Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Thai government claims victory in Bangkok

A soldier stands guard Rama 4 Road on May 20, 2010 in Bangkok
Smoke rises from the fire that burned all night at CentralWorld shopping mall
BANGKOK, THAILAND - MAY 18: A Thai anti-government red shirt protester wears a Buddha amulet while manning a barricade on May 18, 2010 in Bangkok, Thailand. Protesters have clashed with military forces for five consecutive day in Bangkok after the government launched an operation to disperse anti-government protesters who have closed parts of the city for more than two months. Despite calls from the United Nations for both sides to begin talks, anti-government protesters in Bangkok have defied orders to leave their fortified camp, with 37 people having died and more than 260 injured since the military began its crackdown. (Photo by Getty Images)

The Thai government has said that 10 weeks of violent protests in the capital have ended as residents attempted to return to normal life.

But a nightime curfew was extended in Bangkok and 23 other provinces for three more days.

And troops and die-hard anti-government protesters exchanged sporadic fire in parts of the city after the military operation the day before cleared most of a protest encampment in the centre of the capital, leaving 15 dead and 98 wounded.

A special police unit led more than a thousand people - many of them women and children - away from a Buddhist temple in the heart of the former "Red Shirt" protest zone. Six bodies were found on its grounds.

The police had the approval of the temple's abbot, but many of the women feared they would be jailed or abused by police and cried or clung to each other as they were led out. Others remained defiant.

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

Three more Red Shirt leaders surrendered today. Five gave themselves up the day before and were flown to a military camp south of Bangkok for interrogation.

"I'd like to ask all sides to calm down and talk with each other in a peaceful manner," said Veera Musikapong after being taken into custody Thursday. "We cannot create democracy with anger."

An army spokesman said the situation in the capital was mostly under control.

But a branch of Siam City Bank was set on fire, the first reported arson attack after 39 buildings were torched the day before. One firefighter was shot and wounded while trying to put out the flames at a shopping centre.

Among the torched buildings were Thailand's stock exchange, main power company, banks, a cinema and one of Asia's largest shopping malls.

The government described the mayhem as organised terrorism.

Since the Red Shirts began their protest in mid-March at least 83 people - mostly civilians - have been killed and nearly 1,800 wounded. Of those, 51 people have died in clashes that started on May 13 after the army tried to blockade their camp.

City workers today removed debris and collected rubbish left in the streets. With military checkpoints coming down, residents in protest areas were able to leave home to shop. Electricity was restored to some.

It was unclear what the next move would be for the protesters who had demanded the removal of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government and new elections. The protesters, many of them poor farmers or members of the urban underclass, say Abhisit came to power illegitimately and does not care about them.

The crackdown should silence the large number of government supporters who were urging a harder line, and the rioting 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 the government's ability to still unrest in the protesters' heartland of the north and north-east.

Many Thais feel that any short-term peace may come at the price of polarisation that will lead to years of bitter, cyclical conflict.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist from Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, warned the Red Shirt rampage meant the movement had now entered a stage of armed resistance.

"The problem now is that who does the government talk to?" he said, noting that the Red Shirt leaders had been arrested.

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 financing the protests and refuses to make any deals with him until he comes back to serve his sentence.

"It is a dark day for Thailand's battered democracy," Thaksin said. "There are questions about my relationship with the Red Shirt movement, and many untrue accusations."

But he added that he "will continue to morally support the heroic effort" of the movement.

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