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Rise from the Ashes

How simmering anger led to a fiery outburst in downtown Bangkok


(Updated until the morning 21 May 2010)

Pipob Udomittipong

The following is an eyewitness account of the demonstrations in downtown Bangkok


over the past several days. In the wake of lost lives and massive damage done to
infrastructure and buildings in the area, the government has claimed success in “taking
back the area” from the Red Shirts demonstrators. Much attention has been diverted to
the property damage, often overshadowing the human cost of the clearing operation.
Images of sabotaged infrastructure have been featured extensively and repeatedly to
vilify the Red Shirts and to justify one of the most brutal suppressions in Thailand’s
history. This piece outlines the gulf that still exists between the government and the
demonstrators, and the unresolved anger on both sides, which has been fueled by an
incomplete narrative in the media. The lingering anger and questions in the minds of
many Thais must be addressed if the country is to move beyond this current tragedy.

On the morning of 19 May 2010, I joined the demonstration at the Victory Monument, which
had been underway at that location for three or four days. There were about 1,000 United
Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) protesters. They were blocked from joining
their comrades at Ratchaprasong, the site of the main rally in downtown Bangkok. Panitan
Wattanayakorn, the Thai government’s spokesperson, called the demonstrators a “pocket of
terrorists” at the critical juncture when state security forces were amassing up. Troops,
including as many as 40 armored personnel vehicles, assembled to disperse all of the
demonstrators from Ratchaprasong. Orders were reportedly made that any protester could be
“shot on site”.1 With such orders, it is no wonder that lives were lost. Three deaths ensued in
the initial advance as military armored personnel vehicles broke the Red Shirts’ forefront
barricade at Saladaeng toward Sarasin Junction and attempted to occupy Lumpini Park. One
foreign journalist and two protesters (UDD guards) died, and others were injured.

Key leaders at the Victory Monument rally site spoke while a live feed from the main rally
site made major announcements to the protesters. The climate became more tense as the
troops moved closer to the main rally site. There were suggestions that demonstrators from
nearby Sam Liam Din Daeng should come and join the protesters at Victory Monument.
More demonstrators from outer areas of Bangkok did come to areas closer to downtown later
in the morning. Suggestions were made that as soon as the demonstration at Ratchaprasong
was crushed, remaining protestors in other areas would march with their hands locked to each
other and brave the shooting of the strong military deployment along the routes to join with
the vulnerable demonstrators at Ratchaprasong.

By noontime, there was talk that the leaders at Ratchaprasong were about to call off the
demonstration and turn themselves in. The mood swung, and emotions ran high. Some
demonstrators started to talk to those near them that this could never be true. They would
fight to the death. At around 13.30, the main leaders of the UDD, including Mr. Nuttawuth
1
According to Telegraph; “The government issued "shoot on site" orders for a dawn raid as troops
tried to disperse 2,000 Red Shirts who had been camped in Rajprasong, the capital's premier shopping
and office district, for more than six weeks.”
(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/thailand/7741635/Bangkok-in-flames-as-
protesters-refuse-to-back-down.html)
Saikua, Mr. Jatuporn Promphan, Mr. Wiphuthalaeng Pattanaphumthai, Mr. Nisit Sinthuprai,
and Mr. Kwanchai Praiphana, announced an end to the demonstration.

Chaos followed quickly. After one of the speakers at the Victory Monument rally site
repeated the message to call off the rallies, some hard core protesters took away his
microphone. Though the microphones were later brought back, further announcements failed
to calm the members of the crowd, who were shouting and talking to others nearby. The
sound on stage went off for good as the person who owned the truck equipped with the power
generator and sound system drove off. With no sound from the leaders, people were left to act
on their own. More tires were burned near Ratchaprarop Road creating thick black plumes of
smoke as onlookers cheered. Other demonstrators tried to set anything nearby alight. Others
kicked telephone booths. Some restraint remained among the crowd, however, as some
demonstrators intervened to stop the destruction.

