Anti-government protests that shut down a weekend summit meeting and ruined Bangkok's annual Buddhist New Year celebrations ended suddenly on Tuesday after Thai army troops advanced on the demonstrators' last stronghold in Bangkok.
The leadership of three-week-old protest abandoned their positions around the Victory Monument in central Bangkok on Tuesday morning as they were surrounded by troops backed up by crowds of angry civilians fed up after several days of urban chaos. "We need to save the lives of every innocent citizen who aimed at nothing but to bring back democracy to the country," said Veera Musikapong, a leader of the so-called "red-shirt" protesters, in a statement.
An army crackdown that started before dawn on Monday cleared the streets of the red-shirt protesters during the day. Over 100 people, including at least 23 soldiers, were injured. Two people died in clashes between protesters and local residents on Monday.
Protest leaders were fearful that "right-wing thugs" would sweep in behind the troops to take revenge on their political rivals.
Jakrapob Penkair, a red-shirt strategist, said with so many "goons and gangsters" lurking around, there might even be a replay of the Oct 6, 1976 massacre of student demonstrators carried out by mobs of right-wing activists.
There was deep disappointment on the faces of protesters whose numbers hit 100,000 last week but dwindled to only a few thousand on Tuesday who managed to rock the government and shock the country. The capital had been subdued as troops circled the remaining 5,000 protesters loyal to fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in a September 2006 military coup.
The opposition accused certain hardline members of the government of organising "thugs" to attack protesters last week. The rival yellow shirts, who helped bring down a pro-Thaksin government last year, had also threatened to reform and attack the pro-Thaksin demonstrators.
Many Bangkok residents are angry with the protesters - many of whom came from far outside the capital - for setting fire to buses and threatening to explode gas trucks near homes in the cause of a man many in the capital see as deeply corrupt.
Many Thais appeared stunned by the breakdown of law and order that threatened when the security forces appeared unable or unwilling to restrain the red-shirted protesters.
On Saturday a group of red-shirt protesters deeply embarrassed Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the military by invading a 16-nation Asian summit being hosted by Thailand at the seaside resort city of Pattaya, causing it to be cancelled.
Abhisit told reporters he would not negotiate with Thaksin. "We want peace. We want to violence to stop. And then we must work and talk to bring stability and happiness to the country," he said in brief remarks Tuesday morning. Thaksin has incited his supporters to "revolution" and "historical change" in almost nightly addresses to the protesters via video link or phone from exile abroad. He faces a two-year prison sentence for corruption if he returns to Thailand.
The protesters want the government to resign to hold fresh elections which Thaksin, with his big rural support, might still win. Abhisit's Democrat party gained power four months ago after the military and bureaucracy disabled pro-Thaksin governments and a parliamentary faction defected to the Democrats from the Thaksin camp.