Thai protests draw to a close


BANGKOK — Thailand’s military has tamed a revolt that wounded more than 100 and left parts of the capital smoldering.

The Thai army finally ended weeks of raucous protests designed to humiliate Thailand’s government on Tuesday. Thousands of soldiers ringed the protesters’ main encampment — the prime minister’s invaded compound — and slowly closed in with M-16s and armed personnel carriers.

Defiant until the end, the political faction known as the “red shirts” vowed to regroup in the future. The group, which has adopted crimson as its signature hue, is largely backed by Thais who hail from the rice-farming upcountry. They insist that “one man, one vote” democracy has been thwarted by the kingdom’s aristocracy.

“We don’t want to be fighters,” said Nanthana Buathep, a matriarch from the northern Petchabun province. “But they have guns,” she said, nodding toward a wall of soldiers. “They have everything. And us? We’ve never so much as broken a tree branch.”

Streets surrounding the premier’s estate resembled a war zone, complete with glass shards and pavement charred black by Molotov cocktails. City buses hijacked by the red shirts, later used to blockade their camp, were still burning. Locals appeared with water hoses to douse the flames.

Exactly one week ago, more than 100,000 “red shirt” supporters crammed into the compound to rally against the Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the Democrat Party, denounced as corrupt elitists by protesters. On Saturday, a red-clad mob invaded a Thai beach town summit of Pacific world leaders, forcing prime ministers such as China’s Wen Jiabao to hurriedly escape. Others fled by airlift or speedboat.

But by the end, the protest was reduced to minutemen-style street fighters who blocked off Bangkok’s busiest districts. Protesters finally succumbed to soldiers, who were seen on Thai TV rushing forward and firing assault rifles into the air. The red shirts still claim members of their ranks were killed, though military spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd has said the soldiers only “ying keun faa” — or “fired up at the sky.”

“You’re killers!” shrieked Thornpipat Srithabon, 30, pointing at soldiers posted behind a coil of barbed wire. He claimed the army had killed at least 30 protesters. Others being forced out of the compound, which ran wild with rumors, said the body count was an unbelievable 300.

“If you want to fight,” Thornpipat screamed, “go fight the Cambodians!”

As soldiers surrounded the compound, known as “Government House,” leaders of the red shirt revolt encouraged their following to give up — for now. The Royal Thai Police Force even offered air-conditioned buses for protesters seeking a way home.

But the fight, leaders said, was far from over.

The movement’s de facto leader is Thaksin Shinawatra, a former businessman-turned-premier who was pushed out in a 2006 military coup. Tensions from his ouster still simmer among red shirts. His televised phone-ins have encouraged this all-out revolt.

But the faction’s leadership, and many of its faithful, say that Thaksin — now living in exile to escape corruption charges — should not define the struggle.

“This is not just about his survival,” said Jakrapob Penkair, one of the faction’s leaders. “His personality does not define our movement.”

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