BANGKOK: Saturday 10.04.10

On Saturday night an extraordinary and heartbreaking scene unfolded on the doorstep of our Bangkok neighbourhood, resulting in a clash between the army and “Red Shirt” protesters that left 21 people dead and over 800 injured.  We left the area about an hour before the violence occurred, and I strongly encourage you, if you can, to take a look at the video that Katheryn put together: Bangkok riots 10.4.10

We had been out of Bangkok on the island of Koh Tao for the last two weeks, but that blog has been superceded by the drama of recent events.  Because of the upcoming Songkran festival, when transportation can be difficult to book, we decided to return to Bangkok last Friday.  Unknown to us it was also the day the Red Shirts planned to stage their “biggest ever” rally, and has been the case throughout these protests, it resulted in traffic gridlock hell.  It also resulted in something the Reds had not tried before: the occupation of the downtown shopping and business district.  Whether this was the final straw for a government that some viewed as weak for not cracking down on the protesters, we don’t know; but things changed on Saturday.

The normal morning tranquility of our little riverside enclave was disturbed by two black military helicopters doing repeated forays low over the rooftops.  Never mind: our plan was to go in the opposite direction of the blockades to Jatuchak Market, on the north side of town.  It soon became clear, however, that the situation wasn’t normal, as the traffic on the street was backing up, and no buses were running.  No problem: can’t let a little protest get in the way of our shopping.   We go with plan II, which is to walk to the amulet market and buy the fun little acrylic Buddhas for the shop.  Coming back, loaded with 50 Buddhas, we have to cross Ratchedamoen St., on which the protesters have been camped for a month.  Well, we think, may as well see what’s going on…  

We are well within the Red’s territory when two falangs (foreigners) hurry across the street to intercept us.  In a surprise move, one pulls out his badge and says he is undercover with the Thai police.  We’re packing a lot of Buddhas; could this be a bust?  In a heavy German accent he informs us that we should not go any further, it is too dangerous: clashes have occurred; tear gas and rubber bullets have been used; and a car bomb has gone off.  Good reason, we think, to go back to the hotel.  And get the cameras.

We have followed the situation in Thailand closely over the years, and we have a good feel for a dangerous situation, and a well-developed sense of self-preservation.  We approach the area cautiously, from the back alleys to the north.  In my case, I have been coming to this neighbourhood for almost 30 years, and I know it well; but I have never before seen heavy armored vehicles in the square by Wat Bovorniwet.  The military have bottle-necked the access to Tanao, the street on the east side of the world’s favourite back-packer haunt, Khao San Road.  The soldiers look stylishly futuristic in a game-boy kind of way, clad in hi-tech body armor.  For all of the latent violence represented by their equipment, there isn’t a feeling of hostility in the air.  Locals are in the street, and some bring the soldiers food in take-away containers.  Tourists from Khao San walk through the military lines taking pictures; many of the soldiers take photos of themselves and their buddies with their cell phones.  Katheryn even has a young guy offer her part of his dinner.

There is a no-man’s-land on Tanao St. between the military and the Reds where even the most brainless of Khao San backpackers doesn’t go.  However, by taking a back alley we end up at the Burger King at the junction of Khao San and Tanao, in the Red Shirt camp.  We linger for a while, but the sun is down and it’s getting too dark for pictures.  We walk to the front line of the Reds, facing the military 50 paces away.  Unlike the soldiers, all they have, it seems, is flags and sticks, but they too seem fairly relaxed.  When someone hands us face masks for protection from tear gas, we figure it’s time to go.

It’s a surreal situation, walking up Khao San.  All of the businesses at the Tanao St. side are shuttered, but further on more and more are still open, proving once again that if the world were ruled by tourism it would be a happier, stupider place.  There are two large restaurants facing each other across the road, playing loud music, with full tables spilling out onto the sidewalk.  Both have arrays of large screen T.V.’s, and all of them are showing the same footage from this afternoon: the fighting a few blocks away.  We stop, and soon all the passers-by, Thai and falang, are clustered watching the scenes of tear gas and truncheons, while the diners at the tables continue with their fettucine.

An hour later and a little farther away, we ourselves are having dinner.  Over the ambient noise of the street and the rustling of leaves in the nearby temple, we hear the popping which from a distance no normal person would believe is gun fire.  And a louder bang, again muffled and dismissable.  The helicopters are still flying, but without lights; in the night they are ominous moving waves of sound.

In the morning the city awakes to the tragedy.  There is still a lot that isn’t clear, but it is obvious that the decision to displace the protesters by force was a poorly conceived, badly executed operation.  Perhaps, as some claim, the Reds fired first.  The bang we heard was a grenade fired at the soldiers.  The military claim they didn’t use live ammunition, but the shutters and walls around Burger King are pocked with holes.  17 civilians and 4 soldiers died Saturday night, most from head wounds or asphyxiated by tear gas.  The official count is 858 injured.  The military claim it stopped the operation to avoid further civilian bloodshed, but eyewitnesses report complete confusion and disarray.

And yet, after all of that, there is still a degree of normalcy in the city.  The Reds are still entrenched, and the army is licking its wounds.  That life goes on is a testament to the resilience of the Thai people.  Ultimately it is that strength of character which will get this country through the current morass of polarized political petulance that it is in.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *