A Change of Guard

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Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Central Bangkok a war zone

Red Shirt protesters burnt a hijacked bus on the streets of Bangkok.

By Pravit Rojanaphruk
The Nation
Published on April 14, 2009

Festive holiday is turned into a black nightmare

The bloodstained start to Songkran - which transformed large swathes of downtown Bangkok into urban guerrilla war zones, leaving dozens of people wounded - was marked by the first shots around the Din Daeng triangle before dawn.

Less than an hour later, the crackle of sporadic live gunfire from soldiers could still be heard, alternating with angry shouts from red-shirted, anti-government Democratic Alliance against Dictatorship (DAAD) protesters who refuse to simply retreat.

DAAD leaders claim some red-shirt protesters were killed during the clashes.

The government has denied a report that officials covered up protesters' deaths by removing the bodies in a GMC truck. It cited reports by hospitals that no one receiving treatment for injuries died.

Everyone, including me, has to run for cover every now and then.

"There can be no end if no one wants to admit defeat," says a motorcyclist who volunteered to drop this reporter off at the nearby hotspot. He says he is an off-duty police officer and his wife and children are among the demonstrators.

Protesters curse the military for firing real, not rubber, M16 bullets at them. Some were aimed at the sky, others apparently not.

Not everyone is sympathetic with the pro-Thaksin Shinawatra reds, however.

"They deserve it," says Pairoj Somjaipeng, a cabby in the area who supports the People's Alliance for Democracy, the nemesis of the reds.

"Last night they carried wooden clubs and other weapons. I think what the military did was right. And nobody died," he says.

"I want to ask how the reds love the King ... I think they love Thaksin more," he says, referring to the frequent allegation that the reds are out to destroy the royal institution.

The military side is led by Lt-Colonel Chinnuphan Rodsiri, who commands 200 or so troops dispatched from Aranyaprathet on the Thai-Cambodian border.

A lone monk defies the 200 armed soldiers, stepping out to address them with a loudspeaker at 6.40am, just a few metres away from the troops. He urges the soldiers not to shoot at people.

"This area has become lawless," Chinnuphan complains to me. "They shut the roads down and search people. Even the Asean Summit [last weekend], which was the face of the country, wasn't spared. Everyone demands their rights but do not know their responsibilities."

Soon another monk emerges on the other side of the triangle as the jittery soldiers shout. "How can a monk carry guns" cries one, as the monk slinks away.

Some distance beyond the front line of soldiers, groups of reds sit in front of Santiphab Park, or Peace Park. "We only have rocks, bottles and slingshots," says one. The two bottles nearby are Molotov cocktails, however.

On the other corner of the triangle, protesters claim they saw a driver of a bus full of red protesters get shot and collapse while trying to run over soldiers before dawn.

"Please help us," pleads one lady, in despair. "Please don't allow them to die in vain."

The reds no longer believe in much of what most of the local media report, as they are convinced that the media are anti-Thaksin and conclude that the reports of deaths must have been covered up or censored.

Protesters here and at other locations appear to be acting at least semi-independently of the DAAD leaders who are still holding out at Government House with supporters.

And as the day progresses and more shootings are seen and heard, more Molotov cocktails are being prepared at various spots.

Public buses were set ablaze at several sites, accompanied by the sound of M16s firing. At least three LPG gas tankers were commandeered by protesters by afternoon, but disaster was avoided. The shootings, clashes and burnings were disastrous enough.

A DAAD leader who asked not to be named tells this writer in the afternoon that the torching of Bangkok is virtually inevitable. "They have all the stuff prepared and we can't control them. People died, but the media censored the fact."

Protesters fight and retreat, soldiers shoot and advance. Victory Monument was abandoned, Sri Ayutthaya Road retaken, but the protesters - portrayed by most Thai media as a paid mob - regroup and resist.

Would they have risked their lives for Bt500 or Bt5,000 on Thai New Year's Day

The skirmishes and retreats and regroupings go on well into the evening as protesters scatter to some dozen pockets in the 2 or 3 square kilometres of downtown Bangkok.

Most shopping malls shut down on their own.

"This is guerrilla warfare," one foreign journalist tells me as we watch a scene so surreal, as if it came straight from some apocalyptic movie. But it was all real.

Some children, oblivious to the chaos falling on the city, are still seen splashing water as they would on any Songkran.

For many others it was red blood that had splattered, mixed with tears, irritation, anger, desperation or shock, depending on whom you ask.

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