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THAILAND: Bangkok Burns after Protest Leaders Surrender

BANGKOK, May 19 2010 (IPS) - If there were any hopes that Wednesday’s surrender by the leaders of Thailand’s biggest anti-government protests in decades would instantly ease tensions, these were dashed by the ugly spasms of violence that wracked this capital soon after they turned themselves in.

In this television grab shortly after his surrender at Thai police headquarters, protest leader Natthawut Saikua asks rallyists to return home. Credit: Johanna Son/IPS

In this television grab shortly after his surrender at Thai police headquarters, protest leader Natthawut Saikua asks rallyists to return home. Credit: Johanna Son/IPS

If anything, the attacks by protesters, who were angered by the end of the rally and set fire to buildings and shopping malls, confirmed what everybody knows – that while the protest site of the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) has been cleared and its leaders detained, the political crisis is far from over.

The sprawling and glitzy Centralworld mall, beside which thousands of UDD protesters had camped out for six weeks to demand a new election but never broke into, was in flames on Wednesday afternoon.

At least 27 buildings and locations were on fire as of 9 p.m. local time, including the Thai TV 3 building, the Metropolitan Electricity Authority, Siam Theatre, several banks and part of the Stock Exchange of Thailand, officials said.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva imposed a curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. to allow the military, which has been carrying out a blockade against the red- shirted UDD protesters since May 13, to put a stop to the mayhem that had central parts of the city burning. On national television, he said, “We’re confident and determined that we will solve” the unrest.

Earlier, government spokesman Panithan Wattanayagorn said the military would “initiate operations throughout the night” and control “a few pockets of trouble in several areas of Bangkok.”

Curfew was declared in 23 provinces, including those around Bangkok and in the north-east, from whose rural regions the UDD draws a lot of support. In a sign of more anger in the anti-government movement, thousands of red shirts, called such following the UDD’s protest colour, attacked government and other targets in the north-eastern provinces of Khon Kaen and Udon Thani and in northern Chiang Mai.

“There are remaining radical elements embedded in the demonstration for weeks, with war weapons, and they may come out and try to do something not good to the public, like try to set fire to buildings,” Panithan said, asking Bangkok residents to stay home.

Once again, Panithan spoke in English after making the same announcement in Thai in order to address the foreign community.

But the black smoke hanging heavy over the Bangkok skyline, caused by arson and burning tyres, matched the feeling among many that this South- east Asian country was moving into uncharted territory.

“I really don’t know what to expect now, I can’t say any more. I’m not a fortune teller,” signed the owner of an eatery. “It will end, but look at that,” she said, pointing at the television news.

“At least the red-shirt leaders have shown responsibility (in the UDD) by (surrendering),” said Tosporn Patanaviroj, a 29-year-old steward. “But without the leaders, a large number of protesters still want to continue their fight.”

“Now it has become a war between people and soldiers, and it could be worse because people’s call has been neglected,” he added, referring to the UDD demand for a new election that is now in tatters. “And especially now, the angry crowd (is) without effective and strong leadership – I could not imagine more.”

After the curfew announcement past 4 p.m., residents rushed to stores to find others stashing up on food and supplies. “It’s good that I’m selling my goods fast so I can go home too,” a male vendor of street food muttered while packing up his trolley.

Early on Wednesday, Bangkok woke up to news that the army had started to move into the Rajprasong area that the UDD protesters have occupied since Apr. 3, using armoured personnel carriers to break through barricades from the Lumpini area.

A little past 1 p.m., UDD leaders went up to the Rajprasong stage and told thousands of protesters, including women, that it was time to end the rally due to the high casualties among red shirts in the six days since the army blockade began.

UDD leader Natthawut Saikua was quoted as saying: “I can no longer tolerate the cruelty inflicted on us.” Added another UDD leader, member of Parliament Jatuporn Promphan: “I apologise to you all, but I don’t want any more losses. I am devastated too. We will surrender.”

Since May 13 when the lockdown of the more than four square- kilometre Rajprasong rally area began, some 42 people have died and more than 282 injured. Many casualties have been civilians and protesters.

Soldiers and groups of red shirts have been engaged in pitched battles around the perimeter of the rally site since Thursday last week.

Concern has been expressed about the use of heavy weapons against protesters outside the Rajprasong area, who have been trying to prevent the army from getting to the protest site. Photos and footage have showed some soldiers shooting bullets, as well as some protesters with guns and homemade firebombs, apart from using slingshots, rocks, and Molotov cocktails.

The last attempt at talks fell through Wednesday after a Senate offer to mediate between the government and the UDD, whose patron is the fugitive ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was revoked.

Soon after the UDD leaders addressed their followers, they turned themselves in to the authorities along with four others.

Wednesday’s events bring to a violent peak the latest chapter in a crisis that goes back to 2006, when Thaksin, popular among the poor whose support he had courted through populist programmes, was ousted in a military coup.

In the next years, Thaksin-allied political parties won national elections but the UDD says these were negated by the Bangkok political elite when they found ways to throw elected leaders out of office. It wanted a new election to replace the Abhisit government, questioning his legitimacy because they said the military had manoeuvred parliament in order to make him prime minister in 2008.

In early May, a resolution seemed near after Abhisit offered a Nov. 14 poll date. But differences among UDD leaders, some of whom found the offer acceptable, led to the continuation of the rally. By last week too, and under pressure from citizens tired of the protests, Abhisit had revoked his offer.

“Now I’m scared,” said security guard Ong, on duty at a condominium here, on what is sure to be another restless night. (With reports from Nattharin Kitthithaweepan.)

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