At the abandoned rally site, firefighters aimed hoses at the smoldering ruin of a shopping mall, a favored spot for New Year countdowns in the capital. It was one of more than 20 locales targeted by arsonists inspired or led by the antigovernment red shirts. Similar attacks flared in cities north of Bangkok, where curfews were also declared.
Two more red-shirt leaders surrendered today to police and will face criminal charges for their role in the protests, which have paralyzed parts of Bangkok for more than two months. The leaders and more than 50 protesters have been detained at a southern military camp under an emergency law in place in the capital and 23 other provinces, according to Thai media.
But many of the shadowy gunmen blamed for attacks on security forces and rival protesters melted away Wednesday, say witnesses. Troops were slow to sweep the site after making a rapid advance from its southern perimeter with a dawn attack on red-shirt barricades.
Fear and defiance
As gunshots rang out, at least 2,000 red shirts bedded down Wednesday at a Buddhist temple behind the torched mall. They were evacuated Thursday, as troops continued their mop-up operation. Many demonstrators had arrived from the rural north and northeast and are supporters of the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
In the north and northeast, mobs set fire to several government buildings in what appeared to be preplanned revenge for the crackdown. But they didn’t galvanize much support in cities like Chiang Mai and quickly began to fizzle, says Paul Quaglia, executive director of PSA Asia, a security consultancyin Bangkok, speaking from Chiang Mai.
“We’re not out of the woods, but we’re not looking at widespread, sustained unrest,” he says, arguing that the arrest of key leaders could prevent the movement’s “militant crust” from regrouping.
On roads to the rally site, husks of burned tires scarred the tarmac. Troops in armored vehicles searched cars leaving the area, as residents emerged to assess the damage from a week of mayhem that turned parts of Bangkok into a war zone and trapped some families inside for days.
At the temple, evacuees expressed defiance, relief, and trepidation. Some walked out with only the clothes on their backs. Others carried straw mats, electric fans, and towels. “If everyone dies, it’s no good. This is OK,” says a soft-spoken man who only gave his nickname Kung.
A wiry man crouching behind a car said he was afraid to surrender to security forces. Others cried in frustration as they were led toward lines of mostly unarmed police supervising the exodus and checking for weapons. Military officials have said that assault rifles and grenade launchers were recovered during Wednesday’s operation.
At the back of the temple, six corpses were laid out on a garden path beside a row of sculpted elephants. A medical official said that they had died of gunshot wounds. Some protesters claimed that unknown gunmen had fired Wednesday night into the temple grounds, possibly from an elevated walkway. But it was also possible that the victims died in the street outside.
Amid the somber mood, one demonstrator was upbeat as he walked out into the morning sunshine. “For me, this is a win,” says Panya Rujeamsilp, a fish vendor from Bangkok, adding that the nonstop protest had drawn more attention to their cause.
The red shirts, known as the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), called for snap elections in Thailand, which has been roiled by political turmoil since 2006. An election is likely to return a government allied to Mr. Thaksin, the former premier.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva offered to dissolve parliament in late September, paving the way for a November election. But UDD leaders rejected the proposal, part of a reconciliation package. Mr. Abhisit, who must call elections by December 2011, hasn’t said if he would stick to this timetable after ordering the crackdown.
Duncan McCargo, an expert on Thailand at the University of Leeds in Britain, says it is hard to imagine a quick return to parliamentary politics after the recent upheaval. But he warns that early elections may not end the crisis, as rival yellow-shirt protesters oppose any restoration of Thaksin’s influence.
“The big fear is that whoever wins the election will face some repetition of the 2008-2010 protest cycle, since neither red shirts nor yellow shirts will accept the legitimacy of the other’s position,” he writes in an e-mail.
Security officials say the string of arson attacks was organized and that black-clad gunmen had stopped firefighters from tackling at least one blaze. In some attacks, looters also cleared out stores and bank ATMs.
Last month, Nattawut Saikua, a UDD leader, encouraged poor protesters to loot malls in the event of a crackdown. “When we are panicked, we will smash glass windows of these luxurious shopping malls and run amok inside,” he said, according to Human Rights Watch.
Kung, the protester at the temple, said he didn’t take part in any looting but had little sympathy for store owners. “People don’t have money. Do you understand?”