BANGKOK – “I’m going home, back to Chiang Rai”, said one redshirt, refusing to give her name, as she wheeled her suitcase along under the shelter of a rail overpass running over the main rally stage. By Sunday evening, a small number of the estimated 5000 protestors had left, with more heading for the Red Cross-managed sanctuary established at a nearby Buddhist temple.
The Thai Government wants redshirt protestors to evacuate their main rally site at Rajaprasong by 3pm Monday. But as street fighting leaves 35 dead it is unclear whether or not the bulk of women and children at the Rajaprasong rally site will leave. Redshirt leaders have said that the protestors can leave the site. The Thai PM has defended the crackdown, despite the death toll so far, putting the blame for the violence on the redshirts. Army spokesman Col. Sansern Kaewkamnerd said that “If the protesters will not end the situation, we will have to enter the encampment.”
Pointing up at what she says are army snipers prowling the roof of a nearby high-rise, Manissa, who says she works at Bumrungrad Hospital, scoffed at the thought of leaving. “I’m staying here, and I think most people will. We’re here 2 months now”. Back at the rally area, a mostly female crowd, many middle-aged and above, listened and cheered as speeches were given in the draining 85% humidity and 35 degree heat.
Most of the men seem to be at the frontiers of the protest site, clashing with soldiers as gunfire and explosions rang out across the city. Some have pushed the boundaries, literally. By Saturday evening a new rally zone had been occupied on the Rama IV highway, running hundreds of meters behind a deadly flashpoint at Bon Kai, where a number of protestors have been killed by sniper fire, and where the army says grenades have been fired at their positions outside Lumpini boxing stadium. Troops and snipers fired at protesters lobbing petrol bombs and burning walls of kerosene-doused tyres, to create a smokescreen impairing the army shooter’s view. The ensuing smoke has billowed over Bangkok since Friday.
Late on Sunday, this correspondent witnessed hundreds of redshirts fleeing back down Rama 4 toward the
Ratchadaphisek Road, as gunfire was heard back up at the pitch-black flashpoint, where dozens of redshirts sheltered under a darkened flyover. As they ran, the streetlights along the road went out, raising the prospect of troops moving in under the cover of darkness. Later consistent gunfire was heard coming from different directions on the road, according to residents living close by, who spoke to The Irrawaddy by telephone, saying the area remained pitch-black. If the redshirts maintain a second rally site on this location, it would compromise the Government’s efforts to dismiss the current main site at Rajaprasong. Hpwever by midnight the location was quiet once more, though protestors remained on edge.
This zone, as well as a number of others ringing the main Rajaprasong rally area, had previously been designated ‘live fire zones’ by the Thai government, though what this means in practice for the army’s terms of engagement remains unclear. Five journalists have been shot, none fatally, in recent days, while over 200 have been injured. Elsewhere, the Irrawaddy sought to approach the main Rajaprasong site later on Sunday, but in the pitch-black silence of the streets was told by a redshirt guard at a barricade to turn back. “if you go inside, you might not get back out tonight”, he said. “there may be shooting here later, so unless you want to sleep at the stage, turn back.” In the distance, gunfire was heard toward Rajaprop, another approach route to the main rally area, where redshirts have set up new roadblocks to try stem an army advance.
The Redshirts have asked for an immediate ceasefire, requesting UN mediation. The Thai Government has refused this, saying that it only uses force against terrorists. Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn says there is no reason for the army to withdraw because “authorities are not using weapons to crack down on civilians.”
Some redshirt leaders have not been heard from in recent days, amid apparent leadership clashes. Rogue army Maj.Gen Khattiya, known as ‘Seh Daeng’ or Red Commando, was shot in the head on Thursday. He died on Monday morning. Other prominent figures linked to the redshirts have left the country, including Thaksin Shinawatra’s ex-wife, and Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, leader of Thailand’s main opposition party Peua Thai, which is linked to the redshirts.
Since Thursday, when the Army said it was moving to close off the main rally site at Rajaprasong, the redshirts have tried to prevent the troops advancing closer to the demonstrators mile long camp in Bangkok’s shopping area. The majority of casualties so far have been on the protestor side, with the army alleging that what it deems as ‘terrorists’ are moving about among the protestors. However eyewitness accounts of unarmed protestors and by-standers being shot have proliferated. This correspondent saw an ambulance skidding toward the burning tyres on Rama 4, after being fired upon from the military side of the smokescreen as it sped toward a wounded redshirt.
PM Abhisit Vejjajiva was more obdurate than his spokesman, saying “We will move forward. We cannot retreat now.” He insisted the military operation to quell protests was the answer in ending the country’s two-month-long crisis, and seems to be staking his credibility on a crackdown. Speaking somewhat vaguely and perhaps ominously, he added that “Overall, I insist the best way to prevent losses is to stop the protest. The protest creates conditions for violence to occur. We do realise at the moment that the role of armed groups is increasing each day.”Show