Southeast Asia Bureau Chief
Jason's Feed
May 21, 2010

A divisive figure, Thaksin looms over Thai unrest

BANGKOK (Reuters) – To the rural masses at the heart of Thailand’s “red shirt” protest movement, he is a mold-breaking prime minister, the first leader to pay attention to the needs of millions living beyond Bangkok’s bright lights.

To the Thai government, the urban middle class and the royalist elite, Thaksin Shinawatra is a terrorist and a crony capitalist who plundered the economy while in power from 2001 until a 2006 military coup and then led a movement that reduced parts of Bangkok to smoldering ruins this week.

May 21, 2010

Peace returns to Bangkok, but trouble looms

BANGKOK, May 20 (Reuters) – Order is returning to Bangkok after nine weeks of the worst political violence in modern Thai history, but more clashes or a larger insurrection loom ahead unless authorities quell anger at the heart of recent protests.

Without major reforms to a political system protesters claim favours an "establishment elite" over the rural masses, this week’s bloody dispersal of protesters occupying Bangkok’s commercial heart won’t end a polarising political crisis and could add fuel to the fire.

The "red shirt" protest movement’s figurehead, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a graft-convicted populist billionaire ousted in a 2006 coup, told Reuters the army’s tough dispersal of protesters could spawn guerrilla warfare.

Analysts say he may be right.

"The suppression of the demonstrations does not in any way end the movement, or at least the sentiments and patronage networks behind it," said Duncan McCargo, a University of Leeds professor of Southeast Asian politics.

But after more than two months of unrest that has killed 81 people and wounded more than 1,800, most expect a lull in the violence as the protesters regroup. Its leadership, run by a trio calling themselves the "three stooges" — adopting a name given them by the government — has fragmented with most in custody.

In Bangkok, where their festive, flag-waving rallies in March began to win over middle classes, the red shirts are now reviled after their six-week occupation of the city’s commercial heart culminated in a night of arson that terrified the city of 15 million people and destroyed property worth millions of dollars.

Residents gasped and some cried as television footage showed Central World, Southeast Asia’s second-biggest department store, gutted and nearly destroyed in smouldering ruins.

But in the heartlands of the north and northeast, a Thaksin stronghold home to just over half of Thailand’s 67 million people, images of Bangkok burning drew cheers — and unleashed violence that including the storming of the governor’s house in Chiang Mai, the region’s largest city.

That’s why Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his royalist backers should worry, analysts say.

"The people in the provinces aren’t likely to shed any tears for the fact that some rich punk in Bangkok can no longer shop at Central World, when dozens of people ‘like them’ lay dead at the hands of the government," said Federico Ferrara, a political science professor at the National University of Singapore.

"There could be a bit of a lull in their activities now, but I would expect that if the government keeps their leaders in jail, it won’t be long before this turns into another cause celebre," he added.

RURAL DISCONTENT

The high-profile arrest of the protest leaders, some accused of terrorism by the government, could embolden the movement over the longer term by playing to their argument they are victims of double standards in a society that favours the elite.

Laying siege to an area to dislodge governments has become a way of life in Thai politics. In 2008, yellow-shirted protesters who opposed Thaksin’s allies in the previous government occupied the prime minister’s office for three months and then blockaded Bangkok’s main airport until a court expelled the government.

Instead of going to jail, one of the figures of that movement, Kasit Piromya, went on to become foreign minister.

Cases like that are at the heart of the discontent among the rural and urban poor in a country where the richest 20 percent of the population earn about 55 percent of the income while the poorest fifth get 4 percent.

"Not much has changed in terms of the support for the red shirts among parts of the population. They rioted last year and it turned into a much worse riot this year. That shows the underlying problem remains and has not been addressed by those in power," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist. "But without a strong central leadership, it’s going to be difficult for them to regroup any time soon," he said.

"The radicals will likely go underground. The organisation may keep going in the provinces led by their own regional leaders who have their own news outlets and their own views on what’s going on."

A bigger question is why this is all happening now.

While there are many factors, providing a complete answer is difficult in a country where discussions of its most powerful institution are off limits due to strict lese majeste laws.

But 82-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-reigning monarch and the country’s sole unifying figure, has been hospitalised since Sept. 19, maintaining a very low profile and not commenting on the current crisis.

King Bhumibol’s son and presumed heir, 57-year-old, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, does not yet command his father’s popular support, raising concerns about succession in the influential Thai monarchy, a traditional source of stability.

Some political analysts say both sides in Thailand’s polarised political climate are starting to manoeuvre for position in the event of possible changes ahead. (Editing by Bill Tarrant) ((jason.szep@reuters.com; +662 648 9720; Reuters Messaging: jason.szep.reuters.com@reuters.net))

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:

here ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^>

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."

<^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

For full coverage, click on [nTHAILAND]

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^>

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.

    • 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."
    • Follow Jason