Thai govt declares protest violence mostly quelled

May 20, 2010 6:52:48 AM PDT
The Thai government declared Thursday it had mostly quelled 10 weeks of violent protests in the capital as buildings still smoldered, troops rooted out small pockets of resistance and residents attempted to return to normal life.

But a nighttime curfew was extended in Bangkok and 23 other provinces for three more days. Troops and die-hard anti-government protesters exchanged sporadic fire in parts of the city after the military operation the day before cleared most of a protest encampment in the center of the capital, leaving 15 dead and 96 wounded.

A special police unit on Thursday led more than a thousand people - many of them women and children - away from a Buddhist temple in the heart of the former "Red Shirt" protest zone. Six bodies were found on its grounds.

The police had the approval of the temple's abbot, but many of the women feared they would be jailed or abused by police and cried or clung to each other as they were led out. Others remained defiant.

"We won. We won. The Red Shirts will rise again," shouted one woman.

Three more Red Shirt leaders surrendered to authorities Thursday. Five leaders gave themselves up the day before and were flown to a military camp south of Bangkok for interrogation.

"I'd like to ask all sides to calm down and talk with each other in a peaceful manner," said Veera Musikapong after being taken into custody Thursday. "We cannot create democracy with anger."

Army spokesman Col. Sansern Kawekamnerd said the situation in the capital was mostly under control.

But a branch of Siam City Bank was set afire, the first reported arson attack after 39 buildings were torched the day before. According to state-run television, a firefighter was shot and wounded Thursday while trying to put out the flames at a shopping center.

The situation was also volatile outside Bangkok.

Nation Television reported one person was killed and 14 wounded in the northeastern province of Khon Kaen, one of several provinces where protests erupted Wednesday.

Among the torched buildings in Bangkok were Thailand's stock exchange, main power company, banks, a movie theater and one of Asia's largest shopping malls.

The government described the mayhem as organized terrorism. Sansern said police and army units found a cache of explosives and assault rifles during their sweep against the Red Shirts.

Troops in the central business district exchanged fire Thursday morning with holdouts as locals in the area looted a vast tent city the activists had cobbled together.

Since the Red Shirts began their protest in mid March, at least 83 people - mostly civilians - have been killed and nearly 1,800 wounded. Of those, 51 people have died in clashes that started May 13 after the army tried to blockade their 1-square-mile (3-square-kilometer) camp.

City workers on Thursday removed debris and collected piles of garbage left in the streets. With military checkpoints coming down, residents in protest areas were able to leave home to shop. Electricity was restored to some.

Sansern said the arson and looting were "systematically planned and organized" by Red Shirt leaders before they surrendered. He said the military showed restraint.

"If we had the intention to attack civilians, the death toll would have been much higher," he said.

Government spokesman Panithan Wattanayagorn said the rioting was sparked by disappointment, hopelessness and anger, but was only as large as it was because of "prior organized planning."

While many of the rioters were believed to be members of the Red Shirts, there also was an element of criminals and young hoodlums involved.

It was unclear what the next move would be for the protesters who had demanded the ouster of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government and new elections. The protesters, many of them poor farmers or members of the urban underclass, say Abhisit came to power illegitimately and is oblivious to their plight.

The crackdown should silence the large number of government supporters who were urging a harder line, and the rioting that followed may extinguish some of the widespread sympathy for the protesters' cause.

But that same violence also showed a serious intelligence lapse by the military, and the failure to secure areas of the capital raised doubt over the government's ability to still unrest in the protesters' heartland of the north and northeast.

Many Thais feel that any short-term peace may come at the price of polarization that will lead to years of bitter, cyclical conflict.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist from Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, warned the Red Shirt rampage meant the movement had now entered a stage of armed resistance.

"The problem now is that who does the government talk to?" he said, noting that the Red Shirt leaders had been arrested.

Some point to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup and fled into exile before being sentenced to two years in prison for corruption. The government has accused him of bankrolling the protests and refuses to make any deals with him until he comes back to serve his sentence.

"It is a dark day for Thailand's battered democracy," Thaksin said in a statement. "There are questions about my relationship with the Red Shirt movement, and many untrue accusations."

But he added that he "will continue to morally support the heroic effort" of the movement.

Thai media reported protesters set fire to government offices in the city of Udon Thani and vandalized a city building in Khon Kaen. TV reports also showed troops retreating after being attacked by mobs in Ubon Ratchathani, and more unrest was reported in the northern city of Chiang Mai, Thailand's third-largest.

The curfew was the first for Bangkok since 1992, when the army killed dozens of pro-democracy demonstrators seeking the ouster of a military-backed government.

Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, a Red Shirt leader, said the movement was not over.

"This is not the end," he said. "The crowds will reunite soon."

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Associated Press writers Thanyarat Doksone, Chris Blake, Denis D. Gray, Vijay Joshi, Eric Talmadge, David Longstreath, Raul Gallego, Mae-E Wong and Grant Peck contributed to this report. Additional research by Warangkana Tempati.


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