BANGKOK // Thailand's political stand-off deepened yesterday as two leaders of the Red Shirt protest movement made a daring escape from a luxury hotel after it had been surrounded by dozens of police and military commandos.
The development embarrassed the government and left the security forces looking helpless, renewing speculation that the army is reluctant to crack down on the anti-government leaders after clashes between protesters and soldiers last Saturday left more than 20 people dead, including five soldiers. In response, Mr Abhisit yesterday announced that he was putting his army chief, General Anupong Paochinda, in charge of security operations, replacing the deputy prime minister, who had been in charge of the failed action last weekend as well as yesterday's botched raid.
Arisamun Pongruengrong, one of the most wanted and militant leaders of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, which is heading the Red Shirt movement, scaled down a rope from the balcony of his room on the third floor of the hotel - where he had been with a number of Red Shirt leaders - into the back of a pickup full of supporters. The lorry sped off to the main protest area in the heart of the capital city's commercial centre.
"They call me a terrorist; who's the terrorist?" he told The National on his arrival at the main stage. "Who has the guns? We don't." The prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, and the deputy prime minister, Suthep Thaugsuban, have both accused "terrorists" among the protesters for the violence last weekend, and arrest warrants have been issued for nearly 20 Red Shirt leaders. Mr Arisamun is high on the government's wanted list as he led the protesters' attack on parliament last Wednesday that spurred the declaration of a state of emergency by the prime minister that gives security forces increased power to remove the demonstrators.
"We will arrest and suppress the terrorists. We have set up special task forces to hunt down the terrorists," Mr Suthep told Thai journalists as the operation at the hotel was getting underway yesterday. But the raid failed to net any of its intended targets. "Police kicked the door open and threw smoke and stun grenades into the room. Luckily I ran to the window and used an electric cord to climb down," Mr Arisamun said.
Thousands of protesters, wearing red clothes to identify themselves and their cause, greeted him like a hero. "It was an 007-style escape," a Red Shirt spokesman, Sean Boonpracong said. "This has given us strength - we are invincible." The whole episode certainly buoyed the crowd which had begun to get weary after more than four weeks of protests in the streets of Bangkok. The charismatic politician immediately declared war on the government. "From now on our mission is to hunt down Abhisit and Suthep. Our patience is at its limit. This is a war between the government and the Red Shirts," he told the cheering crowds.
The Red Shirt protesters are mostly urban workers and rural people from the north and east of the country. Many of them support the former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup in 2006. They are demanding that Mr Abhisit dissolve parliament and call new elections. So far, there has been little word from the government on the demand, and the prime minister has been keeping a low profile while at the army headquarters on the outskirts of Bangkok.
The mood on the streets of the city was subdued yesterday following the end of the three-day national festivities for Songkran, the Buddhist New Year, on Thursday. "Mr Abhisit cannot continue to hide from the people," said Sathawut Srisaranukrom, 20, a law student. "He must hold elections as soon as possible and let the people decide who should be the government." Senior religious leaders, including Buddhists, Muslims and Christians, also voiced their concern at last weekend's violence at a seminar at Chulalongkorn University on Thursday, and expressed their support for renewed talks between the two sides. "If they refuse to make compromises, it will turn into anarchy," said Phra Dharmakosajarn, the Buddhist Maha Chulalongkorn Rajvidyala University's rector.
There is increasing speculation that if the political deadlock continues, another military coup may be in the offing. What is certain is that there are increasing divisions within the army, leading many to suspect they will resist any fresh orders to disperse the protesters. "There are some divisions in the armed forces," said Surachart Bumrungsuk, a military and politics professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
"Some units don't want to be involved in such a crackdown, while others wanted it to be more assertive." Some of the demonstrators who were killed during the crackdown appear to have been soldiers, according to a source in the forensic team examining the bodies who declined to be identified. But it is unclear if they had joined in the protests or were plainclothes infiltrators. firstname.lastname@example.org