Anti-government protests have hunkered down in Bangkok’s commercial heart, preparing for a final showdown with the government after the deadliest civil unrest in almost two decades.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is under mounting pressure to stand down and call elections after a weekend which saw the worst political violence in 18 years, leaving 22 dead and hundreds injured.
“We believe the government will try to disperse us again in the next couple of days,” said Nattawut Saikuar, a leader of the group known as the Red Shirts.
“We’re organising our movement to fight. We hope it will be the final round between us and this government,” he said.
Oxford-educated Abhisit won some respite as his coalition partners said they would remain loyal to the ruling party, despite the country’s electoral commission recommending the dissolution of the ruling Democrat Party over allegations of “illegal donations” during the 2005 election campaign.
But the mainly poor and rural Reds began consolidating in one area in the capital’s commercial hub as they braced for a showdown with the authorities.
The authorities have said they will not try to put down peaceful rallies but have urged the Reds to leave the commercial district, where they have disrupted traffic and caused major shopping centres to close.
The demonstrators began moving out of the capital’s historic quarter, scene of Saturday’s bloody clashes, leaving behind abandoned military armoured vehicles, cars tipped on their sides and rubbish-strewn streets.
Thousands of Reds have been occupying two sites in central Bangkok in their bid to topple the government, which they accuse of being elitist and undemocratic.
The Reds’ rally in the commercial district has alarmed business leaders who warn of a heavy blow to the Thai economy, but there has been no violence in the area, in stark contrast to the bloodshed in the historic quarter.
The army defended its use of guns during the crackdown, after video footage on the news website France24.com showed soldiers pointing assault rifles straight ahead and firing.
Military spokesman Sunsern Kaewkumnerd said single live shots were fired by troops providing cover for soldiers who were themselves under fire.
The government, which imposed a state of emergency in Bangkok and surrounding areas a week ago, has accused ousted ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra of stoking the unrest, which has prompted growing international alarm.
Speculation has grown over whether the government will call early elections in a bid to defuse the stand-off, but the Reds have insisted they will accept nothing less than immediate polls, saying the time for negotiations is over.
Sixteen civilians, including a Japanese cameraman, and six soldiers died as a result of the clashes, according to a new toll from the government’s Erawan emergency centre.
Another man died of a gunshot wound suffered a few kilometres away from the protest site but it was not clear whether it was linked to the civil unrest, the centre said.