CHIANG MAI, Thailand (Reuters) - A day after some of the worst rioting in modern Thai history erupted in Bangkok and swept through the “red shirt” northern stronghold of Chiang Mai, anti-government protesters have gone to ground.
The festival-like rallies held every day for the last nine weeks in front of a Buddhist temple in Thailand’s second-biggest city have abruptly ceased after police swooped in at dawn on Thursday to dismantle the stage and close off the area.
Red T-shirts were nowhere to be seen.
The spree of arson and rioting that followed a deadly military operation to evict demonstrators from a commercial hub of the Thai capital quickly ignited in Chiang Mai, 700 km (435 miles) to the north.
The rioting on Wednesday after the army broke up a “red shirt” protest encampment in central Bangkok spread to at least six provinces, including Chiang Mai.
The city of 233,000 is the birthplace of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the red shirts’ spiritual leader, who warned of a guerrilla war in Thailand after a weeklong military offensive that killed 52 people and wounded 400.
Plumes of black smoke billowed out from piles of tires burning on roads in Chiang Mai, phone booths were trashed, fire trucks, cars and several banks set ablaze.
Loud explosions and some gunfire were reported. An annex of the governor’s residence was gutted by fire and the provincial administration office was torched.
For one night only, a sleepy and picturesque city popular with backpackers and retired Westerners became the latest battleground in Thailand’s deadly five-year political crisis.
“We’re all red shirts here. We were angry that the government ordered the army to kill red shirts,” said Mak, 42, a motorcycle taxi driver was took part in the riots across the city.
“The government attacked us, so we attacked the government,” she said. “We may have lost for now, but the red shirts will be back. It’s not over.”
People here said the call to riot came from the red shirt community radio station, one of scores across the movement’s north and northeastern strongholds that delivered two landslide election victories for the exiled Thaksin before his overthrow in a 2006 coup.
The radio station, a favorite hangout for the Chiang Mai red shirts, was almost empty on Thursday. local leaders were in hiding or detention in Bangkok. The influential radio personalities who called the thousands to rally had fled.
The robust anti-government programs had been replaced by country music on repeat play. Burned-out joss sticks crumbled in front of a shrine to the late red shirt military commander, Khattiya Sawasdipol, assassinated a week ago.
“I think everyone will lay low for a while. We’ll wait and see what our leaders tell us to do next,” said one of the movement’s members, who asked not to be named.
Just like in Bangkok, the local government in Chiang Mai seems eager to close the door on the red shirts while it has the chance.
Burned out, smoldering trucks and vehicles were towed away the next morning in a major cleanup of the city. Streets were swept of broken glass, rocks, bottles and debris. The remnants of burning walls of tires were being scooped up.
Water trucks hosed down roads and workers with brushes were busy scrubbing off the stains of the city’s worst civil unrest in years.
“We’re not violent people, but red shirts were killed because they wanted change,” said roadside restaurant owner Daeng, 51, who attended the Bangkok rally four times, including when it reached it’s peak of 150,000 people in March.
“Everyone was angry about what happened in Bangkok and it’s no surprise what happened here in response.”
Editing by Bill Tarrant