The view from Thailand's ground zero
By Brian McCartan
BANGKOK - The anti-government rally that paralyzed central Bangkok for over six
weeks has been folded up and protest leaders detained, but the besieged capital
city is far from secure. Critical questions have been raised about Prime
Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's armed crackdown, including security forces'
seeming lack of preparedness to control the operation's chaotic aftermath.
After a series of government warnings, on Wednesday morning armored personnel
carriers (APCs) and troops moved into position at the United Front for
Democracy Against Dictatorship's (UDD) square mile protest site's southern
flank. However, troops were quickly bogged down in defusing the several
improvised explosive devices hidden in the makeshift barricades protesters made
of tires and bamboo stakes.
Security experts at the scene wondered why the military did not simply defuse a
short section of the barricade, knock it down with
its APCs and send immediately troops towards the protest site's command center.
The delays allowed the UDD's alleged militant wing of black-clad fighters time
to organize a response to the crackdown, the experts said.
When the military finally moved, there were fewer than 200 soldiers, many of
whom straggled behind. A common comment at the site was that journalists
outnumbered the military. Commanding officers called frequent stops when
protesters were sighted up the street. Soldiers took up positions and opened
On several occasions, though, halts were called after seeing armed figures
moving through the adjacent Lumpini Park, where gun battles between protesters
and the military had taken place on May 14. This time, however, the figures
turned out to be other security forces. The event highlighted the lack of
coordination and communication between units, a lack of planning that nearly
resulted in a friendly fire incident.
It took soldiers nearly a hour-and-a-half to reach the far corner of the park,
or an advance of about 500 meters. Once there, over a kilometer short of the
UDD's main protest stage at the Ratchaprasong intersection, the soldiers called
a halt to process 15 captured red-shirt protesters, five of them women and two
Black-clad protesters could be seen up the street carrying AK-47 assault rifles
and a firefight broke out that saw protesters launch an M-79 grenade at
soldiers. Thai army special forces arrived later and advanced past the regular
troops, while fierce firing echoed up and down the street. protesters launched
at least five M-79 grenades at troops during the armed exchange.
Image courtesy ASTV
Most landed harmlessly in the park, but one severely injured freelance Canadian
journalist Chandler Vandegrift and three soldiers. The APCs were called up to
evacuate the wounded and police showed up to take away red-shirt captives. It
was after then that certain UDD leaders declared at 1:30 pm they would
surrender to authorities to avoid further bloodshed.
The army then evacuated the troops and journalists who were there at the
initial APC assault. That left the special forces commandos to carry on against
the UDD's black shirts, who were armed with pistols, assault rifles and grenade
launchers. At the far end of the park, the city's public works department was
in full swing carrying away debris from the barricades, pulling down tents and
restoring the park area.
Fighting continued in the main rally area, with police saying that a gunfight
took place in the early evening of Wednesday near Wat Pratumwanaram where about
2,000 protesters, including many women and children, had taken shelter. Firemen
fighting to extinguish blazes at a major shopping mall and other buildings in
the main protest area were reportedly fired on by at least one sniper.
The Bangkok Metropolitan Authority said 34 buildings, including several Bangkok
Bank branches, were torched by angry UDD protesters.
At least 13 people were killed in Wednesday's armed exchanges, including one
foreign journalist, pushing the death toll since May 14 to around 50 dead and
nearly 400 injured.
Still, the government's troubles have clearly not ended with its flawed
operation to retake the rally site located in a high-end shopping and hotel
district. Officials said that they believed UDD gunmen were still hiding in
buildings in the area. The government has claimed that large stores of weapons
were found at the captured site.
But it is unclear how many black shirts escaped the military sweep and whether
they are planning volatile new attacks. Prior to the military operation, red
shirt leaders had warned that a government crackdown could result in a civil
war. The self-proclaimed leader of the black shirts, dissident soldier Major
General Khattiya Sawasdiphol, or Seh Daeng, was shot by an unknown sniper on
May 13 and died a few days later. This assault triggered riots and violence in
areas around the protest site.
Exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the UDD's presumed patron and
financier, said in an interview as the army prepared to capture the protest
site that a crackdown could result in widespread discontent and guerrilla
tactics. UDD leaders had repeatedly claimed that theirs was a peaceful protest
movement and disowned any leaders, including Seh Daeng, who promoted violent
They claimed that a series of grenade attacks across Bangkok as well as the
shooting and grenade attacks on soldiers during the April 10 failed government
crackdown on the protest site was the work of a "third hand" that was helping
their movement, but outside their control. Even during the recent violent
unrest, UDD leaders have claimed that they have no control over people seen
carrying and using weapons.
Analysts and intelligence officials, however, believe that there is a link.
Debunking the idea of a "third hand", they have come to consider the black-clad
wearing men sometimes captured on camera carrying pistols and assault rifles to
be the movement's clandestine armed wing. Members of the group shied from being
photographed or filmed while carrying or using weapons.
The majority of protesters killed or injured during the past week were shot
while firing slingshots, burning tires or throwing firecrackers. The military
has not publicly reported any of its members killed or injured by gunshots.
Protester anger that has built up over months, and especially over the past
week due to the continued violence and perceived government abuse in killing
unarmed protesters, finally exploded.
On Wednesday night, red-shirt protesters joined by others outraged at the
army's crackdown and their own leaders for surrendering to authorities took
matters into their own hands by burning buildings, including a privately run
television news channel, and looting several stores. Protesters leaving the
rally site set the enormous Central World shopping center on fire, as well as a
nearby cinema complex.
The Klong Toey slum area descended into chaos on Wednesday afternoon,
apparently fueled by anger about several days of killings and injuries at the
nearby Bon Kai community. With no police or military presence, residents ran
riot and set a fire at the nearby Stock Exchange of Thailand and destroyed
telephone booths and the above-ground portions of a subway station.
The security situation also began to unravel upcountry. Protesters in several
provinces were able to enter the compounds of provincial government offices
virtually unopposed. Provincial halls in the northeastern cities of Udon Thani,
Khon Kaen and Mukdahan were torched. Protesters in Ubon Ratchatani torched the
Provincial Culture Hall and the office of the governor. In northern Chiang Mai,
the house of a senior provincial officer situated in the governor's residential
compound was torched.
The government has claimed it was bringing the situation under control, but its
clear that relevant authorities failed to establish safeguards against a wider
outbreak of violence if the UDD's main rally site was crushed. An intelligence
source had earlier told Asia Times Online that the military had been reluctant
to cordon off the protest area and carry out a crackdown due to concerns it
could spark a wider rebellion.
For instance, no apparent efforts were made to contain protest sites at Bon Kai
or Din Daeng districts, where fighting was frequent over the past week. At Din
Daeng there are two army camps and the headquarters of the Border Patrol Police
to the rear of the protesters, but as of last night there were no moves to
contain and control the area.
At a Bangkok intersection known as Sam Yan near the city's main railway
station, Hualompong, a new group of protesters were able to set up a barricade
on the flank of the army's crackdown. In provincial areas, reports indicated
that security forces made no serious efforts to defend provincial halls or
other government installations. This despite several threats from UDD
organizers and intelligence reports of stepped-up red shirt organizing in the
areas after May 13.
In the chaotic wake of Wednesday's crackdown, Abhisit's government has
maintained its grip on power. But the costs will likely be felt for months and
possibly years to come. Although the government has announced it will continue
with its proposed reconciliation roadmap, it had taken its offer to hold new
elections in November off the table.
The crackdown has alienated a large segment of the population and it will be
exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for Abhisit and his Democrat party to
win them over with offers of reconciliation. Protests have so far channeled
anger into the destruction of public and private property, but if hardline UDD
leaders now at large have the opportunity to plan and regroup, the escalating
conflict could yet take another violent turn.
Brian McCartan is a Bangkok-based freelance journalist. He may be reached