Red-shirted protesters end siege of Bangkok

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The Independent Online

The stand-off at the heart of Thailand's worst political crisis for years was abruptly defused yesterday when red-shirted anti-government protesters suddenly ended their siege of the Prime Minister's office.

In the end, the protest fizzled out because the demonstrators simply ran out of options. Many of the protesters slipped away overnight, and finally there were several thousand surrounded at Government House by what looked like similar numbers of troops. They marched out past riot police cordons and the siege was over.

The battle of Bangkok may be over for now but the broader issue remains unresolved. In an effort to counter the exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's substantial continued influence on Thai politics, the government yesterday issued a warrant for his arrest, as well as 13 other protest leaders. Mr Thaksin had addressed the protesters by video link nearly every day of the demonstration.

Meanwhile, the Oxford-educated Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who lost face after protesters forced the abandonment of a summit of Asian leaders, regained some of his credibility yesterday and won the public relations war because the two deaths during the protest were not linked to the army.

Thailand's seemingly unresolvable political crisis is a face-off between monarchists, the army and Bangkok's middle class against the rural poor loyal to Mr Thaksin.

Four anti-government protest leaders surrendered to the government after calling off the three-week siege, said the national police chief Pacharawat Wongsuwan. The "red shirt" demonstrators said it was time to stop for now. "We have to stop because we need to look after the lives of our supporters," said a protest leader, Jatuporn Prompan.

The beleaguered Prime Minister, who has only been in power for four months, has bought time with the resolution to the crisis.

"I'm not interested in making a deal with Thaksin," he said. "But I do listen to the concerns of some people who have joined the 'red shirts' in terms of democratic developments... I am happy to address those [concerns]."

The government has extended the New Year's holiday for the rest of the week to make sure that the protesters do not head to their strongholds in the north and regroup.

At the same time the collapse of the protests is a blow for Mr Thaksin, an industrial tycoon and former policeman, who is the only Thai leader ever to have won two elections.

Ousted in a coup in 2006 which had the backing of the army, there are also questions about whether Mr Thaksin has the money to finance another bitter election fight. The former Manchester City FC owner's assets have been frozen in Thailand since his conviction for corruption and abuse of power last year.