Fugitive 'Red Shirt' leader surrenders in Thailand

AP News
Posted: Dec 07, 2011 7:43 AM
Fugitive 'Red Shirt' leader surrenders in Thailand

A fugitive leader of Thailand's "Red Shirts" protesters who escaped a police raid by rappelling down a hotel facade in a scene captured by network news teams surrendered Wednesday after 20 months on the run.

Arisman Pongruangrong, a pop singer-turned-activist known for hotheaded speeches that sometimes were interpreted as incitements to arson, faces five serious charges that include terrorism. He denied wrongdoing, and said he was turning himself in because he now has confidence in the country's judicial system.

"I only called for democracy, not the destruction of anyone or anything, but now there is no more necessity to stage a rally because we have a government that comes from the people's voice," said Arisman.

The Red Shirts movement opposed the government of then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and generally supported former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who had been ousted in a 2006 military coup.

Thailand's new government, led by the sister of the still-fugitive Thaksin, is considered closely aligned with the Red Shirt protesters, though Arisman denied that his surrender was timed to seek lenient treatment under the new administration.

Arisman said he had fled for his safety and spent some of his time in Cambodia since going into hiding after a major government crackdown on a Red Shirt encampment in central Bangkok in May 2010, which capped several months of violence that left 90 people dead.

He surrendered to authorities Wednesday in Bangkok, where the Criminal Court denied his request for release on bail, noting he took so long to surrender and he might flee.

Arisman became a minor folk hero in April 2010 when, already facing several charges, he escaped a police raid on his hotel room by being lowered from a third-story ledge with a rope looped around his waist into a waiting crowd of cheering supporters who led him to a getaway car.

His reappearance in Bangkok was a reminder of the schisms in Thai society that were opened by the 2006 coup. Thaksin's supporters and opponent have contended in the polls and in the streets for power.

Thaksin himself is in exile avoiding a jail term for corruption, but he and his supporters say his conviction was politically inspired and are seeking a way to have him return home as a free man.

Thaksin's critics threaten new protests and legal action if the current government moves to help him. Yingluck Shinawatra became prime minister in August after her pro-Thaksin party bested the rival Democrats in a general election.

From March to May 2010, the "Red Shirts" had staged increasingly aggressive street protests as they unsuccessfully sought to force out Abhisit's government.

When the demonstrations were quashed by the military, activists torched three dozen major buildings in Bangkok, including a shopping mall that suffered serious damage. Many critics pointed to speeches by Arisman as the inspiration for those arson attacks.

Most Red Shirt leaders surrendered during the crackdown and also faced criminal charges. They were granted bail this year and still await trial.

A small crowd of Red Shirts gathered to offer support as Arisman turned himself in at the office of the Department of Special Investigations, Thailand's FBI.

Arisman said he believed the country's situation had returned to normal and that he wanted to see reconciliation in accordance with the call for national unity made by Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej in his birthday speech on Monday.