Thai army moves in for the kill – ISN

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Much of central Bangkok is a no-go area after recent street fighting. A senate mediation proposal has fallen flat, and this morning the Thai army is moving in on the main protest site.

Soldiers on the lookout at protestors back down the Rama 4 road. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

By Simon Roughneen in Bangkok for ISN Security Watch

As deadly clashes continue in central Bangkok, another proposed mediation effort has gone awry.Thai senators offered to act as go-betweens in the hope that this would bring the government and the redshirts back to the table. The redshirts welcomed this, after exiled de facto leader Thaksin Shinawatra called for UN intervention and asked the government to rein in the army. However, the government says it will not talk to the redshirt leaders – most of whom face terrorism charges – until the thousands of demonstrators leave the downtown shopping and hotel area they have occupied for six weeks.

The redshirts have said they will not go anywhere until the army withdraws from Bangkok’s streets. But food and supplies are running low, and an unknown number of protesters have gone home. Some of the remainder, estimated at less than 5,000, are sheltering in a Buddhist temple within the rally site, now designated as a safe haven.

The political standoff comes after six days of protester-soldier clashes at a number of flashpoints around central Bangkok. In response to an army drive to blockade the rally site, redshirts have set up a new, smaller rally on a highway two miles from the main zone. Fighting has taken place at several other locations on the fringes of the main rally site, as the protesters impede and counter the army’s attempted blockade.

After remaining relatively quiet in recent weeks, Thaksin has become the focus of attention once more. The redshirts

claim that they are a peaceful movement, with many protesters telling this correspondent over recent weeks that they merely “want democracy.”

There are groups of lightly armed protesters at the flashpoints making headlines over the past few days, while the origins of black-clad shooters who took on the army during the 10 April gunfight that left 25 dead remain murky. They are thought to be rogue army personnel in league with the redshirts, and led by the controversial Major-General ‘Seh Daeng,’ who was killed by a presumed army sniper bullet fired last Thursday, 12 May.

Thaksin is said to be pushing for some sort of general amnesty, which would not only exonerate people on the government and army side for their sporadic recklessness in shooting unarmed civilians in recent days, but would see corruption convictions against Thaksin dropped and allow his return to Thailand.

So-called secret talks are ongoing between the Thai government and its fugitive bete-noire. Given that Thaksin is thought to be directing operations as tightly as he can from outside, this is leading many in the anti-Thaksin, royalist establishment to conclude that he is trying wring concessions out of the government by moving the redshirt protest to new locations in Bangkok, leading to more of the city being closed off and escalating the likelihood of more bloodshed – the majority of which will be shed by protesters.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is probably past the point of no return, having seen his five-point peace plan turned down by the redshirts. His increasingly hardline stance is being countered somewhat by the army head, General Anupong Paochinda, who is keen on a political solution. Anupong will retire later this year, and may not want to go down in history as the army chief at the helm during unprecedented bloodshed in the capital. He could be trying to isolate the prime minister, who came to power in late 2008 with military backing, by making the civilian government sound more hardline than the army that does the shooting on the streets.

Abhisit’s tough talk has contrasted with some apparent vacillation over recent weeks. While the army has engaged the protesters with live fire on 10 April and in recent days, in between, the government has meandered somewhat, seemingly unsure how to deal with the situation.

Now the government is clear: The protesters must leave before any talks can take place. The redshirts say the army must leave the streets, before they will consider standing down. A deadline for protesters to leave their main rally site passed without the army – so far – trying to storm the site, which is full of women and some children.

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