BANGKOK // Thailand's prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said today he was committed to national reconciliation but made no offer of fresh elections, two days after troops quelled the worst political violence in modern Thai history. Anti-government "red shirt" protesters, who rioted in Bangkok and come mainly from the rural and urban poor, have demanded new elections, saying they are disenfranchised by the urban elite.
"Let me reassure you that this government will meet these challenges and overcome these difficulties through the five-point reconciliation plan that I had previously announced," said Mr Abhisit in a TV address to the nation. The plan, first announced on May 3, offers political reforms, social justice and an investigation into political violence. Before the latest violence, Mr Abhisit had separately offered fresh elections in November, but has since withdrawn the offer, leaving Thailand's political divisions unhealed.
"You can be assured that this government has every intention of moving the country forward, restoring order, making sure that our recovery is well on track, and that we will do so in a transparent manner," said Mr Abhisit. Troops manned razor-wire roadblocks and searched vehicles for weapons in Bangkok today, while hundreds of troops again swept through the capital's posh central shopping area, once a barricaded camp for thousands of protesters, searching for weapons and explosives in the now-deserted battleground.
Department stores smouldered after Wednesday's violence. Anti-government "red shirt" protesters say Mr Abhisit lacks a popular mandate after coming to power in a controversial parliamentary vote in 2008 with tacit military support. The red shirts broadly support former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted by the military in 2006 and now living in self-imposed exile to avoid a jail term for abuse of power.
The finance minister, Korn Chatikavanij, said he still expected an early poll, adding it was highly unlikely the government would stay in office for its full term that ends in 2012. Cleaning ladies scrubbed the entrances to Bangkok's ritziest stores today to remove soot left from burning tyre barricades. Firemen trained a hose on a mass of rubble and twisted metal that was once part of Central World, Southeast Asia's second-largest department store.
Outside the 6 sq-km ringed-off area, Bangkok's chaotic traffic clogged roads as travellers were forced around the military zone. Many shops and banks were closed, public transport was limited and a week-long public holiday ensured many of the 15 million residents stayed at home. Mr Korn expressed confidence that the economy would pick up fairly quickly if the stability seen over the past 24 hours was maintained.
But he acknowledged that tourism, which employs at least 15 per cent of the workforce and accounts for 6 per cent of the economy, would take much longer to recover. "Clearly, with the events that took place the past several weeks and pictures of those events flashing across TV screens around the world, it is going to have a very disastrous impact on tourism as a sector, probably, frankly speaking, for the remainder of the year," Mr Korn said at a seminar in Tokyo.
With an overnight curfew in force for at least two more nights and mopping-up operations continuing under a state of emergency, officials may have their work cut out trying to reassure foreign investors and tourists Thailand is safe. "This has gravely shaken confidence in Thailand. What businesses need now is that the government and security forces restore law and order and existing businesses can resume their operations," Nandor von der Luehe, chairman of the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce of Thailand, told Reuters.
"At the same time, the government should ensure that the armed elements do not go underground and start a guerrilla war in Bangkok and around the country. If such a scenario happened, it would drive businesses away from Thailand," he said. The military crackdown on the nine-week anti-government protest in Bangkok began before dawn on Wednesday, killing at least 15 people and wounding nearly 100. Erawan Emergency Medical Centre said 52 people had died and 408 were wounded in the latest flare-up since May 14.
Dozens of buildings were torched, including many banks and the stock exchange. The stock market is closed but the central bank said banks inside shopping malls could reopen today. * Reuters