News :Thai protesters enjoy free food, $3 massage

By JOCELYN GECKER,Associated Press Writer AP – Saturday, September 6

BANGKOK, Thailand – Once open only to the ruling elite, Thailand’s stately Government House has turned into a cross between a refugee camp and a village fairground.

Thousands of anti-government protesters occupying the prime minister’s office compound have set up a tent city complete with free food, outdoor showers, entertainment, massages and lots of manicured shrubs for hanging laundry to dry.

The siege, in its 11th day Friday, is aimed at forcing Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej to resign. The demonstrators have not succeeded in kicking him out of office, but they have kept him out his office.

To ease the kinks caused by round-the-clock protesting, massage services are available under the shade of palm trees for $3 an hour.

In a live radio broadcast Thursday, Samak called the situation a national embarrassment and refused to step down _ drawing boos and jeers from thousands of protesters fanning themselves on lawn chairs outside his office.

“I am outside and can’t work properly,” Samak said, his speech broadcast from a sound stage set up on the Government House lawn.

Samak initially based himself at a military headquarters outside Bangkok, but his aides say he has lately worked from an office at the Defense Ministry.

“Is it shameful? Yes, it is,” Samak said.

Still, authorities have been reluctant to use force against the crowd for fear they will be denounced for sparking violence with the protesters, who have armed themselves with makeshift weapons and vowed to resist any attempt to remove them.

Also, violence, or the perception that it was imminent, could cause the military to stage a coup with the excuse that it was necessary to restore order, as it did in September 2006. It was demonstrations by the People’s Alliance for Democracy, which is leading the current protest, that sparked the instability that led to the coup.

The new demonstration is built on the alliance’s belief that Western-style democracy does not work for Thailand. It says the ballot box gives too much weight to the impoverished rural majority allegedly susceptible to vote buying that breeds corruption. It wants Parliament to be revamped so most lawmakers would be appointed rather than elected.

The protest has caused one of the biggest political crises since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. It is the first time in the country’s history that civilians have overrun the seat of government.

Built in the early 20th century and modeled after a Venetian palace, the Gothic-style Government House is one of Bangkok’s most distinguished buildings.

The alliance’s security volunteers sit behind a barbed-wire barricade at the entrance, which is stacked with motorcycle helmets for protection and golf clubs, bamboo rods and rudimentary shields.

“Welcome! Would you like something to eat?” asked Pongping Kumna, a protester manning the free food stand just past the entrance gate. Tables were piled high with donated food, many ordered from popular Bangkok restaurants.

Recent offerings included sauteed chicken with chili and basil, Thai-style noodles from a famous downtown noodle shop, McDonald’s hamburgers and, for dessert, chocolate doughnuts and shaved ice with fruit flavoring.

“We have everything we need here. There’s no reason to leave,” said Pongping, 44, a clothing shop owner from the southern beach town of Krabi who had camped at the compound for nine days.

Protesters, mostly royalists, wealthy and middle-class urban residents and union activists, have tapped into the Government House’s electricity system. Extension cords charge mobile phones and power televisions.

The anti-government channel ASTV, owned by protest leader Sondhi Limthongkul, is broadcast round-the-clock on TV sets scattered around the grounds.

Fiery anti-Samak speakers take the stage, alternating with pop singers, like one recently crooning James Taylor songs as the crowd clapped and swayed.

When supplies are needed, protest leaders take the microphone and call for donations from supporters, who have responded by trucking in portable toilets and rudimentary outdoor showers with curtains for privacy.

The stench of urine and garbage is a problem they are trying to address.

Signs taped to the building’s ornate facade note: “The Government House is the property of the Thai people. So all Thais should keep it clean.”

For medical needs, there are several first-aid stations, which also hand out free shampoo, soap, mouthwash and razors.

Doctors from hospitals and clinics around Thailand have taken leaves to join the protest, said Bangkok ophthalmologist Somporn Reepolmania, pointing out a surgeon, dentist, psychiatrist and anesthesiologist.

“We are protesting against Samak and against the corrupt politics of Thailand,” he said. “The government has no morals, no ethics, and the system doesn’t work. We have to change it.”

Protesters say they are not afraid of conflict. Some have traveled long distances to take part in the demonstrations.

“I flew from Los Angeles to Bangkok to be with (my) people,” said United Airlines flight attendant Maree Lertphraewphun, who has lived in the United States for 38 years. She requested vacation to join the protests.

“If I happen to die, I will die with them,” she said.


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