Redshirts Leave, but Resolution Unlikely Soon

A firefighter on May 20 works to control the fire that burned all night at CentralWorld shopping mall, attacked by Redshirt protesters in Bangkok, Thailand. (Photo: Paula Bronstein/ Getty Images)

"We will be back," said a quietly defiant Chompoo Nutch, sitting halfway down a rickety red bus bound for Bangkok's main train station, from whence she and some of the last remaining redshirt protestors in Bangkok will make their way home.

Dozens of buses filled up with evacuees from the main Rajaprasong rally site in central Bangkok, and by 2:00 p.m. today 20 awaited clearance to move off. Some are bound for towns and cities to the north and east of Bangkok.

The Thai army launched a final crackdown on the main redshirt protest area Wednesday, leading to the surrender of the main protest leaders. Redshirt leaders told protesters at the group's rally site in Bangkok of their intention to surrender to police, and asked the protesters to evacuate the site and return home. This provoked anger among a hardcore group of armed militants. These have fought on, burning the shopping malls under which the Reds have sheltered at their main protest site.

Burnt-out piles of tires were pulled away by trucks and bulldozers after armed personnel carriers ramped over and through the barricades. Journalists following events were penned in by crossfire at Ratchadamri, after statements by militants that reporters would be targeted. Journalists at Bangkok Post said they were evacuating their building following threats from the Redshirts.

After an Italian reporter was shot dead, a Canadian journalist was wounded by shrapnel from an m79 grenade, which appeared to come from the protestor side, landing less than 20 meters away from this correspondent. A group of around 40 reporters were pinned down as the Thai army fired back, close to Sarasin Junction.

With core leaders mostly in police custody right now, whether or not the Redshirts will be back in Bangkok soon remains to be seen. When its leadership announced to the crowd yesterday that they were giving themselves up, saying that the rally was over, some protestors reacted angrily. Hardcore militants continued to fight the advancing Thai soldiers a kilometer away from the main rally stage. Grenades started to land on Ratchadamri Road and in Lumpini Park minutes after the Redshirt leaders announced that the rally was over.

The Redshirt movement appears divided, and the prospect of a negotiated settlement with the government has caused ructions within the leadership for at least two weeks now. Deceased commando "Seh Daeng" lambasted Veera Musikapong for what he viewed as compromising with the government over the "roadmap" proposed by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva. Some Redshirt leaders wanted to go with this plan, seeing it as a victory for their then-six-week-long protest. Others saw it as insufficient and apparently did not trust the government's bona fides.

The government today said it will move ahead with the roadmap in any case. Whether or not the Redshirts can coalesce around this and divert energies into an election campaign remains to be seen. Divisions could take some time to heal. Chompoo Nutch said she understood why the leaders made their emotional stand-down yesterday. "They did not want us to get hurt," she said. "The army would have killed us all if they did not surrender."

In the hours after the rally ended, looting, burning and rioting took place in a number of locations across Bangkok, even after the city fell deathly quiet to meet an 8:00 government curfew. A radicalized minority of violence-inclined Redshirts could stymie any attempt by Redshirts to focus solely on an election, alongside the affiliated Peau Thai party.

Given that the current government under the Democrat Party and Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva came to power after courts dissolved the predecessor party to Peau Thai, and this after prior Yellowshirt protests were let go unpunished, Redshirts can feel justifiably distrustful of conventional politics in Thailand, even if the rime minister commits to a November 14 election this year. Redshirts will wonder if the result will be respected by Yellowshirts and their allies in the military, bureaucracy and business elites, if Peau Thai wins, which is the expected outcome.

An election campaign anytime soon is likely to be bitter and potentially violent, as a Rubicon has been crossed by the unprecedented scenes of street fighting in Bangkok in recent weeks. The army has been criticized for reckless combat behavior, including firing on unarmed protestors. Redshirts stand accused of lying about their adherence to nonviolent methods, after attacks on army positions by a minority of militants. Journalists have been on the wrong end of a remarkably high hit rate, with two killed and the numbers of injuries running into double figures. Both sides are guilty of readily dismissing apparent wrongdoings on their own side as attributable to a mysterious "third hand."

This does not augur well for the future of Thailand. Some of Southeast Asia's biggest and glossiest shopping centers are gutted, black, smoldering heaps, with militants still holed up inside and battling troops. This correspondent was not permitted to enter the Rajaprasong area earlier today, with soldiers saying that the fighters inside were targeting journalists. "Come back when this is finished," was the translation I received. However, Thailand's four-year political face-off might not be "finished" for some time yet.

This article was originally published in two parts by The Irrawaddy:

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