Thai protesters steely in the face of deadly conflict

By Andrew Higgins
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 17, 2010; 4:06 PM

BANGKOK -- He's fearful of snipers lurking in deserted high-rise towers that, in normal times, bustle with bankers and businessmen. He's running low on food and water. He frets about the intentions of heavily armed Thai soldiers gathered just down the road on the other side of a flimsy stockade of bamboo poles, wooden planks and rubber tires.

"We're scared," said Sakda Thongrath, a farmer from northern Thailand who has spent more than a month sleeping on the street outside the now-shuttered five-star Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel.

But, along with thousands of other Thai protesters, the 59-year-old farmer on Monday ignored a government order that he quit the paralyzed heart of this metropolis or face jail. "We're not leaving," said Sakda, defying a blitz of government warnings on television, loudspeakers and cellphone text messages.

The grim determination of Thailand's "Red Shirt" protesters to stay put is matched by an equal determination on the other side of the barricades to see them banished. "We will not retreat," Thailand's Oxford-educated prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, said in an address to the nation over the weekend. The army, he said, will "push forward."

The standoff began two months ago when protesters first set up camp in the center of Bangkok and pressed their demands for early elections to replace a government they denounce as undemocratic. But the confrontation has escalated sharply in recent days as troops have tried to choke off areas controlled by the Red Shirts, a cacophonous assembly of farmers, urban poor and die-hard loyalists of Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire former policeman who was ousted as Thailand's prime minister by the military in 2006.

At least 37 people have been killed in running battles since last Thursday along streets lined with luxury boutiques, Starbucks coffee shops and the villas of foreign diplomats. The dead include a renegade general, who died Monday in a Bangkok hospital. Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdipol, better known by the nickname "Commander Red," was shot in the head last week by an unidentified sniper.

Smoke billowed Monday from tires set ablaze by protesters and, as night fell, sporadic gunfire could be heard in an area near the U.S. Embassy, which is now closed to the public. Men in black T-shirt and bandanas -- apparently members of the protest movement's increasingly unruly security force -- roamed streets carrying M-16 rifles.

The American Embassy, citing security concerns, called off a town hall meeting scheduled Tuesday for U.S. citizens and announced the session would be held online instead.

Negotiations aimed at settling the crisis, or at least avoiding a potentially calamitous armed confrontation, have been held on and off. But, after the collapse of a near deal, those talks now seem to have reached an impasse. Amid fears of a full-scale military assault, Red Shirt leader Nattawut Saikua telephoned the prime minister's office Monday and offered a truce, Thai media reported. The brief telephone conversation marked the first direct contact between the two sides since the latest round of violence erupted Thursday.

The government said earlier Monday that it was ready to talk but demanded that the protesters show "sincerity" by leaving their camps. The protesters said they, too, want talks, but demanded mediation by the United Nations, a condition the authorities swiftly rejected.

"There is brinkmanship on both sides," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "The government won't relent and pull back its soldiers, and the reds will not relent on their violence and rioting. . . . It could take a very bad turn for the worse."

The big worry now is that moderate voices on both sides have lost ground to hard-liners bent on a head-on collision that would probably lead to wider turmoil across this nation of nearly 70 million people. The stakes are also high in Washington, which has long viewed Thailand as a reliable ally and a model of successful economic development despite its repeated military coups.

Silent throughout the crisis has been King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand's widely revered but ailing 82-year-old monarch. When clashes between the military and pro-democracy protesters threatened chaos in 1992, the Boston-born king intervened and tempers quickly calmed. His failure to act now has led to questions not only about his health but also about the very future of the monarchy, a taboo subject in a country where strict lèse-majesté laws limit public discussion of the royal family.

The Center for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation, a government body overseeing efforts to restore order, broadcast demands Monday that protesters leave their encampments by 4 a.m. Eastern time. A small aircraft flew over a protest site dropping leaflets that offered a safe passage out of the area -- and threatened prosecution for those who remain. But, as the deadline passed, Red Shirt leaders vowed defiance from a stage bedecked with a big red banner reading, "Not Terrorists." Buddhist monks chanted prayers. Troops didn't advance.

Strewn with litter and increasingly short of supplies, the fortified protest zone has an increasingly forlorn and desperate air, cut off from the rest of the city by military checkpoints. Just outside the red zone, go-go bars opened for business as usual.

A big obstacle to any settlement, according to foreign diplomats and Thai analysts, is the passion stirred on both sides by Thaksin, the ousted former prime minister, who has helped rally and bankroll the Red Shirts from exile in Dubai. He commands wide support among protesters but is reviled by the government and its supporters as corrupt and recklessly ambitious.

Sakda, the protesting farmer, insisted, however, that he wasn't risking his life just for Thaksin.

"He's okay," he said, "but I'd still be here without him."

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