Thailand’s Mexican stand-off – The Irrawaddy

Feature – As soldiers and riot police gather near the main red shirt rally stage, fears grow of more violence in Bangkok

Thai troops practice formation on Monday night, outside a Mexican restaurant in Bangkok's Silom district. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

BANGKOK – Watching as a pair of twenty-something ladies clambered out of a blue Mercedes saloon outside Silom metro station, before handing riot police bottles of cold water, one onlooker scoffed before beckoning me over.

“It’s not fair,” said the middle-aged lady, who said she is “a lawyer living in Bangkok” and giving her name only as Phatarphon. “What is not fair?” I asked. Tthe soldiers and police get cold drinks”, she replied, “but those people are sitting in the hot sun for more than one month.”

A group of around 40-50 red shirts stood 50 or so meters away, across the busy intersection at the entrance to Lumphini Park. Behind that is the main red shirt protest stretching over a kilometer down to the main shopping area in Bangkok, where the stage pounds to incessant speeches and intermittent song. At the ‘front line’, a line of protestors crouched behind green netting and barbed war, with sharpened bamboo spears propped against the wire, as if awaiting a cavalry charge.

“Why you just take photo here?” asked one of the protestors. Explaining that I was on way across the junction to photograph of the police and troops stationed across, this seemed to placate the interrogator, who glared and demanded that “sure you don’t say any stupid about us!”

Red shirts behind their barricade facing onto the Silom intersection near Lumphini Park, Monday night. Soldiers sit overhead, 40 m across. (Photo: Simon Roughneen©)

The red shirts are backed by and support the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and in late February saw over US$1 billion of his assets seized by the Thai courts due to conflict of interest and corruption charges dating to while he was in office. After almost-nightly videolink addresses to the red shirts when the protests began on March 12, Thaksin has been quiet in recent days, though he gave an interview to Reuters earlier Monday, when he restated a demand for  fresh elections.

The red shirts want new elections, deeming the current government to be illegitimate as it was formed after courts dissolved a pro-Thaksin, red shirt-backed party in late 2008. Some of Thaksin’s coalition allies of Thaksin then switched sides, giving the Democrat Party enough support to form a Government.

By nightfall Monday night, Thai troops were crouching behind sandbags up on the ‘Skywalk’, a pedestrian walkway running above street-level and leading to the Silom and Sala Daeng rail stations. The area is touted as Bangkok’s “Wall St”, home to banks and finance houses. The red shirts earlier threatened to take their demonstration to this economic hub, after occupying the the Rajaprasong intersection – site of southeast Asia’s second-largest shopping mall – for more than one week so far.

Hundreds of armed troops and riot police have manned the area since early Monday morning, erecting razor-wire and sheltering down side-streets, including Patpong, one of the city’s red-light areas. There troops and police sat and patrolled somewhat awkwardly, though breaking into sporadic banter with the ladies sat outside the streets bars and massage parlors.

Whether or not the deployment is merely to prevent the red shirts moving into Silom – or is a prelude to a crackdown on the protestors – remains to be seen. The red shirts have said they will not march into the financial area, reversing an earlier pledge to do so on Tuesday April 20. Meanwhile army spokesperson Col. Sansern gave this uncompromising-sounding prognosis of what needs to be done: “Whatever will be will be. If we have to clash, we will … We need to enforce the law decisively. We can’t just think that ‘we don’t want casualties,’ otherwise the country can’t move forward,” Sansern said.

Speaking on Thai TV on Monday evening, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajiva reiterated his position that his administration would not give in to red shirt demands for an immediate dissolution of parliament, and reminded viewers of his offer to timetable a dissolution and elections by the end of this year. However earlier on Monday, red shirt leaders accused the Government of “preparing a killing field,” while Col. Sansern retorted that the red shirts used women and children as human shields, amid ongoing allegations that “terrorists” roam among the red shirts. The murky origins of the black-shirted gunmen who fired on the army on April 10 have not been confirmed, with rumors circulating that they are comprised of of army rangers, southern separatists and foreign mercenaries.

Soldiers keep watch on the Skywalk above, directly across from the red shirts. (Photo: Simon Roughneen©)

Col. Sansern said that “to protect the demonstrators from danger, soldiers have been deployed to prevent people with war weapons from using tall buildings around Rajaprasong as their attack bases.” Red shirts allege that this is cover for placing snipers on rooftops to target demonstrators. However acting Government spokesperson Dr Panitan Wattanayagorn countered saying that “the charge that the government plans to take back Rajaprasong area by firing at protesters from high-rise buildings between April 19 and 21 is nothing more than a rumor”.

The alleged presence of pro-red shirt army rangers among the protestors comes after the unexplained theft of weapons in the weeks leading up to the April 10 violence, followed by a number of unexplained bomb attacks in Bangkok. Before launching their so-called “Million Man March” last month, red shirt leaders spoke openly of possible civil war in Thailand – if the army cracked down on their protest and the government did not give in to red shirt demands.

