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Shouts, protestors dot Thai leg of torch relay

China supporters and pro-Tibet demonstrators heckled each other Saturday as thousands of people followed the Olympic torch through Bangkok’s sweltering streets amid tight security.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Thousands of people followed the Olympic torch through the sweltering streets of Thailand’s capital Saturday with little of the protests that have accompanied some of the relay’s earlier stops.

The nearly three-hour run, with no disruptions by demonstrators protesting China’s recent crackdown in Tibet, contrasted with the chaos that accompanied the torch’s visits to London, Paris and San Francisco.

About 2,000 uniformed and plainclothes police were deployed along the Bangkok route.

Security officials had little to do but direct traffic and the mostly festive crowds, except at one spot where they came between pro-Tibet demonstrators and pro-Beijing supporters who exchanged angry words.

Protests over China’s crackdown on anti-government riots in Tibet have dogged the torch on its way to the Olympics’ opening ceremony in August in Beijing. The growing criticism of China’s human rights record has turned the coming summer Games into one of the most contentious in recent history.

Although Thailand has an active human rights community, several factors favored the torch receiving a warm welcome.

Since Thailand began disentangling itself from its Cold War pro-U.S. stance in the mid-1970s, its governments have entertained increasingly warm relations with Beijing. Ethnicity also played a role, since most of Bangkok’s ruling political and business elite boast of some Chinese ancestry.

Police were instructed to keep a cautious watch for provocative anti-China signs or banners, and authorities warned that any foreign activists who tried to disrupt the relay could be deported.

A sole dissenter could be glimpsed at the relay’s starting point in Bangkok’s Chinatown — a Western woman who carried a picture of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader. Some members of the crowd shouted for her to “get out.”

Eighty runners took part in the relay, with the flame carried home by Pawina Thongsuk, a Thai weightlifter who won an Olympic gold medal at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens.

“It was a proud moment for Thailand. Most people welcomed the torch and showed that they could separate sports from politics,” Thongsuk said after the relay.

A coalition of human rights and other activist groups staged a loud but peaceful protest in front of the U.N.’s Asian headquarters, along the relay’s route.

The hundred or so protesters waived placards and chanted “Free Tibet” and “Shame, shame, Hu Jintao,” referring to China’s president.

Narisa Chakrabongse, an environmental activist who had been named one of the torchbearers but withdrew, said the protest sent the message to China “that their crackdown on the Tibetans was not acceptable.”

That group was countered by a mostly Chinese-speaking group of the same size across the street yelling pro-China slogans. Some in the crowd following the torchbearers also jeered the pro-Tibet group.

The flame arrived in Malaysia on Sunday for an overnight stay in a luxury hotel before its run there.

Malaysia and the torch’s next stop — Indonesia — have lingering problems with prejudice against minority Chinese populations, and the tensions occasionally erupt into violence.

A Buddhist group held prayers Sunday at a temple in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, to call for a trouble-free torch run and a peaceful Olympics in Beijing in August.