Thailand protests end: five observations

Anti-government red shirt protesters here in Bangkok dispersed yesterday, bringing an end to the unrest that has engulfed the Thai capital over the past few days.

Army troops secured major intersections throughout the city, and demonstrators who had gathered at the Prime Minister’s office have now left.

Throughout Bangkok, people are celebrating Songkran — the Thai new year — in earnest, splashing water and dancing to music in the streets.

Here are five observations I have after speaking with people and reporting on the situation here. I’ve been sharing some ongoing thoughts and links on Twitter, but here’s a longer dispatch:

1. While normalcy has returned to the Thai capital, the images of chaos may prove lasting. Last week, protesters invaded a hotel in Pattaya where a meeting of Asian leaders was being held, and then demonstrators clashed with police here in Bangkok. Red shirts set city buses on fire and blocked roads with taxis. It was only when army troops fired automatic weapons into the air and moved to disperse them that the demonstrators retreated. This is dramatic stuff, clearly, and while things have returned to normal now, these images are powerful, especially so for those watching from outside the country.

2. PM Abhisit was successful in putting down the uprising, but what comes next? When he came to power a few months ago, many hoped that he would mend the divide between the two factions battling here. And…

3. No progress has been made in settling the differences between pro and anti-Thaksin forces. On the one hand is the red shirts, who are commonly characterized as coming from the rural north and northeast of the country. Many of them support exiled prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006. On the other side are the yellow-shirts (the PAD), who say Thaksin and his associates are corrupt, and that their influence must be removed from politics.

4. The red shirts claim that they’ll be back. Yesterday a red shirt organizer said that they’ll now go home and rest over Songkran. And then they’ll return to Bangkok in even larger numbers. Red shirt demonstrators I spoke with indicated that they were merely suspending their demonstrations, but that the fight isn’t over. What comes next?

5. There are serious worries here about tourism and the economy. Tourism accounts for 6.7 percent of the Thai economy. And the goal was to attract some 14 million tourists this year. Some estimates say that number may now fall to less than 10 million. The industry was already suffering following the PAD’s week-long closure of Bangkok’s international airport in late November, 2008. And the global financial crisis has also taken its toll. The government has announced that it may seek to increase its recent economic stimulus pacakge. Analysts say, though, that a key component in shoring up the economy is achieving political stability. That now appears to be a long way off.

That’s it for now. I’ll be back and blogging next week.

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