x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Thai government carries battle to Red Shirts

Thailand's government insisted yesterday a clampdown on Red Shirt protesters will continue despite their plea for UN-mediated talks to end four days of street clashes with troops that have killed 30 people.

A Red Shirt protester throws a tyre onto a burning lorry.
A Red Shirt protester throws a tyre onto a burning lorry.

BANGKOK // Thailand's government insisted yesterday a clampdown on Red Shirt protesters will continue despite their plea for UN-mediated talks to end four days of street clashes with troops that have killed 30 people. A pause by the Thai military was unnecessary since troops were "not using weapons to crack down on civilians", said the government spokesman, Panitan Wattanayagorn. The government maintains it is only targeting armed "terrorists" among the demonstrators.

Mr Panitan's comments dashed hopes of an end to Thailand's worst political violence in decades, which has spiralled out of control and raised concerns of sustained chaos in this nation of 65 million people. Thailand is South East Asia's second-largest economy. According to government figures, 59 people have died and more than 1,600 have been wounded since the Red Shirts began their protests in March. The toll includes 30 civilians killed and 232 injured since Thursday in fighting that has turned parts of the city known for nightlife into an urban war zone.

A towering column of black smoke rose over the city Sunday as protesters facing off with troops set fire to tires serving as a barricade. Elsewhere, they doused a police traffic post with gasoline and burnt it as sporadic gunfire rang out. The Red Shirts have occupied a three-square-kilometre protest zone - barricaded by tires and bamboo spikes - in one of Bangkok's ritziest areas to push their demands for the prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, to resign immediately, dissolve parliament and call new elections.

Drawn mostly from the rural and urban poor, the Red Shirts say Mr Abhisit's coalition government came to power through manipulation of the courts and the backing of the powerful military, and that it symbolises a national elite indifferent to the poor. Soldiers have encircled the protest zone in a wide perimeter. Most of the fighting is taking place in the no-man's land in between. The Red Shirt fighters have used homemade gasoline bombs, firecrackers, rocks - and in some cases guns - to attack troops positioned behind sandbag bunkers. The soldiers have responded with rubber bullets and live ammunition.

Journalists have seen army snipers take aim through telescopic sights and fire to keep attackers at bay. With the Red Shirts' encampment virtually sealed off by troops, the protesters are running out of food and water and other supplies. "We are willing to negotiate immediately," Nattawut Saikua, one of the protest leaders, told reporters and supporters yesterday. "What's urgent is to stop the deaths of people. Political demands can wait."

Mr Nattawut said the United Nations must serve as a mediator in the talks because "we don't see any neutral and just organisations". In response, Mr Panitan said all groups using weapons to threaten security forces must "stop their actions immediately." Thailand is a sovereign nation and there was no need for the UN to get involved in internal matters, he said. A state of emergency, already in effect in 17 provinces, would be extended to five more provinces, Mr Panitan said. The emergency bans a gathering of more than five people and gives the military broad powers.

Yesterday, protest leaders told women and children with them to move to a Buddhist temple compound within the protest zone. In Thai tradition, temples are considered safe havens and will not be entered by anyone bearing arms. But many of the worst clashes yesterday were outside the protest zone with particularly fierce battles in a working-class neighbourhood where a large group of demonstrators gathered - an indication the unrest was spreading.

About 5,000 people are believed camped in the main protest zone, down from about 10,000 before fighting started Thursday after a sniper shot and seriously wounded a Red Shirt leader, a former army general who was their military strategist. His condition worsened yesterday, doctors said. * Associated Press