Bangkok: Thai troops cleared the gutted remains of armored carriers Thursday after anti-government protesters vacated the site of last week`s bloody clashes and shifted to an upscale shopping district to intensify their campaign to oust the prime minister.
The Red Shirt protesters vow their new encampment in the Rajprasong shopping area, several miles (kilometers) from the old camp in Phan Fa, will be the final battlefront in their bid to have Parliament dissolved and new elections held.
A failed attempt by security forces to flush the Red Shirts from Phan Fa on Saturday ended with deadly street battles that left 24 people dead in Thailand`s worst political violence in nearly two decades. The government`s disaster management center said a 24th person died of injuries Thursday.
The crisis has deeply divided this Southeast Asian nation into color-coded factions, threatening to sink an economy that had recently started to revive. The Red Shirts are bitterly opposed by the Yellow Shirts who support the government but have over the past few months stayed on the sidelines. Another group, the Pink Shirts, emerged recently through an Internet campaign by mainly urban professionals, who say they just want peace.
Prime Minister "Abhisit Vejjajiva is the one who must make an immediate decision now (to dissolve Parliament), and if he doesn`t we will escalate our pressure," said Weng Tojirakarn, a Red Shirt leader. "We will keep on demonstrating ... Abhisit must go into exile."
Tensions were likely to build up after the four-day lunar New Year festival of Songkran ends Friday.
The Red Shirts — mainly rural poor who accuse Abhisit of coming to power illegally — arrived in Bangkok from the provinces in droves a month ago and occupied the Democracy Monument in the Phan Fa neighborhood in the old part of the capital.
Thousands more took over the posh Rajprasong area, lined with shopping malls and five-star hotels, on April 5.
"We moved out of Phan Fa for the safety of our protesters," protest leader Nattawut Saikua said. "And more importantly, the army would not be able to have any more excuse for clamping down on us. We`ve already cleared the area for them."
"Rajprasong will be the last battlefront between us and Abhisit. Logistically we`d be more efficient. We`d better organize ourselves. Our troops would then be much more stronger," he said.
After the Red Shirts moved out of Phan Fa, soldiers arrived with cranes to lift the burned out hulls of armored personnel carriers and trucks that were set on fire by protesters on Saturday. The remains were placed on trailer trucks, draped with tarpaulins and driven away.
Municipal workers removed red banners that had been wrapped around the Democracy Monument, a gigantic dome-shaped structure. They used high-pressure water hoses to rid the sidewalks of cooking oil stains, sprayed disinfectant and replanted flowers and hedges. Volunteers cleaned graffiti from the monument, including vulgar abuses against the prime minister.
Sewage trucks lined up along the main road to drain the foul-smelling overflow, particularly in the stretches where the Red Shirts had set up makeshift bathrooms.
In a reflection of growing divisions in the country, about 700 Pink Shirts, who oppose the dissolution of Parliament gathered at a war memorial in the middle of a traffic roundabout in Bangkok on Wednesday. The Pink Shirts planned another demonstration on Thursday.
Most of the Pink Shirts came together through Facebook by joining a fan page called "No Dissolution of Parliament Group."
"I think it`s time to make our voice heard," said Somchai Siripaiboonpong, 57, who works in finance. "Each claims that they`re the majority, but no one group is representative of the population," he said.
At loggerheads in the yearslong struggle for power in Thailand are the rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra — who was ousted in a 2006 coup — and the traditional ruling elite represented by Abhisit and his allies.
The coup was followed by elections in December 2007 that were won by Thaksin`s political allies. But they faced months of street protests by Yellow Shirts who accuse Thaksin of corruption. Although the pro-Thaksin government did not bow to the protests it was forced out of office by a court decision that the Red Shirts found dubious.
The resulting political vacuum was filled by Abhisit`s opposition coalition in December 2008. The Red Shirts claim Abhisit, whose supporters include business leaders, the military brass and members of the urban middle class, took power illegitimately because he didn`t win any election.