(by James Hookway, The Wall Street Journal, wsj.com) BANGKOK – Hard-line Thai protesters set fire Wednesday to the country’s stock exchange, shopping malls and a television station, while Thai authorities called an 8 p.m. curfew, casting doubt on the prospects for a resolution to the country’s weeks-long political crisis despite the surrender of protest leaders earlier in the day.
Thai Red Shirt protest leaders called off their marathon rally and surrendered to police Wednesday after an early morning army assault on their heavily fortified camp in the center of Bangkok.
But in the midafternoon, smoke could be seen billowing from the Stock Exchange of Thailand’s headquarters as helicopters buzzed in the sky above. Though trading has been taking place at a different, undisclosed location in recent days, stock-exchange officials said markets would be closed Thursday. Earlier in the day, Thailand’s benchmark index finished up 0.7% on hopes for a quick resolution. Authorities also said commercial banks around the country would be closed Thursday and Friday.
Thick plumes of smoke rose across other locations in the city as militant protesters targeted some of Bangkok’s main commercial centers. In other parts of Thailand, local television broadcast pictures of antigovernment demonstrators setting alight a provincial government building in northeastern Khon Kaen.
The burning followed the surrender earlier in the day of top protest leaders following a push by the Thai military Wednesday morning into their downtown encampment. At least two protesters and an Italian news photographer were killed in Wednesday’s crackdown, the Associated Press said, while three other foreign journalists and 15 Thais were wounded in the fighting.
Speaking on the protesters’ main stage, one of their leaders, Jatuporn Prompan, explained that the demonstrators had to call off their rally to prevent any more people from dying. At least 66 people have been killed since the demonstrators launched their campaign for new elections in mid-March, with more than half of those coming the past four days as militant protesters and local street thugs clashed with army troops.
“We know this decision will pain you,” said Mr. Jatuporn, wearing a white T-shirt bearing the image of Indian protest leader Mahatma Gandhi. “But we have to stop the death, even though our fight will carry on.”
As he was speaking, explosions could be heard and militant Red Shirts in the area began setting fires and other debris alight, reviving the prospect of further bloodshed and filling the afternoon air with choking black smoke. People at the demonstrators’ main stage, meanwhile, wept and pleaded for Mr. Jatuporn and another leader, Nattawut Saikua, to change their minds. Instead, the two men went with other Red Shirts to surrender at Bangkok’s police headquarters a short walk away.
Some protesters, meanwhile set fires in buildings around Bangkok, including the upscale CentralWorld mall. Local TV reports said the first floor of the mall was on fire.
Speaking at police headquarters, Mr. Nattawut urged the remaining few thousand demonstrators to disperse. “Go home, the police have already prepared vehicles for you,” he said. “And if you trust me to be your leader again, I’m ready to fight again for real democracy in this country.”
The mainstream protesters surrendered more quickly than many analysts expected after hundreds of soldiers began tearing down their fortifications. Gen. Lertrat Rattanavanich, a senator involved in trying to rescue negotiations between protesters and the government, warned that if the protest leaders don’t surrender, “the losses could be huge.”
Troops occupied a highway overpass overlooking the camp early Wednesday morning and were seen firing sporadic shots into the camp. Others fired from the tracks of an elevated-rail network they used as a vantage point. At the entrance to Silom Road, Thailand’s equivalent of Wall Street, troops turned water cannons on protesters in an effort to disperse them and began tearing down a barricade constructed from tires and sharpened bamboo staves. An armored tank repeatedly rammed the barrier, breaching what the Red Shirts call their “liberated zone.”
Thailand’s armed forces moved in to choke off the protest after Red Shirt leaders failed to agree on a way to end the demonstrations, which have pitted the mostly rural demonstrators against an army-backed government they say has manipulated Thailand’s democratic process to hold onto power. Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said the army was taking action to “restore rule of law” after months of chaos in central Bangkok.
People familiar with the negotiations between the two sides said the biggest problem was the main Red Shirt leaders’ inability to control hard-core demonstrators on the edges of the rally site, and the prospect of further violent guerrilla-type clashes remains.
