Thai riots halt after deaths; leaders face arrest

"It is victory of society that peace and order has returned," prime minister says.

thailand protests 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
thailand protests 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Leaders of demonstrations that plunged the Thai capital into chaos called off their protests Tuesday after the rioting killed two and injured more than 120. Police issued warrants for 14 people, including the ousted prime minister at the heart of three years of turmoil. The swift and unexpected resolution ended with a final crowd of 2,000 die-hard protesters dutifully lining up for waiting government buses to take them home. There were no confrontations with the combat troops ringing the anti-government demonstrators' last stronghold, nor any visible anger. Many looked broken, tired and almost in shock. Four of the protest leaders surrendered, said the country's deputy police commissioner. They were seen taken away to nearby police headquarters. "This is not a victory or a loss of any particular group," Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said in a televised address. "If it is victory, it is victory of society that peace and order has returned." The protests were only the latest in a long-simmering conflict between two rival groups that was set off by the 2006 coup that removed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from power. His supporters, the "red-shirts," are drawn largely from the impoverished countryside where his populist policies had broad backing. They took to the streets after protests of their rivals - the yellow shirts - brought the country to a halt last year by occupying the seat of government and the capital's airports. Those demonstrations, led by a mix of royalists, academics, professionals and retired military who oppose Thaksin, only broke up after court rulings removed his allies from power. Abhisit was later appointed prime minister. During last year's protest, the security forces refused to crack down on the demonstrations. By contrast, an army spokesman said earlier Tuesday that troops were ready to move against the protesters, who had been encamped around Government House since March 26. Abhisit said Tuesday's retreat did not end the threat posed by the red-clad protesters, who are demanding his resignation and new elections. "The operation under the state of emergency is not completed," he said. Some protesters threatened to regroup after the arrest warrants were issued. The warrants cited the protest leaders, including the absent Thaksin, for creating a public disturbance and illegal assembly, which carry prison terms of up to seven and three years respectively. Thaksin fled the country last year before a court convicted him in absentia of violating a conflict of interest law. He addressed the crowd of protesters via video nearly every evening since the latest round of protests began. Jakrapob Penkair, a protest leader who has not turned himself in, said the movement would continue. "We have not achieved our goal of toppling the status quo and returning power to the majority of the people. We have not achieved our goal of returning the army to the barracks and stopping the ruling elite from intervening in politics. Until that happens, many won't be giving up," Jakrapob said. He did not specify what they would do next. The protesters flashed victory signs and wept as they walked away or boarded buses provided by the military. In the end, even the police struck a tender note. "Please take care of your children and the elderly. Please be careful and if you need anything, let the police know," one police commander said through a megaphone. "While you are waiting [for the buses], please stay in the shade." Army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd acknowledged that some protesters were detained without charge, which is allowed under an emergency decree issued Saturday. He would not say how many people were in custody but said they would be released "if there are no charges to press against them." The government announced it was adding two more days to the three-day Thai New Year holiday, which began Monday, to ensure safety and repair damage from the violence. Despite the turmoil, thousands of Thais, along with foreign tourists, reveled through the night and doused each other with water to usher in the New Year. "I don't feel that we lost. We were only in a disadvantageous position. We only had heart. We didn't have weapons," said Siri Kadmai, a 45-year-old worker. Sansern said that by early Tuesday only 2,000 protesters remained around Government House - the demonstrations had swelled to 100,000 last week. He said the soldiers were relying on water cannons, tear gas and clubs and using automatic weapons only when necessary to disperse crowds threatening them. By nightfall Monday, clashes that had gripped several parts of the city, wounding 123 people, had ebbed. But as the demonstrators tried to make their way back to their base around Government House, deadly fighting erupted between them and residents. Most of Bangkok's newspapers, irrespective of their political leanings, were critical of the protesters, describing them as "thugs" and "urban terrorists." In a confrontation Monday near Victory Monument, a major traffic circle, a line of troops in full battle gear fired volleys of M-16 fire over the heads of protesters, and turned water cannons on the crowd. The army spokesman said troops fired blanks into the crowds and live shots overhead. But in an appearance on CNN, Thaksin - the exiled former prime minister - accused the military of lying, saying soldiers used live ammunition, killed protesters and dragged away their bodies. "They shot people. Many died. Many people were injured," he said. The protesters also said more than the officially reported number died but Abhisit dismissed Thaksin's assertion, saying "if there were that many people killed, it would not have escaped the eye of the media."