Image: Thai anti-government protesters leave rally site
Vincent Yu  /  AP
Anti-government protesters leave the focal point for rallies in Bangkok on Tuesday after their leaders called off the demonstration.
updated 4/14/2009 3:25:56 PM ET 2009-04-14T19:25:56

Police issued arrest warrants Tuesday for 14 leaders of an anti-government movement, including ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, as protesters abruptly ended violent demonstrations in Thailand's capital.

A day after red-shirted protesters burned buses and seized intersections in clashes with police and soldiers that left two people dead and more than 120 injured, their leaders called it quits, urging a group of 2,000 die-hard demonstrators to go home.

The swift and unexpected resolution headed off the possibility of a confrontation with heavily armed troops massing around the demonstrators' encampment near the seat of government. Dispirited protesters quietly boarded government buses watched over by soldiers.

But few expected it was the end of a rural-based movement that has shown the ability to mobilize 100,000 protesters and cause the cancellation of a regional summit in its campaign seeking to force out a government dominated by urban elements and hold new elections.

Charnvit Kasetsiri, one of Thailand's most prominent historians, said the "political convulsion" may be over for now, but the underlying tensions between the rural poor and urban elite highlighted during the demonstrations remain.

"The government has underestimated the wrath of rural and marginalized people and that is partly why they have not made enough effort to reach out to heal the rift. Without addressing that, this is not going to be the last riot," he said.

Warrants issued
The demonstrations were a mirror of mass protests by urban groups last year that snarled Bangkok until the courts removed a government led by Thaksin's allies who were elected on the strength of rural voters.

The appointment of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva further angered many rural people, who were already upset by a 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin, and their disenchantment blew up into their own protest movement.

Video: Order restored, for now

Three of the 14 protest leaders were in police custody, metropolitan police spokesman Suporn Pansua said, and the Bangkok Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for 11 others, including Thaksin, who went into self-imposed exile last year before a court convicted him of violating a conflict of interest law.

The warrants accuse the protest leaders of creating a public disturbance and engaging in illegal assembly, which carry prison terms of up to seven and three years, respectively.

"This is not a victory or a loss of any particular group," Abhisit said in a televised address. "If it is victory, it is victory of society that peace and order has returned."

But he warned that the threat from the red-clad protesters was not over.

"The operation under the state of emergency is not completed. There are still things to do," he said. "There are still protesters in some areas. The only difference is they aren't wearing red anymore."

Holiday extended
The government announced it was adding two more days to the three-day Thai New Year holiday, which began Monday, to ensure safety and allow time for repairing damage from the violence.

Some protesters threatened to regroup after the arrest warrants were issued. About 200 protesters took off their red shirts but gathered in a field near Government House late Tuesday. They were closely monitored by soldiers patrolling the area but no clash was reported.

Jakrapob Penkair, a protest leader who had not turned himself in, said the movement "will continue fighting." He did not specify what action they would take next.

Thaksin, considered by most protesters to be their leader, had addressed the demonstrators via video nearly every evening.

Siri Kadmai, a 45-year-old protester who was wearing buttons and a T-shirt expressing love for the former prime minister, insisted the movement had not lost the fight but was making a strategic withdrawal in the face of the power of security forces.

"We were only in a disadvantageous position," Siri said as she waited to board a bus. "We only have hearts. We don't have weapons."

Color battle
Still, many protesters looked broken, almost in shock that their dreams of revolution unraveled so quickly. Their leaders called off the demonstrations Tuesday morning following warnings that the army was ready to move against them.

Most of the demonstrators, anxious about their safety, packed their bags and began leaving. Crowds lined up for soldiers, showed their identification cards and were led to buses waiting to take them home. There were no confrontations with the troops nor any visible anger. The buses were gone by 2 p.m.

The protests were only the latest in a long-simmering conflict — set off by Thaksin's removal from power in a 2006 coup — that has split many Thais into two groups.

The "red shirts" are mostly Thaksin supporters drawn largely from the impoverished countryside where he is popular for his populist policies.

On the other side are the "yellow shirts," who brought the country to a halt last year by occupying Government House and Bangkok's airports. Those demonstrations, led by a mix of royalists, academics, professionals and retired military who think the poor aren't educated enough to vote, only broke up after court rulings removed Thaksin's allies from power.

The pro-Thaksin protesters have made their voices heard and their presence felt, said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a research fellow at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

"Now, no one would ever underestimate the power of the red-shirt protesters," he said. "They may say, 'We give up,' but we don't know when they will regroup and strike again."

