BANGKOK, Thailand -- Red Shirt protesters allegedly set fire to 20 buildings on Wednesday (May 19) including luxury shopping malls, banks, the Stock Exchange and offices, after losing their stronghold when soldiers used armored personnel carriers to crush their barricades, ending their six-week-long occupation.

Supporters of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), known as the Red Shirts, allegedly took revenge and became arsonists, causing smoke to billow above Bangkok's modern skyline and plunging this Southeast Asian capital into its worst security crisis in decades.

In response, the government clamped an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew on Bangkok and 23 of Thailand's 76 other provinces.

Officials broadcast pleas on nationwide TV for the public to hunt down Reds who fled the barricades before the military assault.

Government offices were ordered shut for the rest of the week, and many businesses told staff not to return to work on Thursday (May 20).

Bangkok's rail service was also suspended.

A handful of Red Shirt leaders surrendered and were arrested. Others disappeared.

They were all expected to be charged as "terrorists" after Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva condemned them for paralyzing Bangkok through rallies staged at the site since April 3.

"The end of the rally has dissatisfied some protesters, especially those who are armed," Mr. Abhisit said.

"So they created trouble, particularly arson in some areas."

Worried that the Red Shirts may have booby-trapped their barricades -- which were made mostly of sharpened bamboo poles and stacks of rubber tires -- security forces used truck-mounted, high-pressure water hoses to soak a six-foot-high section of the barricades.

It was just after breakfast time on deserted Rama 4 Road, which normally would be packed with commuter traffic.

A handful of the army's Chinese-built armored personnel carriers (APCs) noisily advanced, reinforced with sandbags covered by plywood on the outside of the vehicles, above the clanking treads.

The APCs repeatedly drove into the saturated barricades, and the Royal Thai Army's long-dreaded assault had begun.

Despite the difficulty some drivers had maneuvering APCs, which veered unimpressively in various directions while moving backward and forward, they easily crushed the barricades and accelerated onto a flat, cement-covered area next to a larger-than-life raised statue of the late King Rama the 6th, at the gated entrance to Lumpini Park.

Steel-helmeted soldiers, armed with assault rifles and shotguns, nervously followed on foot, already sweating profusely in the tropical morning's humid heat.

Their live ammunition assault seemed too easy until a handful of shots erupted, unleashing scattered gunfire between troops and die-hard protesters, in street skirmishes along the park.

Soldiers crouched behind concrete structures -- and each other -- kneeling amid stinking, fly-covered garbage left by thousands of Reds who fled the barricaded area before the assault.

The bloodied corpses of two dead male protesters lay on the sidewalk, side by side, partially covered by a red blanket and guarded by soldiers.

Several horrific booms echoed as grenades exploded near expensive offices, condominiums and other buildings.

After slowly advancing less than a mile up Ratchadamri Road, and firing toward the central intersection of the barricaded zone, troops paused on the corner of Sarasin Road, where Thai yuppies usually gather most nights to enjoy bars offering live music.

Thirsty soldiers also found storage boxes packed with ice and bottled water, abandoned by the fleeing Reds.

They waited among the debris of tangled clothing, woven sleeping mats, plastic kitchenware, piles of fresh vegetables, and other comforts which had turned the Red Shirts' barricaded area into a rural village superimposed on the upmarket heart of Bangkok.

Thousands of Reds hurriedly dumped their tents, vendor stalls, diesel-powered electric generators, and other items.

Several Molotov cocktails stood on a table, and a slingshot lay next to a pile of rocks, remnants of the Reds' desperate weaponry.

During sporadic exchanges of gunfire, troops captured eight men and five women who they blindfolded and secured by tying their hands behind their backs.

Two captured men, dressed as Buddhist monks, were allowed to stand to the side, out of respect in this Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian nation.

The lull dissolved when sustained loud explosions and rifle fire pounded around the area.

At least five people died, including Italian photographer Fabio Polenghi, and 60 were injured including four soldiers, officials said.

By early afternoon, the army confidently advanced to the center of the barricades, at Ratchaprasong intersection.

The military's victory was short-lived.

Hundreds of Reds had remained outside the barricades which formed a one-square-mile (three-square-kilometer) rectangle around the upmarket Ratchaprasong intersection.

Fleeing rioters set fire to Thailand's biggest shopping mall, luxurious Central World, which flanked the square.

Elderly men, women and children sheltered in a nearby Buddhist temple.

"Just because we surrender to the authorities doesn‘t mean we have lost," said Jatuporn Prompan, a top Red leader, when he surrendered to police after the assault.

"We will fight again."

Suspected Red Shirt arsonists and looters torched 20 buildings, including another nearby upmarket mall, Siam Square.

They also set fire to a movie theater, TV station, the Stock Exchange of Thailand, several bank branches, and other offices and buildings.

In northeast Thailand where Reds enjoy widespread support, red-clad protesters set fire to city halls in the provinces of Khon Kaen, Mukdahan, Udom Thani and Ubon Ratchathani -- where two people were shot dead, according to TV reports.

They also burned Chiang Mai's city hall in the pro-red north.

At least 80 people have died, and 1,000 wounded, since the Reds began their insurrection on March 12 by occupying another site in Bangkok.

On April 3, they moved to the more strategic and valuable Ratchaprasong intersection, Bangkok's equivalent to New York's Time Square.

The Reds demanded Parliament be immediately dissolved and a nationwide election be held, because they felt disenfranchised after a bloodless military coup in 2006 toppled the elected prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.

Mr. Thaksin is an international fugitive, convicted of corruption and dodging a two-year prison sentence.

He reportedly funded much of the Red Shirts' protests in a bid to get back 1.2 billion U.S. dollars of his family's assets, which the government froze in a separate corruption case.

Many Reds adore Mr. Thaksin, though he was a ruthless and repressive prime minister whose policies led to the killing of more than 2,000 people in his "war on drugs".

Mr. Thaksin, however, showered the poor with tax-funded benefits, including cheap health care and easy loans.

In a show of generosity after smashing the barricades, Prime Minister Abhisit offered free transportation to thousands of men, women and children who had arrived in Bangkok during the past nine weeks, mostly from the north and northeast of Thailand, in support of the Reds.

Many of them spent Wednesday (March 19) sheltering in Buddhist temples and other locations in Bangkok, fearful of arrest.


Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of
Hello My Big Big Honey!, a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is:

Asia Correspondent

(Copyright 2010 Richard S Ehrlich)