Thai soldiers advance on 'red shirt' protesters' encampment in Bangkok

Thai troops opened fire at a fortified encampment of anti-government protesters in central Bangkok Wednesday. It came amid reports of a final assault on the area the protesters have occupied for weeks. (May 18)
By Andrew Higgins
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 19, 2010

BANGKOK -- After weeks of escalating confrontation, soldiers backed by armored vehicles deployed in force early Wednesday in the center of the Thai capital, moving toward the fortified encampment of anti-government protesters entrenched behind bamboo barricades in this modern Asian metropolis.

The operation, which also included armed police, appeared to mark the start of an attempt by Thai authorities to dislodge "red shirt" protesters from an upscale shopping and diplomatic district and end an increasingly volatile standoff in the heart of Bangkok.

But a government spokesman suggested that the military was not making a final push to evict the demonstrators. Panitan Wattanayagorn said that the operation's goal was to tighten the security cordon and that it would take the rest of the day.

Troops armed with American M16 rifles skirmished with militant elements of what began more than two months ago as a peaceful protest movement. Clouds of tear gas and smoke from burning tires drifted over a garbage-strewn boulevard leading to the heart of the red shirts' zone. Gunfire crackled and helicopters clattered overhead.

Troops broke through a barricade in the south of the territory occupied by the protesters but by mid-morning had not pushed into the core of the zone. Protest leaders called on their followers to stay put. At a stage decked with a banner reading "Not Terrorists," protesters sang a Thai folk song called "No Problem."

An estimated 3,000 people, including women and some children, remained inside the protesters' encampment, and a full-scale operation to force them out would carry grave risks for America's closest ally in Southeast Asia. Heavy casualties would likely only stoke political passions further and could escalate Thailand's worst crisis in decades.

Initial casualties appeared to have been modest, with news agencies reporting at least eight people injured.

The stakes are also high for Washington, which risks severe embarrassment if the military push produces major bloodshed. The United States has long-standing and intimate relations with Thailand's armed forces. The two countries hold regular joint exercises, the most recent of which, a naval exercise off the Thai coast, began late last week -- just as the Thai authorities declared parts of Bangkok a "live firing zone."

Approaching red shirt territory, soldiers beefed up their presence on a street where a billboard advertising BMW cars declared, "Joy is here, there and everywhere." Soldiers also took positions outside the U.S. Embassy, on the edge of protester territory, and moved on foot along an elevated rail line over the center of the camp.

Red shirts first moved into the capital nine weeks ago to press demands that new elections be held to replace a government they denounce as undemocratic. Since then they have steadily expanded territory under their control, paralyzing the center of a capital city of more than 9 million people. As troops moved in last week to choke off supplies to the protest area, militant elements took up arms and fought running battles with the Thai military in which at least 39 people have been killed.

Kobsak Sabhavasau, a senior aide to Thailand's Oxford-educated prime minister, said on Thai television that the government was still open to negotiations, but only if the protesters withdraw first. "I believe it is not too late," he said. His remark suggested that the government still wanted to avoid an all-out offensive and was ratcheting up pressure the protesters in the hope that the protesters might finally pull back.

Washington, in public comments, had tried to remain aloof from what it termed a domestic political crisis. But behind the scenes, U.S. diplomats in Bangkok worked to find a peaceful settlement. They held informal talks with both government officials and red shirt representatives, diplomats familiar with the discussions said. It was not clear whether the United States was informed beforehand of the Thai military's advance Wednesday.

Nate Thayer contributed to this report.

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