Leaders of demonstrations that plunged Thailand’s capital into chaos said today they were calling off their protests after combat troops ringed their last stronghold.
About 2,000 diehard protesters began to abandon their encampment around the seat of government in Bangkok following two days of rioting that left two dead and more than 120 injured in clashes between troops and demonstrators.
“We have decided to call off the rally today because many brothers and sisters have been hurt and killed. We don’t want everybody to suffer the same and we will not allow more deaths,” said key protest leader Jatuporn Phromphan.
He said the protesters, who are demanding the resignation of prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, “can come back and fight again. Democracy will not end today”.
Mr Jatuporn said the leaders were ready to give themselves up to authorities, though there were no reports of arrest warrants.
Earlier, army spokesman Col Sansern Kaewkamnerd had said troops were ready to move against the protesters, who had been encamped around Government House since March 26 and Mr Jatuporn had vowed that they would make their last stand there.
Col Sansern said only 2,000 protesters remained around Government House – the demonstrations had swelled to 100,000 last week – but that troops still had to cordon off four potential flashpoints in the city.
Most of Bangkok’s newspapers, irrespective of their political leanings, had lashed out at the protesters with editorials describing them as “thugs” and “urban terrorists”.
Mr Abhisit praised the efforts of security forces, saying they used “soft means” and “prevented as much damage as possible”, though ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra – the man most protesters consider their leader - accused the military of covering up the number of people killed in the day’s battles.
Mr Abhisit said the news that two people had been killed and 12 wounded in a gun battle between protesters and residents at Nang Lerng market was “a regrettable incident”. But he said that “with the co-operation of the public, I believe success (in restoring peace) is near”.
Political tensions have simmered since 2006 when former Manchester City FC owner Mr Thaksin was ousted by a military coup amid accusations of corruption and abuse of power, a year after he won re-election in a landslide. He remains popular in the impoverished countryside for his populist policies.
Since then, political tensions have run high between his supporters, known as “red shirts” and the so-called “yellow shirts”, a mix of royalists, academics, professionals and retired military who oppose the former prime minister.
Last year, the yellow shirts shut down Bangkok’s two main airports, ending their demonstrations only after a court disqualified the pro-Thaksin prime minister on complaints of fraud in the 2007 elections. Mr Abhisit was later appointed prime minister.
The red shirts took to the streets last month, using tactics similar to those of their rivals last year. They accuse the country’s elite – the military, judiciary and other unelected officials – of interfering in politics, and are seeking Mr Thaksin’s rehabilitation. Their numbers grew to 100,000 in Bangkok last week.
Protesters had been stationed at half a dozen points in Bangkok, defying government-imposed state-of-emergency measures that ban gatherings of more than five people.
Yesterday, protesters hijacked and torched public buses to block several key intersections, set tyres and vehicles on fire and sent two unmanned buses, one of them burning, hurtling toward lines of soldiers.
They hurled a small explosive into the Army Headquarters compound, burning an armoured vehicle, and when a building in the Education Ministry compound caught fire, they attempted to block approaching fire trucks.
In a confrontation near Victory Monument, a major traffic circle, a line of troops in full battle gear fired volleys of M16 fire over the heads of protesters, and turned water cannons on the crowd.
The army spokesman said troops fired blanks into the crowds and live shots overhead. But in an appearance on CNN, Mr Thaksin accused the military of lying, saying soldiers used live ammunition, killed protesters and dragged away their bodies.
“They shot people. Many died. Many people were injured,” he said.
But Mr Abhisit dismissed Mr Thaksin’s claim, saying “if there were that many people killed, it would not have escaped the eye of the media”.