ASEAN summit cancelled after protests in Thailand (Second Lead)

April 11th, 2009 - 4:49 pm ICT by IANS  

Abhisit Vejjajiva Pattaya (Thailand), April 11 (DPA) Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva Saturday suffered the major embarrassment of having to postpone a summit of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) with its dialogue partners, after it was sabotaged by anti-government protests.
The so-called Red-shirt demonstrators, loyal to fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, overran the press centre of the summit venue in the early afternoon, after thousands of soldiers and police had failed to hold them back.

Abhisit declared a state of emergency in the Pattaya area, around the summit venue, to ensure the safety of the 16 Asian leaders and the delegates.

The Thai premier also said the summit would reconvene in about two months. “All the other countries here understand what has happened. They know there is a problem in Thailand,” he said.

According to officials, the ASEAN delegates were airlifted to a nearby military airport from their hotels to ensure their safety.

The protest victory seemed certain to embolden a movement that has already shown itself capable of occupying strategic parts of the capital in its campaign.

Informally, delegates at the truncated meeting said they were surprised the government allowed it to happen, particularly since the previously scheduled summit was postponed in December.

“Really quite odd. We could see things falling apart this morning, but the government seemed unable to do anything,” said a member of the Lao delegation.

The meeting of the 10 ASEAN members and six dialogue partners including China, Japan and India was aimed at improving cooperation and strengthening joint financial reserves in the face of what Abhisit described as “the worst global economic crisis in our lifetimes”.

The cancellation became inevitable when it became clear the security forces seemed incapable of holding back the demonstrators, although the protests failed to reach to meeting rooms or any delegates.

The protesters derailed the event to embarrass the government and press their demands that Abhisit resign and dissolve parliament. They are supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup, and later sentenced to two years in prison for abuse of power.

Thaksin, a billionaire and former police officer, fled the country to avoid prosecution but has been agitating to return to power.

As many as 10,000 demonstrators were estimated to be in the resort town, after travelling overnight from the capital about 100 km to the north. Only a few hundred broke into the summit venue, and withdrew quickly once it was cancelled.

Government spokesman Phanitan Watanayagorn had insisted almost up to the last minute that the conference would go ahead. “Cancellation is not on the table. The military have assured us they can protect the summit.”

Yet the security failure appeared so inept that some delegates speculated Abhisit was playing a game designed to taint the protesters as unpatriotic.

“This was either very incompetent or very clever. It certainly wasn’t normal,” said a New Zealand delegate.

Some army officers privately said many policemen appeared so unenthusiastic about blocking the protesters that there were doubts about their loyalty to the current government.

Thaksin’s supporters alleged that squads of counter-demonstrators directed by the government goons had attacked them at several places in Pattaya using mini-bombs, nails and rocks.

“We are enraged by these attacks but it will not make us change course. They attack us, we become stronger,” said Arisman, a popular former singer.

Phanitan said earlier the government was investigating the attacks and would make arrests if necessary.

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