Bangkok on the brink as peace offer spurned

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The Thai government has rejected a compromise from red shirt protesters. With the capital occupied and army split, tension is rising

Bangkok was a city in a state of high anxiety last night after Thailand's Prime Minister rejected a peace offer from the red shirt protesters whose siege of parts of the city – and armed efforts to lift it – has led to 26 deaths, major disruption, and considerable damage to the country's economy. The red shirts immediately announced they would pull out of any negotiations with the authorities.

The protesters, who are supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, had said on Friday they would end a three-week occupation of Bangkok's smartest shopping and hotel district if the government dissolved parliament and announced elections in 30 days. This was a softening of their previous call for immediate dissolution, and would have given the government another 60 days to hold the election. But, after the Thai leadership met yesterday in emergency session at a Bangkok airbase, the offer was spurned. The Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, and the country's army chief, will address the nation on television today.

Now, with tens of thousands of red shirts showing no sign of budging from their makeshift city-centre camps, rival protesters threatening to reclaim the capital, and the actions of the army an unknowable quantity, tensions are palpably rising. Few observers are optimistic of a swift, comprehensive solution. Even before the government's uncompromising response to the red shirts was announced, Pitch Pongsawat, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, said: "The government might have to agree to a three-month timeframe, but this doesn't mean this will ease the tensions. There doesn't seem to be any real control about what's been happening on the streets."

The streets are indeed where this protracted game of bluff and counter-bluff – interspersed with sudden eruptions of violence – has been played out, and looks increasingly like it will be concluded. Tens of thousands of red shirts remain in a fortified encampment at a district of upmarket department stores in central Bangkok, sleeping on the pavement, vowing to stay until parliament is dissolved and defying a state of emergency that bans large gatherings of protesters.

Opposite the mouth of Silom Road (roughly the equivalent of Oxford Street in London), the red shirts have erected a barricade of tyres and bamboo stakes guarding their virtual village of outdoor showers, tents and stalls selling food, red clothing and souvenirs along more than a mile of one of the fanciest streets in the capital. Four luxury hotels, half a dozen shopping malls and office buildings in the area have closed, resulting in a loss of millions of pounds a day.

So far, the violence, which began on 12 March, has resulted in 26 deaths and almost 1,000 wounded. All told, 45 incidents of grenade attacks and bomb explosions have shaken the city. Curiously, nobody has yet been apprehended, giving rise to speculation that some attacks were the work of renegade army officers either seeking to provoke the red shirts or to settle scores within the fractious military.

Just three days ago, one person was killed and 86 wounded when five grenades blasted holes through the roof of an elevated Skytrain station and shattered cafe windows near the landmark Dusit Thani hotel. Authorities immediately closed the elevated rail line that runs down Silom, and which serves thousands of commuters. The station has also been an overhead bunker for soldiers to monitor protesters.

In the aftermath of the latest fatality, several countries strengthened their travel advice for Thailand. The United States, Britain and the Scandinavian countries have urged their citizens to avoid Bangkok, while Australia told its nationals "to reconsider your need to travel to Thailand".

For the protagonists, their differences appear irreconcilable. The red shirts say British-born and Oxford-educated Vejjajiva came to power illegitimately in December 2008. They are mainly rural and working-class supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and pro-democracy activists who opposed the military coup that removed him from power in 2006. They believe Vejjajiva's government is illegitimate because it came to power under military pressure through a parliamentary vote after disputed court rulings ousted two elected pro-Thaksin governments.

Earlier, there had been some optimism that some sort of way out of the current mess could be cobbled together. Jaran Ditthapichai, a red shirt leader, said his group held unofficial talks with the government on Wednesday and Friday. He claimed the government privately expressed a willingness to compromise, suggesting it could dissolve the government in three months instead of the six on which it originally insisted. (The other conditions were for the government to stop harassing the group, and to hold an impartial investigation into the violence that has marred the protests, including a government sweep on 10 April to remove the red shirts that resulted in 25 deaths and more than 800 injuries.)

A powerful backlash against the red shirts is now growing among the supporters of Bangkok's royalist establishment, who took to the streets on Friday holding placards reading "no dissolution". The pro-government protesters include workers inconvenienced by the demonstrations and members of the "yellow shirts", who oppose Thaksin's return to power. These counter-demonstrators, many of whom believe the red shirts want to topple Thailand's monarchy, can pack a formidable punch, and, in the recent past, have proved their street-fighting virility. Two years ago, they blockaded Bangkok's international airport, stranding at least 230,000 people until a court dissolved a pro-Thaksin ruling party for electoral fraud.

The violence and deepening political divide has spurred some talk of civil war in South-east Asia's second-biggest economy. "This hardening of the battle lines between the two sides does not bode well for Bangkok's security situation and a risk of another, and this time maybe even more violent, crackdown is immediate," risk consultancy IHS Global Insight said in a report. And, to add to the combustibility, diplomats and analysts say the army's middle ranks look dangerously split with one faction backing the protesters led by retired generals allied with Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and later sentenced in absentia for corruption.

If the government wants to forcibly end the protests and occupation of the streets, they will have to bring better, or more efficient, powers to bear than they have done so far. Military units from the 200,000-strong army have been routed in several confrontations with the crudely armed demonstrators, and the police have often melted when faced with determined protesters. On Friday, Silom was filled with riot police, but a show of strength is, as this government well knows, very different from an effective application of it.

And, as Thailand's political turmoil enters its seventh week, the economic toll is spreading. Ordinary workers, parents and shoppers often reach their destinations to find signs that say: "Sorry, closed due to political unrest."

Tourism accounts for 6 per cent of the country's economy and has steeply declined since the protests started. Cancellations are mounting from tourists and business travellers. Thailand has already lost more than £20m (1 billion baht) from event cancellations and is projected to lose several times that amount in coming months, according to the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau.

The stock market has tumbled 7 per cent since just before the violence erupted. The Thai stock exchange says 34 listed companies that were planning annual shareholder meetings in the city have changed their plans because of safety concerns. But, this weekend, there are more important things than share prices and corporate gatherings at stake. Bangkok is entering the unknown.

Voices
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia
Save the tigerWildlife charities turn to those who kill animals to help save them
News
Davis says: 'My career has been about filling a niche - there were fewer short actors and fewer roles – but now I'm being offered all kinds of things'
PeopleWarwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
News
i100
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
Life and Style
A small bag of the drug Ecstasy
Health
Life and Style
Floral-print swim shorts, £26, by Topman, topman.com; sunglasses, £215, by Paul Smith, mpaulsmith.co.uk
FashionBag yourself the perfect pair
News
news
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Extras
indybest
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

(Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principle Geotechnical Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

How has your club fared in summer sales?

Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

The best swim shorts for men

Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup