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By SETH MYDANS and THOMAS FULLER, New York Times
Published: April 7, 2010

BANGKOK — Anti-government demonstrators who have kept Bangkok on edge for nearly three weeks remained out in force on Wednesday, and news agencies reported that a band of protesters broke through a line of security forces and stormed into Parliament.

The move forced Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban and several lawmakers to flee in a Black Hawk helicopter, the agencies reported. The intruders stayed about 40 minutes before peacefully retreating.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was not in the building at the time of the incident, according to The Nation, a daily newspaper. He had held a morning cabinet meeting in Parliament but left around 9:40 a.m.

The red-shirted demonstrators — many of them supporting Thaksin Shinawatra, the fugitive former prime minister — had staged a show of impunity Tuesday, parading through parts of the city that the government had explicitly placed off limits to them.

In huge, festive throngs, the protesters flooded through some of the city’s major thoroughfares in a traffic jam that outdid the worst of Bangkok’s famously gridlocked traffic.

On motorbikes, pickup trucks and farm vehicles, cheering, chanting and honking their horns, the mostly poor and rural protesters, identified by the color of their shirts, brought the countryside into the high-rise core of the city.

As Mr. Abhisit has wavered on whether to arrest protest leaders or to declare a state of emergency, some public sentiment seemed to be turning against the government as well as the protesters.

Sopon Ongkara, a columnist in The Nation, condemned the protests as a “campaign of terror bordering on anarchy.” But he placed the onus on the country’s leaders for allowing the protests to continue, saying, “If the government fails to fulfill its duty, it does not deserve another day in office.”

The protests in their broadest terms pit the rural and urban poor against the more affluent middle-class establishment of the capital as Thailand struggles to redefine its political balance of power.

Tens of thousands of protesters have left their farms and villages in an attempt to pressure the government to step down and hold new elections.

Though the government issued warnings Tuesday, security forces repeatedly withdrew as protesters challenged them, their military vehicles backing away as the people with flags and bullhorns moved forward.

The tension of the past three weeks remained just beneath the surface, masked by the smiles and jollity this country is known for.

For now, both sides seem to be working hard to avoid the kind of violence that could quickly escalate into chaos and bloodshed.

However, in a running counterpoint to the street demonstrations, two dozen bombs have exploded since the protests began, including one on Tuesday that the police said caused no damage outside Chulalongkorn University, a campus known for its opposition to the red-shirted protesters.

An M-79 grenade exploded at the headquarters of the governing Democrat Party, which was celebrating its 64th anniversary Tuesday, the police said. They said two police officers were wounded.

Whether the bombs are the work of third parties or part of a coordinated offensive with the peaceful demonstrations, they have contributed to the pressure that has been building against the government.

Many residents and businesses in Bangkok have grown weary of the demonstrations, particularly in the central shopping district, where shopping malls, hotels and at least 43 bank branches have been forced to close their doors.

The Thai Chamber of Commerce estimated economic losses at up to $10 million a day since the main commercial district was forced to shut down last Saturday, according to local reports.

Tourist arrivals have dropped about 10 percent during the protests, according to the tourism and sports minister, Chumpol Silpa-archa. Some visitors who arrived at Bangkok’s international airport on Tuesday were reportedly diverting their trips away from the capital.

“This is too much, too much chaos,” said an advertising copywriter, Ploi Khancharoensuk, who opposes the protests. “It makes our country look uncivilized and weird. There must be a better way to express their dissatisfaction.”

It was the protest leaders who were talking tough on Tuesday, declaring that they would defy government restrictions and march where they wanted to. Throughout the afternoon they appeared to be on a mission to parade through all 11 areas the government had declared to be off limits.

“Today is the time that people stand up for our rights and power,” said Jatuporn Prompan, a protest leader, addressing a red-shirted crowd. “Today will be the end of the elite in Thailand.”

Nattawut Saikua, another protest leader, declared: “This morning the police and soldiers pushed us around. Now it’s time to push back.”

But troops on the streets appeared to be under orders to show a friendly face. One soldier with a bullhorn told the demonstrators, “There’s no need to be afraid.” He then handed the bullhorn to a protester who shouted to the soldiers, “Join us!”

It was a scene of some camaraderie among the green-uniformed troops and the red-shirted protesters that has given rise to a new phrase in Bangkok: “watermelon soldiers” — green on the outside but red on the inside.

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