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Rise from the Ashes: How simmering anger led to a fiery outburst in downtown Bangkok

The following is an eyewitness account of the demonstrations in downtown Bangkok over the past several days. In the wake of lost lives and massive damage done to infrastructure and buildings in the area, the government has claimed success in “taking back the area” from the Red Shirts demonstrators. Much attention has been diverted to the property damage, often overshadowing the human cost of the clearing operation. Images of sabotaged infrastructure have been featured extensively and repeatedly to vilify the Red Shirts and to justify one of the most brutal suppressions in Thailand’s history. This piece outlines the gulf that still exists between the government and the demonstrators, and the unresolved anger on both sides, which has been fueled by an incomplete narrative in the media. The lingering anger and questions in the minds of many Thais must be addressed if the country is to move beyond this current tragedy. 

On the morning of 19 May 2010, I joined the demonstration at the Victory Monument, which had been underway at that location for three or four days. There were about 1,000 United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) protesters. They were blocked from joining their comrades at Ratchaprasong, the site of the main rally in downtown Bangkok. Panitan Wattanayakorn, the Thai government’s spokesperson, called the demonstrators a “pocket of terrorists” at the critical juncture when state security forces were amassing up.  Troops, including as many as 40 armored personnel vehicles, assembled to disperse all of the demonstrators from Ratchaprasong. Orders were reportedly made that any protester could be “shot on site”.  With such orders, it is no wonder that lives were lost. Three deaths ensued in the initial advance as military armored personnel vehicles broke the Red Shirts’ forefront barricade at Saladaeng toward Sarasin Junction and attempted to occupy Lumpini Park. One foreign journalist and two protesters (UDD guards) died, and others were injured.

Key leaders at the Victory Monument rally site spoke while a live feed from the main rally site made major announcements to the protesters. The climate became more tense as the troops moved closer to the main rally site. There were suggestions that demonstrators from nearby Sam Liam Din Daeng should come and join the protesters at Victory Monument. More demonstrators from outer areas of Bangkok did come to areas closer to downtown later in the morning. Suggestions were made that as soon as the demonstration at Ratchaprasong was crushed, remaining protestors in other areas would march with their hands locked to each other and brave the shooting of the strong military deployment along the routes to join with the vulnerable demonstrators at Ratchaprasong.  

By noontime, there was talk that the leaders at Ratchaprasong were about to call off the demonstration and turn themselves in. The mood swung, and emotions ran high. Some demonstrators started to talk to those near them that this could never be true. They would fight to the death. At around 13.30, the main leaders of the UDD, including Mr. Nuttawuth Saikua, Mr. Jatuporn Promphan, Mr. Wiphuthalaeng Pattanaphumthai, Mr. Nisit Sinthuprai, and Mr. Kwanchai Praiphana, announced an end to the demonstration.

Chaos followed quickly. After one of the speakers at the Victory Monument rally site repeated the message to call off the rallies, some hard core protesters took away his microphone. Though the microphones were later brought back, further announcements failed to calm the members of the crowd, who were shouting and talking to others nearby. The sound on stage went off for good as the person who owned the truck equipped with the power generator and sound system drove off. With no sound from the leaders, people were left to act on their own. More tires were burned near Ratchaprarop Road creating thick black plumes of smoke as onlookers cheered. Other demonstrators tried to set anything nearby alight. Others kicked telephone booths. Some restraint remained among the crowd, however, as some demonstrators intervened to stop the destruction.

Then, I spoke to a couple of people who claimed to have survived the crackdown at Ratchaprasong. One man lamented angrily, “Dozens of our brothers and sisters were killed, and bodies piled up. Some women and their children were also shot down.” Similar brutal accounts emerged from other survivors, and were repeated by other demonstrators. One man told the frustrated demonstrators “All of them died, those in the front row (next to the stage). We cannot give in now. We have to keep this place until the evening. Then we will go collect the bodies of the troops.” He continued “somebody using his camera to shoot the video of piles of bodies, this high (gesturing his hand to show the height).” “We have to keep staying put here. And at five o’clock (in the afternoon) some groups will come to help us. They cannot come out now, during daytime. Don’t feel upset by the decision declared by the core leaders. We still have another force to help us. After our core leaders announced to call off the demo, the army bombed us. The grenade fell in front of the stage and hit those people dancing.” Another surviving demonstrator said “A lot of sisters and brothers of ours have died. We cannot let them die for free.”   

