Southeast Asia Bureau Chief
Jason's Feed
May 20, 2010

Uneasy peace in Thailand, uncertainties lie ahead

BANGKOK, May 20 (Reuters) – Thai authorities restored order
in Bangkok on Thursday but a ceasefire looked fragile, a day
after rioting and fires that veered towards anarchy as troops
took control of a camp occupied by anti-government protesters.

The mostly rural and urban poor “red shirt” protesters had
deserted their once-barricaded rally site in central Bangkok.
Hundreds who had taken refuge in a temple were coaxed out by
police. Six bodies were found inside.

May 20, 2010

Shots fired in Bangkok after day of violence

BANGKOK, May 20 (Reuters) – Thai soldiers fired into the air on Thursday as they approached a temple in Bangkok where several hundred anti-government protesters sought shelter after troops dispersed them a day before and their leaders surrendered.

A Reuters reporter said there were at least six bodies at the site, which appeared to have been there some time.

Fires were still burning in central Bangkok after an overnight curfew that followed a day of riots and arson by the "red shirt" protesters in which health officials said at least seven other people were killed. Local television channels, under government orders, were showing only approved programmes.

The Erawan Emergency Medical Centre said 81 people were wounded in the fighting at the protesters’ main camp in the commercial heart of the capital and in skirmishes around the city of 15 million. The mostly rural protesters had taken over parts of Bangkok over two months ago.

It was uncertain whether Wednesday’s rioting represented a final outpouring of protesters’ anger or whether it would intensify in days ahead, as there remains no political solution to the long running divisions in Thai society. [ID:nSGE64I0OI] [ID:nRISKTH]

"We can immediately fix the roads but we do not know how long it will take to fix the wounded hearts and minds of the people," Bangkok Governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra told local television. <^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

For full coverage, click on [nTHAILAND]

Reuters Insider on Thai crisis link.reuters.com/cuq74k

For a live blog: link.reuters.com/hyr54k

For a graphic related to the story, see:

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The red shirts want fresh elections, saying Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva lacks a proper mandate after coming to power in a controversial parliamentary vote in 2006 with tacit military support. Abhisit last week withdrew an offer of fresh elections.

Some political analysts said Thailand’s future stability now rested squarely with Abhisit — he must set a timetable for elections, release some moderate protest leaders and reach out to disaffected rural people in the country’s north.

"He will have to take risks that threaten his interests and that of the key elite constituencies that support him. A much harder line over the next few months will satisfy his core base, but worsen the political outlook," said Roberto Herrera-Lim, Asia director of the Washington-based Eurasia Group.

RAN IN FRIGHT

A Reuters photographer said the protesters at the temple, including many women and children, ran in fright at the sound of the gunshots.

An Erawan official said she was aware of nine bodies reported to be in a temple inside the protest site, but rescue workers had so far been unable to get there.

The authorities said late on Wednesday that 27 buildings were set on fire by protesters, including Central World, Southeast Asia’s second-biggest department store complex, which was gutted and looked close to collapse.

A spokesman for Bangkok’s governor reported 31 fires burning around the city on Thursday morning, around half at banks but also at a mall in the protest camp area, where a blaze had been started around midnight, after the curfew started at 8 p.m. (1300 GMT).

A small fire was started in the stock exchange on Wednesday. The market will be closed on Thursday and Friday and the Bank of Thailand said banks around the country would also stay shut. The whole week has been declared a public holiday in an effort to keep people out of central Bangkok.

The curfew in the capital, in the grip of protests by "red shirt" activists for weeks, was lifted at 6 a.m. (2300 GMT on Wednesday). Buses began running but it was unclear if the mass transit rail system would be reopened.

Television channels have been ordered to only air sanctioned programmes, broadcasting images of bulldozers pushed aside tyre and bamboo barricades as workers in trucks, under the protection of troops, cleaned up the protest camp site.

A single "red shirt" flag in the rubble flew limply in the morning breeze until it was crushed by a bulldozer.

Authorities imposed the curfew on 24 provinces — about a third of the total — after outbursts of unrest in seven regions, particularly in the north, a "red shirt" stronghold. Town halls were set alight in three northern areas.

