Thai army says will 'punish' protesters

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Thailand's military vowed on Sunday to punish anti-government protesters if they marched on Bangkok's central business district, heightening fears of more violence after bloody clashes left 24 people dead a week ago.

Red-shirted supporters of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra would face resistance if they protested or tried to set up camp in the city's banking district this week in defiance of an emergency decree in place across the capital, the army said.

Army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd stopped short of using the word "crackdown" but said protesters occupying a plush shopping and hotel district for a 16th day would also be dealt with. He did not elaborate and gave no timeframe.

"Let's say that we are left with no choice but to enforce the law," Sansern told TNN television.

"Those who do wrong will get their punishment. Taking back the area along with other measures are all included in enforcing the law. All this must be done," he said.

A period of uneasy calm has prevailed in the capital over a Thai new year holiday period in the wake of Thailand's worst violence in almost two decades, which triggered a huge selloff in the stock market after six weeks of gains.

A heated confrontation between troops and demonstrators, who are demanding that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva dissolve parliament and step down, led to bloody clashes on April 10, the first outbreak of violence in the six-week protests.

Adding to concerns about more unrest, leaders of the anti-Thaksin "yellow shirts" movement -- representing royalists, the business elite, aristocrats and urban middle class -- planned to meet later on Sunday to discuss their position on the crisis.

The "yellow shirts" staged a crippling eight-day blockade of Bangkok's airports in December 2008, which stranded more than 230,000 tourists, disrupted trade flows and led to credit ratings downgrades for Southeast Asia's second-largest economy.

The siege ended when a pro-Thaksin ruling party was dissolved for electoral fraud, paving the way for Abhisit's rise to power after a parliamentary vote the "red shirts" say was influenced heavily by the military in a "silent coup."

Abhisit rebuffs claims his government is illegitimate and has refused to step down. He failed to deliver his regular televised address on Sunday for a second week and has been uncharacteristically reclusive since last week's clashes.

Elites targeted

Several thousand protesters rallied on Sunday at the Rachaprasong intersection, dubbed their "final battleground," listening to speeches and huddling in the shade as the burning sun took its toll. More were arriving for a rally that typically draws tens of thousands by evening.

The planned protest on Tuesday would target Bangkok Bank, Thailand's biggest lender, which "red shirts" have linked to the elites they say conspired to bring down elected governments backed or led by the popular Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and fled into exile ahead of a graft conviction.

Protesters have taken aim at Prem Tinsulanonda, a former army chief, premier and honorary advisor to the bank, who serves as the top aide to Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Faced with criticism over the military's handling of the protests, Abhisit appeared on television on Friday to announce that responsibility for security had been handed to army chief Anupong Paochinda, who retires in September and has been reluctant to tackle the protests.

"I think him passing responsibility to the commander-in-chief is his way of pushing him to actually do something, since he will be responsible for what happens now," said Joshua Kurlantzick of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a US think tank.

"I'm not sure it's Abhisit trying to evade responsibility. He's still going to have to face the consequences at the polls at some point."

The seemingly intractable five-year crisis has fueled speculation that with the government and security forces in disarray, and concerns about clashes between rival demonstrators, hardliners within the military may decide to stage a coup to end the impasse, which analysts say would likely backfire.

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