By JOCELYN GECKER / AP WRITER
PATTAYA —Two thousand anti-government protesters converged Friday on the venue of an Asian summit in Thailand, threatening to disrupt the weekend meeting of 16 leaders from China, Japan and other nations meant to tackle the global financial crisis.
Chanting slogans against the Thai prime minister, the red-shirted protesters pushed past riot police lines and massed at the entrance of the summit site, atop a hill in Pattaya, a beachside town about 140 kilometers (87 miles) southeast of Bangkok, the capital.
There was no reported violence, but hundreds of soldiers with riot gear marched toward the site and lined up in front of the complex, facing off against the protesters. The government has said it will allow peaceful protests and the soldiers and riot police showed no sign of seeking to disperse the protesters.
After initially threatening to block access to—or enter—the summit venue if Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva does not resign, the protesters could be seen letting traffic into the complex.
The protesters are supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed by a 2006 military coup and has fled into exile. Most come from the rural poor majority that benefited from Thaksin's populist policies.
Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban sought to assure visiting heads of state that they will be safe.
"Nothing untoward will happen to the leaders. We will make sure of that," Suthep said. "We have to make sure the meeting can go on."
The summit, which began Friday morning with a meeting of foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, gets into full swing Saturday when Asean leaders meet with counterparts from China, Japan, South Korea.
The meetings conclude Sunday with the full-fledged East Asia Summit, which also includes India, Australia and New Zealand for a total of 16 nations. With Asia's export-dependent economies reeling, the primary focus of the meeting is coping with the global slowdown, although North Korea's recent rocket launch is likely to come up.
Deputy National Police Chief Wiroj Pahonvej estimated there were 2,000 protesters. He said earlier that about 8,000 policemen, including riot police, have been deployed in Pattaya. It was unclear how many soldiers were deployed.
Abhisit was appointed by Parliament in December after a court dissolved a government led by Thaksin's allies. The protesters say Abhisit took office illegitimately and should step down so new elections can be held.
"We want Abhisit out. He is not picked by Thailand," said Upin, a 63-year-old housewife from Pattaya who declined to give her last name. "He doesn't know how to care for Thai people. He only helps the rich people, not the poor people."
The protests are an embarrassment for the Thai government, which has trying to move beyond a protracted political crisis. In November, anti-Thaksin protesters shut down Bangkok's two airports for about a week.
"If they (pro-Thaksin protesters) manage to derail the summit, it will certainly be damaging to the status of the government in the eye of the international community," said Prapas Thepchatree, director of Asean studies at Bangkok's Thammasat University.
The demonstrations "will draw attention from the other agendas like North Korea and the financial crisis to the Thai political turmoil," Prapas said. "This strategy will make it harder for the government to ignore" the demonstrators, he said.
Abhisit arrived at the Pattaya Exhibition and Convention Center by helicopter Friday, a government spokesman said. Other leaders were scheduled to arrive Friday or Saturday.
On Thursday, the demonstrators, whose numbers have swelled to 100,000 in recent days, brought areas of Bangkok to a standstill. They blocked a major intersection and other choke points in the capital. More than 100 taxi drivers parked to block traffic, and other protesters later joined them and rallied into the night despite rain.
Vast traffic jams—dubbed "political gridlock" by local media—plagued thousands of commuters and the government declared Friday a holiday in hopes of calming the situation.
Safety concerns were heightened this week when a car carrying Abhisit was attacked by protesters in Pattaya. Abhisit was not hurt, but a rear window was shattered.