The mood in Red Shirts’ main camp was verging on panic at times as explosions-apparently from fireworks-reverberated around the area. Some demonstrators attempted to seek refuge on a large stage erected in the area, and opposition activist Mr. Nattawut pleaded with people not to break ranks. “Please stay calm. We will be here with you,” he said before launching into a song to help soothe demonstrators’ frayed nerves.
More than three dozen people have been killed and more than 300 injured since Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government on Thursday ordered army troops to end the monthslong antigovernment protest. The Red Shirts, many of them followers of ousted populist leader Thaksin Shinawatra, are demanding immediate elections to [fix] a political system that they say has been manipulated by powerful military officers and bureaucrats.
Their protest began peacefully on March 12, when tens of thousands of people flowed into Bangkok after Thai courts confiscated $1.4 billion of Mr. Thaksin’s family fortune. The court ruled that much of the wealth had been amassed through corruption-a ruling Mr. Thaksin decried as evidence of a political conspiracy against him following the 2006 coup that removed him as prime minister.
In recent weeks, as the demonstrators set up camp in Bangkok’s main shopping district, shutting down dozens of hotels and shopping malls, the protests have taken on a more violent tone. Around the periphery of the main camp, some demonstrators began throwing Molotov cocktails and other improvised explosive devices at security forces sent in to seal off the protest.
The army has used snipers to peg back the protesters in recent days. Witnesses have reported and have filmed marksmen using rifles with telescopic sights firing on unarmed demonstrators, in some cases shooting them in the head.
After the government announced its plans to crack down on the protesters on Saturday, the demonstrators initially expanded their territory, bringing them into regular conflict with security forces assigned to stop the protests from spreading.
Many hard-liners were also angered by the death on Monday of a rogue soldier who had defected to the Red Shirts’ cause. Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdipol was shot in the head last Thursday by unknown assailants, in an apparent assassination attempt.
Maj. Gen. Khattiya and many of his followers have been operating independently of the main protest leaders. Maj. Gen. Khattiya, in particular, had his own lines of communication to Mr. Thaksin, who now lives in Dubai in self-imposed exile to avoid imprisonment on a 2008 corruption conviction. Before he died, Maj. Gen. Khattiya said in an interview that his goal was to turn the Red Shirt protests into a full-blown revolt against the Thai state.
People involved in negotiations to end the protests say Mr. Thaksin has encouraged more militant Red Shirt leaders to continually add fresh demands, effectively delaying talks and a final agreement after Prime Minister Abhisit offered to hold a new election on Nov. 14. Mr. Thaksin denies deliberately sabotaging peace talks.
Last week, with scant sign of any progress, the Oxford-educated Mr. Abhisit withdrew his election offer and ordered troops to cordon off the demonstrations.
-Wilawan Watcharasaket and Phisanu Phromchanya contributed to this article.
Write to James Hookway at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Why did Red Shirt protest leaders surrender earlier today?
2. How did Red Shirt protesters react to their leaders’ announcement of surrender?
3. Describe the damage hard-line protesters caused to commercial districts around Bangkok after the leaders’ announcement.
4. What commerce closed down due to the protesters’ actions of today, as well as their previous actions?
5. Why did Thailand’s military move in on the protesters now, after their months of protesting?
6. What do people involved with the negotiations between the government and protesters accuse ousted Prime Minister Thaksin of doing?
7. Considering the damage and disruption to commerce and businesses around the city, the demands of the protesters, and the actions of the hard-line protesters, do you think the government is handling the situation correctly? Explain your answer.
Thailand’s government is a constitutional monarchy with two legislative houses; its chief of state is the king, and the head of government is the prime minister. The king has little direct power under the constitution but is the anointed protector of Thai Buddhism and a symbol of national identity and unity.
Since 1946, when King Bhumibol Adulyadej took the Thai throne as an 18-year-old, Thailand has seen nine coups and more than 20 prime ministers. Only two of 17 constitutions since absolute monarchy ended in 1932 have mandated parliaments that are entirely elected. The king, who is revered across the nation, has been in hospital since Sept. 19 and hasn’t spoken publicly about the current demonstrations. (from a telegraph.co.uk article)
BACKGROUND TO THE THAILAND PROTESTS: (from state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2814.htm under “History”)
Go to worldatlas.com for a map of Thailand.
Watch a news report from this morning: