Supporters of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra break through a cordon of anti-riot policemen near the venue of the 14th ASEAN Summit and Related Summits in Pattaya April 10, 2009. Anti-government protesters converged on the Thai beach town of Pattaya on Friday with plans to disrupt an Asian summit as part of efforts to try to force Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to step down. REUTERS/Sukree Sukplang
Friday, April 10, 2009
PATTAYA, Thailand (AFP) — Thai protesters pushed through security at a summit of Asian leaders, forcing their campaign to topple Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva into the international spotlight.
Thai police vowed to use "all means necessary" to clear the hundreds of protesters away from the beach resort hotel where the leaders of China, Japan, India and 13 other nations were to gather for the three-day summit.
Around 400 protesters faced off outside against at least 200 security forces -- including riot police in full gear and army soldiers -- who stood in formation outside the hotel.
The security breach came after months of assurances from the government that it would not let the kingdom's internal political turmoil, which has been boiling for months, disrupt the meeting.
Protesters launched new mass rallies in Bangkok on Wednesday to push Abhisit to resign, insisting that he came to power undemocratically through a court ruling that toppled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra's allies in December.
"Today we are not coming to stop the summit. We have come to join the summit to represent the Thai people because Abhisit cannot be responsible for our rights," protest leader Arismun Pongreungrong told AFP.
"Abhisit is not the legitimate prime minister. We have to pressure him to resign."
Thai authorities have gone out of their way to avoid clashes with protesters since mass violence broke out at a rally by anti-Thaksin demonstrators in Bangkok last October, leaving two people dead and 500 injured.
The protesters on Friday passed through the last line of unarmed riot police with little resistance, chanting slogans, cheering and clapping their hands.
Some protesters arrived on pick-up trucks and on scooters, moving to within 50 metres (yards) of the front doors of the luxury hotel and waving red posters reading "Abhisit get out" and "Thailand needs change".
British-born Abhisit has repeatedly resisted their calls to go and his government hardened its stance earlier Friday, saying it intended to arrest the leaders of the protests against the government.
Abhisit said late Thursday that he had boosted security in Pattaya for the summit, which groups the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.
China earlier this week expressed concerns about security at the summit but said it was confident the Thai government could keep protesters away. Chinese premier Wen Jiabao was due to arrive later Friday.
The protests have marked the biggest challenge to Abhisit since he came to power four months ago. On Thursday around 100 taxi drivers blocked a major intersection in Bangkok, snarling traffic across the capital.
"Certain people must take responsibility for all these incidents," said the Oxford-educated premier.
Thaksin, a billionaire populist who still has a loyal following among the country's poor but is loathed by the Bangkok elite, was ousted in a military coup in 2006.
Living in exile to avoid a two-year prison sentence for corruption, Thaksin has been egging on the protesters with nightly messages to them via videolink.
Abhisit announced a public holiday across Thailand on Friday in a bid to ease tension across the country.
The government has repeatedly said it would ensure the security of the summit -- which was postponed twice and moved to different cities twice in a bid to keep away from the protests.
"We are using international standards of security protection for the 16 leaders," Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, in charge of national security, said on Friday. "They will be safe."