Rally fizzles out amid safety fears

Boonlert says authorities inciting violence

Pitak Siam leader Boonlert Kaewprasit ended his anti-government rally and his own brief political career on a drizzly Saturday afternoon after a day of high drama and scattered violence.

A Pitak Siam protester holds up a tear-gas canister that police had fired near the Makkawan Bridge on Saturday morning.

Addressing an estimated 20,000 supporters from the Royal Plaza stage, he asked them to disperse peacefully.

He also said he would stage no more rallies and would focus only on making merit. Others in Pitak Siam would have to decide whether the movement would continue, he added.

He told his followers they should not put themselves in danger of a crackdown or retaliation. Rumours had already started that the police might move in once it grew dark.

Gen Boonlert also blamed the government for not keeping its word to allow the peaceful rally to go ahead unhindered. Supporters claim police provoked violence by trying to stop them from reaching the rally site.

Police display three types of tear gas which they say are in line with international standards, along with other crowd control equipment, as they explain crowd dispersal procedures ahead of today’s Pitak Siam rally. APICHIT JINAKUL

Other organisers privately acknowledged that the government had succeeded in keeping tens of thousands of potential supporters from travelling to Bangkok to join the rally.

Gen Boonlert had once boasted of wanting to see one million people at the rally but said later he would be happy with 70,000.

However, the Pheu Thai government used the muscle of appointed provincial governors to enforce dozens of checkpoints along highways leading to the capital. One Pitak Siam supporter told the pro-Democrat Blue Sky TV that spike belts had been placed on some roads to deter drivers.

The anti-government ASTV Manager website even published a picture of snakes it said had been let loose at the site to frighten demonstrators.

Protesters also were surprised by the ferocity of the police response, which included tear gas being fired during clashes in the morning at the Makkawan Bridge and in the afternoon at the Suan Mitsakawan intersection.

One injured protester claimed police gave no warning that they would use tear gas. Another protester held up a tear gas canister showing its expiry date had passed, which he said made the chemicals more volatile and harmful.

Gen Boonlert denied his protest had been aimed obstructing the censure debate scheduled to begin in Parliament on Sunday, saying he had no faith in the parliamentary system anyway.

But simply by staging the rally, he had drawn attention to the deep political divide that still exists in the country.

The retired soldier's open support for a coup and a five-year "freeze" on politicians unnerved even some sympathisers, and kept red-shirt supporters of the Pheu Thai government on high alert as well.

"This rally is illegitimate," said Thida Thavornseth, chairwoman of the United Front for Democracy, earlier in the day. "We will come out in force if there is any sign of a coup or the government loses control."

Her warning raised the temperature further in the capital, where the fog of tear gas from morning and afternoon clashes hung in the air. By mid-afternoon, 37 people had been reported injured, mostly with cuts and bruises, and 132 arrested and detained at a Police Border Patrol barracks in Pathum Thani.

One policeman was stabbed with something sharp and the other was hit by a truck, according to onlookers.

Police seized knives and bullets, as well as slingshots and large marbles that they said had been used to knock out closed-circuit TV cameras near the rally site.

Authorities said earlier that they had no plan to force the protesters to disperse, as some had alleged.

Officers would even allow the rally site at the Royal Plaza to be expanded if the crowd size warranted it, said Pol Maj Gen Piya Uthayo, a spokesman for the Centre for the Administration of Peace and Order (CAPO).

The main site was peaceful all day as supporters relaxed, ate and listened to speakers denounce the government, which Pitak Siam accuses of corruption, mismanaging the country and undermining the monarchy.

However, away from the Royal Plaza a tense standoff developed near the Makkawan bridge where a splinter group of protesters challenged police throughout the afternoon.

More tear gas was fired and the protesters regrouped for a fresh attempt to march toward the police line.

The protest began on a violent note on Saturday morning. Police fired 10 tear gas canisters at Pitak Siam supporters trying to break through a police barricade at the Makkawan bridge and move to the Royal Plaza.

"Tear gas was used in one area because protesters did not comply with the rules," said Pol Maj Gen Piya.

"The demonstrators are trying to ignite violence. They tried to break our barricade, so the tear gas is to stop them and control them."

Gen Boonlert said police "broke the promise that will allow us to stage a peaceful rally. They are trying to lure us into violence."

The government invoked the Internal Security Act to maintain control in the districts around the rally site. It gives the police additional powers to block routes, impose a curfew, ban gatherings and carry out searches.

"We will evaluate the situation daily and if it escalates we are ready to invoke emergency rule," national police chief Adul Saengsingkaew said.

The rally took place on the eve of the no-confidence debate scheduled to start on Sunday in Parliament against the Yingluck Shinawatra government.

On the rally stage, Gen Boonlert made a spirited denunciation of the government.

"It's time for you to get out because you have shown no capability and righteousness," he said, referring to Premier Yingluck.

"I'm telling Thaksin that if he wants to return to Thailand, he needs to bow before the king and serve his prison sentence," he said, referring to the prime minister's fugitive brother.

Ms Yingluck cancelled all public events on Saturday and was monitoring events from her home in Soi Yothinpattana 3.

Border patrol and Lat Phrao police were deployed around the premier's house to provide security, amid claims that there might be a plot to kidnap her.

Pol Gen Adul, as the CAPO director, had issued an order banning protesters from entering Government House and Parliament, as well as closing nine routes (see map) around the rally site.

A second order bans vehicles on the nine routes, as well as vehicles carrying fuel or parking in restricted areas. A third order prohibits the possession in public of weapons or objects that could be used as weapons.

The ISA order, which covers Bangkok's Phra Nakhon, Pomprap Sattruphai and Dusit districts, lasts until Nov 30.

Gen Boonlert, meanwhile, said that even though he was longer the leader of Pitak Siam, he was ready to continue to provide financial support for any future activities.

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