With army chief Gen. Anupong Paochinda now heading the government’s emergency security response, after the embarrassing failure to arrest red shirt leaders at the SC Park Hotel last Thursday, army cohesion and unity is coming under the spotlight. The precision of the attacks on army positions on April 10 has led many to conclude that the perpetrators had military training. With pro-Thaksin elements on the army purged since the 2006 coup that deposed the former PM, and presumed bankroller of the red shirt protest, some believe that army is dividing along pro- and anti-Thaksin lines.

Based at the University of Heidelberg, Paul Chambers follows Thai military affairs. He told The Irrawaddy that the April 10 violence will exacerbate any army rift. “The (April 10) shooting of Col. Romklao will serve to consolidate Queen’s Guard military leadership against suspected watermelon soldiers”, he said. The assassination of the Col. had the appearance of a well-planned military maneouvre, according to some observers.

The political situation is becoming more complicated, with the People Alliance for Democracy (PAD) demanding that the Government remove the red shirts within seven days, or an unspecified counter -protest would be undertaken. “We give the government seven days to return peace to the country or we, every member of the PAD, will perform our duty under the constitution” to protect the throne, Chamlong Srimuang, one of the PAD leaders, said on Sunday last. The PAD, or ‘Yellow shirts’, notoriously occupied Bangkok’s international airport in late 2008, stranding hundreds of thousands of tourists, as they protested against the Thaksin-backed Government.

The previous day, around 4000 people, members of the PAD-linked ‘no colors’ movement rallied at Bangkok’s Victory Monument. Just as red shirts seem unwilling to bend on their demand that PM Abhisit dissolve parliament immediately and call elections, the no-colors group were unyielding.

By 6pm on Saturday, around 4000 'no colours' protestors had gathered at Victory Monument. (Photo: Simon Roughneen©) )

“There should not be elections”, said one man, leaning on his newish-looking Kawasaki motorbike , parked on the traffic-choked roundabout encircling Victory Monument. He refused to give his name but said that he is an army officer there “to support the King”, and dismissed the red shirts as “sent by Thaksin, who wants to become President.” A Filipina who gave her name as Mary told The Irrawaddy that she has been living in Thailand for 35 years, and wanted to bring peace to the country, believing that “the reds don’t want peace.” Other protestors gathering around said that that the Government has been too slow to act, and that the red shirts should be removed from Rajaprasong district immediately. “One, a 22 year-old student at Thammasat University, who again declined to give his name, said “we have five million in Bangkok, they just have ten thousand”. Despite these ominous words, he concluded that “all we really want is peace.”

Last week, a vehicle carrying PAD members was stopped by police, who found a number of weapons onboard.

The PAD – in the form of the the New Politics Party (NPP) under media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul – is expected to compete for some of the same voters as the incumbent Democrat Party, whenever the election takes place. Abhisit offered to hold an election within nine months, but that has been complicated somewhat by a recent Election Commission statement seeking the dissolution of the Democrats due to alleged misuse of campaign funds. The PM is thus coming under pressure to end the protest, though no-colors protestors at Victory Monument on Saturday told The Irrawaddy that they supported the incumbent, breaking into sporadic chants backing Abhisit.

It is now over one week since 25 people were killed in fighting near the initial red shirt protest site, around Phan Fa bridge and the tourist magnet Khao San Road. Khao San is usually a hub for wild and wet Songkran celebrations, but last week’s version was somewhat muted, as red shirts prayed at a temporary shrine to protestors killed in the previous Saturday’s fighting.

Thais spray water on each other on Khao San Road to celebrate Songkran, the country's Buddhist New Year (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

I returned to Bangkok just in time for Songkran, albeit on a half-empty Thai Airways flight from Rome, and airline staff confirmed that they received “a number of cancellations” after the April 10 violence. Business leaders and hotel owners have been quoted as lamenting the impact of the red shirt protest – which is the latest round in a four-year cycle of political demonstrations in Bangkok – on tourism and on investor confidence in Thailand.

Ian Bremmer is President of Eurasia Group, a political risk research and consulting firm, and author of the soon-to-be published The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War between States and Corporations? In an email to The Irrawaddy he remarked that “although markets have shrugged off concerns to date, with investors thinking of Thailand as undifferentiated in the context of Asia’s rapidly-growing emerging markets,” it is “becoming increasingly difficult to bet on Thailand,” given the current political stand-off.

The prospect of serious economic losses, a damaged business and investment climate and spooked tourists could perhaps focus minds on either side of the divide. However, a week after Bangkok’s worst political violence since 1992, a compromise based on a political solution – as recommended by army chief Gen. Anupong – seems nowhere in sight.

Andrew Walker teaches at Australian National University and is co-founder of the mainland southeast Asia-focused New Mandala blog. He told The Irrawaddy that the April 10 violence was “the blood from the bloodless 2006 coup”.  He cautioned that the street-fighting “starkly demonstrated to Thais that if electoral solutions cannot be found to conflict, dark spaces will open up for extreme elements who want to take matters into their own hands.”

– Photos below run chronologically, updated Tuesday afternoon April 20.

