In devastated Bangkok, residents join city workers in cleanup efforts

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
Monday, May 24, 2010

BANGKOK -- Armed with brooms, rubber gloves and a torrent of detergent, middle-class Thais took to the streets of central Bangkok on Sunday to remove the detritus of protests, reclaiming the city from their now-banished and despised "red shirt" country cousins.

The cleanup crew scoured anti-government graffiti off walls and swept streets clean of reminders of a nine-week protest movement that ended Wednesday in a blaze of bullets and flaming buildings.

The cleansing was also symbolic: a final purge of a red shirt occupation that had brought rice farmers and ill-shod residents of Bangkok's slums to the city's most upscale shopping district to press demands that the government step down and hold early elections.

"They wanted to destroy my city. I'm glad they're gone," said Maliga Agsombon, owner of a yoga health club.

She wanted to share victory in this battle. So, with two friends, she answered a call from Bangkok's municipal authorities for volunteers to join city workers in a festive cleansing. She swept up garbage along a wide boulevard near the still-smoldering carcass of a mall that used to promote itself as Thailand's "premier lifestyle shopping destination." Nearby, workers from Starbucks -- open for the first time in weeks -- served iced tea to camouflage-clad Thai soldiers.

With many of the protesters now back in villages and towns in the north and most of their senior leaders in detention, the remnants of the movement are beset by despair and bickering.

"We are finished. We lost everything," said Sean Boonpracong, a now-unemployed university lecturer and former resident of Herndon who had helped lead the red shirts, formally called the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship.

Boonpracong was captured at a checkpoint Saturday and interrogated by the military for eight hours before he was let go. He said that rather than solving the crisis, the government has further polarized the country and pushed it toward more violent clashes.

He estimated that 500 activists have been arrested across the country. Authorities have not specified the number of arrests.

On Sunday, the government extended for two nights the nighttime curfew imposed since Wednesday in Bangkok and 23 provinces. But it reduced the duration from eight to five hours, allowing go-go bars to reopen. Soldiers shot at a vehicle that was out after curfew near the airport, injuring three people, including a boy.

But the city was mostly calm after weeks of confrontation that left at least 85 people dead and dozens of buildings in flames. The crisis has badly dented but probably won't derail Thailand's booming economy: A growth target of about 7 percent for this year has been trimmed by a third.

Bhavinee Teerasawat, a civil servant who joined the cleanup, said she had felt lost in her own city after the protests spread.

To thank the army for driving out the red shirts, she bought a dozen pairs of underwear Sunday and gave them to soldiers manning a checkpoint. She said she has relatives in the military who have grumbled about wearing the same clothes for days on end.

"I wanted to express myself and support the army," she said. "Today, I wanted to do something useful."

Amid recriminations among the protesters over a decision to surrender as the army approached their camp Wednesday, Thailand's Eton-and Oxford-educated prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, said Sunday on TV that troops never intended to storm the protest encampment and that they merely wanted to push demonstrators back from a key traffic intersection.

Abhisit's elite pedigree -- so starkly at odds with the modest backgrounds of many rank-and-file red shirts -- has played into fear on all sides that Thailand is tilting toward class war. But the worst bout of political unrest since the founding of the modern Thai state in 1932 went far beyond simple antagonism between rich and poor.

The upcountry peasants who flocked to Bangkok were joined by foreign-educated intellectuals, former officials and -- via video link from an undisclosed location abroad -- a multibillionaire, ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The near-anarchy that gripped Bangkok last week has hardened a view widespread among the capital's wealthier residents that, no matter the election results, the nation's affairs are too important to be guided by people they consider unruly and ignorant.

Since the military's ouster of Thaksin's populist administration in 2006, his opponents have used judicial and other maneuvers to twice unseat elected governments they judged too close to the former prime minister.

Art Thanakhom, a government environmental officer who turned up Sunday to sweep the streets, said democracy sometimes has to be bypassed.

"Although they were elected, they used their power in a bad way," he said. "The army came here to make things right, to make things clear."

Special correspondent Nate Thayer in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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