The situation escalated again. It began with destruction of three telephone booths, which was soon followed by the ransacking of a large 7-eleven convenience store. The iron security door was rolled up, glass windows were smashed, and a dozen of people broke into the shop and started to throw merchandise outside. Some demonstrators had already warned people not to take any pictures. Anyone who wanted to record the events felt threatened. A man who was spotted taking a photo from afar of the destruction of the convenience store was chased away.

Before this chaotic vandalism, demonstrators had been shouting at police officials including high ranking ones and the media. One of the very first buildings burned to the ground belonged to Channel Three, which had recently broadcast a controversial speech of a male super star at the “Nattaraj” award ceremony. The star had heaped praise on His Majesty the King, addressing him as his father and the father of many Thai people who share one “house”. The celeb bluntly challenged “anyone who [did] not want to be children of the father, just get out of this house.” The speech was repeatedly rerun by Channel Three and other TV channels over the past few days.   

In light of the burning of Channel Three, it came to me as no surprise that very few reporters were working in this area, particularly after the vandalism of the day started. Earlier I saw a crewman from TNN24 with his video camera exchanging words with some protesters. Later the TV crew drove away, presumably due to the frustration the demonstrators aimed at him. Ironically, TNN24 had reported with objectivity on the rallies. I had personally commended TNN24 for their comprehensive and accurate coverage of the political demonstrations since the beginning. While in Chiang Mai and away from the demonstration sites, I relied on their reporting for information. Unfortunately, they have been ordered to shut down since the curfew was announced, which prevented news of the events from filtering out to the rest of Thailand. 

The media blackout has been one of the major factors that has driven more people to take to the streets. Earlier, PTV, a satellite TV network that was very popular among the Red Shirt supporters, was closed down. Hundreds of websites have also been blocked. Everyday for a month, the Center for Resolution of Emergency Situation (CRES) has made announcements to attack the demonstrators at their press conferences. Reporters asked no questions.

In the past two months, two of the most common terms used by the Prime Minister and other high ranking government and army officials, are “law” and “terrorists”. According to them, the “law” has to be enforced to maintain order, and “terrorists” have to be dealt with seriously to prevent further damage. It is a familiar refrain—one we have seen used to describe the situation in the Southern Border Provinces of Thailand. “Law” is touted to be enforced strictly there against anyone who is alleged to have carried out “terrorist” acts. Yet, six years have passed, and two draconian laws have been put in place, the Emergency Decree and Martial Law, yet there is no hope the violence will soon cease.  

As I walked around and observed, I overheard a man saying sarcastically, “It’s so fortunate that Thailand has Abhisit [Vejjajiva] as the Prime Minister. That’s why things have turned out like this [with riots].” In fact, the first sentence was originally a quote from General Prem Tinsulanond, the former Prime Minister and Chairperson of the Privy Council, who used to be a prime target of fiery speeches by UDD leaders.  It would have been more “fortunate” had the PM shown more leadership and offered an unconditional political solution to avoid the bloodshed. 

One of the protesters pillaging the convenience store near the Victory Monument said to me, after I declined to accept some sweets in a plastic bag, “It’s ok, guy. Businesses like this have insurance.” Thairath reported this morning that Central World has three billion baht insurance.