Despite the violence the previous weekend, some tourists stuck it out to enjoy Songkran near Khao San Road. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Red shirts celebrate Songkran last Monday, just hours before they moved their protest from Phan Fa Bridge to Rajaprasong. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Red shirts gathered at Rajaprasong, last Thursday night. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Hung out to dry? Monks vestments draped over train station near Rajaprasong intersection. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Red shirt leader addresses the crowd at Rajaprasong, Saturday afternoon. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Red shirt leaflet attacking the Thai PM, hanging along Rajaprasong. Thailand's Foreign Minister had earlier compared Thaksin Shinawatra to Hitler, among others. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

But anti-Thaksin sentiment was evident at Victory Monument on Saturday when the 'no colours' protestors gathered. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

No colours protestors readying their placards last Saturday afternoon. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Seeking peace?. No colours protestor circling Victory Monument (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Rousing the rabble? Speaking from the back of a Toyota Hilux, at Victory Monument last Saturday. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

No colours protestors try to reach a wider audience. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

No Colours protestor chants at Victory Monument last Saturday (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

By 6pm on Saturday, around 4000 had gathered at Victory Monument. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Red shirts buying international media footage of the April 10 'Battle of Bangkok'. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Red shirt paraphernalia on sale outside the Erawan Shrine, beside the main Rajaprasong stage (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

For some reporters, the excitement backstage at the red shirt rally is too much. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Thai troops stand guard on Silom Road, Monday afternoon. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Hearts and Minds? Thai soldier addresses passers-by on Monday afternoon in Bangkok's Silom district. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Hearts and minds and? Soldiers and police set up along one of Bangkok's most notorious red light areas, just off Silom. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Thai troop shelter out of sight of protestors on the Silom Skywalk. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Riot police in line outside the entrance to Silom metro station, Monday night. Across the way are the red shirts, behind is one of Bangkok's five-star hotels. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Red shirt leaders tell the crowd at Rajaprasong on Tuesday morning that the planned march to Silom has been called off. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

The red shirts are targetting the PM in more ways than one. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

But can they dislodge the Government for real? Good shot though.. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Soldiers (presumably sharpshooters?) seen abseiling down the second building. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Sticks and stones. Red shirts arms themselves at the intersection across from Thai troops and riot police. But where are the black-clad gunmen from April 10? (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Bamboo-spiked barricade aims to prevent troops and police from crossing into the red shirt area via this stairwell, leading down from the Skywalk across the intersection at Silom. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Across the intersection, Bangkokians hand food and water to the riot police. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

'No colours' leader speaks to media further down the Silom road, protesting against the red shirt occupation of Rajaprasong. (Photo: Simon Roughneen

These girls love a man in uniform: showing support to the troops on Silom road. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Troops stand guard outside Irish pub further down the road. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Later, back across on the red shirt side, bamboo sticks are laid out for sharpening. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Not sure if the emphasis on 'solution' was deliberate, but this is what the red shirts say they want. The Government has said it will dissolve Parliament, but within a 9 month time-frame. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

By Tuesday night, a small group of counter-protestors gathered behind police lines acorss the Silom intersections, yelling at the red shirts to 'get out'. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Police briefly formed two lines ostebnsibly aimed at keeping the sides apart, should the red shirts break their lines across the way - thought to be unlikely, given the presence of armed soldiers above. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Across the intersection, red shirts chanted behind their newly-formed tyre and bamboo barricades, as both sides taunted each other. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Behind the red shirt line, protestors await a possible army move to disperse their 6-week old rally, with their tyre and bamboo barrier - the latest in a series of surreal sights around Bangkok. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Wednesday afternoon. The red shirt crowd fluctuates during the day, as temperatures soar to the high 30s. However numbers are down on the initial days of the protest in March. (Photo Simon Roughneen)

Red shirts queued for a dvd and postcard from former PM Thaksin. Anti-red shirt protestors believe the movement is nothing more than a cover for Thaksin's political ambitions. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

With red shirts anticipating an army crackdown, security checks were set up on Wednesday, throughout their 4km long rally area around Rajaprasong intersection. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Further down,red shirts maintained their tyre/bamboo barricade at Silom intersection, just meters from riot police and troops. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Riot police stand ready across the intersection, with soldiers above and anti-red shirt protestors behind. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

On Wednesday evening, anti-red shirt protestors, including many yellow shirts, gathered at Silom. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

As night fell, and the mood became more confrontational, red shirts get torched. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Later, as the bulk of the anti-red shirt group left, a hard core remained, throwing bottles across at the red shirts. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Riot police did not intervene immediately to stop the missile-throwing. Seen here assuming defensive posture when finally moving onto the street under the Silom intersection Skywalk. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

By Thursday evening, the PAD/pro-Government side were getting creative: Thaksin as ladyboy. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

The PAD view themselves as better-educated than their red shirt rivals, who they mock as 'buffalo' - or uneducateD people from the rural northeast. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Back across the road, the red shirts have raised the barricades higher after Wednesday night's bottle-throwing. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

View along the red shirt barrier Thursday evening. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

View across the Silom intersection from inside the red shirt side. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Thai troops peer out at the PAD crowd from the Skywalk above. (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

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2 comments to “Thailand’s Mexican stand-off – The Irrawaddy”
  1. Pingback: With 3 updates: A brief lull and a renewed threat « Political Prisoners in Thailand

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