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Chaos spreads after Thai crackdown

Leaders of protest forced to surrender

A statue of Buddha and a torn Thai national flag remained in front of Bangkok’s Central World shopping mall, which was gutted by fire after army soldiers advanced toward an encampment of thousands of antigovernment protesters. A statue of Buddha and a torn Thai national flag remained in front of Bangkok’s Central World shopping mall, which was gutted by fire after army soldiers advanced toward an encampment of thousands of antigovernment protesters. (Adrees Latif/ Reuters)
By Thomas Fuller and Seth Mydans
New York Times / May 20, 2010

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BANGKOK — A bloody crackdown in Bangkok by the Thai military set off rioting and arson attacks yesterday in several places across Thailand, threatening to expand unrest and further aggravate the deep rifts that have hobbled Thai society for the past four years.

Troops and armored military vehicles overcame grenade-wielding militants allied with antigovernment protesters in Bangkok, forcing the movement’s leaders to turn themselves in to the police.

But even as the government declared victory in quashing a debilitating protest that had shut down parts of Bangkok for two months, the rampage across Bangkok and in at least three provinces in the country’s populous northeastern hinterland raised concerns about the conflict spreading and the future of the current government. The government declared a curfew in 24 of the country’s 76 provinces, a radical move underlined by its announcement that looters or arsonists would be shot.

Arsonists in Bangkok set fire to almost 30 buildings, the government said, including the country’s stock exchange, a massive shopping mall, two banks, a movie theater, and a television station. Two city halls were torched in the provincial capitals when thousands of protesters reacted to news of the Bangkok crackdown.

It was a measure of Thailand’s spiraling political violence that the death toll in the crackdown — around 12 people killed and more than 60 injured — was less than the bloodbath that many had feared.

Central Bangkok, the heart of one of Asia’s most cosmopolitan cities, was a militarized zone in the early hours today, with well-armed troops patrolling streets deserted by the curfew. The subway system remained shut, and embassies told their citizens living across this sprawling metropolis of about 15 million people to stay indoors.

The leaders of the Red Shirts, who had roared into Bangkok on March 12 demanding fresh elections and calling for what they said was true democracy for the country, surrendered to the police yesterday afternoon to face charges of terrorism.

Their arrests and the dispersal of the crowd were rare victories for the embattled government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. But the volatile, defiant mood of the crowd yesterday also signaled a possible radicalization of a movement that leaders found difficult to control.

“We cannot resist against these savages anymore,’’ Jatuporn Prompan, one of the leaders, said on a stage inside the protest zone before turning himself in. He was booed by protesters who wanted to carry on.

“Please listen to me!’’ he pleaded to the crowd. “Brothers and sisters, I will use the word ‘beg.’ I beg you. We have to end this for now.’’ The call was not heeded, and protesters began torching nearby buildings.

The crackdown began yesterday morning after weeks of negotiations failed to disperse protesters, many of whom are followers of Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister ousted in a 2006 military coup. Soldiers clashed with militants, some of whom were armed with assault weapons. As troops approached, anxiety spread through the protest zone, which was in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Bangkok and home to corporate headquarters, high-end shopping malls, luxury hotels, and high-rise apartment buildings.

Thai news outlets reported that one of the more militant protest leaders, Arisman Pongruengrong, fled the protest zone in disguise. Arisman made headlines last month when he evaded arrest by climbing from a window as the police raided the hotel where he was staying. He was captured last evening by the police and taken to a military base outside Bangkok.

Around noon, seven protest leaders announced that they would turn themselves in.

Soon afterward, the shooting intensified. Two protesters were killed, and several journalists were shot or injured by shrapnel. An Italian news photographer was killed, according to Thai news media, and two foreign journalists and a Thai photographer were wounded.

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