BANGKOK (AFP) - Thailands export growth slowed sharply in July, causing the trade balance to swing into the red, official data showed Thursday. Strong overseas demand has helped the Thai economy to weather the negative impact of anti-government protests in Bangkok earlier this year that inflicted a heavy blow on the vital tourism sector. In July exports increased 20.6pc from a year earlier to $15.56b, while imports surged 36.1pc to $16.50b, a 23-month high, the Commerce Ministry said. As a result, the country posted a trade deficit of 939.8 million dollars for the month. Last month Thailand reported June exports soared 46.3pc from a year earlier to a record high $18.04b. The cooling of export growth came despite the strongest demand for Thai-made cars in 22 years, with auto shipments surging almost 140pc in July from a year earlier to 87,605 vehicles. The central bank last month raised interest rates for the first time since 2008, saying that the economic impact of the protests had been relatively limited, with the tourism sector showing signs of a quick rebound. The mass rally, which brought parts of the capital to a standstill and forced some hotels and shopping centres to close temporarily, sparked violence that left 91 people dead, ending in a bloody army crackdown in May. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said Thursday that the Thai economy was likely to grow by at least seven percent in 2010, although he also voiced concern about the impact of a stronger baht on exports. Thailand will release its second-quarter growth figures on Monday.