Bangkok protest leaders surrender as curfew begins

Wed, May 19, 2010, 01:00

Thai authorities vowed to restore order after the forced surrender of anti-government protesters sparked riots across Bangkok during which mobs burned banks, shopping malls and the stock exchange.

The government imposed an 8pm. curfew in a third of the country and demanded all television stations run state programming. Reports of disturbances in northeast Thailand, where many of the demonstrators live, showed a widening social rift may thwart political reconciliation.

Today’s clashes killed six people, including an Italian journalist, and injured 58, according to a statement on the website of the Bangkok Emergency Medical Service.

Rioters set at least 25 buildings afire in Bangkok and northeast Thailand, including a luxury shopping mall and television news station. They torched a city hall in Udon Thani province and seized a government building in Khon Kaen.

“We will continue to fight for democracy; this is not our day,” Nattawut Saikuar, one of several Red Shirt leaders, said when he arrived at the police station in comments broadcast by TNN News.

“We have been trying to do our best for the country to be truly owned by the people.”

Security forces found weapons caches in the central Bangkok protest site occupied by demonstrators since April 3rd, prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said tonight.

He vowed harsh punishments for “terrorists” vandalizing the city among the red shirt protesters, who say his rule is illegitimate.

Police and soldiers may use guns to “prevent any action that will further destabilize the country,” Tarit Pengdit, director-general of the Department of Special Investigation, said.

Arsonists may face the death penalty, he said. Few cars traveled on Bangkok roads tonight as citizens heeded the curfew.

One fire in the city substantially damaged the stock exchange, Thamon Onketpol, an adviser to the governor of the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration, told Thai PBS television.

After the military crackdown, about 800 children, women and elderly protesters took shelter in a temple between two burning shopping malls. Gunfire crackled and explosions rocked the city into the night after protest leaders were escorted from the camp’s main stage to a nearby police station.

The Central World shopping mall was gutted by flames, fire official Narunart Boonkong said.

Street battles in the past week between security forces and demonstrators contributed to Thailand’s deadliest political turmoil in almost two decades.

The health ministry said eight people were hurt in clashes outside Bangkok.

Mr Nattawut and fellow activist Jatuporn Prompam told supporters from the main stage that they decided to surrender to avoid further bloodshed.

Foreigners should carry identification when travelling, government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said, vowing that security forces will provide stability and security during the night.

Television channels will switch to “special programs,” he said.

Exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, to whom many of the protesters express loyalty, said the decision to surrender prevented more casualties.

“I appreciate the Red Shirt leaders’ move to save lives by surrendering to police,” he said on his Twitter account. “I am so sorry for those who lost their lives and got injured.”

Mr Abhisit’s five-part proposal to end the national divide includes measures to safeguard the monarchy, address economic inequality, ensure an independent media, create a body to investigate political violence and assess ways to change the constitution and disputed laws.

Mr Thaksin, who was ousted by the Thai army in 2006, fled the country in 2008 before a court sentenced him to two years in prison for helping his wife buy land from the government while still in power.

Since 1946, when King Bhumibol Adulyadej took the Thai throne as an 18-year-old, Thailand has seen nine coups and more than 20 prime ministers.