By AMBIKA AHUJA / AP WRITER
BANGKOK — Protesters paralyzed traffic in parts of Thailand's capital Thursday and threatened to shift their massive anti-government rally to the seaside East Asia Summit, as authorities assured the 15 heads of state expected to attend this weekend that they will be safe.
Leaders of the protest, which swelled Wednesday to 100,000 people in Bangkok, said they were debating whether to travel from the capital to the summit's venue in Pattaya, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) south, to apply more pressure on Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
The demonstrators are demanding that Abhisit resign along with the top adviser to the country's revered king. The protesters, supporters of exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, accuse the king's adviser of supporting the 2006 military coup that toppled Thaksin's government.
More than 100 taxi drivers sympathetic to the movement parked and then left their vehicles at one of Bangkok's main traffic circles, Victory Monument, jamming the city's already clogged streets.
"We have asked more taxi drivers to do the same if Abhisit does not resign," said a taxi spokesman, Kongkiat Janpeum. "There are thousands more of us."
A protest leader, Jakrapob Penkair, and hundreds of others joined the taxi protests once it proved successful and called for reinforcements.
"We want to increase pressure on the government by using civil disobedience," Jakrapob said.
The East Asia summit involves the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. Leaders of all the countries except India are expected to attend, with meetings of senior officials already under way Thursday at a luxury hotel in Pattaya.
Protest leaders appeared undecided on whether to disrupt the summit, but agreed that a change of strategy was necessary.
"If our demands are not met, we may have to go to Pattaya," Jatuporn Phromphan told demonstrators gathered outside the prime minister's office in Bangkok. "We want to tell our ASEAN friends and other countries to forgive us in advance if this summit cannot take place."
Another protest leader, Nattawut Sai-kua, told Channel 3 television that the goal was not to derail the talks.
"We will just have to decide how we can pressure the government in the context of the summit, but we won't stop it from happening," he said.
Safety concerns were heightened after a car carrying Abhisit was attacked by protesters in Pattaya earlier this week. He was not hurt, but a rear window was shattered.
Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban sought to assure the visiting leaders they will be protected.
"I want to reiterate that every leader will be safe," Suthep said. "If the police are not sufficient, we will ask for additional forces from the army."
Abhisit reiterated that he would not bow to protesters' demands for his resignation.
"There is no reason to do that. My stance remains the same," he said.
Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said security reviews indicated it was "appropriate for the prime minister to attend," but told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that "we continue to monitor the situation in Thailand very carefully."
The protesters are supporters of Thaksin, whom they say was wrongfully deposed in the 2006 coup. After a two-week sit-in outside the prime minister's office, protesters marched Wednesday to the home of King Bhumibol Adulyadej's top adviser, 88-year-old Prem Tinsulanonda, whom they accuse of undermining democracy by orchestrating the coup.
On Thursday, the number of protesters was down to about 20,000 people, police said.
The crowd size tends to swell in the evening when Thaksin addresses his supporters via video link from abroad.
Protesters left the road outside Prem's residence where a woman earlier drove a car into a group of protesters before speeding away. One protester was slightly injured, said Bangkok Police Chief Lt-Gen Worapong Chiewpreecha. The driver wore a yellow shirt, which is the color favored by anti-Thaksin activists.
Protest leaders later called off the gathering outside Prem's house, saying he was unlikely to be inside. Most returned to the seat of government while others joined the protest at the Victory Monument.
Scattered protests that drew hundreds of people were staged elsewhere in Bangkok, including outside Abhisit's Democrat Party headquarters and at the Constitutional Court that ruled against Thaksin-allied governments last year. Others marched to the Foreign Ministry to call for the resignation of Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya, who was a prominent supporter of anti-Thaksin protests last year.
Prem, who has denied any involvement in the coup, remained inside his home while police and soldiers stood guard in the streets and within the compound's walls.
King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 81, is widely revered, and by tradition the utmost respect has also been extended to his inner circle. To issue public attacks against his top advisers, known as the Privy Council, is unprecedented in recent Thai history.
The protests are the latest episode in Thailand's protracted political turmoil, which has been a tug-of-war between Thaksin supporters and opponents since 2006.