Red layover, part 3

Friday, 14 May 2010: In the breakfast room, waiter Noong was watching the plasma-screen TV, showing video of a tense stand-off between Red Shirts and soldiers. There were no guests; I was the only one coming down for a bite. Occupancy rates at hotels had plummetted since the protest began.

“Where is this?” I asked him, unable to place the action.

“Near Suan Loom, you know, the night market.”

“Oh, there?” I had not expected the Red Shirts to have extended themselves so far south. That would place them right above Lumphini metro station.

“Yes, this morning they are fighting there,” Noong explained.

The broad street outside the hotel was exceptionally quiet. On a working day, as this was, there should be a fairly heavy flow of cars. It also became obvious within 5 minutes that the BTS Skytrain was not operating either. Its track ran above the street and within that space of time, there should have been at least one train passing in each direction. There wasn’t.

Noong passed me the morning papers. “Seh Daeng shot” were the boldest of bold headlines. Somewhere on the inside pages, it said Silom and Lumphini metro stations would remain closed. Without trains and with no taxis passing outside, to get anywhere today, it was going to have to be on foot. In 36-degree heat under the blazing sun.

* * * * *

Silom Road was open to traffic again, though there weren’t many takers. However, almost all the shops were closed, as were the banks and currency exchange booths. The small number of pedestrians indicated that the offices above were mostly closed too. The few vendors who had come back would be looking at bleak takings today.

Meanwhile, Ronald McDonald stood sentry across the locked front door of the “we’re open 24 hours” McCafe opposite Patpong.

A couple of massage shops however were still hopeful for business.

Here and there were clusters of soldiers, some with shields at the ready, others rifles. But what was notable was that they had pulled back about 200 metres from last night, establishing a defence line under Saladaeng station and along Thaniya Road. That left a buffer between them and the Red Shirts at the park side of Rama 4 Road.

The funny thing though was that everybody else except the military could enter the buffer zone. In the next picture, you see in the darker foreground spectators watching the Reds’ frontline at the Silom/Rama 4 intersection.

I didn’t quite understand it. I had read in the papers that the strategy was to surround and isolate the Red Shirts’ encampment, and prevent deliveries of food, water and fuel that had sustained the protesters. Starving them out was a better option than shooting at people. Yet, it was obvious this morning that with people and vehicles free to enter the buffer zone and even drive up to the perimeter of the Reds’ area, this was not isolation at all.

Shouldn’t there a dead, no-go zone if the strategy is to work?

Did I misunderstand the strategy? Is this the Thai way of applying gentle pressure? Perhaps threats first, actual enforcement to follow sometime later. Or is this a competency issue? The Thai army is a conscript army; perhaps conscripts don’t the stomach for a fight. Are they deliberately under-implementing orders?

Another thing: the newspapers had said mobile phone signals in the vicinity would be cut off. Nothing of the sort. I still had five-bar signal strength as I stood outside the other 24-hour McDonald’s (closed too) at the corner of Silom and Rama 4 Roads. Which was no more than 50 metres from the Reds’ barricade.

Whatever the government’s plan was, it was distinctly calmer today than last night.

But by 1:30 p.m., things started to deteriorate. First came the announcement that both the Skytrain and the MRT would cease services altogether, not just in the affected areas. Then another announcement that both sides of Rama 4 Road near Lumphini Park would be closed to traffic. This too had left me wondering about competency issues. They had closed it last night, but seemed to have reopened it this morning, even though it provided access to the Reds’ site. Shouldn’t it have remained closed throughout?

I made my way back to Rama 4 Road soon after hearing the announcements. It was then that I realised the “closure” announcement was a formality. It wasn’t a case of the soldiers blocking the road; it was a case of Red Shirts emerging from behind their Lumphini Park barricade, seizing control of the road.

The stretch they held sway over was from the Silom Road junction to at least the Sathorn intersection, a distance of about 1 km. (I would later see on TV that the Red Shirts had advanced another 300 metres further southeast from the Sathorn junction, to almost the Ngam Duplee junction where they fought pitched battles.)

