Asia-Pacific

Bullets over Bangkok

A Redshirt protestor throws a tire toward a burned truck as the violence in central Bangkok continues on May 16 in Thailand. (Photo: Athit Perawongmetha/ Getty Images)

Thailand's capital has been a war zone since late Thursday night, as soldiers and police do battle with Redshirt protesters on some of the main thoroughfares in the heart of the city. By Sunday 20 people had been killed and at least 154 injured in three days of clashes spread across the city. A state of emergency is in effect for 17 Thai provinces.

Plumes of smoke rose over high-rise hotels and offices, as gunfire and explosions were heard at a number of fronts around the commercial center of the city. The Thai Government declared certain locations as "live fire" zones, saying that the army could not guarantee the security of people present.

Since an as-yet unexplained hit on controversial Maj-Gen Khattiya, known by his nom de guerre Seh Daeng, on Thursday evening, the combat zone has widened to take in new flashpoints in the battlezone. The Rama IV highway has been blocked off, as Redshirts try to stop soldiers from moving up the road to get closer to the main protest area. After bus burnings early on Friday, soldiers and protesters clashed into the night and through the morning.

A group of 100 soldiers huddled down near Lumphini Boxing Stadium, well known for its Muay Thai bouts. A conflict of a different sort waged outside all day Friday, however. Protesters set a bus on fire to try stop the army advancing, and shots rang out all day. By evening, the usually traffic-choked highway was eerily empty, with checkpoints manned by soldiers and razor wire every few hundred meters.

Moving down behind the Redshirt lines, protesters rolled burning tires up the road, taunting the soldiers. The occasional shot rang out, causing the Redshirts to duck for cover or run into side-streets. "Sniper up there," said one Redshirt, stooping behind his motorbike as a shot rang out. The army said it has been firing live rounds into the air to warn protesters. The number of deaths and the shooting of a number of journalists demonstrated that live rounds were being used.

Wittayu Road—Bangkok's embassy row—is another new frontline for fighting, with bullets and teargas being fired up and down the road until the afternoon, as protesters responded with rocks, petrol bombs and homemade rockets. By evening the street was empty, as gunfire and explosions rang out around nearby Lumphini Park, a large green belt now full of police and army vehicles, right beside Redshirt barricades near the Langsuan Road.

The protesters main rally site at the Rajaprasong intersection, in the main shopping area of the city, was hit by an explosion on Friday evening, causing protesters to scatter. Later on Friday night the rally had resumed, with Redshirt leaders back on stage giving speeches to the sitting crowd, which consisted mainly of middle-aged men and women.

The military moved in around the edge of the rally, attempting to seal off the entrance and exit points. Water and electricity supplies were cut, while the protesters were urged to leave. This was thought to be a prelude to another attempt to disperse the protesters, after a previous attempt on April 10 went badly awry.

Redshirt leaders have offered a truce, and fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has called for dialogue with the government. Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajiva proposed a five-point peace plan over a week ago, which Redshirts baulked at after initially welcoming the spirit of the proposed deal, which offered elections on November 14.

By midnight Friday, Silom Road was empty apart from a hundred or so soldiers visible on the streets and unknown numbers more crouched on the rail overpass above. There, and elsewhere, swathes of the city were locked and boarded up, including hundreds of bars, shops, hotels and other businesses.

There were reports of some police firing on soldiers on Friday, highlighting what for the government are concerns about divided loyalties in the security forces. Many police are thought to be sympathetic to the Redshirts, while what is thought be a smaller army faction shares this affinity. Seh Daeng is thought to be a leader of the paramilitary faction within the Redshirts. On April 10, black-clad gunmen moved among the masses of Redshirt protesters as the army attempted to disperse the rally. What appeared to be precision strikes on the army led to the death of a former royal bodyguard and well-known colonel, as well as four other soldiers that night.

