Fallen Angels in Bangkok – ISN

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As the Government moves in to arrest protest leaders and alleged ‘terrorists’ in Bangkok, more violence looms in the city.

Red shirts gathered at Rajaprasong, last Thursday night (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Even as the eponymous protagonist in Shakespeare’s Macbeth descended into madness, there were fleeting moments of sentience; enough, at least, for him to deliver some memorably prescient insights.

‘Blood will have blood‘, he said, implying that once blood is spilled, more will follow. And so three weeks after the anti-government red shirts poured their blood on the gates of the Thai Prime Minister’s Abhisit Vejajjiva’s residence and the country’s Government House, the gruesome symbolism was transfigured into tragic reality last weekend, with 19 civilians and 5 soldiers killed in the ‘The Battle of Bangkok’. Over 800 people were injured, as tourists looked on, and there are calls for the Government to establish an inquiry into what happened in Bangkok – or to give it its less well- known abbreviated name – Krung Thep or ‘City of Angels’.

Before that comes to pass, however, what anti-government red shirts are deeming “a final battle” looms. And that took a dramatic turn this morning, when special forces surrounded a Bangkok hotel where red shirt leaders and alleged ‘terrorists’ are staying. At least one red shirt leader escaped by climbing down from a hotel window, while forces remained outside the hotel.

The protestors have bunkered down in the commercial heartland of Bangkok, a sea of red stretching like an X in four directions along the Rajaprasong intersection. In temperatures reaching the high 30s, thousands are more expected to join the estimated 30000 already stretched on rattan mats, queuing for street food, and drenching each other with flour and water as part of the now-muted Thai New Year celebrations. All in the shadow of locked glossy malls and two story-high Prada and Gucci billboards, with the songs and speeches of red shirt leaders interrupted every few minutes by the zooming Skytrain passing overhead.

The thinking is that the army cannot move them from here without carnage . And secondly, they are causing millions of baht in losses to some of Bangkok’s commercial elites, who they regard as supporters of the current Government. The head of the Emergency Operations Command has warned civilians to stay away, saying that ‘terrorists’ are lurking among the red shirts – in reference to the mysterious black-clad gunmen who took on the Army during last weekend’s fighting. It is guesswork at this stage to say for sure who this ‘third hand’ is, but amid gossip about a ‘watermelon’ element in the military (green uniforms, red inside), ‘rogue’ or ‘dissident’ factions in the army cannot be discounted. While in power, Thaksin promoted his own allies to prominent positions in the military, but these men were purged after the 2006 coup against the Thaksin Government. Whoever the men in black were, surely the army will not take lightly the deaths of five of their colleagues, including a high-profile Colonel?

Red shirts celebrate Songkran near Bangkok's Democracy Monument, on the Monday after the' Battle of Bangkok' (Photo: Simon Roughneen©)

What happens next is anyone’s guess. The army head, Gen. Anupong Paochinda, seemingly distanced himself from last weekend’s crackdown. Though the Government denies that there is a rift, the General said that the stand-off should be resolved politically, putting implicit pressure on the PM to call fresh elections – the key red shirt demand. But could hardliners in the army intervene, heightening the possibility of a coup by officers unhappy with Anupong’s stance?

However elections must take place before the end of next year, so the PM might have to compromise on his earlier pledge to hold polls within 9 months. The red shirts – bloodied but unbowed after last weekend’s violence – have pledge to end their protest if the PM steps down. How soon is soon enough for them remains to seen.

It seems like the only way out for now. But there are other issues to be factored in. Some of those who supported the ousting of the red shirt-backed, Thaksin-proxy Government in late 2008 are mulling a response of their own to the protests, putting the PM under pressure not to give in to red shirt demands. The Democrat Party’s standing has been damaged by last week’s almost-serendipitous Election Commission finding that it misused campaign funds and therefore must be dissolved. This case must go to the courts, and a decision is not expected for months, muddying the election timetabling calculations.

Since last weekend, the PM’s coalition partners have joined the push for a dissolution – and are reminding the now-pressured PM that they want amendments to the 2006 Constitution. They say that if the PM does not agree, they will withdraw support, meaning that the Government will fall in any case.

Even that, however, might be only a temporary solution. The red shirt-linked Peua Thai party could win the elections, possibly bringing the Yellow shirt People’s Alliance for Democracy – who notoriously occupied Bangkok’s international airports in 2008 – back onto the streets. The PAD – now made over into the New Politics Party, are meeting this weekend, to decide how to react to the red shirt protests. A Peua Thai win would be seen as a victory for the former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, reviled by the PAD/NPP and its allies in the army as a fugitive would-be tyrant with quasi-heretical anti-monarchy leanings.

But the indications Friday morning were that the Government would seek a security-led ‘solution’ to the protests, with talk of martial law being imposed on the protest area, as special forces sought to arrest protest leaders.

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