The "red shirt" protesters are mostly drawn from the rural and urban poor and largely back former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist tycoon who was ousted in a 2006 coup and now lives in self-imposed exile to avoid a jail term for graft.

They started demonstrating in mid-March, demanding that the government step down and new elections be held. More than 70 people have been killed and nearly 2,000 wounded since then.

Thaksin said the crackdown could spawn guerrilla warfare.

"There is a theory saying a military crackdown can spread resentment and these resentful people will become guerrillas," he told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.

Early this month, Abhisit offered an election in November, just over a year before he needed to call one, but talks foundered and that offer is now off the table.

"In many places, armed elements have prevented officials from helping the people," Abhisit said in a televised statement late on Wednesday, adding he was determined to end the unrest and "return the country to peace and order once again". (Additional reporting by Ambika Ahuja and Nopporn Wong-Anan; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)



May 20, 2010

Bangkok under curfew after fresh violence

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thai troops fired into the air on Thursday as they approached a temple where several hundred “red shirt” protesters had sought shelter after security forces dispersed them a day before and their leaders surrendered.

Fires were still burning in central Bangkok after an overnight curfew that followed a day of riots and arson in which health officials said at least seven people were killed.

May 18, 2010

Thai government dismisses talks to end deadly protests

BANGKOK (Reuters) – The Thai government dismissed proposed peace talks on Tuesday to end a nine-week crisis that has killed 67 people and threatened to tear the country apart, calling on thousands of anti-government protesters to disperse.

As the prospects for official talks unraveled, fighting erupted again in the Din Daeng district north of a Bangkok shopping area occupied by about 5,000 protesters whose leaders say they are willing to fight to the death to topple Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

May 18, 2010

Worst may be yet to come in deepening Thai crisis

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Five days of chaotic street fighting. A rising death toll. Unrest spreading to rural heartlands. A prime minister who won’t back down. Protesters willing to fight to the death.

Thailand’s political crisis has lurched from festive anti-government rallies in March to violent gun fights in April to full-scale urban warfare in May, but experts say the worst may be yet to come as thousands of troops struggle to restore order.

May 16, 2010

Thailand toughens stand against spiralling protests

BANGKOK, May 16 (Reuters) – Thailand took a tough stand against thousands of anti-government protesters on Sunday, rejecting demands for U.N.-supervised talks and calling on their leaders to surrender after deadly clashes with troops.

Hardline comments from the Thai government doused hopes of a compromise to end three days of chaotic fighting that has killed at least 29 people, all civilians, and wounded 221, trapping residents in homes and raising the risk of a broader conflict.

Nattawut Saikai, a protest leader, called for a ceasefire and U.N. moderated talks. "We have no other condition. We do not want any more losses," he told supporters.

But the government swiftly dismissed the offer. "If they really want to talk, they should not set conditions like asking us to withdraw troops," said Korbsak Sabhavasu, the prime minister’s secretary-general.

As fighting raged in two areas of the city of 15 million people, residents hoarded food at supermarkets, stayed indoors or fled to escape neighbourhoods transformed into battlegrounds.

"Rejection of any ceasefire talk is very ominous," said political scientist Vienrat Nethito at Chulalongkorn University. "This pretty much guarantees fighting will continue and the city will be even closer to the brink of civil war."

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The most severe fighting took place in the Bon Kai area of Rama IV, a major artery to the business district. Troops and snipers fired semi-automatic weapons as protesters hurled petrol bombs and burned walls of kerosene-soaked tyres to camoflauge themselves.

One protester was shot in the head by a sniper, a Reuters witness said. By afternoon, as clashes intensified, a grenade was tossed at troops, who responded with gunfire, the witness said.

Some wounded protesters were taken to hospital on the back of motorcycles, witnesses said, as medical rescue workers were either blocked by the military or too scared to enter the scene of clashes after two medical workers were killed in the clashes.

Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn called on protest leaders to surrender and end the protest immediately. "We will move forward. We cannot retreat now," Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said in a televised statement, encapsulating the government’s mood.

PUBLIC HOLIDAY

Monday and Tuesday were declared public holidays, but banks and financial markets would remain open.

