I was in a taxi at 7 a.m. taking the expressway right through the center of the city, passing over one of the worst Red Shirt/military conflict points and nearby two others. At 6 a.m. the Tweets were out that the military was officially moving in to shut down the protesters and casualties were expected. Stay away, stay indoors.
All embassies in the area were closed and Bangkok had called a public “holiday” for the entire week so far. The subway and SkyTrain were shut down. As Sang, our neighborhood taxi driver, sped unflinchingly into the city, I sat in disbelief that a tourism press trip had not been called off. When we came closer to the city center, we both gasped. The skyline was being taken over by black smoke from tire fires. We could see barricades burning from the road. Beneath us, invisible, was a mob of angry protesters. I didn’t hear any gunshots but surely the volleys of soldiers vs. the scattering of armed Red Shirts was well underway.
Monday morning we had abandoned our place in Sathorn. Sang arrived in what I told him was the Batmobile, threading his way among burnt tires, shattered glass and debris to get to our front door though the road was technically closed. As we left I saw a large brown Leo beer bottle filled with petrol and a rag stuffed in it just standing right in the middle of the road on a manhole cover, like a vase in a table setting. Dinner with the Anarchist. We wondered if it was wise to leave anything at the condo. When would this end? What if it was in fact civil war as some media were already hyping? Could it be a week? Month? Longer?
But this is Thailand. About a month ago when we were already deep into the Red Shirt downtown squat-a-thon, many of us had already adjusted and would even walk through the protest site unconcerned, taking photos. I told a worried traveler who wondered when this might end: “Who can say? Though unlikely, it could end tomorrow. Just like that.” Sure, looks ominous one day, totally fine the next. During the April 10 clash when over 20 were killed, the fighting between troops, Red Shirts and the newly introduced shadowy “black shirts” spilled into backpacker haven Khao San Road. Bullets were flying, people were dying. The battle moved over one block and after a few cautious peeks into the street, the music came back on and some of the bars reopened. Really???
After the flyby tour of the burning downtown, Sang dropped me off at a gas station, the meeting point for the press trip. I waited, watching the smoke rise above the buildings behind me maybe one kilometer away at Din Daeng, another intense conflict point with no shortage of tires.
Where did I go on this trip? Two hours away in the country where we were treated to a demonstration of the adventure activities vacationers can expect there. The ceremony opened with… fireworks and firecrackers. My nerves weren’t ready for that and I was surprised as much by the sudden explosions as I was by my deep felt reaction to them. Several ATVs came roaring into the gravel parking lot where we all sat in plastic chairs under a tent to watch. Music thumped, a voice shouted over the microphone. So reminiscent of the Red Shirt site downtown.
Then masked gunmen ran in and scaled the cliff before us. No kidding. BB gun versions of machine guns. After the opening ceremony we got to see a demo of war games, military clad boys with automatic BB guns ducking behind walls of tires.
You can’t make this stuff up. Like a kid’s game version of what was happening in real lead and blood at that very moment back in Bangkok. I was on the phone with Marko Cunningham, a volunteer EMT who I knew was in the heart of the conflict along with all the other volunteers medics, rushing in under fire to drag out the wounded. I’m staring at a kids shooting automatic BB guns while Marko is pinned down in a temple in Bangkok. I can hear the gunshots and grenades on his end of the phone. He had taken refuge in the temple when a group of soldiers also retreated into the temple grounds. Red Shirts had them trapped with M79 launched grenades. “Every 3 to 5 minutes” he told me in his usual matter-of-fact style.
Reporters were on the scene of the crackdown, some of them were injured or even killed. Their stories are worth reading because some of the CNN and BBC coverage was a bit lacking and in some cases baffling. Unarmed protesters? Surely many of them were, or “only” firing firework rockets, throwing Molotov cocktails or shooting ping pong bombs with slingshots. No mention of the guns and grenades? (The internet is now rife with photo and video evidence of this armed group within the angry mob and even along the perimeter of the hopeful, fan-waving ladies seated before the main protest stage, and the following day’s search of the protest area is turning up more weapons and bomb making materials.)
Throughout all of this, Twitter was indispensable. Reporters Tweeted the latest information out. Friends and strangers alike shared valuable warnings of hotspots, of attacks, of tire barricades and fires going up. Just last night someone Tweeted about a fire that no one was tending to and said the emergency phone lines weren’t answering the distress calls. We all re-Tweeted that and not long after the news circulated that relief was on the way. And Wednesday night, as many protesters took shelter in a temple near the main rally site, they came under fire by the military and possible also rogue snipers. One reporter was shot in the leg and managed to take cover there. Another reporter, Mark MacKinnon of The Globe and Mail, was there to help him. Over 1,000 people packed into the temple grounds and the wounded were slowly dying. Though only across the street from a hospital, they were unable to get there. Mark’s Tweets started and many others including myself Retweeted hoping somehow the message would get to someone who could help. Amazingly, at least one of them did. A ceasefire was called and ambulances took out some of the wounded. In the morning there were 6 bodies in the temple (along with some hidden weapons and bombs and a stash of looted department store watches.)
The surrender of the Red Shirts at around mid-day Wednesday meant little. Red Shirt leaders either agreed to turn themselves in or in a few cases abandoned everyone and ran like hell. The rally site was taken by the military… sort of. The rage of poverty, anti-government sentiment and surely in no small part, the fever instilled by daily doses of fiery rhetoric sometimes sung, sometimes screamed at the protesters from that stage, continued to spill forth even after news of the Red Shirt leaders’ capitulation trickled out into the streets. In fact, that seemed to make things even worse. Then the torching began. 27 buildings were partially or completely destroyed by arson Wednesday night, including Central World, the social center of downtown and one of the largest malls in Asia. Chaos reigned and clashes continued. The government called a curfew. By 8 p.m. everyone had to be out of the streets and by 8 p.m. shelves were cleared at many 7/11s. The streets became eerily quiet with the exception of a few skirmish points. Fires raged in other parts of the country, government buildings.
Then Thursday morning… almost nothing. A few incidents Tweeted here and there, but quiet. Red Shirts were taken out of the temple sanctuary. Police processed over 1000 of them. Then the protesters boarded free government buses, waving and smiling and in some cases crying as they all packed up and headed north to their homes. Huh? It was like they had made the World Cup finals, lost in a hard fought match, and were heading home proud and ready for the next tournament. And that may not be far from the reality. Though remarkably people are out in the streets starting to go back to daily life, this political conflict is far from over. But as of today, with but a few minor incidents being reported and the curfew still in effect for the coming weekend, things appear to be stable. That’s Thailand. Mai pen rai, krup. Don’t worry about it. No problem. It’s all good. Everything is easy. Sabai sabai.
Here’s hoping wisdom comes to bear on the current government and power elites. They do NOT have the majority in this country. While the Red Shirt protest in my eyes was ill thought out and leadership was poor and aligned itself with some rogue elements that would never be interested in real, sit down and think about it democracy, the protesters are most certainly also part of a longer struggle of the lower classes for representation in the political process and the nation’s destiny. May they find better ways of initiating that. And more importantly, may the opposition recognize and respect that so these challenges can be settled in political chambers rather than in embers.
It’s Friday evening now, the curfew is coming up. Word is the subway will be open again Sunday. For now everything seems impossibly OK. Clean up has begun. The city sifts through the ruins. Sabai sabai.
Additional Random Photos:
As I mentioned in a previous post we are in an upscale neighborhood temporarily and we waited until the last to abandon ship. A day before us we saw this chauffeur making a break for it, stopping to find our next door Shell Station already packed up.