Bangkok burns as protesters surrender

By Adrees Latif and Damir Sagolj

BANGKOK (BestGrowthStock) – Rioting and fires swept Bangkok on Wednesday after troops stormed a protest encampment, forcing anti-government protest leaders to give up but triggering clashes that killed at least six and sparked unrest in Thailand’s north.

The Thai government extended an overnight curfew in Bangkok to 21 provinces as unrest spread from the capital to seven provinces, with town halls burned in three northern areas, strongholds of anti-government protesters.

“Red shirt” protesters earlier torched at least 17 buildings in the capital Bangkok, including the Thai stock exchange and Central World, Southeast Asia’s second-biggest department store complex. The store was gutted by fire and looked like it may collapse, said a Reuters witness.

The unrest is now the “most widespread and most uncontrollable” political violence Thailand has ever seen, said Charnvit Kasetsiri, a prominent political historian. Wednesday’s violence came exactly 18 years after unrest known as “Black May.”

It was unclear whether the continued rioting, after protest leaders surrendered, was a final outpouring by anti-government forces or the start of more intense, widespread fighting.

“The situation is worse than expected now and it’s very difficult to stop,” said Kavee Chukitsakem, head of research at Kasikorn Securities. “After the red shirt leaders surrendered, things were out of control. It’s like insects flying around from one place to another, causing irritation.”

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva earlier imposed a curfew in Bangkok, a city of 15 million people, on Wednesday from 8 p.m. (9 a.m. ET) until 6 a.m. on Thursday (7 p.m. ET Wednesday).

Travellers heading overseas or returning to Thailand during the curfew will need to show their passports to security forces to get through checkpoints.

A news blackout has also been imposed, with local TV running programs of dancing and flag-waving Thais, periodically interrupting them for government statements like the extension of the curfew.

“It’s going to be hard to quell this, and tonight is going to be very ominous with the media taken off air and the curfew in place. There will be chaos and a widespread crackdown can be expected,” said Charnvit.

Authorities have ordered medical and disaster teams to be on standby as troops continue operations overnight. Bangkok was quiet soon after the curfew began, said sources on the streets.

Thailand’s Stock Exchange, which closed early on Wednesday, will close on Thursday and Friday, along with the city’s banks, as a result of the continued violence.

Thailand’s benchmark stock index ended up 0.71 percent at 765.54 on Wednesday. Analysts said some investors bought on news the military had moved in to disperse protesters who have paralyzed a central commercial district for more than six weeks.

“For investors, it is going to take years to bring credibility back to the country,.” The market fundamentals are just not the same any more, said Kongkiat Opaswongkarn, head of Asia Plus Securities.

VIOLENCE SPREADING

The red shirts accuse the British-born, Oxford-educated Abhisit of lacking a popular mandate after coming to power in a controversial parliamentary vote in 2008 with tacit backing from the military. They have demanded immediate elections.

“It would be suicide to launch an election in this environment,” Thai Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij told the BBC, adding an end-of-year poll may still be possible.

The offensive came a day after the collapse of proposed talks aimed at ending what had become urban warfare. More than 70 people have been killed and close to 2,000 people wounded since the demonstrations began in mid-March.

Troops in armored vehicles and firing semi-automatic weapons advanced on the protesters’ camp on Wednesday morning in a bloody operation which led to several top protest leaders surrendering.

They broke through the protesters’ three-meter-high (10 feet) barricades of tires and bamboo,

Minutes after the protest leaders surrendered, three grenades exploded outside the main protest site, badly wounding two soldiers and a foreign journalist, a Reuters witness said.

Several media organizations, including the Bangkok Post and the Nation newspapers, evacuated their office after a threat from protesters accusing them of biased reporting.

Power was lost in typically bustling Sukhumvit Road district, an area packed with tourists and high-end residential complexes, just hours after the army said the situation involving thousands of anti-government protesters was under control.

But many tourists remained holed up in their hotels unable to leave the buildings safely as sporadic violence erupted.

About 100 employees of the TV station Channel 3 were trapped on the roof of a high-rise when it came under attack, but most were rescued by helicopters, local media said.

Three journalists were among 50 people wounded in Bangkok on Wednesday. One Western journalist, an Italian, was killed.

Two bodies were found on Ratchadamri Road, which leads to the main protest area, a Reuters witness said. They appeared to have been shot. The red shirts fired back, witnesses said.

The mostly rural and urban poor protesters broadly support former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a graft-convicted populist billionaire ousted in a 2006 coup and living in self-imposed exile to avoid jail.

Thaksin raised the specter of insurrection in a telephone interview with Reuters on Wednesday.

“There is a theory saying a military crackdown can spread resentment and these resentful people will become guerrillas,” Thaksin said. He declined to say where he was speaking from.

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(Additional reporting by Nopporn Wong-Anan and Ambika Ahuja; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Paul Tait)

Bangkok burns as protesters surrender