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After day of violent frenzy, relative calm returns in Thailand

By Andrew Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2010; 2:58 PM

BANGKOK -- After a frenzy of shooting, arson and looting, authorities in Thailand imposed a jittery order Thursday, turning the center of one of Asia's most vibrant cities into an armed camp and extending for three days a nighttime curfew in the capital and other areas of the country convulsed by violent unrest.

Punctured by sporadic gunfire, relative calm returned to Bangkok, a cosmopolitan metropolis of more than 9 million people. Just a day earlier, the city had teetered close to anarchy following a military assault to dislodge "red-shirt" protesters. On Thursday, an army truck fitted with big loudspeakers drove through the vanquished protest encampment, blasting a syrupy pop song rhapsodizing national unity.

As firefighters hosed the smoldering ruins of Thailand's biggest shopping mall, hundreds of defeated red shirts, many of them poor folk from the provinces, gathered nearby in the courtyard of the national police headquarters to await screening and government-organized transport back home.

"I'm happy to be going home, but I'll be back next time," said Dee Munti, a rice farmer from the northern region of Udon Thani, a hotbed of anti-government sentiment that, like Bangkok, erupted in violence Wednesday. Udon Thani is one of 23 provinces -- out of a total of 76 -- now under a nighttime curfew.

With most of the protest movement's most prominent leaders now in detention at a military base south of Bangkok, security forces hunted down other figures suspected of giving financial or other support to the red shirts. In the slum district of Khlong Toei, police searched for the head of an education charity who had spoken out against the government. She had already gone into hiding, said an aide.

Three moderate protest chiefs who had avoided arrest Wednesday were taken into custody. One of them, Veera Musikapong, a key figure in fruitless peace negotiations with the government, made a statement on television after his arrest and called for calm on all sides.

"We cannot build democracy with anger and revenge," he said.

In streets scattered with the wreckage of Wednesday's mayhem, soldiers set up scores of checkpoints and, fearful of booby traps, moved gingerly through tents abandoned by protesters. The army said it uncovered a cache of weapons and explosives. It also found six bodies in the grounds of a Buddhist temple near the center of the protest area.

Police rounded up looters, including a skinny young man in a dirty T-shirt who was caught Thursday outside a ransacked luxury boutique with four designer bags.

Wednesday's military operation killed 15 people and injured more than 100, including 10 journalists. This was far fewer than many had feared but still triggered widespread and violent fury in a country best known abroad for its Buddhist temples, tropical beaches and raunchy night life.

A key military and economic partner of the United States, Thailand seems to have pulled back from the brink but is now more divided than perhaps at any time since it became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

The country's king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, is widely revered as a unifying figure. But he is 82 years old and ill in a hospital, and he has remained silent throughout a crisis that began in March when protesters first occupied a section of Bangkok.

After Wednesday's crackdown, more than 30 Bangkok buildings were torched. Elsewhere, at least four city halls were burned to the ground, all of them in the north of the country, the political base of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire businessman who was ousted by the military in 2006.

"If buildings get burned down, you can build them again. But you can't rebuild a person who gets killed," said Missjiab Adama, a red-shirt activist from the north who spent two months in the Bangkok protest zone. After registering with police, he and his wife waited Thursday for a bus back home.

Battling not only to restore order but also their own reputation, authorities pointed to the chaos in Bangkok and elsewhere as proof that the government had to act.

"It was an organized crime, organized terrorism," said government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn.

As Thailand counted the economic costs of more than two months of political turmoil -- which hammered the tourism industry, paralyzed Bangkok's main shopping district and spooked investors -- dozens of armed police in flak jackets stood guard Thursday outside the charred entrance of the country's now-closed stock exchange. Workers swept up broken, smoke-blackened glass and incinerated documents.

The most difficult task, however, will be repairing less-visible damage.

"We can immediately fix the roads," Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra told Thai television. "But we do not know how long it will take to fix the wounded hearts and minds of the people."

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