Troops patrol Bangkok as PM talks reconciliation
Bangkok: Troops searched for explosives while firefighters doused the embers of a torched luxury mall in central Bangkok on Saturday as the capital tried to pick up the pieces after the worst political riots in modern Thai history.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva had stressed reconciliation in an address to the nation on Friday but made no offer of early elections, the main demand of protesters who had demonstrated in Bangkok for two months until troops dispersed them this week.
The "red shirt" protesters who rioted in Bangkok come mainly from the rural and urban poor. They want new elections, saying they are disenfranchised by an urban elite that wields all the power and holds a disproportionate share of the country`s wealth.
"Let me reassure you that this government will meet these challenges and overcome these difficulties through the five-point reconciliation plan that I had previously announced," Abhisit said in his televised address.
The plan, first announced on May 3, offers political reforms, social justice and an investigation into political violence.
The "red shirts" say Abhisit lacks a popular mandate after coming to power in a controversial parliamentary vote in 2008 with tacit military support.
The government says the protesters were manipulated by the movement`s figurehead, ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup in 2006 and now lives in self-imposed exile to escape a prison term for abuse of power.
The military crackdown began before dawn on Wednesday, killing at least 15 people and wounding nearly 100. Erawan Emergency Medical Center said 53 people had died and 415 were wounded in the flare-up of violence from May 14.
Mall in ruins
The orgy of rioting and arson that followed the break-up of the rally left Central World, the second-biggest shopping mall in Southeast Asia, in ruins. Firefighters were still active on the site on Saturday as troops secured the surrounding area, including the ritzy shopping district that had been effectively closed since April 3 when thousands of "red shirts" took it over.
At least a dozen bank branches suffered arson attacks in the rioting. The top banks said they would reopen branches in shopping centers on Saturday after a two-day holiday declared by the central bank for security reasons.
Schools outside the 6 sq-km (2.3 sq-mile) central zone ringed off by soldiers will begin the new term on Monday, a week late. Those inside will have to wait another week.
The elevated Skytrain and underground railway system were still closed and traffic was clogged as drivers tried to find a way round the area cordoned off by the security forces.
An overnight curfew is in force until Sunday morning.
The protests have decimated tourism, which accounts for 6 percent of GDP and employs 15 percent of the workforce, and has already cut growth in Southeast Asia`s second-largest economy.
Finance Minister Korn Chatikavani estimated the unrest since March had cut 0.3 to 0.5 percentage point off growth this year -- he had been looking for 4.5 to 5.0 percent -- but he said the economy could pick up fairly quickly if stability was now maintained.
"Clearly, with the events that took place the past several weeks and pictures of those events flashing across TV screens around the world, it is going to have a very disastrous impact on tourism as a sector, probably, frankly speaking, for the remainder of the year," Korn said in Tokyo on Friday.