Then, I spoke to a couple of people who claimed to have survived the crackdown at
Ratchaprasong. One man lamented angrily, “Dozens of our brothers and sisters were killed,
and bodies piled up. Some women and their children were also shot down.” Similar brutal
accounts emerged from other survivors, and were repeated by other demonstrators. One man
told the frustrated demonstrators “All of them died, those in the front row (next to the stage).
We cannot give in now. We have to keep this place until the evening. Then we will go collect
the bodies of the troops.” He continued “somebody using his camera to shoot the video of
piles of bodies, this high (gesturing his hand to show the height).” “We have to keep staying
put here. And at five o’clock (in the afternoon) some groups will come to help us. They
cannot come out now, during daytime. Don’t feel upset by the decision declared by the core
leaders. We still have another force to help us. After our core leaders announced to call off the
demo, the army bombed us. The grenade fell in front of the stage and hit those people
dancing.” Another surviving demonstrator said “A lot of sisters and brothers of ours have
died. We cannot let them die for free.”

The situation escalated again. It began with destruction of three telephone booths, which was
soon followed by the ransacking of a large 7-eleven convenience store. The iron security door
was rolled up, glass windows were smashed, and a dozen of people broke into the shop and
started to throw merchandise outside. Some demonstrators had already warned people not to
take any pictures. Anyone who wanted to record the events felt threatened. A man who was
spotted taking a photo from afar of the destruction of the convenience store was chased away.

Before this chaotic vandalism, demonstrators had been shouting at police officials including
high ranking ones and the media. One of the very first buildings burned to the ground
belonged to Channel Three, which had recently broadcast a controversial speech of a male
super star at the “Nattaraj” award ceremony. The star had heaped praise on His Majesty the
King, addressing him as his father and the father of many Thai people who share one
“house”. The celeb bluntly challenged “anyone who [did] not want to be children of the
father, just get out of this house.” The speech was repeatedly rerun by Channel Three and
other TV channels over the past few days.

In light of the burning of Channel Three, it came to me as no surprise that very few reporters
were working in this area, particularly after the vandalism of the day started. Earlier I saw a
crewman from TNN24 with his video camera exchanging words with some protesters. Later
the TV crew drove away, presumably due to the frustration the demonstrators aimed at him.
Ironically, TNN24 had reported with objectivity on the rallies. I had personally commended
TNN24 for their comprehensive and accurate coverage of the political demonstrations since
the beginning. While in Chiang Mai and away from the demonstration sites, I relied on their
reporting for information. Unfortunately, they have been ordered to shut down since the
curfew was announced, which prevented news of the events from filtering out to the rest of
Thailand.

The media blackout has been one of the major factors that has driven more people to take to
the streets. Earlier, PTV, a satellite TV network that was very popular among the Red Shirt
supporters, was closed down. Hundreds of websites have also been blocked. Everyday for a
month, the Center for Resolution of Emergency Situation (CRES) has made announcements
to attack the demonstrators at their press conferences. Reporters asked no questions.

In the past two months, two of the most common terms used by the Prime Minister and other
high ranking government and army officials, are “law” and “terrorists”. According to them,
the “law” has to be enforced to maintain order, and “terrorists” have to be dealt with seriously
to prevent further damage. It is a familiar refrain—one we have seen used to describe the
situation in the Southern Border Provinces of Thailand. “Law” is touted to be enforced
strictly there against anyone who is alleged to have carried out “terrorist” acts. Yet, six years
have passed, and two draconian laws have been put in place, the Emergency Decree and
Martial Law, yet there is no hope the violence will soon cease.

As I walked around and observed, I overheard a man saying sarcastically, “It’s so fortunate
that Thailand has Abhisit [Vejjajiva] as the Prime Minister. That’s why things have turned out
like this [with riots].” In fact, the first sentence was originally a quote from General Prem
Tinsulanond, the former Prime Minister and Chairperson of the Privy Council, who used to
be a prime target of fiery speeches by UDD leaders. It would have been more “fortunate”
had the PM shown more leadership and offered an unconditional political solution to avoid
the bloodshed.

One of the protesters pillaging the convenience store near the Victory Monument said to me,
after I declined to accept some sweets in a plastic bag, “It’s ok, guy. Businesses like this have
insurance.” Thairath reported this morning that Central World has three billion baht
insurance.

