BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said on Friday he was committed to national reconciliation but made no offer of fresh elections, after troops quelled the worst political violence in modern Thai history.
The anti-government “red shirt” protesters who rioted in Bangkok come mainly from the rural and urban poor. They 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 Abhisit in a televised 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, Abhisit had offered elections in November, but he withdrew the offer when the “red shirts” refused to disperse, leaving Thailand’s political divisions unhealed.
Troops manned razor-wire roadblocks and searched vehicles in Bangkok on Friday. Others swept through the posh shopping area that had been the protesters’ camp for six weeks, searching for weapons and explosives in the now-deserted battleground.
Department stores smouldered after Wednesday’s violence.
“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 Abhisit.
But Thai political historian Charnvit Kasetsiri at Thammasat University said: “How can he bring reconciliation when he is a party in the conflict? He can’t reconcile.”
The “red shirts” say Abhisit lacks a popular mandate after coming to power in a controversial parliamentary vote in 2008 with tacit military support.
They 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.
Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij said he still expected an early poll and that it was highly unlikely the government would stay in office for its full term, which ends in early 2012.
The military crackdown began before dawn on Wednesday, killing at least 15 people and wounding nearly 100. Erawan Emergency Medical Centre said 53 people had died and 413 were wounded in the latest flare-up since May 14.
Cleaning ladies scrubbed the entrances to Bangkok’s ritziest stores on Friday to remove the soot left from burning barricades made up largely of tyres.
Firemen trained a hose on a mass of rubble and twisted metal that was once part of Central World, Southeast Asia’s second-largest shopping mall.
Erawan said on Friday nine bodies were reported to have been found among the debris, although the agency that collects corpses could only confirm one.
Outside the 6 sq-km (2.3 sq-mile) 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.
The protests have decimated tourism, which accounts for 6 percent of GDP and employs 15 percent of the workforce, and they could have a significant impact on growth in Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy.
Finance Minister Korn estimated the unrest had already cut 0.3 to 0.5 percentage point off growth this year — he had been looking for 4.5 to 5.0 percent — but he said the economy could pick up fairly quickly if the stability seen over the past 24 hours was maintained.
“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,” Korn said at a seminar in Tokyo. Occupancy rates in guesthouses in the popular Khao San Road area were down to 10-15 percent compared with 40 percent a year ago, said Taifah Chayavoraprapa, spokesman for a guild of guesthouse and shops owners in the area.
The area — featured in the 2000 Hollywood film “The Beach,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio — is popular with backpackers. There was violence in the area in April but it was unscathed in May.
“Though our area has been fairly safe, compared to the rest of Bangkok, our business has been hit hard,” Taifah said.
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,” Nandor von der Luehe, chairman of the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce of Thailand, told Reuters.
Additional reporting by Ploy Ten Kate and Viparat Jantraprap; Editing by Alan Raybould