By Nate Thayer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 2010; 9:08 AM
BANGKOK -- With Thai soldiers bearing down on their encampment Wednesday, at least four key protest leaders fled into hiding while others said they would turn themselves in to authorities if the military halted its advance.
One of those who fled, Arisman Thongruangrong, shaved his head, donned a wig and slipped through government lines out of the protest zone. But he was soon arrested, said "red shirt" spokesman Sean Boonprasong. The government called on the public to help identify and turn in fleeing protest leaders.
Several other top leaders remained at a protest command center located next to a makeshift stage in the heart of what, in normal times, is Bangkok's main shopping district. In interviews, they said they were willing to surrender to Thai police if the army pulled back its troops. Jarun Ditapichai, a leader who stayed at the camp, said they had contacted the government to try to negotiate.
"If the army stops, we will stop. The leaders . . . will report to police," he said. But he added that many protesters, who numbered about 3,000, including women and children, "don't want to go."
Thai security forces started their advance into the protest camp early Wednesday. Boonprasong, the spokesman, said Arisman, the leader who fled in a wig, left because he "was the biggest target for feared assassination."
As government troops advanced into the red shirt zone, heavy gunfire punctuated Bangkok's main commercial, tourist and embassy district. Protesters set fire to gasoline-doused tires, blackening the skyline.
Several red shirt security guards were killed in the army's advance. "Now many will go underground," Boonprasong said. He acknowledged that protest leaders do not have control over violent elements within their ranks.
"Nobody is in control," he said. "We have no control over them. But they fought back when the army tried to disperse us and we are grateful."
Boonprasong said he expected the army to arrive "within minutes" at the red shirt headquarters stage. " I am afraid it is beyond a political solution," he said. "We are beyond the point of no return. I am afraid of civil war."
Boonprasong, who is on a government arrest list, added, "I am somewhat scared. I would be lying if I said I wasn't."
Heavy gunfire and explosions could be heard down the street from the main location as acrid smoke rose over downtown skyscrapers. But several thousand protesters remained defiant in the demonstration zone.
"I have only my hands to fight back with. They can shoot me," said Chew, 52, as she walked alone near the encampment.