On Wednesday afternoon, the city reeled from another clash between the army and protestors, this time on a packed
highway at the city’s old international airport. One soldier died from ‘friendly fire’ with 18 redshirt anti-Government protestors injured. The army said it fired rubber bullets, with live rounds shot into the air as a warning. The army then blocked the main highway to the combat zone, forcing journalists trying to reach the scene to divert into a slip road, and a dashboard-thump inducing crawl through stalled traffic.
Two of us jumped on board one of several ambulances trying to get to the wounded – we were welcome to join. When we asked why they had to drive through the traffic rather than use the empty highway, we were told that the army would not let the medics use the quicker route, now blocked by troops. An hour later and the medics still had not reached the wounded – they told us we were better to jump out and take a motorbike back to the city, adding that the wounded protestors had been taken to a different hospital.
At the best of times, rush-hour traffic in Bangkok is hectic, fume-laden crawl through 35° heat. When part of the city’s commercial heart is occupied by thousands of protestors, or blocked by soldiers, getting around become even more awkward.
As the name suggests, the Skytrain runs above the streets – an air-conditioned, Singapore-clean metro on stilts. On Tuesday morning, redshirts left tyres on the track of the station nearest the stage where leaders give incessant speeches, through the day’s blistering heat and on into the sauna-like night.
The protestors fear an army crackdown, which the Government and security chiefs have been threatening for weeks. Redshirts said the tyre blockade was to forestall police and soldiers arriving to the camp, but it meant the closure of the Skytrain for four hours during morning rush hour. An estimated 450,000 people use the train every day. With some of the city’s main streets already blocked, it added to the hassle of getting around.
This correspondent was among the bleary-eyed early-morning throng, where frustrated Bangkokians forced to walk or jump on the back of a motorbike taxi to get to work. “I don’t care about politics”, huffed Kanokporn, a 28 year-old bank teller, “but I think this problem needs to be resolved”, she concluded vaguely, while edging downstairs cheek-by-jowl with the hundreds of others making their way out of the station.
The army has already tried to break the protest. On April 10, 25 died when the redshirts and the army fought, and soldiers shot it out with mysterious gunmen dressed in black.
The violence horrified Bangkok and made worldwide headlines. Not since 1992 had the city seen such bloodshed. Tourism makes up 6% of GDP, with over one million employed. The country enjoys a somewhat exalted image of stability, despite 18 coup attempts since 1932, when absolute monarchy was abolished, and a bloody Muslim rebellion in the Malay deep south, where 4000 have died since 2004.
Two days after the bloodshed, just meters from a gory memorial to some the slain protestors, tourists and Thais alike shot water pistols at each other, marking Songkran, the Thai Buddhist New Year. As a street vendor daubed the customary Songkran flour-and-water paste to her face, Barbara Jakobsen, a 21 year old Danish visitor, said she “is concerned” about the violence, but adds “there are so many options in this country, its not just Bangkok”. Many tourists view the capital as a transit point to southern beach resorts or northward via the temple-laden splendour and nostalgia of Ayutthya.
But hotel occupancy is down, and the Doric pillars of some of the now-empty five-star establishments on the Ratchadamri Road loom over vast makeshift camp. There redshirts cook snacks and sell kitschy political paraphernalia. At night, thousands sleep rough on rattan mats, while others steel themselves for a possible confrontation with the army, or with rival yellowshirt protestors who want the redshirts cleared and think the Government is playing softball, despite the April 10 confrontation.
Since last Thursday, when five grenades exploded in the Silom district – the city’s banking and finance hub – the Government and the yellowshirts have slammed the redshirts as terrorists. The edgy vibe has been compounded by Government allegations that the red protest really a plot to undermine the country’s monarchy.
Across the road from the redshirt area, Silom has been desolate the past few nights, apart from a handful of yellowshirts gathering to vent their anger at the reds, and a pack of journalists awaiting another confrontation. All that was missing was tumbleweed whistling across the street. Soldiers run security checks on the occasional car passing along what usually is a scene of Hogarthian excess, near one of the city’s redlight areas, now patrolled by soldiers who look like they have just finished high school.
Meanwhile. behind the 400-yard long fifteen foot high bamboo and tyre wall built by the redshirts to prevent an army attack, one young man leans on a sharpened bamboo stick – perhaps a feeble weapon against Thailand’s US-trained military Just 23, he gave his name only as Srijoj. He said “I am not afraid if they come”. Maybe I missed some inner resolve, but he didn’t sound convincing.Show