Special to the tribune
n Thailand witnesses worst political unrest in two decades n ‘Red Shirt’ leaders say country on the brink of civil war n Protesters want Parliament dissolved n PM firm on crackdown on protesters n Death toll touches 29
Larry Jagan in Bangkok
Violence in the centre of the Thai capital has left at least 29 persons dead and more than 50 injured as the Prime Minister vowed there would be no turning back and the army threatened a final crackdown on the Red Shirts’ encampment.
The city resembles a war zone, with sporadic fierce fighting between the security forces and the protesters continuing into its fourth day. The battle for Bangkok erupted last Thursday, when the authorities began to cordon off the protest site and tried to prevent fresh supporters joining the rally.
For three days straight, Thai troops have battled with anti-government protesters in the heart of the capital city, increasing fears that the situation is getting out of control and the country’s political crisis deepening, with further bloodshed almost unavoidable. The Red Shirt leaders have warned Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva that the country is on the brink of civil war. This is Thailand’s worst political unrest in nearly two decades: more than 50 persons have been killed and more than 2,000 injured in the past two months since the protest started.
Troops continue to fire tear gas cannisters, rubber bullets and live rounds at the protesters, who hurled stones and launched homemade rockets and firecrackers back at the soldiers. At some places, police trucks were set on fire, as the angry protestors reacted defiantly to the soldiers attempts to tighten the security cordon around the Red Shirt rally site.
On Sunday, riding around the rally perimeter black smoke billowed into the air, the atmosphere was heavy, with the stench of burning rubber tyres and the sound of periodic rifle and machine gun fire, as soldiers shot at anyone who approached them. The death toll is mounting by the hour, including at least two teenagers and a 10-year-old boy, according to the Thai emergency services. “We must stop killings,” a key Red Shirt leader Dr Weng Tojirakarn told The Tribune. “The Prime Minister must take responsibility. This is the only way to stop a civil war erupting,” he warned.
But Prime Minister Abhisit is standing firm. “We cannot leave the country in a situation where people who don’t obey the law are holding hostage the people of Bangkok, as well as the centre of the country,” he said in a televised address to the nation over the weekend. “We can’t allow a situation where people set up armed groups and overthrow the government because they don’t agree with it” he said.
But even in the face of this government threat to disperse the protest, by force if necessary, the Red Shirts, called that because of the colour of their clothes, are defiant. “We are here to fight for justice, and we won’t leave until we get it, even if it means dying for democracy,” said Silpi Chairunlondain, a 48-year old radio announcer from the Thai resort of Pattaya, and visibly worried by the prospect of bloodshed. “Thirty years ago my father died fighting corruption, and in his memory I cannot give up,” she told The Tribune. Now the Thai Red Cross has intervened and at least a thousand women and children have been evacuated from the centre of the rally to a nearby Buddhist temple for safety in case the troops invade.
For more than nine weeks there has been a stand-off between tens of thousands of Red Shirts who have controlled key parts of the capital ciy, demanding that the PM dissolve parliament immediately and call fresh elections, and the security forces. Most of the protesters are poor farmers from the north and northeast, the Bangkok poor, who feel the country’s wealthy middle class and social elite have cheated them.
“We are not Marxists or socialists,” Dr Weng told The Tribune recently. “We are Buddhists who are committed to a fairer and more just society, in keeping with Buddha’s teachings,” he said. Many of the Red Shirts, who form the United Front for Democracy against dictatorship, support the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was ousted by a military coup in September 2006. He fled Thailand more than 20 months ago while on bail for corruption charges.
But while the Red movement is closely associated with Thaksin, it has begun to develop its own momentum. The poor people in the countryside and the cities now understand that life would be better if there was real democracy, said Dr Suda Rangkupan, a linguistics teacher at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and Red Shirt supporter. “Thaksin awoke their emotions andmade them understand that democracy would put an end to the small group [the elite] who are controlling the country,” she said.
Thaksin is a symbol but not the answer. He spoke directly to the people, in a language they understood, Dr Suda told The Tribune. The Red Shirt movement has energised them and given them a focus. “They understand injustice and now actively want to see an end to it,” she said. The genie is out of the bottle, she warned.
Several weeks ago the protesters moved from a relatively secluded area around the city’s political hub - the parliament and government house - to the capital’s commercial centre severely disrupting business in the city. There are several massive shopping complexes in this area, which have been shut now for more than four weeks, losing more than two million dollars a day.
Tourism, one of the country’s main industries, and largest earner of foreign exchange has been hit hard. Already many hotels in the capital are reporting minimal occupancy, and all hotels near the protest site have been closed for weeks. Most countries have advised their citizens not to travel to Thailand unless absolutely necessary until further notice.
Thailand’s neighbours are also increasingly concerned about the Thai political situation, fearing it also have an adverse affect on tourism, trade and investment in the region as a whole. “We moved here because we knew this would inconvenience the country’s economic and social elite,” said a key Red Shirt leader Jataporn Prompan. “We wanted them to hurt and take notice of our demands,” he said in an interview with The Tribune.
Shopping centre and banking facilities, outside the protest area, all closed early this weekend. The city is under siege as thousands of soldiers patrol the perimeter of the protest site. Seven foot-tall barbed-wire barricades surround the Red rally site.
The main public transport in the city’s inner commercial and residential areas, the Sky Train and the Underground, have been completely suspended until further notice. The commercial centre of the city, occupied by the Red Shirts, has become a no-go area and in some places with warning signs erected that it was a live-fire zone.
The military are preventing people from entering the Red Shirt rally site. Although some have managed to talk their way through the checkpoints, they have had to register with the guards. “This is unacceptable, a complete denial of our human rights,” said Dr Weng. “The government is trying to prevent honest people who want to protest from joining us.”
The number of Red Shirts has dwindled substantially over the past few weeks, from nearly 300,000 when protest started to around 4,000 on Sunday. But that is not a sign that their support has dwindled, just that the government’s scare tactics are working. “My heart is willing, but my flesh is weak,” said a young Red Shirt sympathiser who lives on the outskirts of Bangkok, Niratchai Sunthonsak, a 22-year-old college student and single mother. “I’m too scared,” she told The Tribune.
Protesters seek talks Thai protesters said on Sunday they were ready to negotiate with the Thailand's government to end a deadly crisis, but only if troops were immediately withdrawn from Bangkok's streets. And they added that the only other condition to enter into dialogue was for representatives of the United Nations to moderate talks. However, the Thai government rejected the UN-supervised talks.
Thai protesters said on Sunday they were ready to negotiate with the Thailand's government to end a deadly crisis, but only if troops were immediately withdrawn from Bangkok's streets. And they added that the only other condition to enter into dialogue was for representatives of the United Nations to moderate talks. However, the Thai government rejected the UN-supervised talks.
Thaksin’s accounts under lens Financial transactions involving 106 bank or stock accounts associated with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra will be halted if found to be linked to anti-government protesters, the National Security Council (NSC) said on Sunday. The accounts and assets, held by associates, family members and businesses linked to the exiled multi-millionaire, will be monitored and frozen if found linked to the protest movement.
Financial transactions involving 106 bank or stock accounts associated with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra will be halted if found to be linked to anti-government protesters, the National Security Council (NSC) said on Sunday. The accounts and assets, held by associates, family members and businesses linked to the exiled multi-millionaire, will be monitored and frozen if found linked to the protest movement.