Violence erupts in Bangkok and beyond

Thai soldiers take the barricades built by Red Shirt protestors in Bangkok.
By Elske Schouten in Bangkok

The Thai army has evicted the Red Shirt protesters from their camp with force. The remaining protesters are no longer obeying their leaders.

Red Shirt protesters were in tears on Wednesday afternoon when their leaders announced the protest was over. With the approaching army at 50 metres and Bangkok on fire, Jatuporn Promphan and Nattawut Saikua capitulated to the police and called on their supporters to go home.

Promphan and Saikua, the toughest hardliners amongst the movement's leaders, refused to forge a compromise last week. But average protesters proved even more fanatic. They responded in anger to Wednesday's surrender and continued to fight. In Bangkok and beyond, the battle raged on.

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Several parts of the city were off limits because of shootings and explosions. Numerous buildings went up in flames and were looted, including the stock exchange, government buildings and Central World, the luxury mall where the protesters had stayed peacefully for a month and a half, and which had opened its clean toilets to them. Foreign embassies advised their citizens to stay inside.

Out of control

Red Shirt protesters also retaliated in the north-east of the country, where most of them hail from. Over the last two months, many travelled by bus or moped to join the protest in the Thai capital. Now, during a school break and in the dry season that leaves their rice fields barren, they stormed city halls in Khon Kaen and Udon Thani and set them on fire. Doubts about whether the protesters would listen to their leaders had grown stronger in the last days.

When asked why they had taken to the streets, the unquestioning followers who sat in front of the Bangkok protest stage, would literally repeat their leaders' anti-government propaganda. "We are fighting for democracy, this government is bad," they yelled. But the men who were fighting the army in other parts of the city seemed less docile. They used Molotov cocktails and rockets they had made out of bamboo to launch continuous attacks on the armed forces. It remains unclear if they acted on outside orders. The army launched a heavy-handed counterattack, killing 40 people in less than a week.

Journalists targeted

Several journalists have been killed and injured in the violence that has erupted inThailand. On Wednesday, Italian journalist Fabio Polenghi was killed and Dutch reporter Michel Maas was injured by a bullet to the shoulder. Maas is doing relatively well.

Journalists were attacked by protesters after it was reported that they too had fired shots in the recent violence. The staff of the local Channel 3 cancelled its broadcast after their cars were attacked and their building set on fire. Reporters from the Bangkok Post and The Nation also had to flee.

On Tuesday, protest leader Nattawut admitted he no longer controlled the protesters. On Wednesday, the army began clearing the protest camp, which took up several square kilometres of the city's most ritzy shopping district.

An unpredicted level of destruction

At sunset, armed forced moved in on the southern edge of the camp, and by 10.30 am, they had driven armoured vehicles through the Red Shirts' barricades. They had already used tear gas and water canons on the crowd. Shots were fired as well. Eye witnesses said protesters were hit in the chest and stomach. In the chaos, it was impossible to determine how many people were killed; dozens were injured. By 2 pm, the government announced it had the situation in the camp under control and had terminated the protest, but that declaration appeared to be a premature.

No one had predicted this level of destruction one week ago. Prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who refrained from making any public appearances on Wednesday, had proposed a compromise. He said he would allow elections on November 14, one year early, if the protests ended. Red Shirt leaders initially agreed to a deal, but they announced new demands a week ago, because, they said, the government refused to grant amnesty to the protest's leaders. They have been accused of terrorism and risk the death penalty.

The unity of the movement came apart. Different leaders handled their own negotiations. One moderate protest leader, Veera Musikapong, left the movement dissatisfied and others distanced themselves from Khattiya Sawasdipol, a general who advocated a more violent approach. Sawasdipol was shot in the head while talking to an American journalist last Wednesday. It remains unclear where the dissident leaders are now and whether they want to continue the struggle.

The government's favourite scapegoat

A final negotiation attempt on Tuesday ended without results, as the government announced it would only talk after the Red Shirts abandoned their protest. The government also pointed its finger at its favourite scapegoat, former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The official negotiator for the government, Kobsak Sapawasu, said Thaksin had forbidden the Red Shirt leaders to end the protest, in spite of their own desire to do so. Billionaire Thaksin has also been accused of funding the movement. Thaksin responded on Twitter, saying he had nothing to do with the negotiations or the current situation and that the government should stop blaming him. The government blocked his website on Wednesday.

Thaksin is very much at the centre of the current conflict. Thailand has been divided since he was ousted in a military coup in 2006. When questionable rulings by the Constitutional Court forced two subsequent governments lead by his supporters to resign, the Red Shirt movement emerged. Protest leaders, such as Jatuporn and Nattawut, are both members of Thaksin's political party.

The conflict is seen as a class struggle, with the poor Thai on one side and the wealthy elite, the army, the royal family and the current government on the other. Many Red Shirts believe Thaksin was the first prime minister to ever take them seriously. By removing him, the elite has rendered their votes worthless, and they now demand new elections, convinced a pro-Thaksin party will win again.

On the other hand, many other Thai believe the Red Shirts are too poorly educated to make an informed decision at the polls. They believe Thaksin is abusing these people to enrich himself through corruption, and is out to topple the monarchy, a mortal sin in the country where king Bhumibol is revered as a demigod.

In an interview on Wednesday, Thaksin warned the eviction of the protest camp could end in civil war. Whether or not this was a threat, he has not called on the protesters to stop fighting. Although no one knows if they would even listen to him.

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