Analysts and diplomats said the military appears to have underestimated the resolve of thousands of protesters barricaded in district of luxury hotels and shopping malls for six weeks.

Some women, children and the elderly are trickling into a nearby Buddhist temple for safety. The government is seeking cooperation with protest leaders to dispatch Red Cross workers and other human rights volunteers to persuade people to leave.

"We will not flee," Jatuporn Prompan, a protest leader, told supporters in their 3.5 sq-km (1.2 sq-mile) main protest site where at least 5,000 remain, including women and children, are barricaded behind walls of tyres, poles and concrete.

Abhisit briefly threatened to impose a curfew, a rare and jarring event for a city known for raucus nightlife, saying it could help isolate the area.

The mostly rural and urban poor protesters, supporters of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, accuse the military-backed government of colluding with the royalist elite and meddling with the judiciary to bring down previous Thaksin-allied governments.

The government declared a state of emergency in five more provinces as fighting showed signs of spreading to the north and northeast, a Thaksin stronghold home to just over half of Thailand’s 67 million people.

In Ubon Ratchathani province, protesters burned tyres on several roads. One group tried to break into a military compound but were forced back by warning shots into the air. Emergency decrees are now imposed in 22 provinces.

Thousands of protesters were massing in a separate area in working-class Klong Toey area near the fighting on Rama IV. A new protest site would vastly complicate attempts to end the protests and resolve a crisis that has battered the economy.

Five journalists have been shot, though one escaped unwounded because the bullet deflected off his flak jacket.

ONE-SIDED BATTLE

As Bangkok braced for more unrest, many residents hoarded food and other supplies from grocery stores.

"We don’t know how much longer this nightmare is going to last and how far it will spread," said Panna Srisuwan, a Bangkok resident waiting in line at a supermarket. "I am stocking up for the rest of the week."

Witnesses said the bloodshed has been largely one-sided, as troops armed with automatic rifles easily dodge projectiles and open fire with automatic weapons. Some protesters have been killed by snipers positioned on the tops of office towers.

Soldiers can shoot if protesters come within 36 metres (120 ft) of army lines, said army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd, adding more soldiers were needed to establish control.

The government insists that some of the protesters are armed with grenades and guns and showed footage on national television in an attempt to bolster their case.

Many protest leaders now face terrorism charges that carry a maximum penalty of death, raising the stakes in a two-month crisis that has paralysed parts of Bangkok, stifled Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy and decimated tourism.

The government’s strategy of starving protesters out of their encampment was shows signs of having an effect. Supplies of food, water and fuel were starting to run thin as the red shirt delivery trucks were being blocked.

But they said they still had enough to hold out for days.

Before fighting began on Thursday with the shooting of a renegade general allied with the protesters, the two-month crisis had already killed 29 people and wounded about 1,400 — most of whom died during an April 10 gun battle in Bangkok’s old quarter. (Additional reporting by Ploy Ten Kate, Damir Sagolj, Jerry Lampen, Panarat Thepgumpanat and Martin Petty; editing by Bill Tarrant)





May 16, 2010

Thai protesters defiant, more fighting feared

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thousands of Thai protesters refused to leave Bangkok’s streets on Sunday despite three days of fighting that has killed 24 people and spiraled into chaotic urban warfare, with both sides calling for reinforcements.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva vowed on Saturday to stop mostly rural and urban poor protesters from toppling his government, which is backed by Thailand’s royalist elite, a group the protesters accuse of subverting democracy.

May 15, 2010

Fighting spreads in Thai capital, 16 dead

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thai troops fired at protesters on Saturday in a third day of fighting on Bangkok’s streets that has killed 16 people as soldiers struggle to isolate a sprawling encampment of demonstrators seeking to topple the government.

Clashes continued across central Bangkok as soldiers behind sand bags or atop buildings fired live rounds at protesters armed with petrol bombs. One was shot in the chest while trying to ignite a tyre in Bangkok’s usually bustling business district.

May 15, 2010

Thai capital tense after clashes, 16 dead

BANGKOK, May 15 (Reuters) – Thailand’s capital was tense on Saturday after a night of fighting that killed 16 people and wounded 141 as troops struggle to isolate a sprawling encampment of protesters seeking to topple the government.

