Thai PM rallies crowds at sensitive protest site

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said the rally was not intended to stir unrest.

Bangkok: Thailand`s PM rallied thousands of campaign supporters Thursday at the scene of last year`s deadly anti-government protests, defending his crackdown on demonstrators there as the best he could do under difficult circumstances.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva acknowledged the rally`s location was symbolic but said it was not intended to stir unrest or division as some of his opponents alleged. More than 90 people died, mostly protesters, in the violence last year, some of the country`s worst in 20 years.

"Some say we are adding fuel to fire. It`s not true," Abhisit told his supporters at the street intersection that was the center of the protests just over a year ago. "We brought the public here because this Ratchaprasong area, like every inch of Thailand, belongs to all Thais.

"I am here to tell Thailand that from July 3, we will move Thailand forward and restore the international community`s confidence in Thailand," he added.

Earlier, Abhisit had said the rally, held just days before the tense nation`s July 3 elections, would allow his Democrat Party to tell "the truth" about the two-month protests that paralyzed the heart of this Southeast Asian city and ended in a military crackdown in May 2010. The ensuing chaos included arson that billowed smoke over the Bangkok skyline — images replayed on giant television screens for the crowds before Abhisit`s 80-minute speech.

Some feared new violence, but the rally was peaceful. The opposition Pheu Thai party ordered its members to avoid the intersection where Abhisit spoke, in front of the CentralWorld shopping mall that was one of more than a dozen buildings set ablaze on the chaotic, final day of protests.

One Pheu Thai leader, Nattawut Saikua, said earlier this week there was nothing wrong with Abhisit giving his version of events, "but why does it have to be Ratchaprasong? Because they want to provoke emotional reactions from those who felt pain from the situation."

On a TV talk show, Nattawut — a top Red Shirt leader — said the site "seemed to intentionally fuel the simmering fire in people and trigger reaction. It simply drives a wedge between the conflicting sides."

Abhisit`s government said it proceeded carefully to minimize casualties as it tried to restore order last year. But rights groups say it used disproportionate and excessive force — including live ammunition and snipers.

Some Red Shirt leaders had urged their supporters to turn Bangkok into a "sea of fire" — which small gangs of men tried to do by arson after armored military vehicles arrived. Among the protesters were shadowy black-shirted militants with grenade launchers, pistols and automatic weapons.

As many as 100,000 demonstrators, mainly from the countryside, had camped out in Bangkok`s main financial and commercial district starting in March 2010 and brought the city of steep high-rises to its knees.

In the year since, Abhisit`s government has exclusively prosecuted its opponents, leaving many to see the justice being meted out as one-sided.

Abhisit said he did not want to be a cause of conflict in society and had always exercised patience though some people had scolded him for not acting more firmly to stop the two-month protests earlier. "I insisted we had to do everything to prevent a problem and bloodshed," he said.

After one violent clash, he said, "I knew that night that whatever I decided, my life would never be the same. There will be angry people. There will be people who want revenge. There will be attempts to stir more hatred, whatever my decision is." His wife, he said, was the one who convinced him to carry on.

He roused the crowd with attacks on former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose youngest sister Yingluck Shinawtra is leading polls as Abhisit`s main political rival.

Thaksin remains a hero of the Red Shirts, many of who support the opposition Pheu Thai party. He was ousted by a military coup in 2006 after being accused of corruption and disrespect to the country`s King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Thaksin`s ouster opened a schism in Thai society, and Thaksin`s opponents and supporters have been battling for political supremacy since then, often taking it to the streets.

Thaksin is in self-imposed exile avoiding a jail term on a corruption conviction he claims was politically inspired. Thaksin`s critics blame him for funding and guiding the Red Shirt protests.

Abhisit told the crowd that if they didn`t support his Democrat Party, "brothers and sisters, you will become hostage of those who prefer violence forever."

Bureau Report

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