Earlier, there were attempts by a Thai peace group to ask the Xavier church near the Victory Monument to provide “safe sanctuary” (or apayatan). I helped one of the staff members from the group talk with UDD guards and inform the protesters of the safe area. One of the first questions I got from a guard was, “Will I still get shot or arrested while being inside the church?”  One answer: nine bodies were found shot in Wat Pathumwanara, and and several other bodies nearby. This Buddhist temple had been prepared as an “apayatan” at the very moment the military moved into the rally site. All the dead were unarmed. The government blamed “some unknown third party group” for these killings. A nurse was also found shot dead while she was under a tent. The roof of the tent evidenced bullet holes. Shooting from above has been the pattern since the crackdown started on 13 May, and many people have died as a result. NY Times’s photos show armed troops were deployed on the SkyTrain (BTS) tracks, overlooking barricades below.  (See photo at http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2010/05/18/world/20100519-THAI-2.html)

The Crackdown’s Aftermath

In general, the media--state and privately owned--have geared toward shoring up two narratives:

1. The Red Shirts have been planning this “organized and systematic” sabotage of the city’s infrastructure and properties. For example, the other day CRES showed a video clip of Mr. Nuttawuth Saikua, one of the UDD’s leaders, instructing the Red Shirts protesters to “burn the city to the ground”. 

2. Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra, former PM, is the grand mastermind of this sabotage. Yesterday, the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) asked the Court to issue an arrest warrant against Thaksin and several others on “terrorist” charges. The Court requested a hearing be held on next Monday before proceeding further. The accusations against Thaksin fit the plot created by the government to blame him for the ongoing and consequent rampage of the city (since most of the core leaders of the UDD have been arrested or surrendered themselves, and are being held in custody). 

These narratives have also focused on property. More than 30 buildings in Bangkok’s prime business districts have reportedly been burned, while a curfew was imposed the night and morning of 19 and 20 May. Regular TV shows have been replaced by more frequent CRES announcements and programs, and the trend is likely to continue. CRES has announced that due to the emergency situation, they have been obliged to “rearrange” TV programs. The Thai media looks set to tow the line of sabotage narratives. In local media, the damage to the country’s ailing economy and politics has squeezed out the storyline of the more than 40 deaths and nearly 400 injuries that have resulted from the harsh crackdown beginning on 13 May.   

To divert public attention from the loss of lives as a result of the brutal massacre and to justify the crackdown operation, local media reports emphasized damage allegedly inflicted by the Red Shirts protesters to infrastructure and properties in downtown Bangkok. The Thai media has also highlighted the discovery of ammunition, weapons, and material for making explosive devices. Stories about the attempts to sabotage public transportation have been reported and featured by CRES. Images of flaming buildings have been shown extensively and repeatedly on TV. Now most news programs are made to serve the purpose of creating a “terrorist image” of the protesters.   

Are we supposed to mourn the collapse of property or the lost lives of civilians and officials? Should only the Red Shirts be blamed for the damage? Will there be any attempt to unearth the real causes of this crisis and how Thailand came to this point? 

*****

 

Though the Red Shirts demonstration over the past two months has greatly affected the economic and social life of the people of Bangkok, local residents, particularly those living in and around the cordons declared by the CRES, have also experienced great horrors, including the massive loss of civilian lives and injuries. The deployment of armed troops with sophisticated advanced weaponry, as well as snipers, and their use of live and rubber bullets raises serious questions about the legality of the government’s operations. The long-range shooting of demonstrators and unarmed passersby have far exceeded international legal standards for the use of force.   

According to Amnesty International (AI) Press Release released on 17 May 2010, the Operation Ratchaprasong and the reckless shooting of security officials against unarmed civilians is “a gross violation of a key human right—the right to life”. And “Eye-witness accounts and video recordings show clearly that the military is firing live rounds at unarmed people who pose no threat whatsoever to the soldiers or to others”. It goes on that “The government cannot allow soldiers to essentially shoot at anyone within an area it wishes to control”. 

AI proposed further: “This is unacceptable under international law and standards, which provide that firearms may be used only as a last resort, when a suspected offender offers armed resistance or otherwise jeopardizes the lives of others, and less extreme measures are not sufficient to restrain or apprehend the suspected offender. Outside of clear situations of self-defence, riot control should be performed by trained police using non-lethal equipment, not by soldiers using live ammunition”.

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