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Militants can wreck Thai tourism industry

Underground militant wing spawned by Thai protests threatens tourism

Michael Sheridan and Nate Thayer  May 23, 2010

The spectre of a violent underground movement that could wreck Thailand’s tourism industry has risen from the ashes of Bangkok’s city centre.

“Redshirt” protesters vanished into a warren of backstreets as their camp was overrun by the army last week on a day that many Thais have called the worst in their country’s modern history.

An armed wing of the movement vowed to carry on the fight and melted back into communities of workers and farmers, some of whom have openly applauded them for taking up the gun.

Black-clad figures whose bodies were patterned with mystical tattoos, they sported magic golden amulets to ward off bullets — but also wore flak jackets as extra insurance.

“Nobody is in control of our so-called armed wing,” said Sean Boonprasong, a redshirt spokesman, shortly before he was detained. “Now many will go underground. Now they have no leaders. Whoever they are, we admire them.”

A survey of violent incidents, most of them unreported abroad, shows that trouble has already occurred in Thailand’s tourist centres of Phuket, Pattaya and Chiang Mai during the last weeks of crisis.

More than 800,000 Britons visited Thailand last year, but thousands of bookings have been cancelled and some hotels in Bangkok are empty after Wednesday’s army crackdown.

Threats, muggings, robberies and random shootings all over the centre of town that day showed that criminals had woven their way among the peaceful crowds of red-clad men, women and children camped out in what they called a bid for “democracy”.

The militants were acclaimed as heroes in the slums of Klong Toey, a crime-ridden district that saw some of the heaviest fighting but attracted the least media attention. Huge, reeking pyres and echoing gunshots traced a path of anarchy from the slum to the fringes of Sukhumvit, an area full of expatriate families, foreign businesses and international schools.

It was from Klong Toey that black-clad men on motorbikes sped out to set fire to the gleaming stock exchange building, which looks down on it from the other side of a road junction. Later there were numerous accounts from frightened residents of vengeful redshirts huddled in councils of war in drinking dens and tenements.

“They say we should do what the Muslims do in the south,” reported several locals, referring to a shadowy insurgency that has cost more than 3,000 lives in Thailand’s southernmost provinces since 2004. It is a murderous campaign without known leaders, which the army has been unable to stop.

Arms are certainly available. Caches of grenades, guns and explosives were found as troops prowled through the black sludge and slime of what had been Bangkok’s smartest shopping district.

The government seized control of television news, suppressed photographs of dead civilians and frantically blocked websites, leading a commentator in Thai Rath, the nation’s most popular newspaper, to say that “few truthful accounts were published or broadcast”.

The spin has not worked. There is mounting evidence that the 52 dead and 407 wounded victims of the latest spasm have created a groundswell of hatred, leaving Thailand’s reputation as a kingdom of Buddhist harmony in ruins.

This weekend the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva, the prime minister and a product of Eton and Oxford, proclaimed that law and order had returned, even though a night-time curfew remained in force. But Thai analysts almost universally saw it as a hollow victory and predicted a different kind of violence ahead.

A movement that was born in raucous mass opposition to the royalist establishment may have spawned a radical insurgency in the space of just a week. There could be little time for ordinary politics to work again. According to Thitinan Pongsudhirak, one of the most respected Thai political analysts, the reds have entered a phase of “armed resistance”.

Observers who have covered warzones saw the reds out-think and outflank the army to hit targets such as banks, government offices and shops well beyond the central protest zone. Such tactics have been well practised. Reports collated by the British embassy detail the true extent of the country’s conflict since last month.

There have been six bomb or grenade incidents in Chiang Mai, where buses were set ablaze on its leafy tourist streets and crowds gathered to protest at the railway station.

On April 26, rival Thai mobs fought in the coastal city of Pattaya. On the resort island of Phuket, sappers defused a grenade left at a local television station, ASTV, on May 12. Rioting, arson or shootings have been reported in Chiang Rai, Khon Kaen and Udon Thani. Airports, roads and railways have all been blocked at times.

The government puts the blame firmly on Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled former prime minister, who won successive elections before being ousted in a military coup in 2006, a move that has proved disastrous for the elites who backed it.

Thaksin — who sends tweets and videos to his followers — was quick to predict guerrilla warfare at first and denounced “state violence and human rights abuses”. But as Thais reacted aghast to the deepening realisation that their capital was burning, Thaksin changed his tune.

“Thailand is in mourning,” he said. “I join all Thai patriots in their immediate call for calm, order and non-violence.”

Underground militant wing spawned by Thai protests threatens tourism
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