Troops move against protest holdouts in Bangkok |

Troops move against protest holdouts in Bangkok

Associated Press Writer

BANGKOK (AP) – Buildings smoldered across central Bangkok early Thursday and troops exchanged sporadic fire with pockets of holdouts a day after the army routed anti-government protesters in a push to end Thailand’s deadliest political violence in nearly 20 years.

Although the government quelled most of the violence in the battered Thai capital, it announced that a nighttime curfew had been extended in Bangkok and 23 other provinces for three more days.

A major military operation the day before, in which at least seven people were killed and 88 wounded, was largely successful, but underlying political divisions that caused Thailand’s crisis may have been exacerbated, and unrest spread to provinces in the north and northeast.

Bangkok’s skyline overnight was blotted by flashes of fire and black smoke from more than three dozen buildings set ablaze – including 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 “an organized crime. It is terrorism.” Army spokesman Col. Sansern Kawekamnerd said authorities found a cache of explosives and assault rifles during their sweep against the Red Shirts.

Troops in the central business district, occupied by protesters for weeks, exchanged occasional fire Thursday morning with holdouts as locals in the area looted a vast tent city the activists had cobbled together.

A special police unit entered a Buddhist temple inside the former protest site where the government said 5,000 Red Shirt supporters, most of them women, old men and children, had sought shelter in recent days. Associated Press photographers said there was no resistance at the temple as police took away the group to a nearby police station.

Some cried and many were fearful that they would be incarcerated by the military. Others remained defiant.

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

Since the Red Shirts began their protest in mid-March, at least 75 people – mostly civilians – have been killed and nearly 1,800 wounded. Of those, 46 people have died in clashes that started May 13 after the army tried to blockade their 1-square-mile (3-square-kilometer) camp.

Six bodies were found at the temple, but it was unclear when those people died and whether they already were included in the official death toll as collected by the government’s Erawan Emergency Center.

Elsewhere in the city, municipal workers removed debris and collected piles of garbage left in the streets that had been cordoned off by authorities for the past week.

Sansern said there had been a total of 39 arson attacks, which officials said included office buildings, banks, gold shops, a hotel, government offices and convenience stores.

While many of the rioters were believed to be members of the Red Shirts and their sympathizers, there also was an element of criminals and young hoodlums involved in the mayhem in the city of 10 million people. The violence in one of Southeast Asia’s most stable countries has damaged its economy and tourism industry.

With the top Red Shirt leaders in custody, it was unclear what the next move would be for the protesters who had demanded the ouster of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government, the dissolution of parliament 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 how any unrest in the protesters’ heartland of the north and northeast can be stilled.

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

“The Reds rampaged and committed to armed resistance,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist from Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “Right now, they are just burning buildings, but later on, what if they picked up arms to fight the bureaucrats, security forces in other parts of Bangkok, and especially in the countryside? So this is just the beginning. The crackdown didn’t make them retreat fully. Things will get much worse still.”

Thitinan said the government will need to seek a political settlement. “The problem now is that who does the government talk to?” he said.

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.

The crackdown began soon after dawn Wednesday, as hundreds of troops with M-16s converged on the Red Shirts’ camp, where nearby high-end malls and hotels have been shuttered by the prolonged protest.

Armored vehicles crashed through barricades of piled tires and bamboo stakes, and soldiers then gradually moved toward the protesters’ hub, opening fire with live ammunition and drawing return fire from militant Red Shirts, according to Associated Press reporters at the scene.

Bullets flew and several grenades exploded near the soldiers, forcing them to pull back briefly before pushing forward.

Among the dead was an Italian photographer. A Canadian freelance reporter was wounded by shrapnel and a reporter for the British newspaper The Independent was shot in the leg. Two other journalists were wounded earlier – one Dutchman and an American documentary filmmaker.

The unrest spread outside Bangkok, with Thai media reporting that protesters set fire to government offices in the city of Udon Thani and vandalized a city building in Khon Kaen. Udon Thani’s governor asked the military to intervene.

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.

After protest leaders surrendered, their enraged followers scattered to other parts of the city to set fires, and some looting was reported.

One of the most striking images was gray smoke pouring from Bangkok’s landmark CentralWorld shopping mall, which was all but totally gutted by fire. One of Southeast Asia’s largest shopping complexes, it measured 550,000 square meters (5.9 million square feet).

Firefighters trying to douse the flames at some of the buildings were forced to retreat for several hours because of gunfire.

The ground floor of Thailand’s stock exchange, where about $600 million of shares changes hands each day, was gutted by fire. Its president, Patareeya Benjapolchai, told the AP that the exchange would be closed for the rest of the week but that it may reopen Monday.

The central bank, meanwhile, said all financial institutions in Bangkok, including commercial banks, would be shut Thursday and Friday.

Cabinet minister Satit Vongnongteay described the chaos as anticipated “aftershocks” of the crackdown.

Rioters also turned their rage on the local media, which has been accused of pro-government coverage. They attacked the offices of state-run Channel 3, setting fire to cars outside and puncturing water pipes that flooded the building.

The building was set on fire, but its staff fled to safety.

Abhisit said in a televised address Wednesday night that troops had been given the go-ahead to shoot suspected arsonists. Another announcement said captured arsonists and “terrorists” could face capital punishment.

The 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. 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 in a crisis now known as “Black May.”

Seven top Red Shirt leaders surrendered Wednesday, saying they could not stand seeing their supporters being killed.

“Brothers and sisters, I’m sorry I cannot see you off the way I welcomed you all when you arrived here. But please be assured that our hearts will always be with you,” Nattawut Saikua, a key leader, said as he was arrested. “Please return home.”

Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, another Red Shirt leader, said the movement would go on despite the day’s events.

“This is not the end,” he said. “It will spread further and the situation will deteriorate. Initially, independent mass movements in Bangkok and other provinces will begin, then riots will ensue. This will be done by individuals, not by protest leaders. The crowds will reunite soon.”