Protesters shun talks after clashes in Bangkok kill 18, including Japanese journalist

By Jocelyn Gecker, AP
Saturday, April 10, 2010

Protesters shun talks after deadly Bangkok clashes

BANGKOK — Anti-government protesters said Sunday they would not negotiate an end to violence in the Thai capital after savage clashes between activists and soldiers that killed at least 18 people and injured hundreds.

Thousands of “Red Shirt” protesters swarmed back into an area that had briefly been taken by government forces Saturday night. Bullet casings, rocks and pools of blood littered the streets as protesters showed off a pile of weapons captured from the troops, including rifles and heavy caliber machine-gun rounds.

“There is no more negotiation. Red Shirts will never negotiate with murderers,” a key protest leader, Jatuporn Prompan, announced from a makeshift stage. “Although the road is rough and full of obstacles, it’s our duty to honor the dead by bringing democracy to this country.”

Hopes had been expressed that the two sides would come to the negotiating table after the worst violence in Bangkok since four dozen people were killed in a 1992 antimilitary protest.

Late Saturday, army troops pulled back and asked protesters to do the same, resulting in an unofficial truce.

Five soldiers and 13 civilians, including a Japanese cameraman for the Thomson Reuters news agency, were killed, according to the government’s Erawan emergency center.

Thai television showed Red Shirts parading some soldiers they said were captured by the protesters. It wasn’t clear how many soldiers they held, or what their status was on Sunday morning. The government did not disclose how many protesters had been detained.

Arrest warrants previously were issued for 27 Red Shirt leaders, but none is known to be in custody.

Editorials in Bangkok newspapers Sunday called for urgent talks between the government and so-called “Red Shirts,” noting some protest leaders were ready for negotiations.

The violence erupted after security forces tried to push out demonstrators who have camped in parts of the capital for a month and staged disruptive protests demanding that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva dissolve Parliament and call new elections.

The demonstrations are part of a long-running battle between the mostly poor and rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and the ruling elite they say orchestrated the 2006 military coup that removed him from power amid corruption allegations.

The protesters, called “Red Shirts” for their garb, see the Oxford-educated Abhisit as a symbol of an elite impervious to the plight of Thailand’s poor and claim he took office illegitimately in December 2008 after the military pressured Parliament to vote for him.

Saturday’s violence and failure to dislodge the protesters are likely to make it harder to end the political deadlock. Previously, both sides had exercised considerable restraint.

Abhisit “failed miserably,” said Michael Nelson, a German scholar of Southeast Asian studies working in Bangkok.

Tanet Charoengmuang, a political scientist at Chiang Mai University sympathetic to the Red Shirt’s cause, said he expects the fighting will resume because the protesters are unafraid and the government refused to listen to them.

Abhisit went on national television shortly before midnight to pay condolences to the families of victims and indirectly assert that he would not bow to the protesters’ demands.

“The government and I are still responsible for easing the situation and trying to bring peace and order to the country,” Abhisit said.

Nelson said he had been hopeful the situation would calm down after the troops pulled back but that Abhisit’s TV appearance raised doubts because he seemed “totally defiant.”

The army had vowed to clear the protesters out of one of their two bases in Bangkok by nightfall, but the push instead set off street fighting. There was a continuous sound of gunfire and explosions, mostly from Molotov cocktails, for more than two hours.

Army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd went on television to ask the protesters to retreat as well. He also accused them of firing live rounds and throwing grenades. An APTN cameraman saw two Red Shirt security guards carrying assault rifles.

At least 825 people were injured, according to the Erawan emergency center. The deaths included Japanese cameraman Hiro Muramoto, who worked for Thomson Reuters. In a statement, Reuters said he was shot in the chest and the circumstances of his death were under review.

Most of the fighting took place around Democracy Monument, but spread to the Khao San Road area, a favorite of foreign backpackers.

Soldiers made repeated charges to clear the Red Shirts, while some tourists watched. Two protesters and a Buddhist monk with them were badly beaten by soldiers and taken away by ambulance.

A Japanese tourist who was wearing a red shirt was also clubbed by soldiers until bystanders rescued him.

Thai television showed Red Shirts parading some soldiers they said were captured by the protesters. They also staged protests in other provinces, seizing the provincial hall in the northern city of Chiang Mai, Thaksin’s hometown. But the protesters left the hall by Sunday.

Abhisit declared a state of emergency Wednesday night after protesters briefly broke into Parliament and forced lawmakers to flee on ladders over a back wall, with senior officials hastily evacuated by helicopter. On Friday, the police and army failed to prevent demonstrators from breaking into the compound of a satellite transmission station and briefly restarting a pro-Red Shirt television station that the government had shut down.

The humiliating rout raised questions about how much control Abhisit has over the police and army.

Thailand’s military has traditionally played a major role in politics, staging almost a score of coups since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

The Red Shirts have a second rally site in the heart of Bangkok’s upscale shopping district, where they remained Sunday even after more troops were sent there Saturday. The city’s elevated mass transit system known as the Skytrain, which runs past that site, stopped running and closed all its stations for the second day Sunday.

Merchants say the demonstrations have cost them hundreds of millions of baht (tens of millions of dollars), and luxury hotels near the site have been under virtual siege.

Associated Press writers Grant Peck, Kinan Suchaovanich, Denis D. Gray and Thanyarat Doksone contributed to this report.

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