Thailand not smiling anymore – The Sunday Tribune

http://www.tribune.ie/news/international/article/2010/apr/25/the-land-of-smiles-has-little-reason-to-be-cheerfu/

Bangkok – It was the third evening of a tense face-off between red shirt anti-Government protestors and a rival group who had taken to the streets to taunt the reds and urge the Government to crack down.

Red shirts at their barricade close to the Silom intersection. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

By 6pm the atmosphere was tense, even as red shirts gyrated on top of the tyre and spear-sharp bamboo wall laid across the entrance to their rally area, dancing to one of their political theme tunes set to a sort of Thai hip-hop. Across the road, around two thousand ‘no-colours’ protestors – who want the red shirts removed – stood close to dozens of riot police, and beneath hundreds of soldiers watching from the overhead train station.

At around 8pm, several blasts were heard over the street, in what was later alleged to be m79 grenades launched from the red shirt area and exploding on the roof of the overhead train station, 600 yards from the interface and in the heart of Bangkok’s banking and finance area.

People screamed and ran, including dozens of journalists already in the area to film and photograph the rival demonstrators – perhaps hoping for a repeat of the previous night’s bottle and stone throwing exchange between the red shirts and the ‘no colours’ group.

About an hour later, two more explosions were heard back up at the interface, outside a coffee shop and bank where the ‘no colours’ group had gathered. The Government later said 1 person died and 75 were injured by the explosions. This correspondent counted ten people carried away from the blood-spattered second blast site, including one Australian.

It was a terrifying scene, undermining Thailand’s “Land of Smiles” self-image. Sadly it may no be the last, as divisions are sharpening across the country. Earlier last week, red shirts stopped a train in Khon Kaen, alarmed that it was carrying soldiers destined for Bangkok and a crackdown on the red shirt rally there. It was a signal that the red shirts could open new fronts in their rural stronghold, if the Bangkok demonstration is crushed.

Casualties being loaded into an ambulance after Thursday's blasts (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

The red shirts are mainly – though not exclusively – small farmers, with many from Isaan, a vast rice-growing region in the northeast of Thailand. However the army estimates that 70% of the group now gathered in Bangkok are from the city, showing that red shirts have some appeal outside their perceived socio-economic base and regional stronghold. It may also be that 6 weeks into their protest, many have had to go home to tend to their farms, leaving city-based supporters in the majority.

‘No colours’ protestors taunt their red counterparts with insults such as ‘buffalo’, sneering at their rustic origins. Many of the ‘no colours’ are rehatted ‘yellow shirts’, who notoriously occupied Bangkok’s airport in 2008, helping bring about the downfall of a red-shirt linked Government. They see themselves as well-to-do, urbane and educated – though in an ironic display of hubris, one misspelled placard sought to denigrate the red shirts as “uneducate people.’

Over the weekend, there was talk of a deal, with the red shirts softening their demand that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva dissolve the Government immediately. If the PM agreed to a 30-day deadline, the red shirts said they would pack up and let life go back to normal in the Rajaprasong shopping area of the city – a site of Gucci-laden malls and Greek-temple styled 5-star hotels now turned into a mile-long makeshift camp complete with rally stage.

However the PM has refused to give in, and threats to disperse the red shirts by force still stand. The Government alleges that terrorists lurk among the group. On April 10, 25 died and hundreds were injured when the army tried to remove the red shirts, right before Songkran, Thailand’s Buddhist New Year.

Usually, that festival is marked by a mass water-fight, drinking and partying, with the epicenter along the tourist-magnet Khao San Road. Walking along the area on April 12, the celebrations were lower-key than usual, with red shirts burning incense and praying at a temporary shrine erected to protestors killed on the previous Saturday night.

Black-clad gunmen emerged among the red shirts, firing on the army, and killing a well-known Colonel who was a former bodyguard to the country’s Queen, in what looked like a targetted assassination. There is talk that the army is split, with ‘watermelon’ soldiers (green uniform, red inside) siding with the protestors, with some soldiers perhaps seeking to settle old scores.

It all marks the worst political violence in Bangkok since 1992, when the army fired on student demonstrators. That time, King Bhumibol intervened to mediate a resolution. The leader of the red shirt-linked political party, former PM Gen. Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, has called for a similar royal-led dialogue this time around. However the King is now 82 and hospitalised since late last year. Talk of an imminent succession looms large over the current political acrimony, with anti-red shirts alleging that the movement is a cover for the political ambitions of Thaksin Shinwatra, the former PM now exiled due to corruption charges, and who was ousted in a 2006 coup. Thaksin is thought to bankroll the red shirt movement.

One ‘no colours’ protestor, who declined to give me his name, said that Thaksin “wants to come back and make himself President”, implying that he sought to undermine Thailand’s constitutional monarchy – explosive charges in a country with harsh lese-majeste laws.

Protesting the protestors: anti-red shirts gather around an hour before the first blasts on Thursday night. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

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