Antigovernment protesters ended a three week occupation Tuesday in the Thai capital after four days of chaos that prompted the deployment of combat troops under emergency rule. The negotiated end to a tense standoff throws a lifeline to the beleaguered government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva, which protesters had sought to topple.
By midday, thousands of red-shirted demonstrators, who had camped at the prime minister's official compound, were filing out past security checkpoints, weary but defiant in the face of overwhelming military force. Protest leaders who had surrendered to authorities said they had agreed to stand down in order to avoid further bloodshed but insisted that their campaign would resume.
Thai government officials warn that the crisis isn't over, as resistance by protesters in Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand may flare again later, as it did Monday. But the decision to abandon a sprawling protest camp caught in a military pincer averted what threatened to turn into a bloody showdown.
Criminal charges will be laid against some protest leaders in connection with two thwarted attacks on the prime minister's motorcade and other violent incidents, says Panitan Wattanyagorn, a spokesman for Mr. Abhisit. He adds that it is premature to lift the state of emergency declared Sunday while other instigators remain at large.
"The center of gravity of the red shirts has collapsed but the outer rings are still active, so security forces may have to continue [operations] for the next few hours or next few days," he says.
Red vs. yellow
Behind the eruption of violence in Thailand is a political fault line that runs through a fast-modernizing society and reaches into divided families. On one side are admirers of exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and those who feel cheated by what they see as a flawed democracy. On the other side are opponents of Mr. Thaksin, who are more likely to align with the monarchy and other traditional elites.
The conflict has played out in disputed elections, a coup, and street rallies. Last year, yellow-shirted royalist protesters occupied the prime minister's compound and Bangkok's main airport, helping to oust two pro-Thaksin governments. The red shirts, known as the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) have adopted these tactics to snipe at Abhisit's four-month-old administration.
Thaksin is a unifying figure for UDD followers, who poured onto the streets and cheered his nightly video link speeches urging them to rise up and reclaim democracy. It's unclear what role he played in the negotiations that ended the occupation or how closely he directed, if at all, the recent mayhem.
Two people died Monday and more than 100 were injured in running battles that spread throughout the city. The clashes involved not only armed troops and protesters but also neighborhood toughs and shadowy militias, creating a sense of anarchy. Burning buses at arterial road junctions sent plumes of smoke into a cloudless sky. By night, streets lay deserted as residents shut themselves inside.
Who started it?
UDD officials say much of the street violence was instigated by agent provocateurs who wanted to discredit a peaceful movement and justify an excessive military crackdown. They argue that their movement is an umbrella for different pro-democracy groups and not simply pro-Thaksin.
But one senior security official says this doesn't square with the use of pro-UDD media to direct protesters to trouble spots in Bangkok. "It's organized. It's part of a plan to create chaos," he says.
Mr. Panitan says protesters had on Sunday also staked out Abhisit's family home in Bangkok. The prime minister is currently staying in a security command center in Bangkok, he says.
At a checkpoint Tuesday on a six-lane boulevard lined with giant portraits of Thailand's king and queen, soldiers and police searched red-shirted men and women for weapons and checked identity cards. Protesters from outside Bangkok were then directed to government-chartered buses for the journey home. Thailand is marking the Buddhist New Year and has extended a public holiday through Friday.
'Still fighting for democracy'
One of the detained leaders, Nattawut Saikua, sat in a police pickup truck, greeting passing supporters and smiling for TV cameras. He said this wasn't the end of his movement despite the surrender of the camp. "We were fighting for democracy and we're still fighting for democracy," he says.
Inside the abandoned camp, protesters kicked past plastic wrappers, discarded water bottles, and other debris scattered on the sun-baked streets. After a sleepless night waiting for a rumored military assault, many seemed relieved to be leaving, but struck a defiant tone when asked if their campaign had failed.
"We're leaving now because we lost to the guns. We will regroup and come back," says Natanan Liemong, a cook, as she carried her puppy toward the checkpoint, shaded by a purple parasol.