The Thai government has been criticized by anti-Redshirt groups for being too slow and indecisive in its dealing with the protesters. However, as the Democrat Party-led administration ponders what could be a final attempt to remove the protesters by force, concerns about the affiliations of some security force members must be factored in to whatever strategy is being used. There are divisions within the Redshirt camp as well, with leader Veera Musigapong thought to be in the United Kingdom, while other senior figures have not been heard from in recent days. Seh Daeng previously slammed Redshirt leaders for offering to compromise with the government and for removing barricades set up around Chulalongkorn Hospital.

As of noon on Saturday, the city remained on edge, with soldiers and armed police on most main thoroughfares in the heart of the capital and helicopters circling overhead. According to residents close to Lumphini Park, gunfire and explosions went on into the night and early Saturday morning. Elsewhere, more gunfire was heard near the Thai-Belgian bridge, close to the new Rama IV highway face-off, as protesters burned telephone booths and attacked a police station.

On Saturday afternoon soldiers shot at protestors on the Rama IV highway, after grenades exploded close to a Thai boxing stadium, where soldiers sheltered at the roadside. This correspondent was among a group of journalists scurrying for cover amid the maelstrom. A Canadian reporter working for France 24 was seriously wounded by army fire during the previous day’s street fighting, after a Japanese cameraman working for Reuters was shot dead during deadly April 10 clashes, when the army last tried to disperse the two-month old demonstration.

The city, and perhaps the country, now awaits what could be a bloody assault on the protesters, if the government elects to try clear the rally site once and for all. With a state of emergency also declared in Redshirt heartlands in the north and northeast, bullets in Bangkok might lead to insurrection in Isaan, where support for the Redshirts and Thaksin Shinawatra is strongest.

Seh Daeng remains in a coma. Seh Daeng, which means "Red Commando," has boasted of helping the U.S. Army fight in Vietnam and has openly fought with army superiors as well as Redshirt leaders. He is rumored to have trained mysterious black-clad gunmen mixing among the Redshirts who killed soldiers during the previous April 10 clashes, which left many wondering if the army would seek vengeance.

Seh Daeng is a close associate of Thaksin Shinawatra, whom he has conferred with in Dubai. Thaksin is in exile due to various corruption charges. A telecoms billionaire, he remains a divisive figure in Thai politics, adored by many redshirts whose movement he is said to bankroll. He is disliked by many middle class and elite Thais, who deem him and the Redshirts a threat to the country’s monarchy.

The demonstrations and fighting come at a sensitive time, as the current King, Bhumibol Adulyadej, an 82 year old who has reigned since 1946, has been in the hospital since September 2009. The looming succession has created a power vacuum in Thai politics, as factions scramble to position themselves before the presumed successor, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, takes over in time.

Rebutting the Republican allegations, Redshirts claim they merely want fresh elections. The current anti-Thaksin government came to power in 2008, after the Redshirt-aligned party that was then in office was dissolved by the courts.

The current Redshirt protests kicked off on March 12, with the Reds hoping to get a million supporters onto the capital’s streets. Numbers never exceeded 150,000, and right now less than 7,000 remain. However, the rally has paralyzed the commercial center of the city, with Southeast Asia’s second-largest shopping mall closed for over a month. Silom, where most of the banking and finance houses are based, has been empty since Thursday evening.

The reality is that most of Thailand is safe, particularly southern resorts at Phuket, Koh Samui and elsewhere. However, Thai economy depends on tourism for 6 percent of GDP per annum, and the images of gunfire and death on the capital’s streets will likely resonate among Western and Asian tourists deliberating their next holiday destination. There is real danger that fighting could spread. The Redshirt stronghold is in the rural, rice-growing areas of the northeast, culturally closer to Laos and Cambodia than Bangkok. The government has extended a state of emergency to these provinces, despite concerns over the loyalty of "watermelon" elements in the security forces—green uniforms on the outside, but red in their political affiliation.

This article was originally published in two parts by The Irrawaddy (www.irrawaddy.org/) and the Sunday Business Post Online (www.thepost.ie).

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Simon Roughneen.

Advertise with Worldpress.org