BANGKOK — As soldiers mopped up pockets of resistance and the government declared it was back in control, fears grew Thursday that the tentative quiet restored to Thailand's capital after a bloody crackdown on protests may just be a respite from violence and political polarization that could continue for years.
Leaders of the anti-government Red Shirt movement vowed a return as they were taken into custody.
"I think this is a new beginning for the Red Shirts," said Kevin Hewison, a Thailand expert at the University of North Carolina. "It will be a darker and grimmer time of struggle and less-focused activities. By no stretch of the imagination is the movement finished."
The Thai government declared Thursday it had mostly quelled 10 weeks of violent protests in the capital as buildings smoldered, troops rooted out die-hard holdouts and some residents cautiously attempted a return to normal life a day after a military operation cleared the main commercial district of thousands of demonstrators, leaving 15 dead and nearly 100 injured.
Troops roamed the city on foot and in Humvees and exchanged gunfire with scattered Red Shirt holdouts, who fought near the city's Victory Monument and torched a bank, bringing to 40 the number of buildings set aflame after the military push sent the protesters retreating from their demonstration site.
The protesters, demanding elections, had fortified themselves behind tire-and-bamboo-spike barricades.
Thailand's finance ministry estimated the economic damage to the country at 50 billion baht ($1.5 billion). Continued security concerns led officials to extend a nighttime curfew in Bangkok and 23 other provinces for three more days.
Even so, army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd said the government was in charge.
"Overall, we have the situation under control," he said.
Residents, meanwhile, moved carefully to resume their routines.
With military checkpoints closing, city workers removed debris and collected piles of garbage left in the streets. Residents in protest areas were able to leave home to shop. Electricity was restored in many areas.
But many of those who ventured into the streets were still deeply shaken by the violence. Video: Protesters burn buildings in Bangkok
"This really worries me — this shouldn't happen to Thailand," said Somjit Suksumrain, a construction company manager. "Thailand should not end up like this."
By late Thursday, authorities had taken into custody most of the senior Red Shirt leaders.
Three surrendered Thursday after five others gave themselves up the previous day and were flown to a military camp south of Bangkok for interrogation.
"I'd like to ask all sides to calm down and talk with each other in a peaceful manner," Veera Musikapong said after being taken into custody Thursday. "We cannot create democracy with anger."
Not all were as conciliatory.
Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, another Red Shirt leader, said the movement was simply regrouping.
"Initially, independent movements of the masses in Bangkok and the regions will begin, then riots will ensue," he said. "For Thailand in the long term, there will be major changes due to the crisis of faith."
Demand for new elections
The government described the mayhem as organized terrorism. Officials also said the arson and looting after the troops quashed the main protest were "anticipated aftershocks" that did not represent deeper trouble.
Still, government spokesman Panithan Wattanayagorn acknowledged the protesters had sympathizers among the broader populace, and said the rioting was sparked by disappointment, hopelessness and anger. But he said it was only as large as it was because of "prior organized planning."
The Red Shirts had demanded the ouster of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government and new elections. The protesters, many of them poor farmers or members of the urban underclass, say Abhisit came to power illegitimately and is oblivious to their plight.
Analysts said Abhisit was under increased pressure to hold early elections.
"Abhisit still has to hold elections by next year, and he could be under pressure still to do it earlier, by his original November offer," said Paul Handley, the author of a biography of Thailand's king. "Thailand still needs to hit this reset button. ... Even if Abhisit's government is technically legal, the Reds' widespread perception that it is illegitimate remains."
The crackdown should silence the large number of government supporters who were urging a harder line, and the rioting that followed may extinguish some of the widespread sympathy for the protesters' cause.
But the government's failure to secure areas of the capital raised doubts about its ability to calm unrest in the protesters' heartland of the north and northeast.
The role of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra also remains a question mark.
He was ousted in a 2006 military coup and fled into exile before being sentenced to two years in prison for corruption and many Red Shirts want him back. The government has accused him of bankrolling the protests and refuses to make any deals with him until he serves his sentence.
"It is a dark day for Thailand's battered democracy," Thaksin said in a statement distributed by his Canadian lawyer. "There are questions about my relationship with the Red Shirt movement, and many untrue accusations."
But he added that he "will continue to morally support the heroic effort" of the movement.
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