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Thai ‘emergency’ cameras watch for Red Shirt uprising

Roadblocks surrounding the former "Red Shirt" protest zone smolder after a massive arson attack on the major shopping district in May in Bangkok. Buildings smoldered across central Bangkok and troops exchanged sporadic fire with pockets of holdouts a day after the army routed anti-government protesters in a push to end Thailand's deadliest political violence in nearly 20 years. (Associated Press)Roadblocks surrounding the former “Red Shirt” protest zone smolder after a massive arson attack on the major shopping district in May in Bangkok. Buildings smoldered across central Bangkok and troops exchanged sporadic fire with pockets of holdouts a day after the army routed anti-government protesters in a push to end Thailand’s deadliest political violence in nearly 20 years. (Associated Press)
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BANGKOK | To prevent another urban insurrection, dozens of surveillance cameras will monitor the streets where 90 people, mostly civilians, died and 1,400 were injured when the military battled Red Shirt protesters in April and May.

Thailand's military-backed government is exercising surveillance, imprisonment, censorship and other "state of emergency" powers across much of this Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian nation.

And members of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), commonly known as the Red Shirts for their distinctive colored clothing, say they are struggling to stay alive.

"Basically, we as an organization, we do not exist," said Sean Boonpracong, the UDD's international spokesman.

"What we are trying to do is trying to survive. There are 820 warrants for arrest, for Red leaders nationwide. I think just slightly over one-third have been arrested," Mr. Boonpracong, 60, said in an interview.

On Tuesday, the Thai government extended its state of emergency on about 25 percent of the country, including Bangkok, by three months. The state of emergency was first implemented on April 7. Authorities continue to seize Red leaders and other suspects on charges of terrorism and other crimes.

The International Crisis Group, a Belgian-based group that seeks nonviolent resolution, criticized the terrorism charges against the pro-democracy protesters, many of whom supported convicted fugitive Thaksin Shinawatra, the popularly elected prime minister until the U.S.-trained military toppled him in a 2006 bloodless coup.

"The government's use of terrorism charges to go after Red Shirt leaders, as well as Thaksin, is inappropriate for what was mostly a peaceful political movement that did not target civilians," the group said in a statement last week.

In its statement, the International Crisis Group noted that Thailand's "draconian" emergency decree also conveniently "grants officials immunity from prosecution."

Mr. Boonpracong said that military authorities interrogated him for six hours at the army's headquarters in Bangkok, seeking information about the Red Shirt movement and his involvement in it.

He said the army does not want the Reds to spur a domestic or international tribunal to investigate the government and military for its use of armored personnel carriers, assault rifles and other weapons to crush the insurrection that ultimately ended on May 19.

"I think the army is trying to intimidate us, to not form what we call 'this hearing,' for the deaths and the wounded," he said.

For Thais and foreigners not directly involved in the Reds' uprising, life is relatively normal, though some sectors of the economy took a severe hit. Canceled flights and low hotel occupancy have hobbled the tourism industry and slowed business in related areas such as restaurants, transportation and handicrafts.

Real estate speculation and fresh foreign investment also have sagged, prompting Thailand's regional rivals — Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia — to woo international investors looking for a safer haven.

Meanwhile, Thai and foreign media have been lashed by complaints from both sides: Government officials gripe that too soft an approach is given to the Reds, while the protesters claim the government's expensive, international public relations campaign is demonizing their struggle.

One media activist group, Freedom Against Censorship in Thailand, has had access to its website (facthai.wordpress.com) blocked from within Thailand.

Thousands of other websites also reportedly have been censored without explanation, except a notice appearing on users' screens in Thai and English:

"An access to such information has been temporarily ceased due to the order of the Centre for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES) under the authority of emergency decree."

Pro-Red radio, TV and print publications also are restricted.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told the BBC that the ban is necessary because the Reds' media have "been involved in incitement of violence. That's not something I think the country can afford."

Previously the Reds' extensive media network published graphic scenes of troops shooting protesters, bloody documentation of dead and injured victims, and strident speeches by demonstrators, Red leaders and Thaksin, plus rumors maligning the government.

"We need to restore order. The last thing we need now is a repeat of violence or clashes," Mr. Abhisit said, justifying the extension of the state of emergency.

Each day, the government defends its state of emergency by insisting that the Reds remain a threat.

For example, the Reds' UDD allegedly ran three weapons-training camps in the countryside, which have now been identified, Mr. Abhisit's Democrat Party spokesman, Tepthai Senpong, said Wednesday.

The camps were said to be in isolated hills, accessible by narrow dirt trails, including along the Thai-Burmese border, where the Reds reportedly received help from Burma's minority ethnic Karen Christian guerrillas.

"I think the information we have is enough for the authorities to follow up," Mr. Tepthai said.

It is difficult to know how many people have been detained, because some have "disappeared" either into jail or on the run, but the Reds estimate that more than 200 are behind bars while others are being hunted.

Court cases eventually will be filed against those who can be indicted, the government said, though that process is expected to be slow, especially in cases where officials want to press terrorism charges and need evidence to support prosecution.

The military's recently created Center for Resolution of the Emergency Situation said Thailand was "unstable" because a "distortion of facts and information continues, and missing weapons have not been returned to security agencies" after some Reds seized guns and ammunition during street clashes.

The government said most Red protesters were peaceful, but a mysterious, unidentified group used weapons against the military and staged arson attacks during the siege, possibly duping naive Reds and using them as a front during an attempted violent power grab.

In the aftermath of the government's crackdown, the Reds' UDD is now in limbo.

"We have not met, and we have not been doing anything as an organization," Mr. Boonpracong said. "We are all on our own, without an organization. Our office has closed down.

"All top 10 [Red] leaders are on the run, or are arrested. Several of them are in jail. We don't coordinate. Essentially, we don't exist. We don't exist."

During their nine-week protest, which began peacefully on March 12, the Reds demanded that parliament be immediately dissolved and elections be held.

Mr. Abhisit, who took office in December 2008, survived in power by obliterating the Reds' blockade, but the government and military now fear another uprising by frustrated Reds.

Today, inside a small secretive room, Thai police monitor a slew of closed-circuit TV cameras that display the upscale streets where thousands of Red Shirts lived for weeks behind barricades made of bamboo poles and tires.

The police cameras now show the Ratchaprasong area filled with shoppers, tourists and vehicles, after cleaners removed bloodstains, burned rubble, graffiti and bullet holes.

"We have 68 cameras in the Ratchaprasong area, and there will be more cameras installed," Chai Srivikorn, president of the Ratchaprasong Square Trade Association, said in an interview.

During their blockade, Red Shirts tied plastic bags over many of the earlier-installed cameras, blinding police monitors, Mr. Chai said.

To thwart such future civil disobedience, technicians are installing better cameras high atop Ratchaprasong's tall buildings and "other places where they cannot reach," and using wireless cameras with "a very high zoom power" to observe everyone along the commercial zone where the Reds were encamped behind barricades, he said.

"If it is an organized movement, [protesters] will identify any camera that they can reach," he said. "So to defend them, and make that more secure, it has to be high up where they cannot access. So that's why we have to put more cameras there."

Ratchaprasong's cameras and operating costs are funded privately by building owners, but stream digital video only to police, he said.

The government "plans for 10,000 cameras" to be installed elsewhere across Bangkok, including where other deadly clashes occurred.

"But that is a different [system]; it is more like at intersections" to monitor large crowds and traffic, Mr. Chai said.

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