Southeast Asia Bureau Chief
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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.

The crisis, in which 30 people have been killed and more than 1,400 wounded since April, has paralysed parts of Bangkok, scared off investors and has begun to hit the wider economy. <^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

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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)




May 14, 2010

Thai troops advance on red shirt protest checkpoint

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thai troops fired tear gas and rubber bullets towards protesters on Friday following overnight fighting that killed one and wounded 11, including a rogue general, as a two-month political crisis deepened.

A foreign journalist was shot during the afternoon skirmishes, a Reuters witness said. No other details were immediately available.

May 14, 2010

Protest crackdown sparks fighting in Bangkok

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Violence flared in the Thai capital on Friday as troops confronted groups of protesters around a major commercial district following overnight fighting that killed one and wounded nine, including a rogue general.

At dawn, protesters and troops skirmished in the usually bustling business area near Lumpini Park and Sathorn Road. Soldiers were earlier seen using tear gas and water cannon at Nana intersection, packed with shops and racy go-go bars.

May 13, 2010

Thai protesters seek reinforcements, ignore calls to leave

BANGKOK, May 13 (Reuters) – Thousands of Thai anti-government protesters were seeking reinforcements on Thursday after ignoring a midnight deadline to end two months of street rallies that have sparked Thailand’s deadliest political violence in 18 years.

Leaders of the mostly rural and urban poor protesters urged supporters to join their barricaded encampment in Bangkok’s commercial district after authorities abruptly postponed plans to cut power and water to the area following outcry from residents.

"We came as lions, we must go back as lions," Jatuporn Prompan, a protest leader, told cheering supporters late on Wednesday. "Please come out and help us man our forts."

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva Abhisit is under enormous pressure to end the five-week occupation of the shopping district by protesters who say he lacks a popular mandate after coming to power in a controversial parliamentary vote 17 months ago.

"With another day of another futile ultimatum and no fruitful action, Abhisit risks losing any credibility he has left," Nattaya Chetchotiros, assistant news editor at The Bangkok Post, wrote in a column.

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Abhisit’s threats follow the unravelling of a government peace plan proposed last week to end a political crisis that has killed 29 people, paralysed parts of Bangkok and slowed growth in Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy.

Both sides appear to be running out of options, raising the risk of a violent confrontation and flummoxing investors in one of Southeast Asia’s most promising emerging markets.

"The markets have no idea what to make of the situation. It seems like we’re heading back to square one," said Sukit Udomsirikul, a senior analyst at brokerage Siam City Securities.

"It’s obvious it’s more difficult than they thought in terms of how to disperse the protesters," Sukit added. "A resolution to the crisis looks far off."

Foreign investors have turned negative since violence flared in April and have sold ($584 million) in Thai shares in the past six sessions, cutting their net buying so far this year to $607.6 million as of Wednesday.

FISSURES IN PROTEST MOVEMENT

Disparate views among protest leaders — from radical former communists to academics and aspiring lawmakers — make it difficult to reach consensus. Many face criminal charges for defying an emergency decree and some face terrorism charges carrying a maximum penalty of death.

Several harbour political ambitions and need to appease rank-and-file supporters. Others fear ending the protest now would be a one-way ticket to jail. Some hardliners advocate stepping up the protests to win the fight once and for all.

"Most people want this to end but they are sceptical because the government cannot guarantee our safety," Korbkaew Pikulthong, another protest leader, told Reuters. "The problem is some of us face severe charges and the government shows no inclination to be fair to us. A few want to fight on because we have come so far."

On Wednesday, Abhisit cancelled a proposal to hold elections on Nov. 14 under his "national reconciliation" plan and called off further talks with the protesters.

Despite its reversal of plans to cut off power and water to the area packed with hotels, embassies, businesses, high-end apartments and two public hospitals, authorities say they will start diverting some transportation from the district.

The red-shirted protesters, mostly supporters of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted in a 2006 coup, have said they would only disperse if a deputy prime minister faces criminal charges over a deadly April clash between troops and protesters. (Additional reportiing by Ploy Ten Kate; Editing by Nick Macfie)



May 11, 2010

Thai protesters refuse to pack up, push new demands

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thai anti-government protesters remained camped on the streets of Bangkok on Tuesday, refusing to end a two-month demonstration until a deputy prime minister faces charges over a clash with troops in April that killed 25 people.

The United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), better known as the “red shirts,” accepted a timetable for a November 14 election but set a new condition that Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban be formally charged.

May 10, 2010

Thai protesters refuse to leave, push new demands

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thai anti-government protesters refused on Monday to end a crippling two-month street demonstration until the government accepted responsibility for a clash with troops in April that killed 25 people.

The United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), better known as the “red shirts” for their trademark attire, said Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban must face criminal charges before they will leave central Bangkok.

May 3, 2010

Divisive Thaksin looms over Thai protests

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 educated, urban middle-classes and royalist elite, however, Thaksin Shinawatra is a crony capitalist who plundered the economy and perverted democracy for the benefit of his family and friends while in power from 2001 until a 2006 military coup.

Apr 29, 2010

Scenarios: How is Thailand’s crisis likely to play out?

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Predicting the next step in Thailand’s political crisis requires some bravery after seven weeks of street protests, deadly clashes, a department store blockade and grenade attacks, with few signs of compromise.

Attitudes have hardened on both sides since troops and protesters clashed in Bangkok on April 10, killing 25 people and wounding more than 800 during a chaotic army crackdown that has intensified a five-year political crisis.

