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Thailand mops up amid fears of long-term strife

Protesters vow to return as troops root out holdouts

Supporters of the antigovernment Red Shirt movement exited a temple after surrendering to police from their encampment in Bangkok’s upscale shopping district yesterday. Supporters of the antigovernment Red Shirt movement exited a temple after surrendering to police from their encampment in Bangkok’s upscale shopping district yesterday. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)
By Eric Talmadge
Associated Press / May 21, 2010

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BANGKOK — As soldiers mopped up pockets of resistance and the government declared it was back in control, fears grew yesterday that the tentative quiet restored to Thailand’s capital after a bloody crackdown on protests may just be a respite from violence and political polarization that could continue for years.

Leaders of the antigovernment Red Shirt movement vowed a return as they were taken into custody.

“I think this is a new beginning for the Red Shirts,’’ said Kevin Hewison, a Thailand specialist at the University of North Carolina. “It will be a darker and grimmer time of struggle and less-focused activities. By no stretch of the imagination is the movement finished.’’

The Thai government declared yesterday that it had mostly quelled 10 weeks of violent protests in the capital. Buildings smoldered, troops rooted out holdouts, and some residents cautiously attempted a return to normal life a day after the military operation cleared the main commercial district of thousands of demonstrators, leaving 15 dead and nearly 100 injured.

Troops roamed the city on foot and in Humvees and exchanged gunfire with scattered Red Shirt holdouts, who fought near the city’s Victory Monument and torched a bank, bringing to 40 the number of buildings set aflame after the military push sent the protesters retreating from their demonstration site.

The protesters, demanding elections, had fortified themselves behind tire and bamboo-spike barricades.

Thailand’s Finance Ministry estimated the economic damage to the country at $1.5 billion. Continued security concerns led officials to extend a nighttime curfew in Bangkok and 23 other provinces for three more days.

Even so, Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd, army spokesman, said the government was in charge.

“Overall, we have the situation under control,’’ he said.

Residents, meanwhile, moved carefully to resume their routines.

With military checkpoints closing, city workers removed debris and collected piles of garbage left in the streets. Residents in protest areas were able to leave home to shop. Electricity was restored in many areas.

But many of those who ventured into the streets were still deeply shaken by the violence.

“This really worries me — this shouldn’t happen to Thailand,’’ said Somjit Suksumrain, a construction company manager. “Thailand should not end up like this.’’

By late yesterday, authorities had taken into custody most of the senior Red Shirt leaders.

Three surrendered yesterday after five others gave themselves up the previous day and were flown to a military camp south of Bangkok for interrogation.

“I’d like to ask all sides to calm down and talk with each other in a peaceful manner,’’ Veera Musikapong said after being taken into custody yesterday. “We cannot create democracy with anger.’’

Not all were as conciliatory.

Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, another Red Shirt leader, said the movement was simply regrouping. “Initially, independent movements of the masses in Bangkok and the regions will begin, then riots will ensue,’’ he said. “For Thailand in the long term, there will be major changes due to the crisis of faith.’’

The government described the mayhem as organized terrorism. Officials also said the arson and looting after the troops quashed the main protest were “anticipated aftershocks’’ that did not represent deeper trouble.

Still, Panithan Wattanayagorn, government spokesman, acknowledged that the protesters had sympathizers among the broader populace, and said the rioting was sparked by disappointment, hopelessness, and anger. But he said it was only as large as it was because of “prior organized planning.’’

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