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Thailand turmoil shuts scores of businesses

Yoga studios, luxury hotels, shopping malls and office buildings in Bangkok have been forced to closed as seven weeks of anti-government protests take a toll on the nation's economy.
A Thai man carries home dinner as he passes by closed shops and Thai soldiers at an empty bus stop Friday in Bangkok.
A Thai man carries home dinner as he passes by closed shops and Thai soldiers at an empty bus stop Friday in Bangkok. David Guttenfelder / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Yoga studios have canceled classes. Luxury hotels are turning away guests. Shopping malls and office buildings are shut down.

As Thailand's political turmoil enters its seventh week, the economic toll is spreading. Ordinary workers, parents and shoppers often reach their destinations to find signs that say: "Sorry, closed due to political unrest."

The "Red Shirt" protesters have occupied various parts of Bangkok since March 12 to demand the government's resignation. Twenty-six people have died in the political violence.

The protests have affected about a square mile of the Thai capital. The greatest disruptions to city life started in early April, when protesters pitched tents along the city's swankiest shopping street — the equivalent of Paris' Champs-Elysees or New York's Fifth Avenue. Thousands of supporters have slept on sidewalks ever since.

Four luxury hotels and a half-dozen towering shopping malls in the area have closed, losing millions of dollars a day.

Financial district latest casualty
The latest casualty is nearby Silom Road, the city's financial district, which transforms after-hours into a nighttime bazaar with a popular bar scene, notably the lewd kind that Bangkok is infamous for.

On Friday, Silom was filled with riot police, and many of its banks, restaurants, offices and a major shopping complex were shut after a night of bloody chaos that left one person dead and more than 80 wounded.

Clashes on April 10 left 25 dead and more than 800 hurt, the worst kind of publicity for Thailand's image as a tourist paradise.

"I still can't believe it," said Somchay Chaitosa, a bank employee whose bank was one of many in the Silom area that closed Friday. "This is like in the movies that we watch of civil wars and shootings in Africa, but it happened right here in the heart of Bangkok."

Five grenade explosions on Thursday blasted holes through the roof of an elevated Skytrain station and shattered cafe windows near the landmark Dusit Thani hotel. Authorities immediately closed the elevated rail line that runs through Silom. The trains serve thousands of daily commuters but have also been an overhead bunker for soldiers to monitor protesters.

The attacks were at the site of a tense five-day standoff between soldiers sent to keep the protesters from spilling onto Silom. Adding to the volatile mix is a rival group of demonstrators who have hurled insults and bottles at the Red Shirts, who have barricaded themselves behind a wall of tires and homemade bamboo spears.

The Red Shirts claim a noble cause, demanding greater equality in Thai society and characterizing itself as a class struggle that pits the country's vast rural poor against an elite that has traditionally held power. They claim Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva gained power illegitimately and should step aside so new elections can be held.

But more and more Bangkok residents say they are fed up with the Red Shirts, the violence and the ongoing damage to Thailand's image.

Tourists staying away
Tourism accounts for 6 percent of the country's economy and has steeply declined since the protests started.

Cancellations are pouring in from tourists and business travelers. Thailand has already lost more than $31 million from event cancellations and is projected to lose several times that in coming months, according to the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau.

The stock market has tumbled 7 percent since just before the violence erupted. The Thai stock exchange says 34 listed companies that had planned to hold annual shareholder meetings in the city have changed their plans because of safety concerns.

"Don't say this is a fight for democracy. What they are doing is terrorism," said Sangrawee Tapananon, 55, another bank employee wandering around Silom, saying she felt compelled to join the anti-Red protests. "My family has begged me not to join the protests. But if we don't come out, it means we succumb to the thugs."

The Bangkok Post ran a graphic Friday with seven tips for businesses to prepare for emergencies, including rehearsing evacuations and training staff in first aid.

Unrest felt beyond protest zone
Most of Bangkok remains untouched, but the violence has had a ripple effect into life beyond the protest zone.

Several international schools, none of which are in the protest area, have closed periodically since the rallies started. Some of the city's biggest gyms are in the shopping malls and streets near the Rajprasong shopping area.

The website for Absolute Yoga, a popular Bangkok yoga studio, apologizes to customers for the closure of its biggest branch. "Due to the ongoing political unrest ... our studio will remain closed until the situation is clear."

"This demonstration has changed my way of life," said Apiruedee Apiwattanaporn, 29, a financial officer and gym buff who now has nowhere to work out. "My gym shut down, so I went to another branch at Silom, but now the Skytrain station at Silom is closed."

"My favorite restaurants are closed and so are my hair and nail salons," she said. Instead, she has turned to her hobby — photography. "I go take pictures of the Red Shirts these days."

Associated Press Writer Thanyarat Doksone contributed to this report.