Violence makes most of Bangkok no-go area
Protesters remained in their Bangkok camp after a government deadline for vacating it expired. Dozens have already been killed, but the worst may be yet to come.
A few hours before the ultimatum imposed by the Thai government expired, protesters of the Red Shirt movement in Bangkok were still resting on their straw mats or listening to protest leaders' speeches. Black-clad guards inspected everybody who passed through the improvised barricades made out of tires, bamboo and razor wire.
They were all told to leave by 3 pm on Monday, but around 6.30 they were still there. A small plane dropped leaflets threatening those remaining in the camps with two years in prison. But their punishment could be worse, because nobody doubts that a break-up of the protest camp, which still accommodates some 5,000 protesters, will end in bloodshed.
'At least it's safe here'
Hundreds of women and children in the camp have retreated to the Pathum Wanaram temple there. "At least it's safe here," one of them said on Sunday. Didn't she want to leave the protest camp? "Not at all!" she said with fire-spitting eyes, only to launch into a diatribe about democracy, justice and the poor government, copied from the protest's leaders. The government had announced it would send buses for Red Shirts who wanted to return home, but these had so far failed to arrive.
Other parts of the Thai capital had descended into chaos. Fights broke out between the military and groups of protesters, supporters of the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who want the current government to step down. Half of Bangkok has become a no-go area.
The violence began on Thursday night, after the militant Red Shirt, Khattiya Sawasdipol, was shot in the head while talking to an American journalist. "The Red Shirts got angry and started fighting with soldiers," said Pakpen Thiraviboon (62), who was waiting for Sawasdipol's body to be taken out of the hospital where he died this morning. Since his shooting, 37 people have been killed by bullets and exploding grenades, and some 250 people injured.
Many streets in Bangkok were empty or had been cordoned off by police officers who wore purple scarves, a colour yet to be claimed by any party in the conflict. The sky train service had been halted for the time being, and the beginning of a new academic year postponed.
Dozens of ambulances were standing by outside Ratchawithi hospital, where protesters tried to use smoke to block the view of snipers the military had positioned atop the city's skyscrapers.
Suddenly, sirens sounded as a pickup-truck waving a small hospital flag came crashing onto the terrain. The truck was carrying a young man who held stiffly onto his own abdomen. He had been hit by a rubber bullet. A 45-year-old protester, who was being carried in by two men on a moped, had caught a real one. His hand and foot were covered in blood. Another man pointed at the bullet hole in his helmet: he had escaped death by the skin of his teeth. But nobody seemed the least bit interested in his story.
Worst yet to come
And the break-up of the protest camp hadn’t even started yet. The military had tried to drive protesters into a corner where they wouldn't be able to come and go at will, as they had been in the last month and a half, and still are in some locations. Some Red Shirts work during the day and sleep in the protest camp at night. The military has also tried to intercept the camp's food and water supplies.
Whenever the soldiers take up position anywhere, they quickly run into hordes of Red Shirts wielding Molotov cocktails, fireworks and – according to the government – real weapons. They respond to these attacks using live ammunition. Snipers have created an atmosphere of paranoia in Bangkok. Everyone is looking up at the sky.
The Red Shirts have only fuelled the chaos by abandoning their telltale clothing. So far, a journalist and a paramedic have been killed and probably other innocent bystanders as well. In the areas where the heaviest fighting is taking place, residents are afraid to leave their homes to buy food.
Paramedic Boonserm Suppasri had to enter the line of fire 30 times already to collect casualties. On Monday, he left an injured person to his own devices because he feared for his own safety. "We don't know who's shooting who anymore," he said.
Will the ’Land of Smiles’ survive this situation? Thailand was a beacon of stability in South-East Asia until recently. In April, the number of tourists was down a third from last year. So far, the confrontations have cost the country half a point in economic growth, the government announced on Monday.
The Thais themselves seem confused about what is happening. Many said they wonder how it is possible that "Thai are killing Thai". But not all blamed the military for the deaths, though most of the 66 fatalities claimed by the conflict since April 10 were protesters. Boontham Laoon (53), the owner of a small supermarket and as much a fan of the Red Shirts as prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, for instance, feels that the protesters themselves were also to blame for their predicament. "If the victims are really innocent, why don't they stay at home like I do?" he reasoned.
The question is how long this will continue. The government has said it is only willing to negotiate if the Red Shirts abandon their positions and refrain from further violence, but the movement has now been taken over by hardliners. The government has already accused them of terrorism, a crime punishable by death, which leaves them with little to lose. Last week, leaders willing to settle for new elections saw their efforts upended by hardliners.
But although the government has said it is determined to end the protests, the question remains whether it will succeed. The military seems to be making little progress since the battle for Bangkok began. Red Shirts in other parts of the country have warned they would take revenge if the military goes through with vacating the protest camp, and ,as the government-imposed deadline expired, gunfire in Bangkok only grew louder.