Peace restored in Thailand
Thailand's leader promised an independent probe into "all events" surrounding the Red Shirt anti-government protests and called yesterday for reconciliation to heal deep political divisions that led to widespread violence and 83 deaths in two months.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, addressing the nation in a televised speech, made no mention of new elections, a key demand of the Red Shirts.
"Fellow citizens, we all live in the same house. Now, our house has been damaged. We have to help each other," Abhisit said.
"We can certainly repair damaged infrastructure and buildings, but the important thing is to heal the emotional wounds and restore unity among the Thai people," the Oxford-educated Abhisit said in an emotional speech that contrasted with his typical academic style.
He said order had been restored in Bangkok, where soldiers overran a Red Shirt encampment Wednesday after a week of street fighting. The crackdown climaxed two months of violence in which 83 people died and more than 1,800 were injured.
Abhisit acknowledged the "huge challenges" in overcoming the divisions, which he said can be achieved through a five-point reconciliation plan that he had announced earlier.
"That plan is based on the principle of participation, democracy and justice," he said. It includes economic and media reforms and aims to reduce social and economic divisions in Thai society, which the protesters, mostly the rural and urban poor, had railed against.
They say Abhisit came to power illegitimately and is oblivious to their plight. The Red Shirt street protests began in mid-March to demand his resignation, the dissolution of Parliament and immediate elections.
But earlier Friday, Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij said Abhisit's earlier offer to hold Nov. 14 elections was on hold until political passions have subsided and the security situation has stabilized.
"We need to make sure that emotions have cooled to the extent that candidates from all parties can feel safe in campaigning anywhere in the country. Frankly we would not feel safe doing that today," he told participants at a conference in Tokyo.
Abhisit said the government will allow due process of law and parliamentary democracy to resolve the country's problems.
"At the same time that plan will include an independent investigation of all the events that have taken place during the protests," he said without elaborating.
An army crackdown to remove the Red Shirts from their first encampment on April 10 left 25 people dead. Another 15 were killed Wednesday when the army overran their second, heavily barricaded encampment in Rajprasong, one of Bangkok's most fashionable neighborhoods. Clashes the week before the crackdown claimed 39 lives, and four people died in other related violence.
Wednesday's crackdown also triggered widespread arson in central Bangkok on landmark buildings including the stock exchange, banks and major shopping malls.
On Friday, security forces swept 10 high rises including two luxury hotels for explosives and weapons, possibly left behind by fleeing protesters. Soldiers also led a search of the elevated Skytrain tracks as the service remained closed for the seventh day.
Sirijan Ngathong, a deputy spokeswoman for the army, said various explosive devices had been found in buildings and cars near the demonstration site.
In Chinatown, which had been shuttered during the violence, many of the gold and food shops reopened and the streets were teeming with life and traffic.
Several roads in the center of the city remained closed by checkpoints. Municipal workers cleared mountains of garbage that had accumulated. Using high-pressure water hoses, they cleaned the sidewalks and the entrance to the landmark Lumpini Park, which had been caked with grime.
Scattered arson and looting was reported late Thursday and early yesterday.
Meanwhile, anger among Red Shirts was simmering. The detained leaders of the movement had threatened more fight. A criminal court Friday refused to grant bail to 114 Red Shirt leaders and supporters who have been detained since Wednesday.
Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, a second-tier Red Shirt leader, distributed a statement by the group Friday calling for Abhisit and his deputy to step down to pave the way for reconciliation. He announced plans for new mass meetings. However, a report on The Nation website said he was arrested later in the day.
"I think this is a new beginning for the Red Shirts," said Kevin Hewison, a Thailand expert at the University of North Carolina. "It will be a darker and grimmer time of struggle and less-focused activities. By no stretch of the imagination is the movement finished."
Thailand's finance ministry estimated the economic damage to the country at 50 billion baht ($1.5 billion). Continued security concerns led officials to extend a nighttime curfew in Bangkok and 23 other provinces through Saturday night.