Thai troops cleared the gutted remains of their armoured carriers from the site of last week’s bloody clashes after anti—government protesters vacated the area and shifted to an upscale shopping district to intensify their campaign to oust the prime minister.
Thailand’s long—running political crisis showed no signs of ending, with the Red Shirt protesters vowing that their new encampment in the Ratchaprasong shopping area will be their final battlefront.
The crisis has deeply divided this Southeast Asian nation into color—coded factions, threatening to sink an economy that had recently started to revive. The Red Shirts are bitterly opposed by the Yellow Shirts who support the government but have over the past few months stayed on the sidelines. Another group, the Pink Shirts, emerged recently through an Internet campaign by mainly urban professionals, who say they just want peace.
Tensions were likely to build up after the four—day lunar New Year festival of Songkran ends Friday.
The Red Shirts -- mainly rural poor -- accuse Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva of coming to power illegally. They want him to dissolve Parliament immediately and hold elections. They arrived in Bangkok from the provinces in droves a month ago and occupied the Democracy Monument in the Phan Fa neighborhood in the old part of the capital.
Thousands more took over the posh Ratchaprasong area, lined with shopping malls and five—star hotels, on April 5.
A failed attempt by security forces to flush the Red Shirts from Phan Fa on Saturday ended with bloody street battles, leaving 23 people dead and more than 800 wounded in Thailand’s worst political violence in nearly two decades. Another 195 people remain hospitalized, 14 of them in intensive care.
“We moved out of Phan Fa for the safety of our protesters,” protest leader Nattawut Saikua said. “And more importantly, the army would not be able to have any more excuse for clamping down on us. We’ve already cleared the area for them.”
“Ratchaprasong will be the last battlefront between us and Abhisit. Logistically we’d be more efficient. We’d better organize ourselves. Our troops would then be much more stronger,” he said.
After the Red Shirts moved out of Phan Fa, soldiers arrived with cranes to lift the burned out hulls of armored personnel carriers and trucks that were set on fire by protesters on Saturday. The remains were placed on trailer trucks, draped with tarpaulins and driven away.
Workers also removed red banners that had been wrapped around the Democracy Monument, a gigantic dome—shaped structure.
In a reflection of growing divisions in the country, about 700 Pink Shirts, who oppose the dissolution of Parliament gathered at a war memorial in the middle of a traffic roundabout in Bangkok on Wednesday. The Pink Shirts planned another demonstration on Thursday.
Most of the Pink Shirts came together through Facebook by joining a fan page called “No Dissolution of Parliament Group,” which had a following of more than 280,000.
“I think it’s time to make our voice heard,” said Somchai Siripaiboonpong, 57, who works in finance. “Each claims that they’re the majority, but no one group is representative of the population,” he said.
At loggerheads in the yearslong struggle for power in Thailand are the rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra -- who was ousted in a 2006 coup -- and the traditional ruling elite represented by Abhisit and his allies.
The coup was followed by elections in December 2007 that were won by Thaksin’s political allies. But they faced months of street protests by Yellow Shirts who accuse Thaksin of corruption. Although the pro—Thaksin government did not bow to the protests it was forced out of office by a court decision that the Red Shirts found dubious.
The resulting political vacuum was filled by Abhisit’s opposition coalition in December 2008. The Red Shirts claim Abhisit, whose supporters include business leaders, the military brass and members of the urban middle class, took power illegitimately because he didn’t win any election.