been instructed to passively allow vigilantes to freely roam through Bangkok, instead of using force which could result in unwanted bloodshed.

The U.S.-trained military meanwhile said it has not ruled out launching a fresh coup to stabilize this strategic non-NATO ally of the U.S. in Southeast Asia.

The military's 2006 coup toppled Ms. Yingluck's billionaire elder brother, then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, causing this Buddhist-majority country to descend into deadly clashes in 2010 between Mr. Thaksin's supporters and the army.

During that pro-democracy uprising, at least 90 people died -- mostly supporters of Mr. Thaksin who one year later elected his sister to become prime minister.

ENDS

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