Thai police hunt protest leaders

Police hunted for 10 leaders of an anti-government movement today after combat troops quashed violent demonstrations in Thailand’s capital.

An arrest warrant also was out for ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the former owner of Manchester City FC.

Authorities were checking airports in case some tried to flee the country, television stations said.

Exiled Mr Thaksin had addressed the demonstrators nearly every night via video and called for a “revolution” as Bangkok spiralled into chaos.

He has lived largely overseas since being toppled by a military coup in 2006 for alleged corruption and was last known to be in Dubai.

A day after red-shirted protesters burned buses and seized intersections in clashes with police, soldiers and residents that left two people dead and 123 injured, their leaders called it quits yesterday and urged the remaining 2,000 diehard demonstrators to go home.

The swift and unexpected resolution headed off the possibility of a confrontation with heavily-armed troops massing around the demonstrators’ encampment near the seat of government. Dispirited protesters quietly boarded government buses watched over by soldiers.

But few expected it was the end of a rural-based movement that has shown the ability to mobilise 100,000 protesters and derail a weekend regional summit in its campaign to oust a government dominated by urbanites and to force new elections.

Charnvit Kasetsiri, a prominent Thai historian, said the “political convulsion” may be over for now, but the underlying tensions between the rural poor and urban elite highlighted during the demonstrations remained.

“The government has underestimated the wrath of rural and marginalised people and that is partly why they have not made enough effort to reach out to heal the rift. Without addressing that, this is not going to be the last riot,” he said.

But at least for the time being, prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, an Oxford-educated politician whom many regarded as too soft to handle crises, appears to have gained in stature while many Thais are denouncing Mr Thaksin for inciting his followers to lawlessless by his calls.

Editorials in Bangkok newspapers today urged Mr Abhisit to avoid political partisanship and address the grievances of the protest movement.

The demonstrations were a mirror of mass protests by urban groups last year that snarled Bangkok until a court removed a government led by Mr Thaksin’s allies who were elected on the strength of rural voters.

The appointment of Mr Abhisit further angered many rural people, who were already upset by the 2006 coup that ousted Mr Thaksin, and their disenchantment blew up into their own protest movement.

Three of the protest leaders were in police custody, metropolitan police spokesman Suporn Pansua said, and the Bangkok Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for 11 others, including Mr Thaksin, who fled into exile last year before a court convicted him of breaking a conflict-of-interest law.

The warrants accuse the protest leaders of creating a public disturbance and engaging in illegal assembly, which carry prison terms of up to seven and three years respectively.

“This is not a victory or a loss of any particular group,” Mr Abhisit said in a televised address. “If it is victory, it is victory of society that peace and order has returned.”

But he warned the threat from the red-clad protesters was not over.

“The operation under the state of emergency is not completed. There are still things to do,” he said. “There are still protesters in some areas. The only difference is they aren’t wearing red any more.”

Jakrapob Penkair, a protest leader who had not turned himself in, said the movement “will continue fighting”.

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