Thai Riots Grow Despite Appeal for Calm

Thai Riots Grow Despite Appeal for Calm
# 19 May 2010 21:43 (UTC +04:00)
Baku – APA. A crackdown on antigovernment protesters launched by the Thai military on Wednesday degenerated into riots, firebombing attacks, looting and street battles after militants allied with the protest movement resisted the army’s onslaught with grenades and assault weapons, APA reports quoting “The New York Times”.
As they retreated, protesters set fire to the country’s stock exchange and a number of buildings including a major shopping mall, two banks, a movie theater and a television station.
But the crackdown did not appear to have become the large-scale bloodbath that many had feared. By dusk the government said five people — including an Italian news photographer — had been killed and 52 injured, some critically.
Still, Bangkok, one of Asia’s most cosmopolitan cities, was brought to its knees. The government ordered a curfew for Wednesday night, the subway system remained shut and embassies told their citizens living across the sprawling metropolis of about 15 million people to stay indoors.
The leaders of the protest movement, known as the red shirts, who had roared into Bangkok on March 12 demanding fresh elections and calling for what they said was true democracy for the country, surrendered to the police on Wednesday afternoon to face charges of terrorism.
“We cannot resist against these savages anymore,” Jatuporn Prompan, one of the leaders, said on a stage inside the protest zone before turning himself in. He was booed by protesters who wanted to defiantly carry on.
“Please listen to me!” he pleaded to the crowd. “Brothers and sisters, I will use the word ‘beg.’ I beg you. We have to end this for now.”
On many days during the two months of protests, Mr. Jatuporn had worn a T-shirt with an image of Gandhi. But the resistance put up by some militants among the protesters was anything but nonviolent on Wednesday.
Soldiers assaulting the upscale neighborhood where protesters had been ensconced were repelled with grenades. One soldier said militants were firing the weapons from the high floors of apartment buildings in the area.
The crackdown began Wednesday morning when armored military vehicles that had massed in the pre-dawn hours outside the protester’s encampment rammed through barricades constructed with tires, bamboo poles and razor wire. After weeks of back-channel negotiations with the protesters, many of whom are followers of Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister ousted in a 2006 military coup, the government had lost its patience.
Infantry accompanied the armored vehicles into the protest zone, taking control of major roads as well as entering the city’s Lumpini Park, normally a rare oasis of green and tranquillity in Bangkok. On Wednesday a grenade landed in one of the park’s lakes, soldiers said.
Television footage showed soldiers opening fire at the backs of protesters running for cover.
A government spokesman, Panitan Wattanayagorn, said the first phase of the operation had been “successful.”
“We are going to focus on setting a perimeter,” Mr. Panitan said on television in the morning. “We would like to reassure the citizens, the residents of Bangkok, that the operations are designed to make sure we stabilize the area.”
Despite the army’s advances, inside the heart of the protester’s encampment, there was an odd sense of calm before noon Wednesday. One protest leader napped.
Protesters aimed fireworks at army helicopters flying overhead and launched traditional paper lanterns in an effort to try to disrupt the aircraft even as military trucks with loudspeakers warned protesters to leave the area.
Another protest leader, Weng Tojirakarn, a medical doctor and former communist activist, gave an interview to a reporter.
“I have no gun,” he said. “I can’t do anything.” But there were signs of the clashes to come. Some of those who called themselves guards behind the barricades were armed; one had a shotgun and another had an M-16 rifle. When a reporter pointed this out, Dr. Weng responded, “How can you compare a handmade shotgun with a tank?”
As troops approached anxiety spread through the protest zone, which was located in one the wealthiest neighborhoods in Bangkok and home to many corporate headquarters, high-end shopping malls, luxury hotels and high-rise apartment buildings.
Protesters aimed fireworks at army helicopters flying overhead and launched traditional paper lanterns in an effort to try to disrupt the aircraft even as military trucks with loudspeakers warned protesters to leave the area.

Another protest leader, Weng Tojirakarn, a medical doctor and former communist activist, gave an interview to a reporter.
“I have no gun,” he said. “I can’t do anything.” But there were signs of the clashes to come. Some of those who called themselves guards behind the barricades were armed; one had a shotgun and another had an M-16 rifle. When a reporter pointed this out, Dr. Weng responded, “How can you compare a handmade shotgun with a tank?”
