On Bangkok's Bloody Streets, a Crackdown Breaks Protests

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Adrees Latif / Reuters

An antigovernment Red Shirt supporter runs past burning tires near Bangkok's Victory Monument, May 18, 2010

Updated: May 19, 2010, 3:36 a.m. E.T.

With army tanks, troops and police moving into their rally site, Thailand's antigovernment Red Shirt leaders called an end to their two-month-long occupation of Bangkok's main commercial district on Wednesday afternoon and said they would turn themselves in to the police. Meanwhile, on the streets outside the protest area, gunfights still raged between armed Red Shirts and their sympathizers and government soldiers.

"We have tried our best for the sake of the country, but when we see so much death, it has to stop," said protest leader Nattawut Saikua as the 2,000 or so Red Shirts remaining at the main rally site shouted that they wanted to keep demonstrating. "I declare we are ending the rally at this site, but not our struggle," Nattawut said at about 1:30 p.m. Protest leaders said they would surrender at the police headquarters, which is inside the Red Shirt barricades at Rajaprasong, the three-square-mile area the protesters had occupied since April 3. As Nattawut spoke, witnesses at the rally site said police with riot shields were entering the area. Shortly afterward, explosions were heard near the main stage and plumes of black smoke rose over Rajaprasong.

As the army moved in, gunfights continued on the streets outside with one Italian journalist reported killed and three journalists wounded. In total, five deaths and 19 injuries had been reported by early afternoon. A Red Shirt street fighter was shot in the chest in the Klong Toey slum area where Red Shirts were burning tires and exchanging gunfire with soldiers. Government spokesman Panitan Wattanyagorn told a press conference that security forces were trying to minimize loss of life. At the main protest site at Rajaprasong most women and children had been moved into a Buddhist temple compound for safety.

The operation to disperse the protesters began after attempts to mediate a settlement by a group of Senators broke down. Onstage at the Rajaprasong rally this morning, where fewer than 5,000 protesters, many of them women and children, remained, Red Shirt leaders had told their followers that the troops were coming and that they should remain still and calm. Meanwhile, street battles still raged around the capital as Red Shirts outside the main protest area and their sympathizers burned tires and some buildings and exchanged fire with soldiers at checkpoints meant to choke off access to the main rally. TV footage showed Thai government armored personnel carriers rolling past makeshift bamboo fortifications along the perimeter of the protest areas.

Since April 14, when Thai army units surrounded Rajaprasong, street fighting has left 39 dead, including one soldier, and over 300 injured. On May 18, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on both the government and the Red Shirts to refrain from using force.

The Red Shirts are demanding the government dissolve parliament and call a new election. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva made an offer of early elections then withdrew it after 10 days when the Red Shirt leaders refused to end their rally. The two sides had been talking behind the scenes, with a group of state Senators serving as mediators. An aide to Abhisit said Tuesday that the government is open to the Senators mediating but that one person he described as the "mastermind" was interfering in the talks.

The mastermind in question was Thaksin Shinawatra, a former Prime Minister ousted in a coup in 2006 and who has opted to live abroad rather than serve a prison sentence on a corruption conviction. Many Red Shirts are loyal to Thaksin and want him back in power. Others have expressed broader goals of eliminating inequalities in society, reducing poverty and reining in the military. One Red Shirt leader, Charan Dittapichai, told the Krungthep Turakij newspaper on Monday that Thaksin was one of the chief financial backers of the protest.

Out on the streets, Red Shirt sympathizers appear to be a mix from Bangkok's lower classes, with many taxi drivers and motorcycle-taxi drivers among them. Some tougher street fighters are carrying a variety of weapons from, slingshots to homemade rockets, petrol bombs, pistols, assault weapons and M79 grenade launchers. There have also been reports of sightings of the "Men in Black": armed Red Shirts who may be paramilitaries or former members of the armed forces.

The confrontations between these frontline street fighters and the soldiers have been deadly, with the street fighters taking almost all the casualties. On May 17, Amnesty International accused the government of gross human-rights violations for shooting at "people who pose no threat whatsoever to the soldiers or to others. The government cannot allow soldiers to essentially shoot at anyone within an area it wishes to control." But photos in local newspapers have emerged of street fighters with guns and rocket launchers. The army has staked out areas where anyone who enters will be fired upon. According to Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd, a military spokesman, this was necessary because of the threat of Red Shirts hurling grenades.

Street fighters perched at conflict flash points are well aware of the killing zones, but remain undeterred. "Everyone here is willing to die," says Kraisak Khaopan, a day laborer from northeastern Thailand on guard on Monday at a ramshackle outpost by the Din Daeng expressway entrance. Kraisak's breath reeks of alcohol; his clothes and skin are black from the soot of burning tires. His six comrades, in similar condition and sprawled across the pavement, all agree with his brave pronouncement. They haven't eaten or slept in three days, Kraisak says. Some have iron bars, others have slingshots.

The soldiers are well protected behind sandbags and other fortifications. A few are in elevated sniper positions, firing heavy-caliber bullets at street fighters who appear to be more of a threat. How they can determine that through the black clouds and haze from the burning tires is a mystery. Consequently, they have been more likely to have killed Red Shirts who were lightly armed, or unarmed, prompting international condemnation and further incensing Red Shirt sympathizers.

What motivates the young men who entered the firing zone at Din Daeng to become street fighters is unclear. Kraisak says he wants a new election. Told that the government already promised a new election, he looks bewildered. One says he wants a new constitution, but he's never read the constitution. Others spout demands made by Red Shirt leaders as if reading from a script. No one speaks directly of injustices in Thai society or the fact that they have few opportunities amid the wealth so often flashed around them in the capital. Then again, these roughhewn men, some intoxicated, are perhaps not the most articulate bunch. "The Bangkok turmoil is just a small part of something that is happening in many parts of the world," wrote Chang Noi, a columnist for the Nation newspaper. "There are all sorts of people who in one way or another feel they are being left out."

The lone university student among the Din Daeng fighters, who only gives his name as Jiew, says all he wants is to join the other protesters at the main rally site. "But the soldiers won't let us go there," he says. A few minutes later, several Red Shirt motorcyclists speed past the burning tires toward Victory Monument and into the soldiers' zone. Victory Monument is a 50-m-tall obelisk commemorating Thailand's defeat of the French during World War II. It was victory that was short-lived: Thailand had to return all territory it had captured at the end of that world conflict. The attempt to reach Victory Monument is also short-lived. Shots ring out from the upper floors of a hotel. The bikers beat a hasty retreat. With blood already spilled and divisions in Thai society deepening, it is hard to imagine any real victory in this increasingly bitter conflict.