Together with a handful of reporters and cameramen, and one Thai blogger, I made my way about 100-150 metres down Rama 4 Road from the Silom crossing, till we could go no further. The Red Shirts were in control; while they weren’t armed, they were pretty aggressive and edgy.

In the distance, wisps of black smoke could be seen rising into the glare of the sky. Whatever the cause — bomb? deliberately lit fire? — I estimated it to be about 800-1000 metres away, in the general vicinity of the Sathorn/Rama 4 junction, also known as the Suan Loom corner. Evidently, what Noong had told me about fighting over there was still continuing.

In short order, I noticed, no more than 50 metres from my location, Red Shirts (who were rarely dressed in red) hauling tyres up a column onto the flyover above Rama 4 Road.

The next picture is of one of the guys hauling up a jerrycan of propellant.

When the barrier on the overpass was ready, it was set alight.

They obviously wanted to prevent the military from moving up onto the flyover, which would have given them an elevated position commanding a good part of Lumphini Park, the Reds’ base.

All the while, sporadic gunfire (5-10 shots every 3 minutes or so) could be heard from Suan Loom; gradually the pauses between gunshots shortened till the shooting became nearly continuous. Every minute, there’d be 20-30 shots. Then running men within Lumphini Park could be glimpsed through the barricade, not 30 metres from where I was, as if the troops had succeeded in penetrating into the Reds’ area, and the Red Shirters were responding energetically. Gunfire then came from that direction, louder and closer than the bursts from Suan Loom, followed by two explosions. Grenades? Molotov cocktails?

With each explosion, a cheer went up from the onlookers gathered at the Silom/Rama 4 junction, about 100-150 metres behind me. Oh shit, I cursed to myself, the gawkers are not neutral.

“Oh shit,” the Thai blogger repeated after me, with the same realisation. Our group was squarely between the soldiers, who though unseen, must be massing at the Sathorn junction (somewhere beyond the orange barriers in the picture below), and the Red supporters at the Silom end.

Not wanting to wait till we could see the soldiers’ eyeballs or their rifles’ muzzles, the bevy of us retreated, half-crouching, back to Dusit Thani Hotel and Silom Road — which was closed once more. The barbed wires and orange plastic barriers had been hauled out again while I was watching events on Rama 4 Road. We found ourselves walking directly towards solders who had taken up firing positions. Nervously darting eyeballs and loaded muzzles confronted us nonetheless.

I told myself: Enough. I’ve got the pictures I wanted. Anyway, it’s time to get back — another long walk through the heat — to the hotel, take a shower and head for the airport.

But I had one more picture. While walking back, a police jeep with sirens blaring — what for? the street was deserted already — passed me. Behind it followed three large trucks each carrying a damaged military truck.

A couple of construction workers leaned out from the upper floor of their half-finished building, punched the air with their fists, and cheered.

I was glad to be getting out of the city.

* * * * *

Post-script:

I see from the Bangkok Post the next morning that soon after I walked away from the Silom junction, fighting broke out there, continuing into the evening with grenades being thrown. The half-frightened soldiers pictured on this page would all have been in action.

It was also reported that as many as 200 Red Shirts confronted the military at the Sathorn junction, with running battles around Suan Loom, the Ngam Duplee T-junction and further along Witthayu Road. That area was where the smoke came from through most of the day.

At the opposite, northern end of the Red Shirts’ encampment, violence also erupted along Ratchaprarop Road between Pratunam and Din Daeng.

According to the newspaper, the Red Shirts captured some soldiers and destroyed a number of military vehicles. Grenades, flares, fireworks and molotov cocktails were employed. In response, tear gas, rubber bullets and at times live rounds were used by the troops.

From the TV, I caught scenes of about 20 monks on the stage at the Ratchaprasong rally site, adding their prayers to the Reds’ cause.

The Bangkok Post said 7 protesters died Friday, all or most around the Rama 4 Road area. More than 100 others were injured, including 3 journalists (2 local, 1 foreign) and 2 tourists.

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