BANGKOK – Three hours after a Government deadline to vacate their campsite in the middle of Bangkok’s glossiest shopping and hotel district, anti-Government ‘redshirt’ protestors remained defiant. “I’m here for democracy”, said Peter Siriya, a 33 year old from Samutpakarn Province. Like many of the other redshirts, he comes from up country, and says he is disgusted by the recent bloodshed in Bangkok.
36 people have died since last Thursday in street fighting at a number of locations around the main rally site. The redshirts have set up another stage on a highway beyond the main area, countering the army’s drive to blockade the main rally area.
But Monday’s 3pm deadline has come after tough talk and tougher action by the Thai army, which has fired live rounds on protestors, many of whom are unarmed. Five journalists have been injured in recent days, in what is a volatile and unpredictable situation. Some protestors are throwing petrol bombs and burning tyres to create a smokescreen, hindering the line of fire for much-feared snipers prowling high-rise buildings overhead. The city is braced for an all-out battle for control of the protestors main rally site, though by Tuesday afternoon the Thai Senate offered to mediate. This proposal has been accepted by the redshirts, though the Prime Minister has yet to respond.
The protestors are bankrolled by telecoms billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, who they say helped improve living standards in the rice-growing north and north-east, where village life is a far cry from the high-rise, traffic-choked, 24-hour lifestyle in Bangkok, a city of 15 million people. But the protestors have shed their peaceful self-image, lobbing grenades at troops, and are manned by a squad of still-unidentified black-clad gunmen. Other photos are doing the rounds showing redshirts holding young children at the tyre barricades, raising concerns that the vulnerable are being used as human shields.
The man thought to lead the redshirt militant faction, ‘Seh Daeng’ or Red Commando, died on Monday morning after being shot in the head last Thursday.
An army sniper is thought to be responsible for the hit, though both Government and military deny any involvement. Seh Daeng was at odds with the rest of the redshirt leadership, who he accused of compromise with the Government.
The Thai Government and other protestors known as yellowshirts say the redshirts are pawns in a high-stakes power play by Thaksin, who is a fugitive from Thailand where he stands accused of corruption while in office. Thaksin was deposed in a 2006 army coup, after anti-Thaksin yellowshirts took to the streets for months of protests, saying that Thaksin was misusing his office to enrich himself and his family.
Yellow is the colour of the country’s monarchy, which officially sits above politics. But the reality is that Thailand’s divisions are premised on a power vacuum, with the current King now 82 years old, in hospital since last September. He has reigned since 1946, and has stepped in to pour cold water on previous conflicts in Thailand.
Bangkok is a vast and sprawling city, much of which is not directly affected by the violence. But at night, streets are empty, with some locations not yet affected by fighting seeing reduced traffic and shops shuttering up early. For what is usually a vibrant and non-stop metropolis, the eerie silence is unusual and unnerving.
The current violence is confined to central Bangkok, leaving the tourist-magnet beaches and resorts in the south unscathed. But the images of gunfighting and explosions are making global headlines, and tourism is being affected. This sector accounts for 6% of the country’s GDP.
The redshirts are strongest in the north and northeast, and have sympathisers in the army and police. If there is a full-on assault on the protest site in the middle of Bangkok, there could be backlash in the redshirt rural heartland, and many Thais are worried that the country verges on civil war.
* More or less said the same thing as above on BBC Ulster this morning.