WORLD> Asia-Pacific
Thai police hunt for protest leaders
Updated: 2009-04-15 22:31

BANGKOK -- Police hunted Wednesday for 10 leaders of an anti-government movement after combat troops quashed violent demonstrations in Thailand's capital. An arrest warrant also was out for ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Authorities were checking airports in case some tried to flee the country, local television stations said.

Thai police hunt for protest leaders
A soldier sleeps in a hammock strung up in the shade near Government House in Bangkok April 15, 2009. An end to the latest round of political chaos in the kingdom allows the government some breathing space. [Agencies] 

The exiled Thaksin had addressed the demonstrators nearly every night via video and called for a "revolution" as Bangkok spiraled into chaos. He has lived largely overseas since being toppled by a military coup in 2006 for alleged corruption, and was last known to be in Dubai.

Related readings:
Thai police hunt for protest leaders Thai riots halt; leaders face arrest
Thai police hunt for protest leaders Entire region affected by Thai riots, say analysts
Thai police hunt for protest leaders Thai troops surround protestors after 2 killed in clash
Thai police hunt for protest leaders Thai soldiers, anti-govt protesters clash

A day after red-shirted protestors burned buses and seized intersections in clashes with police, soldiers and residents that left two people dead and 123 injured, their leaders called it quits Tuesday and urged the remaining 2,000 die-hard demonstrators to go home.

The swift and unexpected resolution headed off the possibility of a confrontation with heavily armed troops massing around the demonstrators' encampment near the seat of government. Dispirited protestors quietly boarded government buses watched over by soldiers.

But few expected it was the end of a rural-based movement that has shown the ability to mobilize 100,000 protestors and derail a weekend regional summit in its campaign to oust a government dominated by urbanites and to force new elections.

Charnvit Kasetsiri, a prominent Thai historian, said the "political convulsion" may be over for now, but the underlying tensions between the rural poor and urban elite highlighted during the demonstrations remain.

"The government has underestimated the wrath of rural and marginalized people and that is partly why they have not made enough effort to reach out to heal the rift. Without addressing that, this is not going to be the last riot," he said.

But at least for the time being, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, an Oxford-educated politician whom many regarded as too soft to handle crises, appears to have gained in stature while many Thais are denouncing Thaksin for inciting his followers to lawlessless by calls for a "revolution."

Editorials in Bangkok newspapers Wednesday urged Abhisit to avoid political partisanship and address the grievances of the protest movement.

The demonstrations were a mirror of mass protests by urban groups last year that snarled Bangkok until a court removed a government led by Thaksin's allies who were elected on the strength of rural voters.

The appointment of Abhisit further angered many rural people, who were already upset by the 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin, and their disenchantment blew up into their own protest movement.

Three of the protest leaders were in police custody, metropolitan police spokesman Suporn Pansua said, and the Bangkok Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for 11 others, including Thaksin, who fled into exile last year before a court convicted him of violating a conflict-of-interest law.

The warrants accuse the protest leaders of creating a public disturbance and engaging in illegal assembly, which carry prison terms of up to seven and three years, respectively.

"This is not a victory or a loss of any particular group," Abhisit said in a televised address. "If it is victory, it is victory of society that peace and order has returned."

But he warned the threat from the red-clad protestors was not over.

"The operation under the state of emergency is not completed. There are still things to do," he said. "There are still protestors in some areas. The only difference is they aren't wearing red anymore."

Jakrapob Penkair, a protest leader who had not turned himself in, said the movement "will continue fighting." He did not specify what action they would take next.

Siri Kadmai, a 45-year-old protestor who was wearing buttons and a T-shirt expressing love for the former prime minister, insisted the movement had not lost its fight but was making a strategic withdrawal in the face of the power of security forces.

"We were only in a disadvantageous position," Siri said as she waited to board a bus. "We only have hearts. We don't have weapons."