Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Thai Army captures main protest site, but rebellion spreads

Thai soldiers with armoured vehicles smashed through barricades and recaptured Bangkok’s main commercial hub from anti-government protesters on Wednesday, but faced a widening security challenge as bands of arsonists attacked government offices and media targets elsewhere in the city and in several north-eastern provinces.

An 8 pm to 6 am Thursday (1300 to 2300 GMT Wednesday) curfew was imposed in Bangkok and government offices were ordered to remain closed for the rest of the week. The mass transit Skytrain and subway services were also closed until at least Friday.

At least four people, including an Italian journalist, were killed during the army’s assault on demonstrators on Wednesday. Another 40 were wounded.

Leaders of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) — also known as the red shirt rebellion — surrendered to the police after armoured vehicles broke through barricades of rubber tyres and bamboo sticks on the periphery of the main Ratchaprasong protest site.

The site had been occupied since April 3 by protestors demanding the immediate dissolution of parliament and new elections.

“Just because we surrender to the authorities it doesn’t mean we have lost,” protest leader Jatuporn Prompan said just before surrendering at police headquarters. “We will fight again.” The surrender of their leaders failed to put a damper on the demonstrators, who went on a burning and looting rampage at the Central World shopping mall and nearby Siam Square.

The rioters burned the venerable Siam Theatre, the local Jor Sor 100 radio station reported, and then prevented firefighters from reaching the blaze.

Fires also were set at the Stock Exchange of Thailand and at Channel 3 TV on Rama 4 Road, which demonstrators had accused of bias in favour of the government.

As the station burned, employees were evacuated from the roof by helicopter.

The Bangkok Post and The Nation newspapers were also threatened with attacks by the red shirts. Both closed down their offices on Wednesday afternoon.

Power and mobile phone services were disrupted in some parts of the city and many residents were stocking up on food for what threatened to be an extended lockdown.

“The TV says people are panic buying, so I thought I’d better stock up before everything’s gone,” said Narinsuda Panthip, 24, as she filled her basket at a 7—Eleven convenience store in the northern suburb of On Nut.

Outside Bangkok, Thai television reported red—shirted protestors burned the city halls in the north—eastern provinces of Khon Kaen, Mukdahan, Ubon Ratchathani and Udom Thani and in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. Two protestors were shot dead in Ubon, TV reports said.

The five provinces were put under emergency law last Thursday, when the government announced an offensive against the UDD, in order to disperse them from their protest site at the Ratchaprasong intersection in Bangkok.

A total of 17 provinces, including Bangkok, are now under emergency rule, giving military authorities enhanced powers to crack down on the unrest.

The UDD has been holding protests in the capital since March 12, when it trucked in tens of thousands of followers to Bangkok from northern and north—eastern Thailand, the heartlands of the red shirt movement which is openly supportive of fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Mr. Thaksin was overthrown by a military coup in 2006 and fled the country to avoid a two—year prison term for corruption.

He has been widely reported to be funding the protests, motivated at least in part by a desire to recoup more than 1 billion dollars of his assets seized by a Thai court.

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