Thai Protesters Scrap March, Retrench as Crowds Thin

Thai anti-government protesters canceled a march and fortified their camp in central Bangkok after failing to attract large crowds a day after armed troops took up positions in a neighboring business district.

Stocks surged the most in 15 months and the baht traded near the highest level in about two years as the immediate risk of a violent clash diminished. A confrontation on April 10 killed 25 civilians and soldiers.

“We don’t want to go anywhere if our base here is not strong enough,” protest leader Nattawut Saikuar announced from the compound’s main stage. The organizers will reinforce barricades at six entry points, he said.

Thinning rallies may help Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s bid to end a six-week campaign by opponents demanding he call an immediate election. Protest numbers have dwindled to about 6,500 people, army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd told reporters, down from tens of thousands earlier in the month.

“Abhisit has helped secure his position by not allowing the protesters to expand,” said Michael Nelson, a lecturer at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “People might sense the government may try to disperse protesters again, and many won’t want to be there when the crackdown finally happens.”

Armed Troops

Riot police and armed troops took up positions along the city’s Silom Road yesterday, blocking off sidewalks with razor wire. Soldiers also occupied the headquarters of Bangkok Bank Pcl, the biggest bank in Thailand.

Demonstrators who mostly support fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra have defied emergency rule since April 7 and ignored previous government warnings to avoid certain areas. Soldiers failed to disperse crowds during the April 10 clash, which also left more than 800 injured.

Abhisit has blamed unidentified “terrorists” among the protesters for the violence and put army chief Anupong Paojinda in charge of imposing order. The demonstrators are armed with grenades and sharp sticks and soldiers reserved the right to shoot people in self-defense, army spokesman Sansern said today.

Protesters have blocked off an area of several city blocks that contains luxury shopping malls and hotels including the Four Seasons, Intercontinental and Grand Hyatt. Trucks are parked across intersections and guards are searching some cars seeking to enter the area.

‘Strengthen Base’

“We’re trying to strengthen our base as we wait for reinforcements,” Sean Boonpracong, a spokesman for the group, said by phone. “We don’t want to get our people hurt.”

The outlook on Thailand’s long-term local currency credit rating was cut to negative from stable yesterday by Fitch Ratings, citing the country’s worsening political unrest.

Thailand’s SET index gained 5.4 percent, the most since Jan. 5, 2009. The benchmark has still lost 3 percent since the deadly clashes on April 10.

The baht gained 0.4 percent to 32.15 against the U.S. dollar, close to its highest level since May 2008.

Abhisit has rejected demands to call an election. He took power in a December 2008 parliamentary vote after a court disbanded the pro-Thaksin ruling party for election fraud.

Thaksin, a billionaire-turned-politician, was ousted in a 2006 coup. He is affiliated with political parties that have won the past four elections on support from the rural poor. A court seized $1.4 billion of his fortune on Feb. 26, two weeks before the round-the-clock rallies began.

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