Thursday, 13 May 2010: With only a 24-hour layover in Bangkok, the plan was simple: take a quick look at the Red Shirts’ encampment and frontlines and get myself a massage. What I had not expected was for those 24 hours to be the beginning of a good fight. Well, the massage was good too, but we shall keep that story for another day.
The Reds have been protesting in various locations around the centre of the Thai capital since the second week of March. After the 10 April confrontation in the government district, they moved their forces to the glitziest part of the city, shutting down the most expensive of shopping malls. Siting their main rally stage at the Ratchaprasong intersection, they took control of the four main streets radiating north, south, east and west. The area they controlled stretched 1.5 km east to west and 2.5 km north to south.
The elevated track of the BTS skytrain ran above three of the four main streets. Siam, Chidlom and Ratchadamri stations sat above the Reds’ areas. A fourth station, Saladaeng, was within grenade distance — in fact some weeks earlier, a grenade had blown a hole in the station’s roof, injuring a tourist.
Here are a few pictures of the western entrance to their area, a stone’s throw from the Mahboonkrung shopping centre, popular with many Singaporeans. The tyres, while serving as bullet shields can also be set alight to stop any advance by government forces.
At the bottom right corner of the second photo, you get a glimpse of fist-sized stones just behind the barricade. There are more piles of those at the ready. The Reds have slingshots that can turn these stones into quite lethal weapons.
The Red Shirts’ control stretched down Ratchadamri all the way to the intersection of Silom Road and Rama 4 Road. Here, at the main entrance to Lumphini Park and directly above the subterranean Silom metro station is another, more formidable, barricade:
There were guards controlling access into the Reds’ protest site. Vehicles were checked, but pedestrians were able to enter and leave as they pleased. There was no sense of tension or suspicion at all. Inside, things were remarkably well-organised too. Tents were pitched in an orderly way; there were common kitchens and a first aid point.
But mostly, my chief impression was of a market day in a country town. The protestors took the opportunity to sell T-shirts, food, Buddhist amulets and such-like. Other stalls sold more political items, e.g. clappers and very special flipflops, the soles printed with faces of the politicians they detested. You could stomp on your favourite hate figure with every step you take.
Two stallholders, confident of their command of English, engaged me in amiable conversation, explaining what they were here for and why. I smiled and nodded in sympathy, mentioning that the Philippines had just elected Benigno Aquino III as president on the strength of his anti-corruption promises. It didn’t seem to resonate with them; perhaps they were so absorbed with Thai politics, they didn’t have time to look at foreign news.
Located every 50 metres or so were huge speakers, broadcasting speeches from the Ratchprasong rally site. Despite the incessant noise, however, most of the protesters were dozing off in the mid-afternoon heat.
That said, the stupor was not in evidence at the rally site. In fact, considering the humidity and the 35-degree heat, I was suprised how large the crowd was — there were easily 700 – 800 people sitting in the arena with perhaps another 400-500 outside the cordon, under the sidewalk’s trees. The rally had been going on continuously, day and night for weeks; people must have heard the rhetoric a thousand times, yet there they were, laughing when speakers poked fun at establishment figures, cheering when demands were made of the government, even getting onto their feet to dance when a pop songer came on to break the monotony of political haranguing.
Television cameras had their own platform; the speeches and songs have also been broadcast, daily, almost continuously over TV and the web, reaching a far wider audience than the thousand or so at the site.
Not far from the rally was a forlorn-looking Intercontinental Hotel. Like other hotels in the vicinity, it had been ordered shut by the government about two weeks ago, with all guests evacuated.
Tired after an afternoon of walking, and looking forward to a massage, I made my way via the underground metro (which the Thais also call “MRT”) from Silom station to Sukhumvit station. It was nearly six in the evening. At Sukhumvit, alighting from the train was almost impossible. The platform was a crush of people. I have never seen rush hour as bad as this.
After shoving my way to the escalator and managing to get up to the ticket concourse, what I saw was even more unusual. To prevent the crowding from getting worse, the metro staff had closed the fare gates, on the outside of which was an even larger, impatient crowd that stretched all the way out to Asok-Montri Road.
Overhearing a Thai girl say to her tourist friend something about the Skytrain closing a number of stations — I caught the station names Phloenchit and Chidlom, which I knew were above or near the protest area — I figured that must have caused the crowding here. People were diverting to the MRT with the closure of a few Skytrain stations.
I thought no more about it, eager as I was to get out of there and onto a massage table.
* * * * *
“Where are you going now?” Tony, my masseur, asked me. It was about 19:45h.
“I’ll need to get some dinner,” I said. “Perhaps in Silom.” My hotel was in the Silom-Sathorn area and I know of some nice gay places along Silom Road. It didn’t make sense to go to a distant part of the city just to dine alone.
Although I would usually take the Skytrain to Saladaeng station, I began to think aloud: “I may have to take the MRT, not BTS. I heard that some BTS stations are closed, though I’m not sure exactly which.”
“You can take the MRT to Silom station,” Tony said, in case I didn’t know.
“I hope so. I hope Silom station is not closed too.”
“Sometimes they close it.”
That didn’t sound reassuring. “Well, if that’s the case, I can get off at Lumphini station; it may actually be closer to my hotel.”
“Sometimes they close Lumphini too.”
Trying to be helpful, he added: “If they are closed, you can get off at Sam Yan. You know Sam Yan?”
“Yes, I know Sam Yan station,” I assured him. “I can find my way back from there.” It’s a stiff walk, some 2 km from my hotel, and it won’t be fun on a warm, humid night. Perhaps I should take a taxi from Sam Yan, I thought to myself.
What I didn’t know was that taxis were fast disappearing from downtown. The government had asked all offices in the commercial area to close by six — that announcement, I would later discover, was the reason for the thick crowds I had run into at Sukhumvit station. Naturally, just about all taxis were taken and heading out to the suburbs, in the mad rush to get out.
As Tony and I said our goodbyes, always in the hope of another engagement soon, about three kilometres away, Seh Daeng — “Commander Red” (Maj. Gen Khattiya Sawasdipol), the self-appointed military head of the more radical Red Shirts — was giving an interview to a few reporters. Then a sniper’s bullet went through his forehead and all bets were off.