Thai Protest Blocks Summit Meeting
PATTAYA, Thailand — A summit meeting of East Asian leaders intended to address the economic crisis and regional issues got off to a rocky start Friday when hundreds of protesters blocked the main entrance to the convention center where leaders were gathering.
The demonstrators left the grounds of the summit in the early evening Friday, but only after columns of military and police units had rushed to protect the hotel and convention center.
The disturbance offered leaders a close-up look at the political discord that is wrenching Thailand, some of it fueled by the economic crisis. Bangkok has been the scene of massive demonstrations against the prime minister in recent days.
The East Asia summit is a meeting of government officials from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, and six other nations from Asia and the western Pacific. On Saturday, Asean leaders will meet with their counterparts from China, Japan and South Korea.
On Sunday leaders from India, Australia and New Zealand will join the meeting, along with the secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon.
Thailand's Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, said that the leaders might try to reach a joint position on North Korea in the wake of its missile test. But the economic crisis was clearly the top item on the agenda.
Many of the countries represented here have been battered by a drop in exports that has led to millions of layoffs and thousands of factory closings. As the protests here seemed to illustrate, the economic woes have contributed to political tensions.
"The economy is the main reason I've come out here," said Rojanee Kunaake, a pharmacist in Pattaya who said her business has suffered because of a drop in tourism. "We've been silent for a long time. It was time to come out and express our feelings."
Most of the protesters were clad in red, the color of supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister ousted in the September 2006 coup.
The police said that there were at least 500 protesters — only a fraction of the tens of thousands of demonstrators who have demonstrated around Thailand in recent days. Mr. Abhisit declared Friday a public holiday in Thailand, linking a long weekend with another holiday from Monday to Wednesday of next week.
The government appeared to be hoping that the long break might defuse tensions in Bangkok by encouraging out-of-town protesters to head home.
The protesters, who overwhelmed security forces and entered the gates of the conference center in the early afternoon, agreed to disperse after a representative from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations came out and accepted a letter from them.
Arisaman Pongruengrong, one of the protest leaders in Pattaya, said he wanted to "explain to leaders that this is a government of thieves." The protesters are demanding the resignation of Mr. Abhisit and want fresh elections.
"We are here for democracy," said Natcha Kingkalong, 44, a spa owner. "We must stay until the prime minister resigns. We do not want violence. We do not have weapons."
The current wave of Thai unrest, while so far peaceful, was reminiscent of massive and ongoing demonstrations in Bangkok late last year — protests that preceded Mr. Abhisit himself coming to power in December.
Those demonstrations shut down Bangkok's two airports.
They occasionally flared into violence and forced the postponement of the East Asian summit, which was initially planned for December.
Protesters said they might return to the summit venue on Saturday."Our goal is to fight the government — wherever they go, we will go," Nattawut Saikua, one of the protest leaders, said by telephone from Bangkok.