Government and Red Shirts refuse to talk in bloody Bangkok deadlock

As the 'peaceful' protesters bear arms and the government rejects a UN intervention, the prospect of civil war in Thailand is edging closer. Andrew Buncombe reports from the capital

on a perilous stretch of a broad Bangkok boulevard known as Rama 4 Road, the no man's land between the troops and protesters was little more than a hundred metres.

On one side, heavily armed soldiers took cover behind sandbags and razor wire as they squeezed off rounds from automatic weapons and shotguns to pin back the protesters.

On the other – a brisk walk through an unguarded lane that is home to several foreign embassies – masked protesters threw rocks and petrol bombs and set off fireworks from behind a barricade of burning tyres.

It was confusing, chaotic and deadly.

"There are snipers up there so I took off my shirt to show them I am not a Red Shirt," explained a bare-chested man called Alun, as the hiss of incoming rounds reverberated off the apartment blocks surrounding the area that the protesters had decided to make their front-line.

"I am staying here, my family is here, my three children. The Red Shirts are very good. The army is bad."

If the aim of the Thai authorities was to encircle the Red Shirts' main encampment and to stop the violence that has gripped the centre of Bangkok from spreading to other parts of the city, then these running skirmishes yesterday afternoon in a neighbourhood called Bon Kai – a short distance from the main protesters' rallying point – suggested they had failed.

At the same time, the young masked protesters hurling petrol bombs to taunt the soldiers raised doubts about the claims of the Red Shirts' leaders to be pursuing an entirely peaceful protest. Some journalists positioned behind the soldiers' sandbag foxholes – the floor littered with empty cartridge shells from shotguns and M16 rifles – said the protesters had also been firing guns, though this could not be confirmed.

The residents of cosmopolitan Bangkok are both saddened and bewildered by this rising violence. In the last four days, at least 30 people have been killed and more than 200 injured as this ugly urban warfare has brought parts of a city famed for its vivacity to a standstill.

And it is far from clear when the violence will end.

On Sunday evening, with thick black smoke still billowing from barricades of burning tyres, the military announced that their crackdown on the Red Shirts would continue, despite the protesters having profferred the olive branch of UN-mediated talks.

It was the sort of illogical, hopeless situation that arises in conflicts. The Red Shirts, who want to force the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and see fresh elections held, said they would talk to the authorities if a ceasefire was declared.

The authorities responded by saying no conditions should be attached to any offer of talks and that there was no need for a ceasefire as they were only targeting "terrorists". It was the Red Shirts themselves who needed to enact a ceasefire, they countered, and not the army. And futhermore, there was no need for the UN to intervene because Thailand was a "sovereign nation".

Korbsak Sabhavasu, the secretary general to the prime minister, was adamant. "If they really want to talk, they should not set conditions like asking us to withdraw troops," he insisted.

"It's a positive sign but if there is going to be talk, there has to be more detail. But they cannot make d emands if they want to negotiate."

Quite which twist or turn this situation will now take is unclear.

The authorities have extended until later today the deadline for the estimated 5,000 Red Shirts still occupying three square miles of the city centre to leave and go home. Yet it seems unlikely that the ultimatum will be heeded.

Apparently determined to stay put, the protest leaders yesterday told women and children among their number to move to a Buddhist temple compound within the protest zone. In Thai tradition, temples are considered havens and cannot be entered by anyone who is armed.

Jatuporn Prompan, a senior leader of the Red Shirts and a member of parliament, told The Independent that he was urging the government to stop the military operation.

"I would like to propose that the government stops its actions if it cares about the future. They are trying to paint us all as terrorists," he said from inside the main protesters' encampment in a commercial district of the city. "I expect a civil war. That is why I would like to appeal to the UN to stop this. I believe there will be a civil war if it does not stop. Almost all the country is now involved."

Asked about the weapons being carried by the members of a movement that claims to be peaceful, he said: "The weapons that our members have are incomparable to the weapons that the soldiers have. We will do things peacefully."

Many of the Red Shirts are supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a military coup in 2006. Two subsequent premiers, both allies of Mr Thaksin, were also forced out amid protests and a constitutional crisis in late 2008 that opened the way for Mr Abhisit to come to power.

Part of the conflict centres on the struggle of poorer elements within Thailand – to whom Mr Thaksin was a champion – for more power. They are opposed by conservative middle-class Thais, business leaders and elements within the military.

Last night, with no immediate end to the violence in sight, the exiled former prime minister issued a statement. "I stand with my countrymen in this terrible hour in our history," Mr Thaksin said. "The pictures that I have seen go beyond any nightmares that could have been envisaged.

"I have no choice but to state resolutely the need for all sides to step back from this terrible abyss and seek to begin a new, genuine and sincere dialogue between the parties."

Aside from the mounting toll in human lives – 59 people have died and more than 1,600 have been wounded since March – the protests and the subsequent crackdown has cost Thailand millions of dollars in lost revenues and severely damaged its reputation as a safe haven for tourists.

Yet it has also had other, rather less obvious repercussions. This weekend, the Thai Red Cross revealed that it was running desperately short of supplies of blood. The donation centre, where up to 1,000 people a day walk in to give their blood, is located within a restricted area.

Officials yesterday began organising mobile blood donations banks in other parts of the city. "We know that people will not come here so we are asking them to go to the mobile centres," said Kitsathorn Ongtilanont, the head of the organisation's collection service, as she stood in an empty car park. "We only have one day's supply of blood left."

WHEN SEX DOESN'T SELL

*At the Club Electric Blue in Patpong there were lots of young women "available for your ultimate pleasure" but very few customers to please. In fact, there was none.

On any other evening, the polished chrome poles mounted on a raised dance floor would have been festooned with the gyrations of the young women.

Instead they sat around the empty bar looking bored and dejected, with Tina Turner's "The Best" blasting from the speakers at an unnecessarily loud volume.

"This crisis is not good for business," said Rokjapon Pongmontree, a 34-year-old in a bikini who went by the nickname of Rak, or "love".

Her daughter was being cared for by her parents in a rural part of Thailand and she was worried about her earnings. "I hope that lots of people come. I cannot live by just my salary. I need my tips."

It was much the same story a few doors away in the Topless Beer Bar, where there were so few customers that the women behind the bar had instead decided to keep their tops on.

"Eight years I've been here. This is the worst yet," said Eyi, a barwoman who said she came from the north-east of Thailand. "Sometimes we can sit here all day and get nothing. Sometimes we sit here all day because it's too dangerous to move."

At nearby Spanky's, four young women sat by themselves, looking out for the first hint of a customer.

As with any business, the sex trade has its ups and downs. Indeed, over the years, the bars and clubs in this notorious Bangkok neighbourhood have seen business rise and fall with various crises beyond their control.

Last year, when there were clashes between anti-government protesters and the authorities, the bars here noticed their trade.

But never like this.

The six-week stand-off between the Red Shirts and the military has deterred many tourists and turned this noisy, seedy quarter into a quiet backwater.

One rare customer, George, an East Ender who moved to Australia 28 years ago, was sitting at the bar, with no shortage of women to talk to.

"This is my fourth time here," said the 66-year-old. "But I've never seen it like this."

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