Thailand restores fragile order with military presence and curfew after unrest

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
Friday, May 21, 2010

BANGKOK -- After a frenzy of shooting, arson and looting, authorities in Thailand imposed a jittery order Thursday, turning the center of the vibrant capital into an armed camp and extending for three days a nighttime curfew there and in other parts of the country convulsed by unrest.

In Bangkok, a cosmopolitan metropolis of more than 9 million people, the relative calm was punctured only by occasional gunshots. Just a day earlier, the city had teetered close to anarchy after a military assault to dislodge "red shirt" protesters killed 15 people and injured more than 100, including 10 journalists. On Thursday, an army truck drove through the vanquished protesters' encampment, blasting a 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 people from the provinces, gathered nearby in the courtyard of the national police headquarters to await screening and 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, Bangkok and 22 other provinces -- out of 76 -- are under a nighttime curfew.

With most of the protest movement's top leaders 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. Three moderate protest chiefs who had avoided arrest Wednesday were taken into custody. One, Veera Musikapong, a key figure in fruitless peace negotiations with the government, later used a televised statement to call for calm on all sides.

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

In streets scattered with wreckage, soldiers set up scores of checkpoints and, fearful of booby traps, moved gingerly through tents abandoned by protesters. The army said it found a cache of weapons and explosives, as well as six bodies at a Buddhist temple near the center of the protest.

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

The country, a key military and economic partner of the United States, seems to have pulled back from the brink but is 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 ailing, and he has remained silent since the crisis began in March when protesters first occupied part 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.

As Thailand counted the economic costs of more than two months of political turmoil, which hammered the tourism industry and spooked investors, dozens of police officers stood guard Thursday outside the charred entrance of the country's now-closed stock exchange. Workers swept up incinerated documents and broken glass.

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

"We can immediately fix the roads," Bangkok's governor, Sukhumbhand Paribatra, said on 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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