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In Bangkok, an uneasy calm, smoldering buildings

After a crackdown ends weeks of violent protests, the government says the situation in the capital is under control. But die-hard protesters briefly clash with troops. A nighttime curfew is extended.

May 21, 2010|By My-Thuan Tran and Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Bangkok, Thailand, and New Delhi — An uneasy calm settled over Bangkok on Thursday after an army crackdown ended weeks of violent protests. Iconic buildings smoldered, soldiers mopped up pockets of resistance, and residents tried to get back to normal life.

Government officials reassured the nation that the situation in the capital was largely under control, though die-hard protesters exchanged sporadic fire with troops early in the day. Aware that protests could reignite without warning, authorities extended a nighttime curfew for three more days in Bangkok and 23 provinces.

Thailand's international reputation, economy and sense of identity have been battered by street fighting that has left 82 dead and nearly 1,800 wounded since " Red Shirts," as the demonstrators call themselves, first occupied parts of the capital in March.

"We can immediately fix the roads," Bangkok Gov. Sukhumbhand Paribatra said on television. "But we do not know how long it will take to fix the wounded hearts and minds of the people."

A day earlier, after repeated warnings to disperse, the army flattened barricades surrounding the Red Shirts' square-mile protest zone in a glitzy shopping district and flushed out demonstrators.

As word spread Wednesday afternoon that Red Shirt leaders had turned themselves in, rioters fanned out across Bangkok, attacking a government TV station and setting fire to more than two dozen buildings, some still burning 24 hours later.

On Thursday, three more protest leaders surrendered and were expected to join the five already in custody under interrogation at a military camp south of Bangkok. Troops evacuated hundreds of people from a Buddhist temple in the protest zone where they had taken refuge, the last significant concentration of protesters.

"Democracy cannot be built on revenge and anger," Red Shirt leader Veera Musikapong said in a televised statement from custody, urging protesters to return home peacefully. It was not immediately clear whether he spoke of his own free will or under pressure from officials.

Many demonstrators from poor rural and working-class communities drifted toward bus and train stations, heading home. Their demands — the dissolution of parliament, new elections and the immediate resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, whom they view as illegitimate — were unmet. Some took comfort that they at least had caught the nation's attention.

Red Shirts contend that a 2006 military coup that unseated former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and courts that ruled against two subsequent pro-Red Shirt governments undermined democracy in Thailand, even as pro-government "Yellow Shirt" political opponents condemn their adversaries as unprincipled and criminal.

On Thursday the former protest area was largely deserted, with plastic chairs, tarps and trash littering the ground in front of a makeshift stage that had seen numerous fiery speeches and democracy songs.

A large red banner above the stage was torn. The smell of smoldering buildings lingered. Strewn clothing, broken fans and charred mats lay abandoned in their owners' rush to flee the advancing army.

As the city started digging out, some expressed mixed emotions. Hatthai Cheewasotsakul, owner of the Mr. Thai Travel & Tour agency in Bangkok, said he was pleased the country could start rebuilding its battered tourist industry, which would take time, but he deeply resented the government's brutal crackdown.

"These are local people who just want a new election and another form of government," he said, and now "there are more people who are angry at the government, people like me."

As the government has consolidated its grip on security, some analysts have questioned whether it was getting the balance right. The Abhisit administration has repeatedly denounced the anti-government protesters as terrorists, charges strongly denied by protest leaders. "Peaceful Protesters Not Terrorists," read a sign over the main stage for weeks.

Few dispute that the movement has an ugly, violent side, with extremists wielding guns, grenades and bombs, destroying property and instigating chaos. But analysts said the government could lose support among voters in the middle if it ignores issues raised by protesters involving discrimination, inequities in the judiciary, and limits on economic and educational opportunities.

For their part, the Red Shirts have severely undermined their message by holding the capital hostage, damaging Thailand's global image and engaging in violence.

"I don't see the sun rising above the horizon any time soon," said Bridget Welsh, an associate professor of political science at Singapore Management University. "These are deep problems."

my-thuan.tran@latimes.com

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Tran reported from Bangkok and Magnier from New Delhi.

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