Mop-up operation in Bangkok under way


AS TROOPS hunted down the remaining anti-government protesters, Bangkok’s citizens came out of their homes, where they had hidden for safety during Tuesday’s violence, and gasped at the damage done to their city.

The Thai government said it had mostly snuffed out 10 weeks of violent protests in the capital. However, burnt-out buildings dot the streets of the capital and finding your way around is difficult because of road blocks and occasional ramshackle barricades of spare tyres that still smoulder.

The government response has been restrained considering that the city centre has been occupied for 2½ months, but there are deeper problems to be dealt with. Many Thais believe the country is being polarised, and that the ultimate price could be civil war.

A curfew has been imposed from 9pm in Bangkok and in other provinces where unrest has been reported. It will be continued for the next three days. However, the streets are largely empty, as people stay close to home – no one quite believes this is over. Die-hard protesters are still to be found in the city, but the impetus behind the fight has largely gone.

There are differing reports of casualties, but the official toll from the fighting on Tuesday is 15 dead and 96 wounded. The total death toll since the occupation began is probably 83.

Large parts of Bangkok are scorched by insurrection, piles of tyres smoulder beyond razor-wire perimeters where police and soldiers still monitor comings and goings to make sure no fresh supplies of weapons reach the Red Shirt resistance.

The list of buildings hit by arson attacks reads like a tourist guide to the city. Some 39 buildings were set on fire on the day of the riots, including the stock exchange, the main electricity provider and various banks, including a branch of the Siam City Bank. Top tourist draws like the Central World mall, Center One, Siam Theatre and Big C Rajdamri were so badly damaged that they may have to be demolished.

Red Shirt leader Veera Musigapong pleaded for an end to the violence, saying the course the struggle was taking would not help the opposition’s interests. “Anger is destructive and the advancement of democracy can never happen by being angry and vengeful,” he told local media.

He insisted that the Red Shirts were patriots who loved their country’s institutions and wanted to support democracy by demanding the removal of prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government and the holding of fresh elections.

Mr Veera was one of three more Red Shirt leaders who surrendered to authorities yesterday. Five leaders gave themselves up the day before and were flown to a military camp south of Bangkok for interrogation.

Once the Red Shirts stepped back yesterday, the violence that followed was carried out by a hardline faction, marked out by their black shirts.

On Tuesday, the violence appeared orchestrated, and many in Bangkok believe that ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was behind their actions. While Mr Thaksin is not loved in Bangkok – his power base is in northern Thailand – the exiled leader does have support among the urban poor in the capital.

Rumours swirl in the capital. Many say the Black Shirt hardcore rioters were made up of Khmer mercenaries from Cambodia. I witnessed one fighter with elaborate Khmer style tattoos on his neck and arms, but these are also popular in Thailand.

A group of police escorted more than 1,000 people – many of them women and children – away from a Buddhist temple in the heart of the former Red Shirt protest zone. Six bodies were found in its grounds. One woman died after an asthma attack during the melee.