Thailand’s prime minister extends Bangkok curfew, says no polls until violence ends

By Eric Talmadge, AP
Sunday, May 23, 2010

Thai PM extends curfew; no polls until unrest over

BANGKOK — Thailand’s prime minister on Sunday extended a nighttime curfew in the capital and said he will consider early elections only after the violence that has wracked the nation for the past two months is completely over.

Elections are seen as a key step toward healing the deep divide that has split Thailand between supporters of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the so-called Red Shirts, who are made up mainly of the urban and rural poor and see Abhisit’s government as elitist and illegitimate.

The rift with the Red Shirts, who have strong support in the country’s north and northeast, came to a crescendo of violence after they occupied the heart of Bangkok, sparking a military crackdown that ended in a rampage of grenade attacks and arson at dozens of buildings, including the country’s stock exchange and biggest shopping mall.

In all, 85 people were killed in the violence — the worst the Thai capital has seen in decades.

Abhisit said in a weekly address that while he is still willing to call elections before his term expires late next year, he will not do so under the threat of violence.

He accused Red Shirt followers of planning further mayhem, although he stressed the government was in control and the capital has largely returned to normal after a final push by the military to clear the main protest site on Wednesday left 16 dead and more than 100 injured.

“It is now entirely up to me to see when is the most appropriate time to hold the election,” Abhisit said. “At the moment, no one can tell when is the best time. We don’t know what will happen next.”

Hoping to appease the protesters, Abhisit earlier this month offered to hold elections on Nov. 14. But the reconciliation plan fell through when Red Shirt leaders, who want him to resign immediately, made more demands.

All but two of the movement’s top leaders are now in custody, although no charges have been filed yet.

Many analysts believe the Red Shirts, who support ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, could cause unrest for years to come. Thaksin lives in exile after his 2006 ouster in a military coup and subsequent conviction on corruption-related charges.

He continues to cast a dark shadow over Thai politics, however.

Abhisit’s government took power in December 2008, not through an election but by a vote in Parliament, to fill the power vacuum after disputed court rulings ousted two elected pro-Thaksin governments.

Despite the political upheaval, there were increasing signs that the residents of Bangkok were trying to get back to normal routines.

Thousands of residents mobilized in cleanup squads to clear the streets of mountains of garbage and rubble left by the protests and violence.

“On my way here, I passed a lot of places that were either burned down or damaged. I was in tears,” said Ratwipa Saenyo, and 18-year-old student who with a friend was scrubbing stains from a burned billboard at a bus stop.

Schools, government offices and the stock exchange were to reopen Monday, and Abhisit said he will move back to his office from an army base where he had set up a temporary workplace during the unrest. The nighttime curfew, which was imposed on Wednesday, was extended through Monday, albeit for a shorter period, Abhisit said.

Further extensions would be considered on a day-by-day basis.

The city’s two main mass transit systems, the Skytrain and the subway, reopened Sunday after a week’s closure. But TAN Network, Thailand’s English language television, reported that cleaning operations were stopped after troops found 20 homemade bombs near a station.

Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said “generally it has been quiet” in the country, but added that there are “a few reports of people gathering” and sporadic incidents of violence.

He said a British citizen, Jeff Savage, was being questioned by police on suspicion he instigated some of the arson attacks, as reported by the British media.

“He admitted to newspapers that he was present at a few locations. Authorities want to question him under what condition he was there,” Panitan told The Associated Press.

The Times of London said Savage, 48, a long-time resident of the Thai beach resort of Pattaya, was caught on video saying he and others were going to burn down the CentralWorld shopping mall.

Savage told The Times he was not involved in the burning, but added it was common knowledge in the Red Shirt camp that CentralWorld would be burned.

Associated Press writers Thanyarat Doksone and Vijay Joshi contributed to this report.

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