- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 20, 2010

BANGKOK | Using armored personnel carriers, the Royal Thai Army on Wednesday crushed the makeshift barricades of Red Shirt protesters, who retreated and set fire to the stock exchange, shopping malls, banks and offices as their six-week-long occupation of downtown Bangkok came to a smoky and bloody end.

Black smoke billowed above the city’s modern skyline and bloodstained debris lined some major thoroughfares in the aftermath of this Southeast Asian capital’s worst security crisis in decades. Reports of minor skirmishes and looting continued into the evening while Thailand’s biggest shopping mall faced collapse after it was set ablaze by enraged protesters.

In response, the government set an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew on Bangkok and 23 of Thailand’s 76 provinces. Soldiers were given orders to fire at arson suspects in the city.

Officials broadcast pleas on nationwide TV for the public to hunt down the thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators who fled the barricades before the military assault.

Government offices were ordered shut for the rest of the week, and many businesses told their staffs not to return to work Thursday. Bangkok’s rail service also was suspended.

Officials said at least nine people died Wednesday, including Italian photographer Fabio Polenghi, and 60 were injured, including four soldiers.

A few Red Shirt leaders surrendered and were arrested. Others disappeared.

“Just because we surrender to the authorities doesn’t mean we have lost,” Jatuporn Prompan, a top Red Shirt leader, said when he surrendered to police after the assault. “We will fight again.”

The captured Red Shirts were expected to be charged as terrorists after Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva condemned them for paralyzing Bangkok through rallies staged at the one-square-mile downtown site since April 3.

“The end of the rally has dissatisfied some protesters, especially those who are armed,” Mr. Abhisit said. “So they created trouble, particularly arson in some areas.”

Worried that the Red Shirts might have booby-trapped their barricades — made mostly of sharpened bamboo poles and stacks of rubber tires — security forces used truck-mounted, high-pressure water hoses to soak a 6-foot-high section of the barriers.

The assault started just after breakfast time on deserted Rama 4 Road, which normally would have been packed with commuter traffic.

Several of the army’s Chinese-built armored personnel carriers (APCs) noisily advanced, reinforced with sandbags covered by plywood on the outside of the vehicles, above the clanking treads. The APCs repeatedly drove into the saturated barricades.

Despite the difficulty some drivers had maneuvering APCs, they easily crushed the barricades and accelerated onto a flat, cement-covered area next to a larger-than-life raised statue of the late King Rama VI at the gated entrance to Lumpini Park.

Steel-helmeted soldiers armed with assault rifles and shotguns nervously followed on foot, already sweating profusely in the tropical morning’s humidity and heat.

Their live-ammunition assault seemed easy until a handful of shots erupted, unleashing scattered gunfire between troops and die-hard protesters along the park.

Soldiers crouched behind concrete structures — and one another — amid stinking, fly-covered garbage left by thousands of Red Shirts who had fled the barricaded area before the assault.

The bloodied corpses of two male protesters lay on the sidewalk, side by side, partially covered by a red blanket and guarded by soldiers.

Several horrific booms echoed as grenades exploded near expensive offices, condominiums and other buildings.

After slowly advancing less than a mile along Ratchadamri Road and firing toward the central intersection of the barricaded zone, troops paused on a corner of Sarasin Road, where young professionals usually gather most nights to enjoy bars offering live music.

Thirsty soldiers found storage boxes packed with ice and bottled water, abandoned by the fleeing Red Shirts.

They waited among the debris of tangled clothing, woven sleeping mats, plastic kitchenware, piles of fresh vegetables and other comforts that had turned the Red Shirts’ barricaded area into a rural village superimposed on the upmarket heart of Bangkok.

Thousands of Red Shirts hurriedly dumped their tents, vendor stalls, diesel-powered electric generators and other items. Several Molotov cocktails stood on a table, and a slingshot lay next to a pile of rocks, remnants of the protesters’ desperate weaponry.

During sporadic exchanges of gunfire, troops captured eight men and five women whom they blindfolded and secured by tying their hands behind their backs.

Two captured men, dressed as Buddhist monks, were allowed to stand to the side, out of respect in this Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian nation.

The lull dissolved when sustained loud explosions and rifle fire pounded around the area.

By early afternoon, the army confidently advanced to the center of the barricades, at Ratchaprasong intersection.

The military’s respite was short-lived.

Hundreds of Red Shirts had remained outside the barricades that formed a one-square-mile rectangle around the upmarket Ratchaprasong intersection. Fleeing rioters set fire to one of Asia’s biggest shopping malls, the luxurious Central World, that flanked the square.

Women, children and elderly men sought shelter in a nearby Buddhist temple.

Arsonists and looters torched 20 buildings, including a nearby upscale mall, Siam Square. They also set fire to a movie theater, a TV station, the Stock Exchange of Thailand, several bank branches, and other offices and buildings.

In northeast Thailand, where Red Shirts have widespread support, red-clad protesters set fire to city halls in the provinces of Khon Kaen, Mukdahan, Udom Thani and Ubon Ratchathani — where two people were fatally shot, according to TV reports.

They also burned Chiang Mai’s City Hall in the pro-Red Shirt north.

At least 80 people have died, and 1,000 wounded, since the Red Shirts began their insurrection on March 12 by occupying another site in Bangkok.

On April 3, they moved to the more strategic Ratchaprasong intersection, Bangkok’s equivalent to New York’s Times Square.

The protesters, mostly rural folk, demanded that parliament be immediately dissolved and a nationwide election be held because they felt disenfranchised after a bloodless military coup in 2006 that toppled the elected prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin is an international fugitive, convicted of corruption and dodging a two-year prison sentence. He reportedly funded much of the Red Shirts’ protests in a bid to get back $1.2 billion of his family’s assets, which the government froze in a separate corruption case.

Many Red Shirts revere Thaksin, even though he was a ruthless and repressive prime minister whose policies led to the killings of more than 2,000 people in his “war on drugs.”

Thaksin, however, showered the poor with tax-funded benefits, including cheap health care and easy loans.

In a show of generosity after smashing the barricades, Mr. Abhisit offered free transportation to thousands of men, women and children who had arrived in Bangkok during the past nine weeks, mostly from the north and northeast of Thailand, in support of the Red Shirts.

Many of them spent Wednesday sheltering in Buddhist temples and other locations in Bangkok, fearful of arrest.

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