Thailand turns tough on protests

BANGKOK — Thailand's prime minister talked tough and handed more law and order powers to the army after security forces were humiliated when an anti-government protest leader escaped a police raid by clambering down a rope from a hotel balcony in broad daylight with the help of supporters.

The escape by Arisman Pongruangrong — and the temporary hostage-takings of two senior police officers to secure his getaway — was the latest demonstration of the government's inability to rein in the so-called Red Shirt protesters, who have been blocking Bangkok's streets for more than a month demanding a change in government.

The Red Shirts are supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and pro-democracy activists who opposed the bloodless military coup that ousted him in 2006. Thaksin is living in overseas exile to avoid a two-year prison term for corruption.

They believe Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva heads an illegitimate government because it came to power in December 2008 through parliamentary procedure, replacing an elected pro-Thaksin administration.

Abhisit, speaking Friday night in a special television broadcast, placed army commander Gen. Anupong Paochinda in charge of the peacekeeping force meant to stop violence by the increasingly aggressive Red Shirts, formally known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship.

Last weekend, a major attempt to clear one of the two main protest sites ended in fierce clashes, 24 deaths and hundreds of injuries. It also failed to dislodge the protesters, although they since moved out and consolidated at their second camp in an upscale shopping and hotel district.

"I wouldn't be at all surprised to see another attempt to break the red camp," said Andrew Brown, a political scientist at Australia's University of New England.