BANGKOK – Thailand’s capital has been a warzone since late Thursday night, as soldiers and police do battle with redshirt protestors on some of the main thoroughfares in the heart of the city. 16 people have been confirmed killed and 157 injured during clashes that are speading across the city.
Since an as-yet unexplained hit on controversial Major-General Khattiya, known by his nom de guerre Seh Daeng, on Thursday evening, the combat zone has widened to take in new flashpoints across the city. The Rama IV highway has been blocked off, as redshirts try to stop soldiers from moving up the road to get closer to the main protest area. After bus-burnings early on Friday, soldiers and protestors clashed into the night and on Saturday morning.
A group of 100 hundred soldiers huddled down near Lumpini Boxing Stadium, well known for its Muay Thai bouts. A conflict of a different sort waged outside all day Friday however. Protestors set a bus alight to try stop the army advancing, and shots rang out all day. By evening, the usually traffic-choked highway was eerily-empty, with soldier checkpoints and razor wire every few hundred meters. Moving down behind the redshirt lines, protestors rolled burning tyres up the road, taunting the soldiers. The occasional shot rang out, causing the redshirts to duck for cover or run into side-streets. “Sniper up there”, said one redshirt, pointing to a high-rse building on the roadside, as he stooped behind his motorbike after a shot rang out.
The army says it has been firing live rounds into the air to warn protestors, but the number of deaths yesterday, and the shooting of a number of journalists demonstrates that live rounds are being used.
Witthayu Road – Bangkok’s embassy row – is another new frontline for fighting, with bullets and tear gas being fired up and down the road until the afternoon, as protestors responded with rocks, petrol bombs and homemade rockets. By evening the street was empty, as gunfire and explosions rang out around nearby Lumpini Park, a large green belt now full of police and army vehicles, right beside redshirt barricades near the Langsuan Road.
The protestors main rally site at Rajaprasong intersection, in the main shopping are of the city, was hit by an explosion on Friday evening, causing protestors to scatter. Later on Friday night the rally had resumed, with redshirt leaders back on stage giving speeches to the sitting crowd, which consisted mainly of middle-aged men and women. Asked by The Irrawaddy what they had heard about the explosion, a number of journalists waiting behind the main stage could not confirm what had transpired earlier.
“We are expecting the army to move in tonight”, redshirt spokesman Sean Boonpracong told The Irrawaddy earlier on Friday. However that final showdown has not yet materialised. Since Thursday evening, the military has moved in around the outskirts of the rally, attempting to seal off the entrance and exit points. Water and electricity supplies have been cut, while the protestors have been urged to leave. This is thought to be a prelude to another attempt to disperse the protestors, after a previous attempt on April 10 went badly awry.
Redshirt leaders have offered a truce, and fugitive former PM Thaksin Shinawatra has called for dialogue with the government. The Thai PM Abhisit Vejajiva proposed a five-point peace plan just over a week ago, however redshirts baulked at this, after initially welcoming the spirit of the proposed deal, which offered elections on November 14.
By midnight last night, the Silom Road was empty apart from a hundred or so soldiers visible on the streets and unknown numbers more crouched on the rail overpass above. There, and elsewhere, swathes of the city are locked and boarded up, including hundreds of bars, shops, hotels and other businesses.
There are reports of some police firing on soldiers on Friday, highlighting what for the Government are concerns about divided loyalties in the security forces. Many police are thought to be sympathetic to the redshirts, while what is thought be a smaller army faction share this affinity. Seh Daeng is thought to be a leader of the paramilitary faction within the redshirts. On April 10, black-clad gunmen moved among the masses of redshirt protestors as the army attempted to disperse the rally. What appeared to be precision strikes on the army led to the death of a former royal bodyguard and well-known colonel, as well as 4 other soldiers that night.
The Thai Government has been criticised by anti-redshirt groups as being too slow and indecisive in its dealing with the protestors, However, as the Democrat Party-led administration ponders what could be a final attempt to remove the protestors by force, concerns about the affiliations of some security force members must be factored in to whatever strategy is being used. There are divisions within the redshirt camp as well, with leader Veera Musigapong thought to be in the UK, while other senior figures have not been heard from in recent days. Seh Daeng previously slammed redshirt leaders for offering to compromise with the Government, and for removing barricades set up around Chulalongkorn Hospital.
As of noon on Saturday, the city remained on edge, with soldiers and armed police on most main thoroughfares in the hears to the capital, and helicopters circling overhead.. According to residents close to Lumpini Park speaking to the Irrawaddy by telephone, gunfire and explosions went into the night and early Saturday morning. Elsewhere, more gunfire was heard near the Thai-Belgian bridge, close to the new Rama IV highway face-off, as protestors burned telephone booths and attacked a police station.Show