By Andrew Higgins
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 20, 2010; A01
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."
An angry mob ignored the appeal for an orderly retreat and set fire to parts of Central World, an upscale nearby shopping mall, under the gaze of fashion models pictured on billboards advertising luxury clothing. Thick smoke billowed from the shopping center and from the Siam Theatre -- a popular movie house -- as well as a government-owned bank and other buildings. Rioters set fire to the Thai stock exchange, which had closed early because of the violence. Some protesters began setting up new barricades and fought running battles with soldiers.
The military eventually halted its advance on the center of the protest zone, saying it wanted to let people leave. The government said it had the situation under control but also declared that a curfew would go into effect Thursday. Dazed tourists struggled to get back to their hotels through military checkpoints amid sporadic rounds of gunfire. Electricity went off in residential areas far from the protest zone.
There also were reports of unrest elsewhere in Thailand, a popular tourist destination that touts itself as the "land of smiles."
Most of the trouble outside Bangkok occurred in northern regions, the main base of support for Thaksin, a billionaire former police officer who wants to return to Thailand and to power. In Khon Kaen, a major city, protesters torched the town hall. In another big northern city, Ubon Ratchathani, about 1,000 red-shirt sympathizers set fire to city hall, gutting it, a resident said.
Such incidents show that far from settling Thailand's deep political divisions, Wednesday's assault threatened to polarize the country further. The protesters first gathered in central Bangkok to try to force early elections to replace the government, which was chosen by parliament, not a popular vote. It took power from a government loyal to Thaksin, who was overthrown in a military coup in 2006. What began as a peaceful movement for change, however, became increasingly unruly as hard-line militants took up arms and protest leaders lost control of their own cause.
Although the government clearly won the battle this week, it now faces the more difficult task of winning what will probably be a long campaign to restore enduring calm and to prevent pockets of resistance coalescing into a threat that could jeopardize the entire country's stability.
In Bangkok on Wednesday, trouble spread beyond the "red zone" into Sukhumvit, a main thoroughfare usually clogged with foreign tourists. At Asoke, a major hub, red-shirt sympathizers set fire to tires outside a police station and blocked the street with buses. A crowd of bystanders cheered. A fire truck was chased away, leaving the fires to rage unchecked. They were later put out, and the crowd dispersed.
Jeremy King, a private fund manager and longtime British resident of Bangkok, said the onlookers' cheers signaled a surprising degree of "grass-roots support for the red shirts." But he was also surprised, he said, by "how quickly the crowd evaporated . . . and the fires were put out when the order came to stand down."
Special correspondent Nate Thayer in Bangkok and staff writer John Pomfret in Washington contributed to this report.