Smoke (and mirrors) behind Bangkok fires
By William Barnes
BANGKOK - The arson attacks launched by anti-government protesters against
Bangkok's posh Rajaprasong shopping district, private businesses and state
agencies appeared to reflect the 17th-century French dramatist Pierre
Corneille's advice that taking only half-hearted revenge is to court disaster.
The fiery assaults in mid-May came in response to the government's crackdown on
the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship's (UDD) downtown protest
site, where demonstrators had been camped for over a month in a bid to topple
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government. Those attacks have contributed
to government claims that UDD leaders, several currently in detention, were
involved in acts of "terrorism".
While UDD leaders have claimed that angry protesters ran amok in reaction to
the government's crackdown, where scores were
killed leading up to the final May 19 crackdown, information is emerging that
shows that several of the attacks were premeditated and not blind vandalism.
More evidence could soon be revealed as the government prepares to name as many
as 84 alleged financiers of the "red-shirt" protest movement.
"It stands out very much that on May 19 some buildings were attacked and others
were left alone," said an insurance investigator with inside knowledge of the
current insurance assessment. "To me that suggests a lot of thinking behind the
Bangkok governor Sukhumbhand Paribatra told reporters on June 1 that he
believed many of the arson attacks were "premeditated". Sukhumbhand noted that
the CentralWorld department store across from the UDD's Rajaprasong protest
stage was torched while several other high-end hotels in the area, including
the Hyatt Erawan and InterContinental, were left untouched because their owners
had political connections to the UDD.
UDD leaders had earlier hinted they would resort to arson attacks in response
to any government crackdown. In a widely viewed YouTube clip, UDD hardline
leader Arisman Pongruangrong urged a group of provincial "red shirt" protesters
preparing to travel to Bangkok to carry a liter of petrol each to ignite
possible arson attacks. Other UDD leaders issued similarly incendiary threats.
"We, the UDD, are poor and rural people. We can easily get panicked, especially
when the soldiers charge in. When we are panicked, we will smash glass windows
of these luxurious shopping malls and run amok inside ... and when we are
inside we can freely pick up brand-name bags or other expensive goods," UDD
co-leader Nattawut Saikua said at the Rajaprasong protest stage on April 8.
"You should actually start thinking what do you want for yourself or your
friends if you get panicked and go inside those shopping malls."
When Nattawut called for an end to the protest in the early afternoon of May
19, with troops slowly advancing to the Rajaprasong main stage, this
correspondent saw black-shirted "guards" scurrying around throwing Molotov
cocktails, firing handguns and preparing petrol cans to light fires. The
resulting blazes burnt an alarmingly large part of CentralWorld, Southeast
Asia's second-biggest shopping mall, destroyed the flagship store of France's
Casino group and razed a well-loved old cinema and many nearby boutique shops.
Outside the protest site's bamboo and tire barricades, other protesters burnt
down a shopping mall near Victory Monument, set a fire at the stock exchange
and the office tower of a television station, attacked a newspaper production
building and destroyed several Bangkok Bank branches. In all, about 38
buildings were badly damaged in the national capital, and several state
installations were put to the torch in four northeastern provinces.
The UDD was formed the year after former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was
ousted in a bloodless 2006 military coup and has often benefited from highly
sympathetic coverage by academics and reporters who have espied something pure
and hopeful in the protest group rising above the self-serving mire of
traditional Thai politics.
However, the extent to which the UDD is still remote-controlled by the
self-exiled former premier is a matter of hot debate. Billionaire Thaksin
frequently called in from abroad during the early phases of the UDD's protest,
urging his supporters to fight against the double standards in Thai society of
which he has often claimed he is a victim rather than beneficiary. As the
protests turned more violent, including an April 10 melee where heavily armed
protesters opened fire and launched grenades on troops, Thaksin sought to
distance himself from the death and destruction.
"This heroic and inspiring grassroots movement is completely autonomous and
independent from myself," he said in a statement issued through his
international lawyers on May 20. Thaksin hired Amsterdam & Peroff, a law
firm that "offers legal counsel to companies and individuals facing critical
challenges" in a bid to win international opinion over to his version of recent
events, including the notion he neither controlled nor bankrolled the UDD.
