Thai military breaks up red-shirt protests in Bangkok

Days after the Thai military launched an offensive to evict anti-government protesters from central Bangkok, the focus turns to cleanup and recovery.
By Andrew Higgins
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 20, 2010

BANGKOK -- A military offensive to reclaim Bangkok's commercial center from "red shirt" protesters created near anarchy in this cosmopolitan city Wednesday and appeared to shake the foundation of one of Asia's oldest and most prosperous democracies.

The assault by Thai soldiers forced anti-government protest leaders to surrender, but not before their enraged followers had set fire to Thailand's stock exchange, Southeast Asia's second-biggest shopping mall, a television station, banks and other buildings, and the disorder had spread to at least seven provinces.

The unrest has sparked alarm throughout Asia and in Washington, where officials already worried about Europe's economic woes are concerned that continuing violence could destabilize one of Asia's most important economies and a key U.S. trading partner.

Located in a tumultuous region, with Burma on one side and Cambodia on the other, Thailand has traditionally been an oasis of calm, better known to Americans for its beaches and temples, its pro-American military and its cooperation fighting drugs.

In an effort to contain the violence that erupted early Wednesday, the government imposed an overnight curfew on Bangkok and extended it to 24 of the country's 76 provinces. It also banned coverage of the unrest, except for government announcements, on local TV channels.

Protests have rocked Bangkok since March 12, when a movement of farmers backed by deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra descended on the capital. Deals to end the protests collapsed, and cease-fires fizzled.

At least five protesters and an Italian freelance news photographer, Fabio Polenghi, were reported killed in Wednesday's clashes, and about 60 people were wounded, including three other foreign journalists: an American, a Canadian and a Dutchman. But the Associated Press quoted witnesses as saying that at least six more bodies were recovered in the protest zone after the military assault. At least 80 people have died since the protests began.

Speaking on television, embattled Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said he was "confident and determined to end the problems and return the country to peace and order once again."

But Thaksin warned from exile that attacks on the protesters could spawn mass discontent and lead to guerrilla warfare, the Reuters news agency reported. "There is a theory saying a military crackdown can spread resentment, and these resentful people will become guerrillas," the agency quoted Thaksin as saying.

In an offensive launched at daybreak after days of escalating confrontation, armored vehicles smashed through barricades made of tires and sharpened bamboo poles while troops pushed deep into the protesters' encampment.

As they advanced toward the zone's center, protest leader Jatuporn Prompan announced that he and other "core leaders" would turn themselves in to police and pleaded with followers to leave the area to avoid further bloodshed.

"We have no more words to speak, because all your hearts are already far beyond death," Jatuporn said. "Today we will stop the death, but we will not stop fighting. People keep dying; let's stop the death together."

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