Thai chaos leaves many wondering why government can't restore order

BANGKOK (AP) — Renegade Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdipol helped construct the barricades paralyzing downtown Bangkok, has been accused of creating a paramilitary force among anti-government protesters and has vowed to battle his own army if it should launch a crackdown.

His actions have made him a fugitive from justice, yet he wanders freely in the streets of the Thai capital, signing autographs just yards (meters) from security forces keeping watch over the protesters.

Seven weeks into a stalemate that has turned parts of the city into a lawless protest camp, many are wondering why the government seems unable or unwilling to restore order.

"Red Shirt" protest leaders with arrest warrants on their heads lead demonstrations through the streets, sympathizers have set up roadblocks outside the city to stop police reinforcements from entering and no one in the government, police or military has publicly articulated a plan as to how to resolve the crisis.

"It's out of control. It's beyond imagination," said Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva says he wants a political solution but has called off negotiations until the protesters leave downtown.

That has left many here expecting a crackdown. But Siripan and other analysts question whether Gen. Anupong Paochinda, the army chief set for retirement in September, has the stomach for more bloodshed after earlier clashes claimed 27 lives in the worst political violence here in 18 years.

The loyalty of some soldiers, drawn from the same impoverished rural stock as many protesters, is in question as well. Authorities have also drawn criticism by bungling high-profile efforts to arrest Red Shirt leaders, including once instance in which a wanted leader escaped by rope from a hotel window as police raided the building.

Now, thousands of Red Shirts hide from the midday sun under rows of tents erected inside Bangkok's high-priced shopping district.

In an atmosphere reminiscent of a music festival, vendors selling red shirts, protest scarves and slingshots share street space with those selling Bob Marley T-shirts and Hello Kitty cell phone covers. Some came with pushcarts, plastic chairs and folding tables and opened street cafes, while others brought in mattresses and offered Thai massage.

There are rows of portable toilets and regular food deliveries from protest coordinators, who dish out curry and ice cream to supporters from metal vats on the back of pickup trucks.

The camp is protected by Khattiya's barricades of fencing, bamboo, tires and razor wire. Though he has been working with the protesters since at least last year, the military suspended him three months ago, and the courts issued an arrest warrant for him last month on weapons charges, the government only took its first major action against him on Thursday — by shutting down his website.

Khattiya said he is not concerned that he might be arrested.

"What would they arrest me for? For walking around here among the protesters? Nonsense," he said.

It was the security forces who were afraid, he said.

"They couldn't believe civilians would dare to fight back," he said.

Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said it was government policy to arrest the protest leaders, but it was up to the police to determine how to carry it out.

Such a lengthy disruptive protest would be unthinkable in more authoritarian countries such as Myanmar or China. Even in democratic countries, it would be hard to imagine police allowing demonstrators to take over a premier shopping district — akin to New York's 5th Avenue — and set up a protest camp.

The demonstration calling for the dissolution of Parliament and new elections is costing businesses millions of dollars a day and wearing on many Thais.

A group of counter-demonstrators known as the Yellow Shirts demanded Thursday the government present a plan for ending the current stalemate and said they would support a declaration of martial law.

"The crisis has reached a critical point and has damaged the economy and society," they said in a petition to the government. "We would like to see the brave soldiers help us get rid of this illegal activity and bring peace to Thai society as soon as possible."

But the Yellow Shirts themselves proved that paralyzing the nation is a winning strategy when they took over the prime minister's office and then Bangkok's airports in 2008 to help force a change in government.

Leigh Dixon, a former Australian police official who is now a security consultant based in Indonesia, said it would have been far easier to clear out the Red Shirts earlier in their nearly two-month protest, before they had erected barricades and other defensive measures.

The Thai authorities are now left with four difficult options: negotiate, lay siege to the protesters by cutting off their food and other essential services, raid the area with tear gas, water cannons and other nonlethal force, or seal them into their camp and ignore them, he said.

"You need to find a solution without using force," former Israeli police commissioner Assaf Hefetz said, "because people will be killed and that could flare into more violence."

Panitan, the government spokesman, said that while the prime minister is not negotiating with the protesters, he is meeting with community leaders and other political parties to find a compromise.

"He's looking for a political solution, at the same time we are also moving to make sure security issues are handled," he said, adding that the details and timing of any crackdown would be decided by the security forces.

Siripan, the political scientist, said she favors negotiations, but since the government has called them off, she could not understand why they weren't ordering a crackdown.

A confrontation between security forces and protesters Wednesday on the outskirts of the city offered a perfect opportunity for a raid on the encampment downtown, she said. A soldier was killed, providing a pretext for action, many protest leaders were outside their stronghold and Red Shirts were seeking shelter from a driving rain.

"It's confusing," she said.