Bangkok cleans up after protests

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Life in Bangkok inched back to normal on Friday as authorities cleaned up the Thai capital after riots and arson attacks by anti-government protesters whose movement was put down by troops after a two-month rally.

Thousands of "red shirt" protesters, drawn mainly from the rural and urban poor, have deserted their once-barricaded camp in a posh central Bangkok shopping area, some torching stores as they left and destroying parts of the country's biggest mall.

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.

Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij expressed confidence on Friday that the economy would recover fairly quickly if the stability seen over the past 24 hours was maintained.

But he acknowledged at a seminar in Tokyo that the impact on the lucrative tourist sector this year would be disastrous.

Foreign investors were worried about the longer-term impact.

"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.

A nation divided

Modern Thailand has never seen such a protracted period of urban violence and has never teetered so close to full civil conflict.

"Thailand has become a nation deeply divided, and although talk of a civil war may still be premature, there is a high risk that civil unrest and political violence will not be contained," said Danny Richards at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

The crackdown that began before dawn on Wednesday morning killed at least 15 people and wounded nearly 100. Erawan Emergency Medical Center said on Friday that 52 people 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 on Friday.

The whole week has been declared a public holiday to keep people out of the center of Bangkok while the security operation is in progress. Banks were closed on Thursday but the Bank of Thailand, responding to public criticism, said they could open on Friday if they wished.

The red shirts want fresh elections, saying Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva lacks a popular mandate after coming to power in a controversial parliamentary vote in 2008 with tacit military support. Abhisit last week withdrew an offer of fresh elections.

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.

Thaksin has been sighted in Paris recently and had planned to hold a news conference there on May 31 to discuss events in Bangkok, but the French authorities have warned him off.

"Given the context of violence in Thailand ... we informed Mr Thaksin, who is on a private trip, that he should avoid making any public displays or statements during his stay on our territory," French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bruno Valero said.

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