BANGKOK, THAILAND — Thai troops punched into a downtown protest camp today, ending a five-week rally but failing to stop violent unrest spreading around the capital as a nighttime curfew was declared.
Leaders of the red-shirt protesters, who draw support from rural and working-class followers, surrendered to police in the early afternoon, when it became clear after a dawn assault that troops using armored personnel carriers and helicopters had taken control of the site.
The leaders told the crowd from a stage under an elevated train line that they were surrendering to avert further bloodshed. The announcement drew boos from some red shirts, though others held aloft photos of the leaders as they sat on the road.
But as the rally wound down, nearby department stores were set ablaze, part of a wave of arson attacks that have gathered pace in recent days. Across the city, pockets of resistance seemed to grow stronger as angry mobs torched buildings and tire barricades, sending black fumes into the sky. Fire trucks struggled to reach the scene, and gunfire and explosions echoed around neighborhoods where power supplies were cut. The stock exchange, a TV station, and banks were set ablaze.
Authorities said five people died in the takeover of the red-shirt camp. An Italian journalist was among the dead. Gunfights erupted around a park where militant reds were spotted. Troops advanced slowly into the barricaded site, a prime commercial district that once hummed with foreign tourists but has been turned into a vast squatter camp.
Government officials said on state television that the situation was returning to normal. A cabinet minister described the unrest as anticipated “aftershocks” and blamed “violent-prone protesters.”
Worst violence in years
But the clouds of billowing smoke on the horizon and sense of anarchy sowed fear among some residents. The political violence is the deadliest seen in Bangkok in nearly two decades, with more than 50 dead in six weeks. In recent days some neighborhoods have been evacuated.
“I don’t mind demonstrations, but this is rioting. We can’t go out at night, we fear robbery,” says Siriorn Doyle, a housewife, who peered out from her 10th-floor apartment at raging fires along a nearby road. She had to walk up the stairs as power had been cut off. Gas stations had been closed for days to stop protesters igniting homemade bombs, she says.
The red shirts, called the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, began gathering supporters in Bangkok on March 12 in a call for snap elections. Many UDD members are supporters of the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who lost power in 2006 to a military coup. They argue that Bangkok’s traditional elite and the powerful military have hijacked democracy.
After deadly clashes on April 10, negotiators thrashed out a peace plan that included a promise of elections in November. But the deal fell apart as UDD leaders failed to muster support for compromise and more radical voices came to the fore, including a renegade Army general, Khattiya Sawadispol. Last week he was shot by a sniper, the trigger for deadly clashes with soldiers who set up a cordon around the site.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a politics professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, says the red shirts should have accepted the peace plan offered by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Pro-UDD politicians were favored to win the election, as they have huge support in the countryside.
Moderate leaders “were ready to declare victory and go home,” he says. Opposition came from militants accused of fomenting violent attacks and the exiled Mr. Thaksin, who wants to return to power, he says.
Anusart Suwanmongkol, a conservative senator, says Thaksin had been the biggest obstacle to brokering a cease-fire. “In the end, whatever negotiators agreed upon they have to get the final approval” from him, he says.
Thaksin denies involvement
In a statement today, Thaksin denied that he was the mastermind behind the protests and said that he didn’t believe in violence, CNN reported. He also denied that he had meddled in the talks. “They did not demand anything for me or on my behalf. I am not UDD,” he said.
At an intersection south of the rally site, hundreds of people gathered at midday to watch burning tires in a near-deserted six-lane road and cheer as motorbike riders dodged gunfire from behind the black smoke. Residents said that Army snipers were hiding in an unfinished apartment block near the barricade of tires. Several shops were also burning.
A black pickup truck careered out from an ally and skidded to a halt at the junction. In the back were a dozen or so car and bicycle tires. Men wearing scarves to cover their faces and carrying radios circulated in the crowd.
Then, loud shots rang out, wounding a protester in the shoulder. As he was bundled into a pickup truck to take to hospital, explosives rent the air and gunfire erupted from both sides. The black smoke curled into the sky, shrouding the high-rise towers.