BANGKOK – By Saturday afternoon eighteen people had died in three days of street fighting at various locations across the sprawling capital. Plumes of smoke rose over high-rise hotels and offices, as gunfire and explosions were heard at a number of fronts around the commercial center of the city. The Thai Government declared certain locations as ‘live fire’ zones, saying that the army could not guarantee the security of people present.
On Saturday afternoon soldiers shot at protestors on the Rama IV highway, after grenades exploded close to a Thai boxing stadium, where soldiers sheltered at the roadside. This correspondent was among a group of journalists scurrying for cover amid the maelstrom. A Canadian reporter working for France 24 was seriously wounded by army fire during the previous day’s street fighting, after a Japanese cameraman working for Reuters was shot dead during deadly April 10 clashes, when the army last tried to disperse the two-month old demonstration. Shooting continued sporadically at the flashpoint, with protestors rolling burning tyres at the army lines.
As the Thai army attempts to impose a blockade of the main rally site, redshirt anti-government protestors have fanned out to locations on approaching roads, to stem the troop advance. Fighting began on Thursday after a renegade Major-General in the Thai Army, known by his nom de guerre Seh Daeng, was shot in the head. He remains in a coma, Seh Daeng, which means ‘Red Commando’, has boasted of helping the US Army fight in Vietnam and has openly fought with army superiors as well as redshirt leaders.
He is rumoured to have trained mysterious black-clad gun men mixing among the redshirts who killed soldiers during the previous April 10 clashes, which left many wondering if the army would seek vengeance. Seh Daeng is a close associate of ousted former Thai PM Thaksin Shinawatra, whom he has conferred with in Dubai. Thaksin is in exile due to various corruption charges. A telecoms billionaire, he remains a divisive figure in Thai politics, adored by many redshirts whose movement he is said to bankroll. He is disliked by many middle class and elite Thais, who deem him and the redshirts a threat to the country’s monarchy.
The demonstrations and fighting come at a sensitive time, as the current King, Bhumibol Adulyadej, an 82 year old who has reigned since 1946, has been in hospital since September 2009. The looming succession has created a power vacuum in Thai politics, as factions scramble to position themselves before the presumed successor, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, takes over in time.
Rebutting the republican allegations, redshirts claim they merely want fresh elections. The current anti-Thaksin Government came to power in 2008, after a the redshirt-aligned party which was then in office was dissolved by the courts.
The current redshirt protests kicked off on March 12, with the reds hoping to get a million supporters onto the capital’s streets. Numbers never exceeded 150,000, and right now less than 6-7000 remain. However the rally has paralysed the commercial center of the city, with southeast Asia’s second largest shopping mall closed for over a month. Silom, where most of the banking and finance houses are based, has been empty since Thursday evening..
The reality is that most of Thailand is safe, including southern resorts at Phuket, Koh Samui and elsewhere. However Thai economy depends on tourism for 6% of GDP per annum, and the images of gunfire and death on the capital’s streets will likely resonate among western and Asian tourists deliberating their next holiday destination. There is real danger that fighting could spread: the redshirt stronghold is in the rural, rice-growing areas of the northeast, culturally closer to Laos and Cambodia than Bangkok. The Government has extended a state of emergency to these provinces, despite concerns over the loyalty of ‘watermelon’ elements in the security forces – green uniforms on the outside, but red in their political affiliation.Show