Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Thai Army Moves to Confront Protesters

Thai armored vehicles on Wednesday morning rammed through the barricades put up by antigovernment protesters, and infantry troops stormed into the protest zone, as the government moved aggressively against demonstrators who have occupied Bangkok’s central retail district for more than six weeks.

Troops took control of key roads as well as a large park in the protest zone. Television footage showed soldiers opening fire at the back of protesters, who were 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. “We would like to reassure the citizens, the residents of Bangkok, that the operations are designed to make sure we stabilize the area.”

Several fires raged around the protest zone, including what appeared on television to be a blaze engulfing a large block of buildings. The zone itself is among the wealthiest neighborhoods in Bangkok and includes many corporate headquarters, high-end shopping malls, luxury hotels and high-rise apartment buildings.One of the protest leaders, Weng Tojirakarn, appeared calm even as the operation was under way. “I have no gun,” he said in an interview inside the encampment. “I can’t do anything.”

But some of those who called themselves guards behind the barricades appeared armed, and one had a shotgun. When a reporter pointed this out, Dr. Weng, a medical doctor by training, responded, “How can you compare a handmade shotgun with a tank?”

At least two protesters and an Italian news photographer were shot dead, according to Thai news media, and two foreign and one Thai photographer were wounded.

Earlier, protesters aimed fireworks at army helicopters flying overhead and launched traditional paper lanterns in an effort to try to disrupt the aircraft, a photographer inside the protesters’ encampment said. Military trucks with loudspeakers warned protesters to leave the area.

Senator Lertrat Rattanawanit, a former general who tried to mediate the crisis late Tuesday, said negotiations had broken down because the protesters had “too many demands.”

“The government and military will surely disperse the demonstration in Ratchaprasong, and it will end today,” the senator said, referring to the commercial area of the protest zone. “But I cannot tell you what kind of damages and how many deaths there will be.”

When the demonstrations began in Bangkok in March, the protesters’ central demand was that the government step down and hold new elections, but the movement has splintered and the ultimate aims have become unclear.

Wednesday’s crackdown came after the Thai government rejected an offer for peace talks by demonstrators, calling their pleas for a cease-fire insincere and demanding that they disperse. “The only way to end this situation is to end the rally,” Satit Wongnongtoey, an aide to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, said before government forces moved in Tuesday.

Arisman Pongruengrong, a popular singer and one of the more militant leaders, was reported to have fled the protest zone in a 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. His escape was widely seen as emblematic of the ineffectiveness of government security forces in this crisis.

Entering the encampment, where thousands of protesters were behind barricades of sharpened bamboo poles, razor wire and tires, was a potentially treacherous operation. Among the die-hard protesters who remained late Tuesday was Sakhda Thongsa, a security guard who left his job to take part in the protests, and his daughter, Min, 5.

When she was asked whether she was scared, her father answered for her: “You’re not afraid, right? Fight! Fight!”

In a meek voice, though, Min contradicted her father: “I’m scared! I’m scared!” It was not known whether the girl and other children seen Tuesday were still there on Wednesday morning. A photographer inside the camp, Christopher Brown, said Wednesday’s crowd included many women and older people.

As troops massed outside the barricades, a military spokesman appeared on national television and accused protesters of “tarnishing the image of Thailand in the eyes of the world.”

Over the last five days, more than three dozen civilians and 2 soldiers have been killed, including a rogue general allied with the protesters, whose assassination set off mayhem. At least 300 people have been injured.

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