Bangkok in flames as protesters refuse to back down
Bangkok is in flames as the government admits it lost control when protesters set fire to key buildings in the city following a day of running battles with troops which left 12 dead and 60 injured.
Damien McElroy and Ian MacKinnon
19 May 2010
Rioters set fires at the stock exchange, electricity headquarters, banks and government offices. Siam Theatre, a much loved city institution, collapsed in flames. Hundreds of people had to be rescued from the burning headquarters of Channel 3 television. The death toll since fresh outbreaks of violence on Thursday now stands at 51.
The government issued “shoot on site” orders for a dawn raid as troops tried to disperse 2,000 Red Shirts who had been camped in Rajprasong, the capital’s premier shopping and office district, for more than six weeks.
Seven of the Red Shirt leaders surrendered to police but militant gangs waged an arson and looting spree. The vast Central World shopping centre was torched as government troops shot to kill in a last ditch effort to defend it.
When the army finally marched cautiously into the protesters’ former stronghold they discovered that the 2,000 strong crowd had dwindled to one woman.
Kuesadee Narukan, an elderly nurse, stood holding a red flag in the deserted arena. The sound system remained on and rice was cooking on the boilers. “I am not afraid. I am ready for my punishment,” she said. “I am a fighter for democracy.
A few lame stragglers on the makeshift beds were arrested. The others had left for a sports stadium to be loaded on to buses for home.
A Red Shirt commander yesterday said that the violence would continue. “All this area will burn and wherever I go I am okay because the army is fighting ghosts far behind me,” the self-styled Commander Toei said. “They are attacking the Red Shirt stage but all of Bangkok is supporting our effort.”
An offer of early elections from Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, a 45-year old Old Etonian, has failed to defuse the impasse. In a televised address last night Mr Abhisit said that he would “get through” the crisis and “return peace” to the country.
“I would like people to feel confident that my government, all officials and I strongly intend to get through this and we will return peace to the country and recover”, he said.
A curfew from 8pm to 6am was in place last night to stop the violence but there were doubts it would hold. With the police acting as bystanders, the army is the only force that can impose order street-by-street during the first curfew in 18 years.
In a mark of how widespread trouble had become the curfew was later extended to 23 province.
The protesters wants the dissolution of parliament and rehabilitation of Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister deposed in 2006.
Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled prime minister who commands the loyalty of the Red Shirts, was however officially branded a terrorist last night.
Mr Thaksin yesterday denied he had control of the Red Shirts and said: “A military crackdown can spread resentment and these resentful people will become guerrillas.”
International concern over the violence in Thailand has grown more acute. Japan became the latest nation to call for a negotiated solution and the Foreign Office has strongly advised against all travel to the country.