Asia Catalyst

[REPORT] Simmering Anger Sparks Fiery Outburst in Bangkok

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By Pipob Udomittipong


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 Shirt demonstrators. Much media attention has focused on the property damages, 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 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, 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.

The View from Victory Monument

On the morning of 19 May 2010, I joined the demonstration underway at the Victory Monument, which had been ongoing for three or four days. There were about 1,000 protesters from United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD). They were blocked from joining their comrades at Ratchaprasong, the site of the main rally in downtown Bangkok. While state security forces amassed, Panitan Wattanayakorn, the Thai government spokesperson, called the demonstrators a "pocket of terrorists".  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 sight". 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 announcements to the protesters. The climate became increasingly 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 together, braving the military deployment along the routes, in order to join 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 say to those nearby that this could not be true, and that 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 seized his microphone. Though the microphones were later returned, further announcements failed to calm the members of the crowd, who were shouting and talking to others around them. The sound on stage went off for good when the person who owned the truck holding the power generator and sound system drove away. With no more contact from their 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 demonstrators intervened to try to stop the destruction.


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 used his camera to shoot video of piles of bodies, this high," gesturing with his hand to show the height. "We have to stay 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 announced by the core leaders. We still have another force to help us. After our core leaders announced that they were calling off the demo, the army bombed us. The grenade fell in front of the stage and hit people who were dancing." Another surviving demonstrator said, "A lot of sisters and brothers of ours have died. We cannot let them die for nothing."  


Soon, the situation escalated again. It began with destruction of three telephone booths, which was 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 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 of the convenience store raid from afar was chased away.


Before this chaotic vandalism, demonstrators had been shouting at police officials, including high ranking officials and the media. One of the very first buildings to be burned to the ground belonged to Channel Three, which had recently broadcast a controversial speech by a male superstar 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 all share one "house". The celebrity bluntly said, "Anyone who does not want to be children of the father should just get out of this house." The speech was repeatedly broadcast by Channel Three and other TV channels.  


Media Statements Fueling the Violence

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 began. Early on, I saw a crewman from TNN24 carrying a video camera and exchanging words with some protesters. Later the TV crew drove away, presumably due to the frustration aimed at him by the demonstrators. Ironically, TNN24 reported objectively on the protests. 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 when the curfew was announced, preventing news of the events from filtering out to the rest of Thailand.


The media blackout has been one of the major factors driving people to take to the streets. PTV, a satellite TV network popular among the Red Shirt supporters, was closed down. Hundreds of websites have been blocked. Every day for a month, the Center for Resolution of Emergency Situations (CRES) has made statements at their press conferences that attack the demonstrators. Reporters ask no questions of them.


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". In their words, 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 said to be enforced strictly there against anyone who is alleged to have carried out "terrorist" acts. Yet in the past six years, while two draconian laws have been put in place, the Emergency Decree and Martial Law, 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 the riots]." In fact, the first sentence was originally a quote from General Prem Tinsulanond, the former Prime Minister and Chairperson of the Privy Council, formerly 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 in order 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 had reported that Central World had insurance worth three billion baht.


No Safe Zones

A Thai peace group asked the Xavier church near Victory Monument to provide "safe sanctuary" (or apayatan). I helped one of the staff members from the group talk with UDD guards in order to inform the protesters about the sanctuary. One of the first questions I got asked by a guard was, "Will I still get shot or arrested while inside the church?"


One answer: nine bodies were found shot in Wat Pathumwanara (temple), and several other bodies were found nearby. The 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 photos show armed troops were deployed on the SkyTrain (BTS) tracks, overlooking barricades below.


Focus on Property Destruction or Loss of Life?

In the aftermath of the violence, the media - both state and privately owned -- have shored up two narratives:


1. The Red Shirts planned 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, Thailand's former Prime Minister, is the grand mastermind behind 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 narrative created by the government that blames him for the protests and riots (since most of the core leaders of the UDD were in custody when the destruction of property took place).


These narratives have also focused on property. More than 30 buildings in Bangkok's prime business districts have reportedly been burned, even while a curfew was imposed on the night and morning of 19 and 20 May. Regular TV shows have been replaced by more frequent CRES announcements, a trend that 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 resulted from the harsh crackdown that began on May 13th.  


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 that was 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?


Human Rights and Riot Control

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


According to an Amnesty International press release on 17 May 2010, Operation Ratchaprasong and the reckless shooting of unarmed civilians by security officials is "a gross violation of a key human right--the right to life". Amnesty notes, "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...The government cannot allow soldiers to essentially shoot at anyone within an area it wishes to control."


Amnesty further stated, "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-defense, riot control should be performed by trained police using non-lethal equipment, not by soldiers using live ammunition.


Pipob Udomittipong is an independent journalist in Bangkok.

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