By  on March 17, 2010

Bangkok retailers have hired hundreds of additional security guards, and are searching incoming shoppers and cars and motorcycles as largely peaceful protesters block city streets and demand the government step down. Since the protests began Friday, sales at Siam Paragon, Bangkok’s 5.4 million-square-foot luxury retail mall, have slid 15 to 20 percent a day, said Udom Suphpathorn, a spokesman for the mall’s owner, Siam Paragon Development Corp.

Siam Paragon has hired an additional 400 security officers to supplement its full-time force of almost 700, Suphpathorn said.

“We are absolutely on code red maximum security,” he said.

At the nearby Gaysorn, another upscale shopping center, security check points have been set up in the garage and all building entrances, said Chayanee Changlum, public relations manager. In addition, all trash bins have been removed, bags are checked at all entrances, mall deliveries are checked, security patrols have increased and overnight parking in the garage has been banned. The additional security force includes protest and demonstration drill teams, she said.

At least one mall, Platinum, has said it will close for two days during the protests, and other retailers, including Tesco Lotus, are closing an hour earlier.

The protests also have forced Siam Paragon to postpone its annual International Fashion Week from Thursday through March 21 to April 22 through 25, Suphpathorn said.

The protests come just as Bangkok retailers started recovering from the worldwide economic downturn and four years of antigovernment protests. Since September, retail sales have increased almost 20 percent, Suphpathorn said.

If the protests turn violent, Somphols Manarangsan, a political economist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, predicts it could have devastating effects on Thailand’s economy.

“The situation is still quite unpredictable,” Manarangsan said. “The government has to handle this carefully and it will have to compromise more with the protestors. It’s not impossible that there will be violence.”

Asian tourism from China and Japan has declined with the protests, Manarangsan said, while Thai people are hesitant to visit shopping centers because of traffic problems and fears for their safety. Tourism from Western countries does not appear to have diminished, he said.

“Thai people think the situation is dangerous, and they’re afraid of violence in department stores,” he said.

The government protesters are organized under the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship and call themselves Red Shirts. They are demanding Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva resign and the House of Representatives be dissolved. They want new elections. The protests comprise largely rural poor who seek the return of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup.

Thaksin has been living in exile rather than serve a two-year prison sentence on corruption charges. Late last month, the Thai Supreme Court confiscated $1.5 billion of his assets, ruling he had gained them through abuse of power while prime minister. Thaksin appears nightly in video telephone calls to the gathered protesters.

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