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Thai Protests Prompt Declaration Of Emergency

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now to Thailand, where the prime minister today declared a state of emergency in the capital Bangkok. That order puts the army in control of public order and comes after clashes between opponents and supporters of the government left one person dead. For a week now, thousands of anti-government protestors have been camped out on the grounds of the prime minister's office and refused to move until the prime minister resigned, which he has not done. Joining us now to talk about the crisis is NPR's Michael Sullivan in Bangkok.

And Michael, what is the situation at this moment? Are those protestors still sitting outside the prime minister's office?

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MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Yup, they're still there. A state of emergency is in effect in Bangkok. In theory, all public gatherings of more than five people are banned. And it gives the army control over public order in the streets, but protestors still there. The number is growing, and there's been no move yet to get rid of them.

I mean, since the state of emergency was declared, no massing of troops near Government House, no ultimatums. And in fact it's unclear to me whether the army even wants the job. The army chief this afternoon held a news conference and repeatedly said the army would not disperse the protestors by force. Whether he's trying to fake them out or whether the army doesn't want its image further tarnished, it's not clear.

MONTAGNE: And the prime minister, in calling the state of emergency, was quoted as saying it would be the most gentle way to bring the country back to peace, which sort of fits with the idea of Thailand as the land of smiles, as it's known. Street fighting certainly doesn't fit that image. So what has got the Thais all riled up, if you will?

SULLIVAN: Well, we're only talking about a couple of thousand people here on the streets or at Government House on a regular basis. Though I have to say over the past few days they've done a pretty effective job of widening this thing to other areas of the country.

But their beef is a simple one. I mean, they say that the current prime minister, Samak Sundaravej, they say is simply doing the ex prime minister Thaksin's bidding while Thaksin sits in exile in London - the deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. They say Samak is corrupt and they want him gone.

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And even though they call themselves the People's Alliance for Democracy, what they want is to change the constitution so that the majority of members of parliament are appointed, not elected, to avoid, they say, the vote buying that led Thaksin to power. So effectively you've got the People's Alliance for Democracy saying democracy just isn't working in Thailand.

MONTAGNE: And it all goes back to this former prime minister that you spoke of, who is a billionaire business man forced from power a couple of years ago in a military coup. What was it about his rule that so angered some in Thailand?

SULLIVAN: His rule angered a small but very vocal minority who claim that Thaksin was very corrupt and when he stole, stole big. There are several corruption cases against him outstanding. His wife last month was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison, which is why I think he and his wife fled the country.

But if you had another election today, Renee, and you let him run, he'd probably win easily, because he remains hugely popular with poor and rural Thais. It's the Bangkok elite who don't like him. He isn't one of them. He wasn't one of them. He's not part of the traditional power structure, and they to a large extent resent that. And it's these people, I think, who are helping bankroll this protest movement, though there is a growing element of the middle class as well. But remember, it's mostly the elite versus Thaksin, even though he's not even here anymore.

MONTAGNE: Michael, thanks very much.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Michael Sullivan speaking to us from Bangkok. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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