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Thailand: riots rage after protest crackdown

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 19 May 2010

Riots flare up in Bangkok after Thai military vehicles smash barricades to move in on the red shirt protest camps, forcing the leaders to surrender. Asia correspondent Nick Paton Walsh on the latest from Thailand, as reports emerge of pockets of resistence up to 1,000 people strong.

Key red shirt leaders surrendered to authorities after the military moved into the camps that had been occupied by demonstrators for more than six weeks.

Protest leaders told followers they were formally ending their sit-in, but supportrs urged them to fight on.

Clashes between protesters and troops continued. Protesters torched at least five buildings, including the Thai stock exchange and Central World, southeast Asia's second-biggest department store complex.

Channel 3 television station was also attacked, where around 100 employees were trapped on the roof and had to be rescued by helicopter.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva imposed a curfew in Bangkok on Wednesday from 8pm until 6am on Thursday local time (1300 to 2300 GMT Wednesday). The curfew has now been extended to 21 provinces. 

More Channel 4 News coverage of the Thailand protests:
- Thailand protests: how did we get here?
- Map: army moves in on Thai protesters
- Blog: methodical crackdown has changed the city
- More blogs from Nick Paton Walsh in Bangkok

Who are the red shirts?
The anti-government red shirt protesters make up the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD). They are mainly the rural poor and urban working classes. Many are supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup.

They are demanding current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva calls an immediate election. The movement has hundreds of "red shirt guards" to provide security at rallies, but insists their protests are peaceful.

However, there is a more violent wing to the movement - the black shirts - but the UDD says it does not know who they are.

"The question is what happens to the black shirts," said Asia correspondent Nick Paton Walsh. "What they do now is key."

Read: Nick Paton Walsh on the background to the protests

Troops and armoured vehicles broke through three-metre-high barricades of tyres and bamboo this morning. They fired tear gas and automatic rifles at the red-shirted protesters.

View Bangkok protest clampdown in a larger map

Spreading north
The violence also spread to northeast Thailand, a red shirt stronghold. Protesters set fire to town halls in three major cities. There was also reports of disruption in at least seven other provinces.

The former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is living in self-imposed exile to avoid jail, told Reuters: "There is a theory saying a military crackdown can spread resentment and these resentful people will become guerrillas."

Today's military action followed on from the collapse of talks between protesters and the authorities yesterday. The red shirts are demanding an immediated election, and 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.

Asia correspondent Nick Paton Walsh writes:
It will probably change Bangkok's busy heart forever.

I'm barely ever here as I'm travelling, but this morning's final and thus far methodical crackdown has altered the city I know.

The statue down by Silom outside the park, where you can go on a boat in the lake: there are dead bodies down there now and armoured personnel carriers.

The supermarket outside my flat and the hairdressers on the bottom floor of my apartment building: both looted. Our bureau, now surrounded by the final stragglers of this protest, the sky at times thick with tyre smoke, peppered with helicopters.

Both political sides of this conflict were so entrenched in their disgust for the other, there were fears this was the only way out. Those fears were this morning proven right.

They began at the south end of Silom Road. APCs rolling up, then tear gas, then the barricades crashed. We stood on the street as gunfire cracked around us, and the occasional loud blast of military grade explosive shook the crowd.

Who's left in this diehard protest? Well, the Red Shirts have always had housewives in their numbers, and always had hardened militants.

Down on the frontline with the army today were the gunmen - I saw one protestor with a pistol run back for cover. But a few hundred metres further up was an elderly woman quietly washing her tomatoes.

The army have been advanced, the injured from their live rounds carried away. The acceptability of the military using this sort of firepower on a protest that is marred by the occasional armed militant, but not predominantly violent, will be debated in the coming weeks.

What matters now is how the advancing army - one of the region's most organised - will move the thousands of unshaken protestors ahead of them.

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