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World News

Q+A: Will chaotic clashes continue in Thailand?

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Rioting and fierce fires spread through Thailand’s capital on Wednesday after a military offensive put down weeks of anti-government protests, sparking chaos across the city.

A night-time curfew and a television news blackout was announced and the military said it would forge ahead with moves to restore order across Bangkok in what could turn out to be a bloody operation to crush the insurrection.

Groups of “red shirt” protesters remained in at least two areas of Bangkok, where gunshots were heard late on Wednesday, raising the threat of another eruption of violence.

IS THE WORST OVER?

It’s difficult to tell at this stage. The red shirt leadership is either at large or under arrest and it is not known whether anyone is leading the revolt, or whether groups and individuals involved are acting independently.

The sudden upsurge in rioting could start to tail off, or could go on for days, depending on the effectiveness of the military operation and the motives and level of coordination of the stubborn protesters.

Whether the sudden explosion of unrest across the city was planned in advance or a reaction to the military’s charge will probably never be known, but those brave enough to stay on the streets are likely to fight all the way.

The backlash from what is essentially a defeat for the red shirts could be highly dangerous, especially if armed elements are among the protesters. Shadowy black-clad gunmen appeared during the last major night-time clashes on April 10, when 25 people were killed and more than 900 wounded.

The government believes the mysterious militants, who appeared well-trained and no strangers to combat, are still out there presenting a threat to the army’s moves to take back Bangkok’s streets.

No media will be permitted to report the events and medical and disaster teams have been placed on standby. Heavy casualties could be sustained.

WHAT DAMAGE HAS BEEN DONE?

The operation to take back the upmarket Rachaprasong shopping and hotel district occupied by red shirts since April 3 was completed within seven hours, with far fewer casualties than expected given the scale of the offensive. Unofficial figures said six people were killed and 59 wounded in the clashes.

But it triggered at least 18 arson attacks across the city, with banks, a television channel, the stock exchange and Southeast Asia’s second-biggest department store complex among the targets.

There were also reports of some looting in the capital. Protesters set ablaze city halls in three northeastern provinces -- strongholds of the red shirt movement -- and 21 provinces were placed under a curfew to prevent any backlash.

IS A PEACE DEAL STILL POSSIBLE?

The credibility of the red shirts will be greatly damaged as a result of the clashes in the last few days and the widespread rioting. If the security forces are able to restore order in Bangkok without the protesters agreeing to back down, the red shirts will have little bargaining power.

However, the government may seek to reach out to the red shirts -- aware of their capability to mobilize huge numbers of people to wreak havoc and paralyze parts of the city -- to try to placate them.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has vowed to forge ahead with a reconciliation plan and the red shirts could be brought on board at some point as a gesture of sincerity and a move to heal deepening social divisions.

Engagement with a movement often referred to by the government as “terrorist” could, however, prompt an angry response from Thais sure to be incensed by the recent unrest. But attempts to sideline the red shirts could be highly destructive.

WILL THE RED SHIRTS FIZZLE OUT?

It’s unlikely. Regardless of the violence, the protests have raised the political consciousness of the rural masses and urban working classes. The movement has pushed the idea that the poor are now stakeholders in the country’s future. They know their votes count and their days of political apathy are probably over.

The red shirts have a huge following in the north and northeastern provinces. The movement might lose some steam but, as long as it is seen to represent disenfranchised Thais, it will likely retain its supporters and sympathizers.

Editing by Michael Perry and Paul Tait

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