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Olympic torch relay begins amid tight security in Bangkok

20 April, 2008

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BANGKOK: The Beijing Olympic torch relay kicked off Saturday in Bangkok’s bustling Chinatown amid tight security to ensure no anti-Chinese protests would disrupt the 10.5 km run.

Around 80 Thai athletes participated in the relay, which bears the Olympic flame from the gates of Chinatown through the oldest parts of Bangkok to end at the Royal Plaza, the site of the much-revered King Chulalongkorn statue.

An estimated 2,000 police, soldiers and Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA) police were posted along the torch’s route to ensure the procession did not run into the kind of obstacles that plagued the relay in Paris, London, San Francisco and New Delhi, where pro-Tibet, anti-Beijing activists used the event to highlight their causes.

Thailand, where more than 10 percent of the 65 million population claim Chinese ancestry, has pledged tight security for the torch.

"Thailand will act with responsibility," promised Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej Friday.

Many Thais observing the relay echoed that sentiment.

"I don’t think politics should get involved in sports," said Vichai Toronagarn, 71, a Sino-Thai who showed up to watch the event in Chinatown. "I don’t want any violence because that would hurt Thailand’s reputation."

Turasak Traisivaporn, 56, who came from Samit Prakan province to watch the procession, blamed jealousy in the West for the protests witnessed in other cities.

"China is about to become a powerful country, so many are trying to tarnish this relay for political and economic reasons," he opined.

While the Thai government has pledged to avoid disruptions to the Olympic procession, and to even revoke visas for any foreigners participating in aggressive acts, it has permitted peaceful demonstrations.

The Bangkok-based human rights group FORUM-ASIA, for instance, has joined hands with the Free Tibet Network to demonstrate Saturday outside the UN headquarters in Bangkok to protest China’s plans to bring the torch to Tibet as part of the Olympic procession.

"So far no one has tried to stop us," said Jessica Stevens, a spokesperson for the pro-Tibet demonstrators.

About 100 people had gathered outside the UN office shortly after 3 p.m. holding aloft placards reading, "Free Tibet", "Stop Killing in Tibet", and "UN, We want Justice".

End.

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