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Bangkok merchants tally losses from riots, seek to repair wounded heart of city

BANGKOK (AP) — A turquoise sash on a wedding dress was the only streak of color visible in the blackened and charred shops housed inside a giant movie theater complex in downtown Bangkok. Acrid smoke rose past the cinema's large mural of the masks of comedy and tragedy.

Summoning any emotion was difficult for the owner of a gutted clothing store as he looked at the destruction.

"I can't even cry. I don't even know how I feel," said Viroj Sinthaveelert, standing on a carpet of broken glass inside the burned shell of the Siam Cinema building, which was torched by rioters on Wednesday. "This is the biggest shock of my life."

Peace was largely restored in the city Thursday, a day after a military crackdown on anti-government protesters triggered rioting in which 39 buildings were burned.

Among them were high-end properties like the Siam Cinema and the CentralWorld shopping mall, where Thais loved to bring their families.

Thursday was a day for counting what was lost in the mayhem — and what it will take to rebuild and return that special buzz that made Bangkok one of Southeast Asia's favored destinations for shoppers, tourists and business travelers.

Officials at Center One, another gutted mall of 300 shops, estimated damage of at least 1 billion baht (about $31 million) and said 1,000 people were unemployed.

Fire damaged the first floor of the Stock Exchange of Thailand, and the damage to municipal public property was estimated at 100 million baht (about $3 million).

Viroj, 33, lost hundreds of thousands of dollars when his store, which was named "About" and catered to fashionable Thai teenagers, went up in flames with the cinema.

"It's all gone. My entire stocks, all clothes on display. Nothing remains," Viroj said. He had brought some bags with him, hoping to fill them with clothes salvaged from the fire, but he left with the sacks empty. Nothing could be saved.

Hairdresser Yanathorn Nathanya retrieved a stool, towels, a water cooler, some perm chemicals and a half-dozen tubes of dye from her salon, named "Jack," on the Siam Cinema's second floor.

A half-burned sign was all that remained of a Dunkin Donuts shop at the movie complex.

Inside the movie theater, the roof had collapsed and only metal frames of the 800 seats remained. It had closed May 13 because of the protests, so it never got to replace "Iron Man 2" with "Bounty Hunter."

When it opened in 1966 with "Battle of the Bulge," starring Henry Fonda and Robert Shaw, the Siam Cinema was one of the most modern theaters of its day, featuring an escalator that carried patrons up to a mezzanine-level box office.

Perhaps Wednesday's biggest property loss was the destruction of CentralWorld, one of Southeast Asia's largest shopping malls. One end of the long building had caved in where the fire was fiercest, and the site continued to smolder Thursday.

For many Bangkok residents, the 21-year-old CentralWorld was more than a shopping center. It had recently undergone a multimillion-dollar facelift and boasted more than 500 shops, including a Gap and the Japanese department store Isetan.

Larger than the Mall of America in Minnesota, CentralWorld also had a public library and what was touted as the biggest food court in Asia.

"Our hearts sank when we saw on TV what was happening to CentralWorld," said Mathurawan Deo-isares, a 31-year-old lawyer. "It was a weekend home for a lot of people. That's where they went to meet with friends, family, to dine.

"I have grown up with it. I have been going there since I was a high school student," she said. "It had a special place in our hearts."

Thawanrat Immathara-angkul, owner of a watch boutique in the complex, was in tears.

"I didn't carry anything out because I didn't expect this to happen," she said, adding that firefighters couldn't fully battle the blaze because gunmen were shooting at them.

The military assault followed six days of clashes between troops and protesters that left 39 people dead. The Red Shirt demonstrators had built a barricaded encampment on some of Bangkok's most fashionable streets, shutting off access to malls, offices, theaters and luxury hotels like the Four Seasons and the Hyatt for weeks.

The army smashed the camp, a 1-square-mile (3-square-kilometer) area that at one time held as many as 20,000 people.

Sporadic violence continued Thursday. A branch of Siam City Bank was set afire and a firefighter was shot and wounded while trying to douse the flames at a shopping center.

The protest leaders surrendered over the past two days, and their supporters — mostly poor rural Thais who felt the current government was illegitimate and had forgotten them — were taken by buses to their villages.

Many downtown streets remained closed as soldiers searched the debris- and garbage-filled camp for weapons left behind, and they found a cache of explosives and assault rifles.

Red Shirt supporter Bun-auer Panatsri, a 53-year-old widow from the northeastern province of Mahasarakam, said she didn't see anything wrong in the arson attacks.

"I think that was legitimate. It was reasonable. This was the people's way of expressing their feelings" against the government, she said as she hurriedly got into her bus, her meager belongings in a knapsack. She added that she was "saddened" by the military's crackdown.

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Associated Press writers Thanyarat Doksone, Denis D. Gray, Jocelyn Gecker, Eric Talmadge, and Grant Peck contributed to this report. Additional research by Warangkana Tempati.