By NBC News' Warangkana Chomchuen
BANGKOK – Although the leaders of anti-government Red Shirt protesters surrendered to the police Wednesday and most of the demonstrators packed up and went home, the divisions in Thai society are far from over.
Buildings still smoldered and smoke hung over Bangkok's skyline Thursday from the dozens of buildings set ablaze a day earlier. Sporadic gunfire could still be heard in the heart of the city and a nighttime curfew was extended in Bangkok and 23 other provinces for three more days. The curfew was the first for Bangkok since pro-democracy protests in May 1992.
Meanwhile, groups of soldiers dismantled the protesters encampment in the center of the city Thursday, taking down tents, the protesters' main stage, stacks of speakers and projectors.
Some locals and tourists snapped pictures of part of Central World, a shopping center that had collapsed after being set on fire. One passerby called it "Thailand's Ground Zero." In the background a military vehicle drove slowly by playing a song written to honor the Thai king.
But there are widespread fears that the army's crackdown on the antigovernment Red Shirt movement might further inflame divisions that have polarized the country for years.
|VIDEO: After crackdown, Bangkok feels 'unnaturally quiet'|
Day of mayhem
One analyst described Wednesday's clashes as the most widespread violence in Thailand's history. At least 15 people, including an Italian news photographer, were killed and scores injured.
Once the army closed in on the Red Shirts protest zone Wednesday with heavy force, their leaders announced they were surrendering. But instead of calming things down, the leaders' decision infuriated many of the die-hard protesters.
The protesters fanned out and torched buildings such as Thailand's stock exchange, shopping malls, banks, movie theaters, a television station and the city's electricity provider (which caused power outages in parts of Bangkok). In several provinces outside the capital, Red Shirt mobs set fire to city halls, markets and banks.
Several colleagues and I were in a taxi on a bridge when we saw the Stock Exchange of Thailand being set ablaze. Glass windows on the façade were smashed and dozens of men – some in balaclavas and holding clubs – looked on. A man aimed a slingshot at our car as NBC's cameraman lifted a camera to film what happened.
|VIDEO: Blood spills on the streets of Bangkok|
After the curfew was announced Wednesday, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva made a televised statement to reassure the public that peace would soon be restored.
However the Red Shirt movement has proved to be resilient in the past. The army has dispersed the anti-government protesters by force before, in April 2009, when street rallies spiraled into riots. Wednesday's arson attacks demonstrated that they are capable of superb logistical coordination.
But the extreme violence shown by the protesters on Wednesday may spark deeper divisions in Thailand – not only between the conservative establishment and the rural, populist poor the Red Shirts represent – but between neighbors and households.
When my colleagues and I were filming a fire being put out at a shopping mall and a bookshop near Victory Monument on Thursday, a man in his 40s stopped to talk to me.
"Can you believe they are Thais?" he asked. "I saw them smash telephone booths and burn a '7-11' convenience store. I tried to convince myself they were some migrants who were paid to do the ugly jobs. But no, they are Thais!"
And when I called to check in on a friend who lives in one of the neighborhoods that was torched in the arson attacks her emotions were raw.
"My family and I are safe but I feel so much hatred inside me," she said. "If someone asked for volunteers to kill those f***ers, they can count me in."
Just across the street from the Victory Monument, an angry crowd was making noises that seemed directed at Thai and foreign journalists in that area.
A wide-eyed man said, "I'm very happy! I'm very happy they burnt these places! The government wanted to kill us. This serves them right!"
He said he lived 15 miles away in a different part of Bangkok. I asked if he is concerned at all that the fire may spread to the homes of innocent people.
He just shrugged and said, "Something's gotta give."