Thundering grenade explosions and sporadic gunfire echoed across central Bangkok until nearly dawn as the army battled to set up a perimeter around a 3.5 sq-km (1.2 sq-mile) protest site defiant red-shirted demonstrators refuse to leave.

The U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon expressed concern over "the rapidly mounting tensions and violence".

"He strongly encourages them to urgently return to dialogue in order to de-escalate the situation and resolve matters peacefully," his spokesman said in a written statement.

The Canadian government urged a return to talks following the violence after a Bangkok-based Canadian journalist was shot three times, one of three journalists wounded in fighting on Friday that spiralled into chaotic urban warfare.

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The government said on Friday it would restore order "in the next few days" as the city of 15 million people braced for a crackdown to end a six-week protest by thousands of "red shirts" packed into an area of high-end department stores, luxury hotels, embassies and expensive residential apartments.

The crisis has paralysed parts of Bangkok, squeezed Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy and scared off tourists.

Troops fired tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds at defiant protesters who fought back with petrol bombs, stones and home-made rockets. They set vehicles on fire and rolled burning tyres into checkpoints of troops.

The army said the protesters were firing handguns and M-79 grenades. Army spokesmen Sansern Kaewkamnerd said there were an estimated 500 armed "terrorists" among the thousands of protesters in the city.

A source close to army chief Anupong Paochinda said more troop reinforcements would be deployed, fearing more protesters would arrive to surround and attack soldiers.

"It’s unlikely to end quickly. There will be several skirmishes in the coming days but we are still confident we will get the numbers down and seal the area," the source said.

PROTESTERS REMAIN DEFIANT

The protesters are showing no sign of leaving. The number of casualties is expected to keep rising, deepening a crisis that began with festive rallies on March 12 and descended into Thailand’s deadlist political violence in 18 years.

Before fighting began on Thursday with the shooting of a renegade general allied with the protesters, the two-month crisis had already killed 29 people and wounded about 1,400 — most of whom died during an April 10 gun battle in Bangkok’s old quarter.

The protesters are barricaded behind walls of kerosene-soaked tyres, sharpened bamboo staves, concrete blocks and razor wire.

The fighting is the latest flare-up in a polarising five-year crisis between a royalist urban elite establishment, who back Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, and the rural and urban poor who accuse conservative elites and the military’s top brass of colluding to bring down two elected governments.

Those governments were led or backed by exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, a graft-convicted populist billionaire ousted in a 2006 coup who is a figurehead of the protest movement.

The red shirts and their supporters say the politically powerful military influenced a 2008 parliamentary vote, which took place after a pro-Thaksin party was dissolved, to ensure the British-born, Oxford-educated Abhisit rose to power.

They have repeated their demand for Abhisit to call an immediate election and say he should take responsibility for violence that is also rattling investors.

Five-year Thai credit default swaps, used to hedge against debt default, widened by more than 30 basis points on Friday — the biggest jump in 15 months — to 142 basis points.

"With gun battles and grenades going off, investors will look elsewhere," said Danny Richards, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

"I don’t think many see the end of this protest as the end of the crisis. When there’s an election, either side will reject the legitimacy of the other and we’ll be back to square one." (Additional reporting by Martin Petty and Ambika Ahuja; Editing by Jerry Norton)





May 14, 2010

Thai troops battle protesters as crisis deepens

BANGKOK, May 14 (Reuters) – Thai troops battled anti-government protesters in central Bangkok on Friday attempting to seal off their encampment after an assassination attempt on a renegade general unleashed a new wave of violence.

Troops fired repeatedly into an intersection leading to an encampment in a ritzy hotel and shopping district they have occupied for five weeks, a Reuters witness said, adding he saw several people injured including two journalists.

It was unclear if troops were using live rounds, rubber bullets or both, he said.

A Bangkok-based foreign journalist working for France 24 television station was wounded, the station said. A Thai photographer was also shot, a Reuters witness said.

Analysts said a possible split between a police force that has loyalties to ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra and the military will make it more difficult to contain the violence.

Those fears were underlined after a Thai policeman fired bullets at soldiers during the clashes, a Reuters witness said.

