Thailand’s red shirt protesters defied a government deadline Monday to abandon an anarchic rally ringed by heavily armed security forces as the toll rose from five days of street fighting.
Government officials had said that protesters who stayed behind would face criminal charges. The government says armed “terrorists” are in the fortified camp and has called on protesters to disband their rally, now into its third month in the beleaguered capital. On the protest perimeter, barricades of burning tires sent up plumes of acrid black smoke.
Protest leaders say they want a cease-fire and have urged the government to restrain the troops. But a government spokesman said Monday that the rally and the violence must end before negotiations could resume. The impasse has raised fears that troops may shoot their way into the site, though it wasn’t immediately clear if the deadline would be the trigger.
Weng Tojirakarn, a red-shirt leader, says talks are still possible but accused troops of inflaming the situation by shooting unarmed protesters. “You must not ask soldiers to shoot like this,” he says, holding a newspaper with a picture of Army snipers.
Sanctuary at a temple
At a Buddhist temple inside the rally site, hundreds of red shirts lined up Monday to receive food and medicines from the Thai Red Cross. The temple has offered sanctuary to women, children, and the elderly, and some have bedded down in the leafy temple grounds.
But a government offer to evacuate people from the site ahead of Monday’s deadline went largely ignored. Protesters say they won’t quit, even though the military may be preparing to retake the area by force. Some said they would stay in the temple if the fighting intensifies. Others said they didn’t trust the government’s offer and feared retribution for their actions.
Mr. Weng says protesters are free to leave. “I tell everyone you must make your decision. If you think you want to go home, please go.”
Key protester dies
In the past five days, 35 people have died and around 250 have been injured in street clashes. Among them is Khattiya Sawasdipol, a renegade Army officer shot in the head by a sniper’s bullet, who died Monday in hospital. His death is likely to inflame his radical supporters, who are blamed for a string of grenade attacks.
Since last week, the military has sought to choke off supplies to the red-shirt camp, though small deliveries of water and food were seen arriving Monday. Red Cross workers say they have negotiated humanitarian access to the site, together with a nearby police hospital, and will not turn away protesters who refuse to leave.
“We’re just looking at their health… it’s up to them if they stay” at the rally, says Molphawan Kangwantas, a Red Cross official.
As tensions rise, the rally crowd is thinning out. On an access road where cackling young men fired rockets into the sky, a noodle vendor was packing up her equipment. “I’m going home,” she says.