The protest was, however, organized by people known to have strong links to
Thaksin, who now spends much of his time in exile in the United Arab Emirates
and Montenegro. He fled into exile in 2008, weeks before a Thai court sentenced
him to two years in prison on a corruption conviction. The UDD's protest began
just two weeks after the Supreme Court confiscated US$1.4 billion of his assets
on corruption charges.
To be sure, there are questions about who commanded the UDD's black-shirted and
often heavily armed guards. The number of them who actively attacked
Rajaprasong's retail canyon on May 19 was small, perhaps less than 50,
according to this correspondent's on-the-ground assessment. Many worked in
small teams of half a dozen and they remained on a clear mission even after
explosions and gunfire cleared the immediate area of the main protest stage.
This correspondent saw one or two teams make a concerted attempt to bring down
the huge CentralWorld. Explosions could be heard inside the structure in the
mid-afternoon of May 19 and police investigators say black-shirted arsonists,
some of whom were also opportunistic looters, were caught by security cameras
going about their destructive work.
The Sino-Thai Chirathivat family, which controls the listed Central Pattana,
owner of eight big malls including the now torched CentralWorld, appears to
have been singled out for attack.
Oddly, the family initially welcomed Thaksin as a go-ahead prime minister when
he first came to power in 2001 and the Chirathivats also are not obvious rivals
of any other business family with close ties to Thaksin.
Some analysts suspect tensions arose over a run-in between the Chirathivats and
Thaksin's government over the extension of a Bangkok land lease agreement where
one of Central's shopping malls is situated. Beyond that, the family has shown
little interest in politics and has remained almost wholly focused on its
expanding hotels-to-malls-to-property empire of listed and private companies.
"They [the protest leadership] wanted to show their power. They were never
going to leave quietly. I think they wanted to destroy something big - and what
better than a complex that used to be called the World Trade Center," said one
senior Thai financier with an office overlooking the blackened ruins. "The
Chirathivat family may simply not have had much of a relationship with Thaksin.
And they are big enough not to kowtow to him."
There have been persistent rumors that at least some businesses in the occupied
Rajaprasong area offered under-the-table payments to UDD leaders to end the
rally, which would seem logical given the huge daily losses caused by the
extended closure of the hotel and shopping district. The Rajaprasong Square
Trade Association has estimated protest-related business losses at more than 11
billion baht (US$337 million).
The Chirathivats also took a hit from the arson attack on the nearby Big C
headquarters and flagship store, which was left a smoking shell, even though it
had remained open for protesters much longer than any other outlet in the area.
Big C is controlled by France's Casino Group, but the Chirathivat family
maintains a residual shareholding of about 6%.
Moreover, a mob several kilometers away attempted to burn down the offices of
the Bangkok Post, an English-language newspaper controlled and partly owned by
Chirathivat family members. In August 2005, the paper dismissed a desk editor,
and let another editor resign, after coming under legal threat from Thaksin
over a story that reported Suvarnabhumi airport, one of Thaksin's pet projects,
had cracks in its runway. (The story turned out to be true). The popular paper
greeted the September 2006 coup as something to be regretted, but its editorial
line hinted that Thaksin had it coming.
Several Bangkok Bank branches were also targeted. UDD leaders had accused the
bank of having close ties to Privy Councilor Prem Tinsulanonda, whom they have
frequently alleged orchestrated the 2006 coup, and bankrolling the rival
People's Alliance for Democracy protest group that paved the way for the ouster
of a series of Thaksin-aligned governments. Bangkok Bank's branches were also
hit during a wave of mysterious grenade attacks that coincided with the
beginning of the UDD's protest.
Some believe that if the UDD was truly engaged in a rich-versus-poor class
struggle, then it would have also symbolically torched the more upscale Gaysorn
Plaza shopping mall, the other main commercial edge of its Rajaprasong protest
stage directly opposite CentralWorld. Controlled by the local Srivikorn family,
Gaysorn Plaza also owns the nearby Amarin Plaza shopping and office tower where
the McDonalds - that stayed open throughout most of the protest - became a
popular, air-conditioned gathering spot for UDD leaders.