Troops had yet to fully seal off all major roads leading to the "red shirt" encampment, raising questions over whether the government could soon end the protests.

At least one person was killed 11 people wounded in the violence since Thursday night, but that toll was expected to rise. Many hospitals declined to provide numbers of casualties.

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The cost of insuring Thai debt jumped the most in 15 months and Thai bond yields <TH5YT=RR> fell to a nine-month low on Friday as the wave of violence prompted investors to rush to the relative safety of government debt.

Five-year credit default swaps, used to hedge against debt default but also to speculate on country risk, jumped by more than 30 basis points to 142 basis points.

Stocks <.SETI> fell 1.2 percent. [ID:nTOE64D04D]

Protesters had formed their own checkpoint overnight at the famous Suan Lum night market to stop soldiers from sealing off roads around their main fortified encampment in Bangkok’s commercial heart. That became one of the main battlegrounds.

They set fire to a bus, motorbike and tyres as they retreated, and soldiers took control of an intersection leading to a road lined with hotels, the U.S. ambassador’s home and several embassies, which were closed and evacuated.

Troops fired rubber bullets into a nearby park after gunshots were heard, Thai television said.

Soldiers used tear gas and water cannon before dawn at the Nana intersection, packed with shops and racy go-go bars. Skirmishes flared in other parts of the city as the protesters remained defiant, vowing to fight to the death.

"They are tightening a noose on us but we will fight to the end, brothers and sisters," a protest leader, Nattawut Saikua, told a cheering crowd of about 10,000 at the main protest site.

SEALING OFF PROTEST SITE

The latest violence followed tough security measures imposed on Thursday evening to reclaim Bangkok’s commercial district after the collapse of a reconciliation plan proposed last week by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Abhisit is under enormous pressure to end the protests, which began with festive rallies on March 12 and descended into violence that is stoking concerns over the outlook of Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy.

The shooting and a security cordon marked the start of a violent crackdown in which the Thai government stands a good chance of clearing the streets, the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy said.

"But it will not end the polarisation that has led to the current instability — ensuring that the pressure from the red shirts will persist and that political volatility will remain a persistent problem for Thailand for the forseeable future".

It is unclear who shot a renegade general who has been in charge of security for thousands of protesters occupying a 3 sq-km (1.2 sq-mile) stretch of central Bangkok since April 3.

Khattiya Sawasdipol, a suspended army specialist better known as "Seh Daeng" (Commander Red), was shot in the head, apparently by a sniper, while talking to reporters on Thursday evening.

He underwent brain surgery and was in critical condition.

Khattiya had been branded a terrorist by the Thai government, which accused him of involvement in dozens of grenade attacks that have wounded more than 100 people.

But in recent days he was equally critical of other red shirt leaders, accusing them of embracing Abhisit’s proposed "national reconciliation" which unravelled after protesters refused to leave the streets.

Speculation was rife as to who might have tried to assassinate him with fingers pointing at the military, shadowy militants who have appeared in previous incidents of violence, and from the ranks of red shirts themselves.

His shooting sparked half a dozen confrontations overnight between rock-throwing protesters and armed security forces on the outskirts of the protesters’ barricaded encampment.

One protester was shot in the eye and died after a group of red shirts confronted soldiers armed with assault rifles next to a park in the Silom business district, witnesses said. Some protesters hurled rocks and troops fired in return.

Most businesses and embassies in the area have evacuated staff and were closed for the day. Apartment complexes were mostly empty after the government warned it would shut down power and water supplies, and landlords urged tenants to leave. (Additional reporting by Ploy Ten Kate, Chalathip Thirasoonthrakul and Damir Sagolj; Writing by Bill Tarrant; editing by Jason Szep)




    • About Jason

      "As Southeast Asia Bureau Chief, Jason Szep manages text, pictures and television news operations across 10 countries for Reuters. He has been a Reuters correspondent, bureau chief and editor since 1990 and won the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi award in 2007. He is a Boston native and has had postings with Reuters in Toronto, Sydney, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, Boston and Bangkok. His assignments have ranged from Kabul and Islamabad to the U.S. presidential campaign trail during the 2008 election."
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