BANGKOK, Oct 21, 2009 (AFP) - Thailand is implementing a security lockdown at this weekend's summit of Asian leaders with observers warning it cannot afford a repeat of chaotic scenes that saw two previous meetings cancelled.
The nation, currently chairing the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), is mobilising an 18,000-strong security force and invoking a harsh internal security act to prevent protests in the resort town of Hua Hin.
The summit, which starts Friday, was originally due to be held in Pattaya in April but was cancelled because of chaotic anti-government protests in support of ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Pro-Thaksin "Red Shirts" stormed the meeting venue, forcing foreign leaders to flee. Two days of deadly rioting ensued in Bangkok and a state of emergency was declared in the capital.
The chaos in Pattaya followed the cancellation of an earlier summit after the royalist "Yellow Shirts" blocked Bangkok's airports for nine days from late November.
Analysts are warning that it is critical for Thailand to get it right this time to restore its reputation on the regional and global stage.
"It's a very important meeting for Thailand to regain international trust. Another cancellation will seriously damage the image of not only Thailand but the entire ASEAN," said Japanese analyst Takehiko Yamamoto.
"The unity of ASEAN, which is a key factor for the grouping, is now under threat," added the politics professor from Tokyo's Waseda University.
Despite the security clampdown, delegates said they were not 100 percent confident this time around.
"We cannot say we are not worried this time around," said a South Korean official handling ASEAN affairs, on condition of anonymity.
"But the host Thailand has since promised to take various extra security measures.... We hope that what we all suffered in April will not be repeated this time."
Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said the ASEAN agenda had made "good progress" under Thai chairmanship, "despite all the problems".
In an interview with the Straits Times published Wednesday Yeo added: "A good meeting in Hua Hin, which I fully expect will be the case, will override the bad experience that we had in Pattaya."
Thailand did manage to host a heavily manned regional security meeting in July that included a visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the southern resort island of Phuket along with other meetings of ASEAN ministers.
Amid the enhanced security, the government has urged demonstrators to stay away as "Red Shirts" continue to organise rallies seeking the return of Thaksin, who is living abroad to escape a jail term for corruption.
"I ask everybody to put our country's reputation and dignity above everything else," deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban, in charge of national security told reporters. "We still have plenty of time to discuss our differences."
Defence Minister General Prawit Wongsuwon told AFP the security operation was "100 percent ready." On Tuesday the cabinet held its meeting in the town south of Bangkok to test security arrangements.
A summit between the 10 ASEAN nations will be following by a meeting with partners China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.
With closer economic ties on the agenda in the wake of the global economic crisis, all invited delegations have confirmed they will attend.
Thailand will symbolically hand over chairmanship of ASEAN to Vietnam on Sunday but officially will continue to hold the reins until the end of the year.
ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.