Indeed, a number of terrified red shirt protesters sought shelter in the upper
floors of the Amarin on May 19. The family - different members own different
bits of the sprawling empire - also owns the two five-star hotels behind
Gaysorn Plaza and some nearby condominiums. The Srivikorns were badly bruised
by the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis and Pimol Srivikorn joined Thaksin's Thai
Rak Thai (TRT), a political party that on the campaign trail capitalized on
popular anger over a slow economic recovery. He was banned from politics by for
electoral malpractice along with 110 other TRT MPs in May 2007.
The Srivikorn family's patriarch, Chalermphand, was a former patron to senior
UDD leader Veera Musikhapong when both were in the Democrat Party in the late
1980s. They jumped together to a new party after a row over ministerial
allocations and Veera was briefly jailed on lese majeste charges. Chalermphand
eventually left politics and Veera's political star faded until he was
rehabilitated several years later by Thaksin as a canny and experienced
The two families that control the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel, whose grandiose
towers provided a classical backdrop to the UDD's on-stage anti-government
rantings, felt obliged to issue a formal statement after the protest closed
down, denying widespread rumors that they had provided accommodation and
support for red shirt leaders. The rumors had "caused a misunderstanding and
negative effect on our image and business", it said.
The statement left open the possibility that senior UDD cadres might have paid
for their own rooms, at least during the early phases of the Rajaprasong
protest, during which UDD leaders were certainly seen in the hotel. The
statement also tried to distance the group from Panida Thepkanjana, a member of
the Wattanavekin family, one of the hotel's two controlling families.
It said Panida had never been a director nor manager of the company. The
company apparently felt compelled to make the statement because her husband,
Thepchai Thepkanjana, was Thaksin's former personal lawyer and a senior member
of the disbanded TRT party who held different ministerial posts. He is
currently serving a five-year ban from politics, but is still viewed as a
prominent Thaksin ally.
Other nearby buildings were mysteriously, or serendipitously, left unharmed.
Siam Paragon, another elite shopping destination located about 100 meters from
CentralWorld, was spared protesters' wrath. Some note that Thaksin was a guest
of honor when the mall opened in 2006.
It should be emphasized that the mentioned Rajaprasong business families
obviously had the right to protect their property in any legal and ethical way
possible. The analytical point is merely to indicate that elite relationships
and business networks with Thaksin may have mattered more than any
rich-versus-poor antagonism in determining who was attacked and who left
unscathed on May 19.
The attacks outside Rajaprasong, including on the partially damaged stock
exchange and certain (ultimately unfinished) mob maneuvers against
telecommunications buildings and multiple attacks against banks (particularly
the dominant Bangkok Bank), seemed partially designed to undermine business and
consumer confidence at a time the Abhisit government was poised to reap
political gains from a gathering economic recovery.
The army's discovery of explosives in at least two pickups around Rajaprasong
would seem to suggest that something even more dramatic than the CentralWorld
attack might have been in the works. Certainly there were rifts between more
accommodating reds, who wanted to accept Abhisit's offer of early elections in
November in exchange for shutting down the protest, and hardliners who seemed
inclined to use violence to overthrow the government.
The attack on the Channel 3 television building, located a few kilometers
outside of the UDD's protest site, was peculiar because it is owned by the
family of a one-time strong Thaksin ally, former sports minister Pracha
Maleenont. Channel 3, which operates and produces programming under a
government concession, had come under heavy UDD criticism for its perceived
biased news coverage of the protest.
Insurance companies, too, will likely take a hit because CentralWorld was
insured against riot damage. The Chirathivats' nearby Central department store
on Chidlom road was torched in 1995 after an unfortunate dispute with a rogue
army general who was romantically involved with Thailand's first Miss Universe,
who at the time was married to a member of the Chirathivat family.
The estimated billions of baht in business lost by Rajaprasong shopkeepers and
hotels during the protests will be partially absorbed by the government,
although small shopowners in CentralWorld, Siam Square and other torched
shopping complexes will suffer without new venues to peddle their wares. But
elite business rivalries, which the UDD arson attacks have likely accentuated,
will live on and potentially evolve.
The insurance company investigator said it would be necessary to pursue anyone
who might be identified as responsible for the destruction. But there is a
caveat: insurance companies would only take legal action if there was a
reasonable chance of collecting damages from the masterminds behind the fires,
an uphill task in Thailand's still highly charged and highly unaccountable
William Barnes is a veteran Bangkok-based journalist.