More on Thailand

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Photos: Unrest in Thailand spreads

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  1. Thai anti-government protesters leave the stage area after leaders called off their rally outside the government house in Bangkok, Thailand, Tuesday, April 14, 2009. Leaders of demonstrations that plunged the Thai capital into chaos Tuesday called off their protests following rioting and clashes that left two dead and more than 120 injured across Bangkok. Several were then taken into police custody. (Vincent Yu / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A Thai Buddhist monk carries a fan past lines of policemen as he leaves the site of an anti-government rally at the premier's office, in Bangkok. (Christophe Archambault / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A Thai anti-government protester poses for a picture with his ID card before walking through a line of soldiers outside the government house in Bangkok, Thailand. Authorities required each protester to pose for a picture with their ID card before leaving the area. (Vincent Yu / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Supporters of ousted Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra raise a white cloth and their arms before leaving the Government House area in Bangkok. (Kerek Wongsa  / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. An unidentified man with a head injury walks through police lines to a hospital in Bangkok, Thailand. (David Longstreath / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Thai soldiers detain an anti-government protestor following a clash in down town Bangkok, Thailand. (Vincent Yu / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Thai soldiers advance on anti government supporters near Government House near a burned out bus, during pitched battles in the streets of Bangkok, Thailand. (Barbara Walton / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Members of the Thai military take over the streets as gun battles break out during violent protests on Monday. (Paula Bronstein / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Supporters of ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra prepare petrol bottles as they confront armed troops in a main road in Bangkok on Monday. (Dario Pignatelli / Polaris) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Anti-government protesters plead with the Thai military as gun battles break out during violent protests on Monday. (Paula Bronstein / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A supporter of Thai ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra walks past a burning bus near the United Nations building in Bangkok on Monday, April 13. Thai troops fired warning shots and tear gas at protesters as the government launched a crackdown to enforce a state of emergency. Monday's clashes left at least one person dead and more than 75 others injured. (Nicolas Asfouri / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Thai army soldiers gather in front of Bangkok's Ananta Samakon palace before facing supporters of exiled ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra on Monday. (Nicolas Asfouri / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Supporters of exiled Thai ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra clash with troops in front of the United Nations building in Bangkok on April 12. (Nicolas Asfouri / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Thai soldiers use a water cannon against anti-government protesters during a protest in Bangkok on Monday. (Sakchai Lalit / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Anti-government protesters pray before monks after occupying the Government House area of the Thai capital on Monday. (Nyein Chan Naing / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Soldiers watch supporters of ousted Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in Bangkok on Monday. Thai troops repeatedly fired into the air to break up violent protests. (Chaiwat Subprasom / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Medical workers transport an injured protester after a clash with soldiers in Bangkok, Thailand, on Monday. (Vivek Prakash / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A Thai man hands flowers to soldiers during a protest in Bangkok on Monday. (Wason Wanichakorn / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A Thai Buddhist monk calls on soldiers to stop firing as they battle with anti-government protesters in Bangkok on Monday. (Barbara Walton / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Thai soldiers point to protesters who threw a fire bomb at them after the troops cleared an intersection in downtown Bangkok on Monday. (Vincent Yu / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Niphon Promphan, a driver for a Thai government minister, sits in a car after being attacked by protesters near the Interior Ministry in Bangkok on April 12. (Str / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Thai soldiers watch Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva announcing a state of emergency on TV in Bangkok on April 12. (Vincent Yu / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Thai Foreign Affairs Minister Kasit Piromya, right, and his wife Jintana Piromya, left, are carried by security guards to a waiting speedboat after anti-government protesters stormed the venue hosting a summit of Asian leaders in Pattaya, Thailand, on April 11. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Thai soldiers attempt to stop protesters from entering the venue hosting a summit of Asian leaders in Pattaya, Thailand, on April 11. The meeting was later canceled for security reasons. (How Hwee Young / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Anti-government demonstrators storm into a venue hosting a summit of Asian leaders in Pattaya, Thailand, on April 11. Protesters forced their way into the convention hall by smashing through glass doors. (David Longstreath / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. An anti-government protester screams as she tries to climb past army soldiers barricading the front entrance of a conference center that was due to host a summit of Asian leaders in Pattaya, Thailand, on April 10. (Nyein Chan Naing / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
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