Thousands pray for peace in Bangkok
BANGKOK (AP) – Thousands of residents gathered at dawn Wednesday to pray for peace at sites across Bangkok where people were killed and high-rise buildings torched in two months of the worst political violence in the country’s modern history.
The chants of 1,000 Buddhist monks mingled with the prayers of Muslim imams, Christian priests and the Hindu faithful at 10 areas, including the charred hulk of one of Asia’s largest shopping malls.
“We are reciting a very powerful prayer to summon the Lord to help our country. Things are quiet now but there is fear still within us because none of us know what can happen in the future,” said Sumitr Khorana, a Hindu community leader, reflecting a general anxiety that Thailand’s turmoil is far from over.
One spark of further political strife may have been set off Tuesday when Thai authorities accused ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of terrorism, issuing an arrest warrant on charges that carry a possible death sentence for his alleged role in the deadly street protests.
Thaksin, who lives in self-imposed exile but still has wide support among the so-called Red Shirts whose protests were violently ended by the military last week, responded that the government should be ashamed of itself for its handling of the crisis that left 88 dead and said he merely wants to keep Thailand from becoming a “banana republic.”
The charges are likely to intensify the political rift between those who support Thaksin – mostly the urban underclass and rural poor – and the conservative establishment and many in the middle class who agreed with the 2006 military coup that saw him ousted from power.
Thaksin, who fled abroad ahead of a corruption conviction he says was politically motivated, is accused of being a key force behind the protesters who occupied areas of Bangkok for two months in their bid to bring down Oxford-educated Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. They accuse Abhisit of being elitist and coming to power through back-room deals and military meddling.
Though he has supported the Red Shirt’s cause, Thaksin denies involvement in the recent violence – which culminated in a military crackdown that left several protesters dead and prompted rioting and arson attacks.
One of the main targets was CentralWorld, a ritzy shopping mall which was partially burned to the ground. On Wednesday, employees gathered outside to offer food to Buddhist monks who in turn offered their blessings.
“I don’t want to see Thailand turn into a banana republic, where one guy’s free to just push any button in the system and destroy whatever justice and credibility it has,” Thaksin said on his Twitter page Tuesday. “Don’t go around telling the world that you’re a democratic country. Be ashamed.”
Thaksin spoke regularly by video link in the initial stages of the Red Shirt rallies, which began peacefully. He has publicly expressed his support for the protesters, but has denied government allegations he bankrolled the movement.
The Department of Special Investigations alleges that Thaksin committed, threatened to commit or supported terrorist acts in relation to the violence.
Criminal Court judge Krerkrit Ittarat said it was up to the DSI to proceed with the prosecution and coordinate Thaksin’s extradition with the Foreign Ministry. Previous attempts to extradite Thaksin have failed.
Thaksin is believed to hold passports from several countries and is based primarily in Dubai. Authorities in the United Arab Emirates have said he could remain there as long as he refrained from political activities.
Thaksin is regarded as a hero by many Red Shirts, who benefited from his populist policies during his 2001-2006 tenure as prime minister. The former telecommunications tycoon was convicted in absentia in 2008 of corruption and sentenced to two years in prison.
The Red Shirts have demanded Abhisit resign and call early elections. Earlier this month, he offered to hold elections on Nov. 14 but that offer was revoked when Red Shirt leaders made more demands.
Abhisit now says elections will not be held until the threat of violence is completely quelled – although he remains under pressure to call an early vote. His term expires in late 2011.
Although many analysts expect the Red Shirts to continue agitation or outright violence in the future, most of their leaders are now in custody or on the run.
“It would be suicidal if we started any movements now,” said Sean Boonpracong, the Red Shirts’ international spokesman. “But no Red Shirts will forget what happened last week.”
Associated Press writers Eric Talmadge, Thanyarat Doksone and Kinan
Suchaovanich in Bangkok and Dusan Stojanovic in Montenegro contributed to this report.