As armored personnel carriers stormed the tire and bamboo barricades, protest leaders announced their surrender to avoid further loss of life. Some 100, including 22 of the groups leadership committee, are now in prison, some facing terrorism charges. A government state of emergency was extended to 23 of the countrys 75 provinces and a nighttime curfew imposed, with troops patrolling Bangkok streets and searching vehicles.
Rallies protesting the military assault were reported in 20 provinces. Government buildings in four provincial cities were set on fire.
Thailand, with a population of 67 million, has Southeast Asias second largest economy. It has been a longtime ally of Washington in the region. Tens of thousands of people have been engaged in ongoing protests in Thailand since March, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the dissolution of parliament, and new elections. The United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), a coalition linked to deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, has led the protests. Many of the protesters are rural farmers and workers from the impoverished north of the country. More than two-thirds of the Thai population live in the countryside.
The anti-government protesters are known as Red Shirts. Thousands wore the shirts in demonstrations in April 2009 that forced the cancellation of a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations being held in the city of Pattaya.
In March 14 of this year, 150,000 Red Shirts marched in Bangkok, vowing not to leave until the government stood down. Protests of tens of thousands also took place in cities in the north.
After talks with the government ended in a stalemate in late March, protesters set up camp near Government House, later moving to occupy more than a square mile of the shopping and tourist district in central Bangkok in a well-organized tent city of some 10,000 people.
State of emergency imposed
The government imposed a state of emergency in Bangkok, banning meetings of more than five people and allowing authorities to detain people without trial. The government has shut down Web sites, television channels, and radio stations that support the Red Shirts.
In early May, Abhisit offered elections in November if the occupation was ended, but withdrew the offer after Red Shirts demanded a government minister be fired. The army then surrounded the protest camp and cut off water, food, and electricity. The next day, Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdiphol, an army officer who had aided the opposition, was shot by a sniper, sparking clashes with the troops. Khattiya died four days later.
Calls by protesters for a cease-fire were rejected and soldiers attacked the mainly unarmed Red Shirts with rifles and tear gas May 18. Many had already responded to the governments ultimatum to leave. Others fled to a nearby temple, which was subsequently attacked. Others fought back with homemade weapons and burning tires. As the camp was breached, protests broke out elsewhere in the city and more than 30 buildings were burned.
Thailand has been marked by political crises and military coups throughout its modern history. The latest crisis was sparked by a 2006 military coup that overthrew the government of Thaksin, a multimillionaire businessman. First elected in 2001, he won support from working people, especially in rural areas, with his populist rhetoric and reforms that included cheap credit, expanded access to health care, and some redistribution of land.
His government at the same time privatized state-owned enterprises and escalated the repression of Malays in the south fighting for autonomy.
Thaksins party again won elections in December 2007, but this and a subsequent Thaksin-allied administration were removed by the courts amid protests organized by the Peoples Alliance for Democracy (PAD). The middle-class supporters of the PAD wear yellow, the color of Thailands king. The party advocates having only 30 percent of parliament directly elected by the people, with the remainder appointed, in order to curb the influence of workers and peasants.
In December 2008, Democrat Party leader Abhisit formed a government with the backing of the military. Thaksin now lives in exile, facing a jail term in Thailand for corruption.
Thailands 82-year-old king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, a constitutional monarch who has previously played a key role in Thai politics, did not comment on the latest events. He has been hospitalized since September.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Gordon Duguid condemned Red Shirt actions May 19 while Australian foreign minister Stephen Smith cautioned against a further military coup. What we dont want to be dealing with into the future is a government of Thailand that is militarily-led, he said May 20.
The Red Shirts are reported to be well organized throughout Thailand. They have established radio stations, magazines, Web sites, and a television channel. During recent weeks they have blocked roads and rail lines believed to be carrying troops to Bangkok.
As Red Shirt protesters returned home, they vowed to continue their campaign. In the northern city of Chiang Mai, hundreds turned out to greet the protesters train, waving flags and holding placards calling Abhisit a murderer. New leaders will emerge soon and we will start again, said one of the protesters.
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