At dawn on May 19, armored personnel carriers and hundreds of Thai soldiers breached barricades set up by supporters of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship—the UDD, or Red Shirts, who had occupied the main upscale shopping and hotel district of Ratchaprasong in Bangkok since April 3.
Seven Red Shirt leaders surrendered after hours of skirmishing that left four protestors and one Italian photographer dead, according to an Associated Press report. But Red Shirt supporters continued to set fire to the massive piles of tires and bamboo sticks that had served as their encampment barricades, as well as torching businesses and banks, the AP said.
The Thai Government already had declared a state of emergency in 21 provinces, shut down public transportation in central Bangkok, and declared a national holiday through May 21. Now an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew has been imposed for those 21 provinces as well.
The Red Shirts, who support former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted by a military coup in 2006, have called for the current Prime Minister to resign and for new elections to be held.
Previously, the government and the protestors had agreed to a mediator to conduct negotiations; however, the government said it would not begin talks until the protestors dispersed and the protestors had said they would not leave their encampment until Thai troops withdrew. Despite the surrender of some Red Shirt leaders, a Reuters report states, the question remains whether active protests will continue and possibly grow throughout the country or whether a peace deal between the two sides could be negotiated.
Clashes over the past six weeks have left 72 people dead and more than 1,500 injured. The night of May 16, guests of the Dusit Thani hotel were ushered to the hotel basement after three rocket-propelled grenades hit the luxury property, a Bangkok landmark for decades, according to an article in the International Herald Tribune. On May 17 all guests were evacuated and the hotel closed except for a skeleton staff.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand reports other hotels in the Ratchaprasong area that have temporarily closed include the InterContinental Bangkok, the Bangkok Holiday Inn, the Four Seasons Bangkok, and the Grand Hyatt Erawan.
The U.S. Embassy is closed at least through May 21, and the U.S. Department of State warns against all travel to the areas of Thailand declared states of emergency, and against non-essential travel to all other parts of Thailand. Read the entire warning, updates on the current situation, and a transcript of a virtual town hall meeting held by the embassy on May 18 here.
Tourism Hit Hard
According to the Thai Hotels Association, hotels in Bangkok are less than 30 percent full, about half the average for this time of year. And the Tourism Council of Thailand projects that the number of foreign tourists may drop to less than 13 million this year from 14.1 million in 2009.
The Tourism Authority of Thailand has addressed the crisis at its Web site, warning tourists to avoid the Ratchaprasong area, and posting transportation advisories, contact information, a running list of links to newspaper articles, video interviews with expats and tourists currently in less-affected parts of Thailand, and links to theMinistry of Government Affairs Web site, which details any planned government actions.
The Pacific Asia Travel Association, an organization begun in the 1950s to encourage responsible development of the Asia-Pacific travel and tourism industry, closed its office in Bangkok and issued a statement at its Web site: “The situation in the city center deteriorated during the course of the week-end and on Monday, 17 May. All tourists and business travelers in Thailand are advised to take firm note of travel advisories issued by their respective Embassies and Consulates. We are unable to confirm when the PATA HQ will reopen. Further statements will be posted on this website in due course.”
PATA senior officers and staff did meet in Bangkok on May 17, and newly elected Chairman Hiran Cooray commented, “These are sad times for Thailand. However, there is no country that does not go through its share of strife at given moments. We are aware that some countries have currently issued travel advisories. Nonetheless, we are confident that tourism in Thailand will not be affected long-term. We are here today as a measure of that confidence and to demonstrate our solidarity as PATA to the Thai people and the global travel and tourism industry at large.”