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Thai officials use a powerful visual to explain violence

Days after the Thai military launched an offensive to evict anti-government protesters from central Bangkok, the focus turns to cleanup and recovery.

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By Andrew Higgins
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 23, 2010

BANGKOK -- After regaining control of the Thai capital by force of arms, the military and government mobilized Saturday for a new battle that will help decide the outcome of the most tumultuous political struggle in Thailand's modern era.

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Among the weapons they deployed: eight Chinese-made AK-47 assault rifles, five rusty American rifles, a dozen grenades, a crossbow, an orange plastic bucket full of wooden slingshots and a membership card from a Las Vegas casino.

"The facts speak for themselves," said Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, speaking at a Bangkok infantry base during an exhibition of weapons and other items that the Thai military says it captured from vanquished "red shirt" protesters.

The display, put on for TV cameras and foreign diplomats, was part of efforts to answer a question crucial to this Southeast Asian nation's future: Why did an initially peaceful protest movement launched March 12 end Wednesday in a burst of violence that left at least 15 people dead and dozens of buildings -- including Thailand's biggest shopping mall, its stock exchange and an electricity company -- aflame. In all, 85 people, most of them unarmed civilians, died in clashes that started in April.

Aside from a nighttime curfew, charred buildings and military checkpoints, Bangkok appears on the way to recovery. But arguments over how the cosmopolitan capital of a democratic country became a war zone will frame politics in Thailand for years. The confrontation in Bangkok -- though far from the bloodbath many had feared -- has already created two irreconcilable, emotion-charged narratives. Which one prevails will shape which way the country goes.

The government and its supporters say military action was the only option against protesters who, though mostly unarmed, harbored a small group of militants bent on wreaking havoc. Red shirts and their sympathizers blame the violence on the government's decision to call in the army rather than accept demands for early elections.

"We found a large number of weapons that the terrorists used to attack officers and innocent people," the deputy prime minister said Saturday. Army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd said protesters had many more weapons than the motley collection on display. The rest, he said, had been taken out of the protest camp by "armed elements."

For the moment, the government has the upper hand in the argument: Most of the red shirt leaders have been detained; their television station, People's Channel, has been taken off the air; and Thailand's mainstream TV has been ordered to stick to the government's version of events.

"Propaganda works," said Viengrat Nethipo, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, who sympathizes with the red shirts. Having called in the army to battle "terrorists," she said, it is now "very important to show they had weapons."

Though outgunned on TV and bereft of leaders, opponents of the government are not silent.

Outside the studios of the defunct People's Channel, for example, a few red shirts gathered at the Red Cafe. Too Haankla, a clothing vendor and regular at the cafe, denounced the government for deploying the army and predicted further unrest unless it calls an election soon. Nearby, a journalist with the now-shuttered Red News handed out back issues to police guarding the entrance. Many police officers, she said, support the red shirts and also ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire and former police official now in self-imposed exile.

The government loathes Thaksin, whom it portrays as a power-mad crook. At Saturday's display of captured booty, the military showed what it said was a video made before the crackdown of Thaksin addressing protesters by video link and urging them to take to the streets "if anything happens."

When troops evicted protesters from their fortified encampment on Wednesday, arsonists set fire to at least four city halls in the north of the country, Thaksin's political stronghold, as well as buildings in Bangkok. This was not an explosion of spontaneous anger, Sansern said, but "had been well planned by people outside and inside the country."

Authorities also want to counter a view of the protesters as impoverished farmers and urban poor repressed by the country's elite, exemplified by Thailand's urbane, Oxford-educated prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva. Along with guns, bullets and homemade bombs displayed Saturday were dozens of credit cards, bank cards and the casino card.

Foreign diplomats who attended mostly voiced sympathy for the government's stand against the protesters, whose encampment had turned an upscale shopping and diplomatic district into a garbage-strewn jumble of tents, food stalls and barricades.

The Italian ambassador, Michelangelo Pipin, raised the death of Fabio Polenghi, an Italian photographer, in the clashes Wednesday, asking that Thailand "bring those responsible to justice." Suthep, the deputy prime minister, said the Italian had "died side by side" with a Thai soldier when both were struck by an M-79 grenade of the type used by protesters.

But as with most of what occurred Wednesday, the circumstances of Polenghi's death are far from clear. The Italians are looking into another allegation: that he was killed not by a protester's grenade but by a bullet, which hit him while he was running from a line of Thai soldiers.


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