Red Shirts offer talks to end bloody Bangkok battles, as deadline to vacate protest is ignored

By Denis D. Gray, AP
Monday, May 17, 2010

Protesters urge peace talks to end Bangkok battles

BANGKOK — Thailand’s Red Shirts offered peace talks Monday to end raging street battles that have killed at least 37 people in Bangkok as a government deadline demanding the demonstrators vacate a protest zone passed without capitulation.

Helicopters buzzed over the demonstration site fortified with long wooden spikes and tires in the heart of the capital’s commercial district, dropping leaflets ordering anyone inside to leave immediately.

The dead from clashes that erupted last Thursday include the military strategist of the Red Shirts, who succumbed Monday to a gunshot wound from a sniper attack last week. Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdiphol’s death raised fears of new violence in this Southeast Asian nation, which has been wracked by political turmoil and violence since mid-March.

A luxury hotel was the scene of a heated pre-dawn gunbattle Monday and later closed its doors. Loud blasts reverberated outside the main protest zone through the night as sustained bursts of automatic rifle fire echoed through the once-bustling business and shopping area.

The political conflict is Thailand’s deadliest and most prolonged in decades, and each passing day of violence deeply divides in this nation of 65 million — a key U.S. ally and Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy. Thailand has long been considered a democratic oasis in Southeast Asia, and the unrest has shaken faith in its ability to restore and maintain stability.

The Red Shirts, many of whom hail from the impoverished north and northeast, say Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s coalition government came to power through manipulation of the courts and the backing of the powerful military, and that it symbolizes a national elite indifferent to their plight.

A Red Shirt leader, Jatuporn Prompan, said the only hope now to end the violence was intervention by Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Another protest leader, Nattawut Saikua, said the Red Shirts are ready to negotiate and to submit themselves to the courts.

Despite the conciliatory words, the Red Shirts also continued to insist they will not stop the protests until Abhisit orders a cease-fire. Red Shirt supporters were also seen gathering in other parts of the city, and in at least one place an activist used a loudspeaker to address a crowd of about 300.

The 82-year-old monarch, hospitalized since September, has remained publicly silent on the crisis unlike decades past when he stepped in to stop bloodshed.

According to government figures, 66 people have died and more than 1,600 have been wounded since the Red Shirts began their protests in March. The toll includes 37 killed, almost all of them civilians, and 266 wounded since Thursday in fighting that has turned parts of central Bangkok into an urban war zone.

“It’s time to return peace to the country. We are ready to move toward peace and the negotiations,” Nattawut said. “The more the situation goes on, the longer people’s lives will be in danger.”

“There is no use for gunshots to be heard in Bangkok right now, because the number of casualties would never bring victory to any side,” he said.

Nattawut also dropped a previous demand for the U.N. to mediate in the talks, saying the government can appoint a neutral body for the task.

However, the government stuck to its stand that the army will not pull back until the protesters stop attacking them. “Talks … must be based on an end to the attacks on the security officers,” government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said.

Rapid gunfire and explosions echoed before dawn Monday outside the luxury Dusit Thani hotel, located next to the protest zone, where the military has attempted since Thursday to seal in thousands of demonstrators camping in the downtown streets. Guests were rushed to the basement for safety.

Reporters at the scene said the gunfire came both from government forces and protesters holed up inside the encampment who appear to have stockpiled a sizable arsenal of weapons.

Authorities say they are not shooting to kill but only want to choke off the Red Shirts, who have occupied a 1-square-mile (3-square-kilometer) protest zone in one of Bangkok’s ritziest areas for weeks.

Soldiers have encircled the core protest site and cut off utilities to the area. Protest leaders told women and children with them to move to a Buddhist temple compound within the zone.

The areas between the site and the military’s perimeter have become a no-man’s land where gunshots and blasts can regularly be heard. The government says Red Shirt activists were creating trouble as far as 1 mile (2 kilometers) from their main protest site.

A previous army attempt to disperse the protesters on April 10 — when they had congregated in a different area of Bangkok — left 25 people dead.

The latest fighting started after Khattiya, a renegade army officer accused of creating a paramilitary force for the Red Shirt protesters, was shot by a sniper as he talked to journalists Thursday. Vajira Hospital reported he died early Monday.

The Thai government warned Monday the estimated 5,000 protesters barricaded within their “occupation zone” to leave by 3 p.m., saying anyone who remains there will be violating the law and will face two years in prison.

“Immediately vacate the area that is considered dangerous,” the government said in a televised announcement. “Terrorists are trying to cause deaths in the area.”

The announcement said buses will be provided to escort protesters out of their encampment and take them home.

Early Monday, several hundred army troops and heavily armed police were spotted in the Sukhumvit area, an upscale residential neighborhood popular with Bangkok expatriates. Roads were blocked to prevent traffic from traveling toward the protest zone, and many residents — unnerved by the uncommon sight of troops in Sukhumvit — were making plans to evacuate.

“People are either battening down the hatches and not moving out of the area, or they’re getting out of town,” said Debbie Oakes of Wellington, New Zealand, a four-year resident of Bangkok. She said she and her family were packing up to leave Bangkok and heading to the beach resort of Hua Hin, a three-hour drive away. By midafternoon, many stores in Sukhumvit had shut down.

Days of prolonged fighting and disruption to normal city life have taken their toll on Bangkok residents. Most shops, hotels and businesses near the protest area are shut and long lines formed at supermarkets outside the protest zone as people rushed to stock up on food. The city’s two mass transit trains remained closed Monday.

Associated Press writers Pamela Sampson, Thanyarat Doksone, Jocelyn Gecker, Vijay Joshi and Chris Blake contributed to this report. Additional research by Warangkana Tempati and Sinfah Tunsarawuth.

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