Rioting leaves Bangkok in flames after army troops smash protesters’ encampment

By Denis D. Gray, AP
Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Bangkok in flames after army storms protest camp

BANGKOK — Buildings blazed across central Bangkok early Thursday, torched by rioters after army troops routed anti-government protesters to end a two-month siege — Thailand’s deadliest political violence in nearly 20 years.

The government quelled most of the violence in Bangkok but not the underlying political divisions that caused it, and unrest spread to northern parts of Thailand.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva imposed a nighttime curfew in the capital and 23 other provinces and said his government would restore calm. Although leaders of the Red Shirt demonstrators surrendered, sporadic clashes between troops and remaining protesters continued well after dark.

Bangkok’s skyline was blotted by black smoke from more than two dozen buildings set ablaze — including Thailand’s stock exchange, main power company, banks, a movie theater and one of Asia’s largest shopping malls.

At least six people were killed in clashes that followed the army’s storming of the protest camp Wednesday. Witnesses said another six to eight bodies were in a temple where hundreds of demonstrators, including women and children, had sought sanctuary.

Since the Red Shirts began their protest in mid-March, at least 74 people — mostly civilians — have been killed and nearly 1,800 wounded. Of those, 45 people have died in clashes that started May 13 after the army tried to blockade their 1-square-mile (3-square-kilometer) camp.

While many of the rioters were believed to be members of the Red Shirts and their sympathizers, there was also an element of criminals and young hoodlums involved in the mayhem in the city of 10 million people.

The protest and violence in one of Southeast Asia’s most stable countries has damaged its economy and tourism industry.

With the top Red Shirt leaders in custody, it was unclear what the next move would be for the protesters who had demanded the ouster of the prime minister’s government, the dissolution of parliament and new elections. The protesters, many of them poor farmers or members of the urban underclass, say Abhisit came to power illegitimately and is oblivious to their plight.

The crackdown should silence the large number of government supporters who were urging a harder line, and the rioting that followed may extinguish the widespread sympathy many had for the protesters’ cause.

But that same violence also showed a serious intelligence lapse by the military, and the failure to secure areas of the capital raised doubt over how any unrest in the protesters’ heartland of the north and northeast can be stilled.

Many Thais feel that any short-term peace may have been purchased at the price of further polarization that will lead to years of bitter, cyclical conflict.

“The Reds rampaged and committed to armed resistance,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist from Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “Right now, they are just burning buildings, but later on, what if they picked up arms to fight the bureaucrats, security forces in other parts of Bangkok, and especially in the countryside? So this is just the beginning. The crackdown didn’t make them retreat fully. Things will get much worse still.”

Thitinan said the government will need to seek a political settlement. “The problem now is that who does the government talk to?” he said.

Some point to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup and fled into exile before being sentenced to two years in prison for corruption. The government has accused him of bankrolling the protests and refuses to make any deals with him until he comes back to serve his sentence.

The crackdown began soon after dawn Wednesday, as hundreds of troops with M-16s converged on the Red Shirts’ camp, where nearby high-end malls and hotels have been shuttered by the prolonged protest.

Armored vehicles crashed through barricades of piled tires and bamboo stakes, and soldiers then gradually moved toward the protesters’ hub, opening fire with live ammunition and drawing return fire from militant Red Shirts, according to Associated Press reporters at the scene.

Bullets flew and several grenades exploded near the soldiers, forcing them to pull back briefly before pushing forward.

Among the dead was an Italian photographer. A Canadian freelance reporter was wounded by shrapnel and a reporter for the British newspaper The Independent was shot in the leg. Two other journalists were wounded earlier — one Dutchman and an American documentary filmmaker.

The unrest spread outside Bangkok, with Thai media reporting that protesters set fire to government offices in the city of Udon Thani and vandalized a city building in Khon Kaen. Udon Thani’s governor asked the military to intervene.

TV reports also showed troops retreating after being attacked by mobs in Ubon Ratchathani, and more unrest was reported in the northern city of Chiang Mai, Thailand’s third-largest.

After protest leaders surrendered, their enraged followers scattered to other parts of the city to set fires, and some looting was reported.

One of the most striking images was gray smoke pouring from Bangkok’s landmark CentralWorld shopping mall. One of Southeast Asia’s largest shopping complexes, it measured 550,000 square meters (5.9 million square feet) and its total retail area was 1 million square meters (11 million square feet) — about twice as big as the giant Mall of America in Minnesota.

Firefighters trying to douse the flames at some of the buildings were forced to retreat for several hours because of gunfire.

Thailand’s stock exchange will be closed for the rest of the week after the building’s ground floor was set on fire, according to its president, Patareeya Benjapolchai.

She told the AP that the exchange, where about $600 million of shares change hands each day, may reopen Monday. The central bank, meanwhile, said all financial institutions in Bangkok, including commercial banks, would be shut Thursday and Friday.

Cabinet minister Satit Vongnongteay described the chaos as anticipated “aftershocks” of the crackdown.

Rioters also turned their rage on the local media, which has been accused of pro-government coverage. They attacked the offices of state-run Channel 3, setting fire to cars outside and puncturing water pipes that flooded the building.

“At Channel 3 need urgent help from police, soldiers!!!” tweeted news anchor Patcharasri Benjamasa. “News cars were smashed and they are about to invade the building.”

The building was set on fire, but its staff fled to safety. The English-language Bangkok Post newspaper evacuated its staff over fears of an attack.

Abhisit said in a televised address Wednesday night that troops had been given the go-ahead to shoot suspected arsonists. A 10-hour curfew took effect in Bangkok and other provinces at 8 p.m., and the government said army operations would continue through the night. Another announcement said captured arsonists and “terrorists” could face capital punishment.

It is the first time that Bangkok has been put under curfew since 1992, when the army killed dozens of pro-democracy demonstrators seeking the ouster of a military-backed government in a crisis now know as “Black May.”

“Tonight is going to be another worrisome night,” government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said.

Authorities also imposed a partial media blackout on local TV stations, saying all of them would have to show government-prepared bulletins.

Seven top Red Shirt leaders surrendered Wednesday, saying they could not stand seeing their supporters being killed.

“Brothers and sisters, I’m sorry I cannot see you off the way I welcomed you all when you arrived here. But please be assured that our hearts will always be with you,” Nattawut Saikua, a key leader, said as he was arrested. “Please return home.”

Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, another Red Shirt leader, said the movement would go on despite the day’s events.

“This is not the end,” he said. “It will spread further and the situation will deteriorate. Initially, independent mass movements in Bangkok and other provinces will begin, then riots will ensue. This will be done by individuals, not by protest leaders. The crowds will reunite soon.”

Associated Press writers Thanyarat Doksone, Chris Blake, Jocelyn Gecker, Vijay Joshi, Eric Talmadge, Grant Peck and Stephen Wright contributed to this report.

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