Earlier, there were attempts by a Thai peace group to ask the Xavier church near the Victory
Monument to provide “safe sanctuary” (or apayatan). I helped one of the staff members from
the group talk with UDD guards and inform the protesters of the safe area. One of the first
questions I got from a guard was, “Will I still get shot or arrested while being inside the
church?” One answer: nine bodies were found shot in Wat Pathumwanara, and and several
other bodies nearby. This Buddhist temple had been prepared as an “apayatan” at the very
moment the military moved into the rally site. All the dead were unarmed. The government
blamed “some unknown third party group” for these killings. A nurse was also found shot
dead while she was under a tent. The roof of the tent evidenced bullet holes. Shooting from
above has been the pattern since the crackdown started on 13 May, and many people have
died as a result. NY Times’s photos show armed troops were deployed on the SkyTrain (BTS)
tracks, overlooking barricades below.
http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2010/05/18/world/20100519-THAI-2.html

The Crackdown’s Aftermath

In general, the media--state and privately owned--have geared toward shoring up two
narratives:

1. The Red Shirts have been planning this “organized and systematic” sabotage of the city’s
infrastructure and properties. For example, the other day CRES showed a video clip of Mr.
Nuttawuth Saikua, one of the UDD’s leaders, instructing the Red Shirts protesters to “burn
the city to the ground”.

2. Mr. Thaksin Shinawatra, former PM, is the grand mastermind of this sabotage. Yesterday,
the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) asked the Court to issue an arrest warrant
against Thaksin and several others on “terrorist” charges. The Court requested a hearing be
held on next Monday before proceeding further. The accusations against Thaksin fit the plot
created by the government to blame him for the ongoing and consequent rampage of the city
(since most of the core leaders of the UDD have been arrested or surrendered themselves, and
are being held in custody).

These narratives have also focused on property. More than 30 buildings in Bangkok’s prime
business districts have reportedly been burned, while a curfew was imposed the night and
morning of 19 and 20 May. Regular TV shows have been replaced by more frequent CRES
announcements and programs, and the trend is likely to continue. CRES has announced that
due to the emergency situation, they have been obliged to “rearrange” TV programs. The
Thai media looks set to tow the line of sabotage narratives. In local media, the damage to the
country’s ailing economy and politics has squeezed out the storyline of the more than 40
deaths and nearly 400 injuries that have resulted from the harsh crackdown beginning on 13
May.

To divert public attention from the loss of lives as a result of the brutal massacre and to
justify the crackdown operation, local media reports emphasized damage allegedly inflicted
by the Red Shirts protesters to infrastructure and properties in downtown Bangkok. The Thai
media has also highlighted the discovery of ammunition, weapons, and material for making
explosive devices. Stories about the attempts to sabotage public transportation have been
reported and featured by CRES. Images of flaming buildings have been shown extensively
and repeatedly on TV. Now most news programs are made to serve the purpose of creating a
“terrorist image” of the protesters.

From Bangkok Post (http://www.bangkokpost.com/) captured at 6.42 AM on 21 May 2010

Are we supposed to mourn the collapse of property or the lost lives of civilians and officials?
Should only the Red Shirts be blamed for the damage? Will there be any attempt to unearth
the real causes of this crisis and how Thailand came to this point?

Though the Red Shirts demonstration over the past two months has greatly affected the
economic and social life of the people of Bangkok, local residents, particularly those living in
and around the cordons declared by the CRES, have also experienced great horrors, including
the massive loss of civilian lives and injuries. The deployment of armed troops with
sophisticated advanced weaponry, as well as snipers, and their use of live and rubber bullets
raises serious questions about the legality of the government’s operations. The long-range
shooting of demonstrators and unarmed passersby have far exceeded international legal
standards for the use of force.

According to Amnesty International (AI) Press Release released on 17 May 2010, the
Operation Ratchaprasong and the reckless shooting of security officials against unarmed
civilians is “a gross violation of a key human right—the right to life”. And “Eye-witness
accounts and video recordings show clearly that the military is firing live rounds at unarmed
people who pose no threat whatsoever to the soldiers or to others”. It goes on that “The
government cannot allow soldiers to essentially shoot at anyone within an area it wishes to
control”.

AI proposed further: “This is unacceptable under international law and standards, which
provide that firearms may be used only as a last resort, when a suspected offender offers
armed resistance or otherwise jeopardizes the lives of others, and less extreme measures are
not sufficient to restrain or apprehend the suspected offender. Outside of clear situations of
self-defence, riot control should be performed by trained police using non-lethal equipment,
not by soldiers using live ammunition”.