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Thai 'Red-Shirts' Have Mixed Emotions as Protest Ends

Anti-government protesters in Thailand have given up their demonstrations after being confronted with a massive military force. The peaceful end to the sometimes violent protests leaves an exhausted city.

Supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra listened to music and final speeches by their leaders Tuesday, at the end of three weeks of demonstrations. They had hoped to pressure the four-month-old government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to resign.

After two days of street battles, the protesters woke Tuesday morning to find the military had surrounded their main camp in Bangkok.

Protest leaders, with the help of several Thai senators, negotiated with the military to let their followers go home peacefully.

Protesters feel they lost

For the protesters, known for the red shirts they wear, the end brought mixed emotions.

Chavalit, from Chiang Mai, 700 kilometers north of Bangkok, was ready to go home.

"No winner, Red Shirts no winner," he said. "And now we pack up and go home".

The government says more than 120 people were injured in the fighting, and two died. Some protesters suspect many others were shot, although no evidence of shootings has been produced.

A woman from Chiang Mai weeps over the rumors of shootings, saying her heart is broken.
The protesters consider the current government illegitimate, and they want Mr. Thaksin to return to the country. He lives in exile after being ousted in a coup in 2006 and then convicted of corruption charges.

Former PM Thaksin Shinawatra encouraged protesters

Most of Mr. Thaksin's supporters are the rural residents or poor city residents. But the nation's urban middle class and its traditional ruling groups consider him authoritarian and corrupt.

He has been a divisive figure since he became prime minister in 2001. During the protests, Mr. Thaksin frequently used video links to urge his supporters to fight hard against the government.

Lieutenant General Theradej Rodphotong is a police commissioner for the Thai Special Branch, and he supports Mr. Thaksin. He says, however, the former prime minister should negotiate with the government. He thinks the protests have succeeded in promoting wider political participation, and now the demonstrators need to look to the long-term.

"Long-term is better," he said. "Policemen and the people try to make an understanding. I want Thaksin to negotiate with my government. Don't fight; don't fight, should be to negotiate."

While the protesters sadly returned home, there were many in Bangkok grateful the rallies had ended with no further violence.

Residents in many neighborhoods had been angered by attacks by roaming protesters, who sought to widen the fighting. Several communities formed vigilante groups to keep out protesters.

Bangkok returning to normal

Many people thought the government had not been stern enough when protesters forced the cancellation of an Asian summit meeting on Saturday in the town of Pattaya.

Boomipot, who lives close to the main protest site, says Prime Minister Abhisit has regained credibility by ending the protests.

"Abhisit, now I think to the Thai people [he will be] accepted now. He's a little bit too soft when they were in Pattaya and in Pattaya I think a lot of police there were not cooperating with the government," said Boomipot. "He is on the right track now. I think he has gained a lot of popularity."

But Mr. Boomipot thinks Mr. Thaksin will not give up and will try to strengthen his support in the provinces.

By Tuesday afternoon, the city was trying to get back to normal. Government workers began clearing debris from burned-out buses. An army bomb disposal team detonated explosives found on commandeered buses.

The Thai finance minister says the demonstrations will worsen the already weakened economy. But shopping malls, closed because of the violence, were opening Tuesday afternoon. And the government extended the three-day New Year holiday, which began Monday, until the end of the week, giving people a chance to enjoy the holiday traditions of eating out and shopping.