Thai siege ends; crisis continues

As troops break up the 'Red Shirt' camp, the prime minister is urged to fight graft and social inequities.

May 20, 2010|My-Thuan Tran and Mark Magnier

BANGKOK, THAILAND, AND NEW DELHI — As Thailand's army retook Bangkok's premier shopping district Wednesday from thousands of anti-government protesters in a bloody offensive, many Thais looked for the government to address the corruption, poverty and social inequities that sparked the unrest.

The government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva should call for national elections, create policies that directly benefit the underprivileged and avoid overly harsh punishment for the leaders of the so-called Red Shirt movement, they said.

"People are still very angry," said Sopha Tipamom, 45, a restaurant employee who works near the protest area. "The situation showed how weak the government was. Unfortunately, it did not end beautifully."

The army declared success after a nine-hour offensive that saw armored personnel carriers flatten bamboo barricades and reclaim a glitzy district occupied for weeks by anti-government protesters.

But even as the government broke a two-month standoff and some protest leaders surrendered, rioters detonated grenades and set fire to over a dozen buildings, including banks, a luxury shopping mall, the stock exchange and a cinema complex, sending smoke billowing across the city. At least six people died during the offensive and at least 69 were injured.

Hundreds of miles away, protesters attacked municipal buildings in the northern cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.

The government imposed a curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. in Bangkok and more than 20 of Thailand's 75 provinces, as shopkeepers hastened to close early and tourists with early-morning flights scrambled for rooms at airport hotels.

Few people underestimated the challenges still facing Thailand.

"The army crackdown is only a short-term solution," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a research fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. "Without reform, the Red Shirts might go away, but they'll return in other forms, perhaps underground."

Making major structural changes will be difficult, particularly given that the Red Shirts and the government, supported by its socially conservative "Yellow Shirt" allies, have entrenched hard-liners who will continue to resist political compromise.

"Thailand doesn't need a Red revolution or a Yellow revolution but an orange revolution that recognizes the needs of both sides," said Jamie Metzl, executive vice president of the New York-based Asia Society. "Thailand needs both democracy and stronger institutions."

Red Shirt protesters, mostly from poor, farmer and working-class communities, have occupied parts of Bangkok since March, demanding Abhisit's resignation, the dissolution of parliament and elections to replace a government they believe is illegitimate.

They say the current administration came to power by manipulating the courts and currying favor with the powerful military, which in 2006 ousted then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whom the Red Shirts support.

But the effectiveness of their message has been undermined, some said, by the grenades, bombs and guns that more militant members have wielded. Journalists and rank-and-file members have also reported seeing mysterious black-clad commandoes aiding the Red Shirts in recent weeks, some carrying high-powered rifles, believed to be former Thai special forces.

As the army wound down its offensive Wednesday, protester anger turned on the news media, accusing it of pro-government bias. As if on cue, authorities ordered all broadcast media to air only government-sanctioned programs.

Angry rioters attacked state-run Channel 3 TV headquarters, setting fire to the building and to cars in the parking lot and puncturing water pipes, forcing the station to stop broadcasting. Nearby, the English-language Bangkok Post and Nation newspapers evacuated their staffs after receiving Red Shirt threats.

Satit Vongnongteay, a Cabinet minister, said at a news conference that the anger and chaos after the army offensive were "aftershocks" and had been anticipated.

"There are violent-prone protesters who remain angry," he said.

Many demonstrators expressed disappointment and disenchantment at the collapse of the protests after weeks of personal sacrifice, lost income and camping out in the sun and rain.

Kanha Khempet of Suphanburi province, who joined dozens of others leaving the protest zone Wednesday afternoon after the offensive, said she broke into tears on hearing Red Shirt leader Nattawut Saikua announce his surrender from the main stage.

"Any time we fight, we always lose to a double-standard government that chooses to shoot at us," Kanha, 48, said.

Nearby, government workers checked demonstrators' identification cards, handed out water and food plates and guided people to buses headed for a nearby train station.

As one bus pulled out, hecklers booed.

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