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Thailand's Anti-Government Protests End, but Questions Linger

While calm has returned to Bangkok after a week of political turmoil, Thailand's deep political divisions remain. There are calls for an independent commission to investigate the clashes between protesters and the military, and lingering questions over the military's behavior when protesters forced the cancellation of a meeting of Asian national leaders.

Although the anti-government protesters have gone home, Thai army troops are still present at key locations in the capital, Bangkok. The city remains under a state of emergency.

Protest leaders under arrest

The Thai government has issued 36 arrest warrants for supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The charges relate to protests that ruined a summit of Asian leaders last Saturday, and an attack on the current prime minister's motorcade.

Four leaders of the so-called Red Shirt protests have been arrested. The government also has issued a warrant for Mr. Thaksin, who lives in exile, for inciting violence that was intended to force the current government to resign.

Mr. Thaksin, who was ousted in a coup in 2006 and now lives in exile. He frequently used video links to urge the protesters to fight harder.

Protests may have backfired

Chris Baker, an author and commentator on Thai politics, says the recent violence in Bangkok damaged Mr. Thaksin's credibility.

"For his faithful supporters he will always have enormous value and enormous attraction, even though he failed them," said Baker. "The biggest thing is now is that he has become totally unacceptable to an even larger number of people than he was even a couple of weeks ago. That means any return of him to the scene would be totally divisive. So I think practically he is not part of the solution anymore."

Is reconciliation possible?

To ease Thailand's political divisions, Baker says Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva should look for ways to reconcile with pro-Thaksin politicians, and to call elections within a year.

But many familiar with Thailand's political scene say Mr. Thaksin is unlikely to restrain his supporters. Kraisak Choonhavan, a member of the governing Democrat Party, says Mr. Thaksin will press on with his protest campaign.

"Knowing Thaksin he has no remorse at all," he said. "And the intention to cause incredible damage to the country was what was clear."

Not everyone supports former PM

Mr. Thaksin is very popular among Thailand's poor and rural residents. However, many middle class Thais and urban residents consider him corrupt and authoritarian. He has been convicted on corruption charges, but fled the country to avoid prison.

Boomipot lives in a Bangkok neighborhood hit by protest violence. He also thinks Mr. Thaksin will seek to maintain political influence.

"Thaksin he will never give up. Somehow I think he has to protect a lot of people here. Somehow you can see from his reaction [to the military crackdown] he will do something again," he said. "I think his time is over but I think he will kick around until the end, until he dies."

Government's handling of protest criticized

No matter what Mr. Thaksin does, questions remain about how the protests here were handled. Kraisak with the Democrat Party says there is particular concern over the failure of the military and police to keep order at the Asian summit last Saturday.

"How [did] a few hundred of the Red Shirts managed to attack the summit and going from room to room looking for the prime minister in harm's way? The prime minister was attacked twice you see with no apparent security around at all to protect him," said Kraisak. "He escaped death or being wounded by the skin of his teeth."

Human Rights Watch has called on the government to set up an independent commission to carry out a "prompt, effective, and impartial investigation" into the recent violence and hold accountable those responsible.

In protests and clashes between the Red Shirts and the military that began last Thursday, at least two people died and more than 100 were injured. Most of the injured were protesters.

Although the Red Shirts abandoned their efforts to force out Prime Minister Abhisit, many vow to eventually resume their protests. They say the government is illegitimate because it came to power after court rulings ousted two elected pro-Thaksin governments.