As troops approached anxiety spread through the protest zone, which was located in one the wealthiest neighborhoods in Bangkok and home to many corporate headquarters, high-end shopping malls, luxury hotels and high-rise apartment buildings.
Thai news outlets reported that one of the more militant protest leaders, Arisman Pongruengrong, who is also a popular singer, fled the protest zone in disguise. Mr. Arisman made headlines last month when he evaded arrest by climbing from a window as the police raided the hotel where he was staying. He was captured Wednesday evening by the police and taken to a military base outside of Bangkok.
Around noon, seven protest leaders announced they would hand themselves in.
But they left on a defiant note. Standing on a stage amid the chaos, just before giving up, one of the leaders, Nattawut Saikua, shouted: “If the prime minister wants to govern the country on the top of this wreckage, he should go ahead and kill us all. But if he wants to do the right thing, he should stop the shooting immediately.”
The protest leaders entered the national police headquarters, which shares a wall with what was the protest encampment. They were later seen on television at what appeared to be a conference table inside the police building, without handcuffs.
Outside, the shooting intensified. Soldiers surged and retreated at the booming of grenades. Two protesters were killed.
And several journalists, who have paid a heavy price in this conflict, were shot or injured by shrapnel. An Italian news photographer was killed, according to Thai news media, and two foreign journalists and one Thai photographer were wounded.
One Western journalist was carried away on a stretcher from the chaotic protest area. “Keep breathing! Keep breathing,” yelled a man running next to the journalist, who appeared critically injured.
The soldiers stopped their advance but protesters fled anyway, leaving behind a scattered trail of personal items: slippers, pots of boiling soup, laundry on clotheslines.
Protesters fled so suddenly that the large generators that had powered the sound system and lights for the round-the-clock speeches were still running. Bullet casings were scattered on the ground, apparently from militant protesters. (Troops did not enter the area until hours later).
Protesters set fire to Central World, one of the largest department stores in Southeast Asia. Smoke was still billowing from the mall at dusk. Some protesters were seen carrying boxes of cellphones and other electronics, ostensibly from the mall. Looting was also reported in other parts of the city.
On Sukhumvit Road, a neighborhood popular with foreigners, several men wearing black doused tires with fuel and set them alight, creating a bonfire and blocking a major intersection. Bystanders gathered on the street corner and cheered, as police officers failed to persuade the men to stop.
Smoke also engulfed the Sheraton hotel on Sukhumvit when a fire was set outside the building.
Protesters attacked several news outlets, which they accused of bias.
One television station went off the air, displaying an image of a pink orchid for a while before going completely blank. Staff were evacuated, some by helicopter.
The Bangkok Post newspaper evacuated its staff from its offices. A Post editorial on Tuesday had said “the blame for the violence, the closure of schools, the end of normal life in Bangkok falls squarely on the shoulders of the leaders of the red shirts.”
Outside Bangkok, word of the crackdown spurred red shirts to action. Violence was reported in at least three northeastern provinces, the populous rice-growing area that is the cradle of the movement. Thai media reported that thousands of protesters attacked the city halls in three provincial capitals.
Mr. Thaksin, the former prime minister who is in exile, predicted the violence could spread, an analysis that could have been interpreted as self-serving.
“There is a theory saying a military crackdown can spread resentment and these resentful people will become guerrillas,” he told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location outside the country.
In Bangkok, as fires raged at a movie theater and shops were broken into in the neighborhood Siam Square, some protesters used a Buddhist temple to change out of their black protest uniforms and into other clothes.
One protester who fled said she felt let down by the leaders of the movement.
“Everyone feels that our leaders betrayed us,” said Wanpamas Boonpun, 39, a restaurant owner. “We want democracy. True democracy, free democracy. Why is it so hard, why?”
On television, the government sought to calm the situation, broadcasting a music video with images of Thai flags, rice paddies and the country’s king.
“We have to love each other,” went the lyrics to the pop song. “We want to see Thais loving each other again, just like we used to.”
Mr. Panitan, the government spokesman, addressed foreigners living in the country in a program at nightfall.
“Thai people are generally very friendly. We welcome foreigners,” he said. “This is very uncharacteristic of Thais.”
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