Apr 29, 2010

How is Thailand’s crisis likely to play out?

BANGKOK, April 29 (Reuters) – Predicting the next step in Thailand’s political crisis requires some bravery after seven weeks of street protests, deadly clashes, a department store blockade and grenade attacks, with few signs of compromise.

Attitudes have hardened on both sides since troops and protesters clashed in Bangkok on April 10, killing 25 people and wounding more than 800 during a chaotic army crackdown that has intensified a five-year political crisis.

Following are scenarios about what could happen next with tens of thousands of the red-shirted supporters of ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra still on the streets.

RED SHIRT PROTESTERS PROVOKE FURTHER VIOLENT CLASHES

High casualties and the possibility of a failed military operation could be enough to force Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to step down, setting in motion a snap election — the ultimate demand of the red shirts.

With that in mind, the protesters are likely to keep trying to provoke the military or spark a clash with rival pro-government protesters, drawing upon shadowy militants led by retired generals whose presence among the red shirts has added a dangerous element to their bid for elections.

Some protesters are believed to be armed with assault rifles and M-79 grenades, both of which were used at an April 10 clash with the army that killed 25 people. The government accuses them of leading the grenade attacks on April 22 that killed one person and wounded 88 in Bangkok’s business district. Army sources say they think this group has stockpiled weapons at the protest site.

The army chief has repeatedly ruled out a crackdown on the shopping area, given the risk of high civilian casualties, but if provoked, the military may have no choice.

MARKET REACTION: Thai assets already price in a relatively high degree of political risk but are considered vulnerable if the red shirts appear to be getting the upper hand in clashes.

This means Thai stocks <.SETI>, which jumped 15 percent from mid-February to April 9 on a $1.8 billion wave of foreign buying, are likely to remain volatile with significant unrest triggering knee-jerk price falls followed by tentative buying by bargain hunters tapping one of Asia’s cheapest markets.

The baht <THB=>, which has lost 0.1 percent in the past month, is taking its lead from stocks and would likely test initial support at around 32.50 if the government appears to be losing control. Government bonds have been gaining on flight to quality with the five-year yields likely to test seven-month lows in the event of significant unrest.

STALEMATE, HEIGHTENED TENSIONS, PRESSURE FOR TALKS

With neither side willing to make major concessions, the crisis will grind on in a prolonged stalemate that rattles nerves in the capital city of 15 million people, but fails to bring either side closer to their goals.

The red shirts want immediate dissolution of parliament, which would require elections within 90 days. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has offered to call elections in December, a year early, and refuses to negotiate in the face of threats.

Both sides want to be in power in September for two crucial events — a reshuffle of the country’s powerful military and police forces, and the passing of the national budget.

The military builds up its presence around the protesters’ 3 sq-km (1.2 sq-mile) fortified encampment in central Bangkok, threatening a crackdown — a mostly psychological scare tactic that might help them gain an advantage in talks.

As the impasse deepens, and Bangkok grows increasingly tense, public pressure for talks reaches a point neither side can avoid. Talks, however, fail to produce a substantive agreement and stalemate continues with thousands of red shirts remaining in the city’s shopping district until a violent confrontation.

MARKET REACTION: Stalemate could be good for Thai markets. A lull in the violence could refocus investors on Thailand’s growth story which, despite the political unrest, remains promising. The central bank raised its 2010 economic growth forecast on Thursday to 4.3-5.8 percent, supported by strong exports.

April has been a volatile month for Thai stocks, but that’s mostly due to sudden slides in the wake of deadly incidents such as fighting on April 10 that killed 25 people and sparked a 3.6 percent drop in the benchmark index to a four-week low.

Over April, the SET index <.SETI> is down 4.9 percent, compared with a 0.3 percent rise in Asia’s markets outside of Japan <.MIAPJ0000PUS>. But over the past three months, the SET is up 8.7 percent, outperforming the 7.0 percent rise in Asia’s markets outside of Japan and reflecting fundamental optimism over Thailand’s export-oriented economy.

MILITARY BUILDUP, PROTEST DWINDLES, ARMY CRACKS DOWN

The military steadily builds up its presence on the outskirts of the shopping district occupied by the protesters since April 3. Slowly, protest numbers dwindle, as red shirts become increasingly concerned over a crackdown.

The army repeatedly warns women and children to leave, establishes a perimeter and evacuates nearby buildings. It offers as many red shirts as possible a way out. Once the military determines that those remaining in the shopping district are of a hardcore element, they move in just before dawn.

Clashes ensue, causing many casualties. Militants within the ranks of the protesters wage a fierce fight which could spill into neighbouring upscale residential districts.

The military eventually surrounds the site in huge numbers. Many protesters agree to leave, others are chased away by troops. The government swiftly announces it has taken control.

Protest leaders vow to regroup. After a flurry of phone calls and text messages, and "red shirt" radio issuing a call to mass at another site, within days thousands begin a new demonstration elsewhere. Red shirts in rural provinces seize control of city halls and other government institutions.

MARKET IMPACT: Heavy fighting with high casualties would likely trigger a knee-jerk plunge in stock prices that would also hurt the baht and send investors scurrying into the relative safety of government bonds, pushing yields down and likely delaying any chance of a long-awaited interest rate rise in June.

Any indication the government had taken the advantage, however, would be seen as an opportunity to buy on the belief the worst is over. Much depends on whether the red shirts regroup, and how much violence or control they exert in the provinces.

    • 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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