In Bangkok, Riots and Fires Erupt as Red Shirt Leaders Surrender

BY Talea Miller  May 19, 2010 at 2:02 PM EST

Leaders of Thailand’s Red Shirt anti-government opposition surrendered to the police in front of followers Wednesday, after six days of violent clashes with security forces.

Rioters set fires at the Stock Exchange, several banks and Central World, one of Asia’s biggest shopping malls, after the leaders were taken away.

“It has surprised everybody. It is highly disturbing,” says Richard Doner, associate professor of political science at Emory University and an expert on Southeast Asia. “Nobody would have expected this two weeks ago.”

“The worst scenario would be that this could escalate out of control. I wouldn’t call it a civil war — not exactly anarchy but sporadic and widely-confused — quasi-delirium, but in a very fragmented way. The worst scenario would be a fragmented rebellion,” Doner tells the NewsHour. “Another scenario is that Red Shirts coalesce and engage in active, even violent demonstrations, and the military responds with force in the provinces as well as in Bangkok.”

The Red Shirts have held a 1-square-mile section of the upscale downtown area of Bangkok for the last two months, calling for the prime minister to resign and new elections to be held.

After negotiations between the government and the protesters broke down last week, military restricted access to the area and began to push protesters out. At least 45 people, most of them civilians, have been killed since last Thursday and at least 74 have died since the protests began in March, according to The Associated Press.

“The danger is that the violence could escalate not just because of Red Shirt opposition to the present government, but the discontent and other sources of conflict among different groups layered on top of that,” Doner says.

A news blackout has been imposed on television stations in Thailand as the riots continued into the night. It remained unclear if the protesters were preparing to leave their encampment for good.

We will have more on the situation in Thailand from Richard Doner on Wednesday’s NewsHour.

Jamie Ostroff contributed reporting.