Tom Vater

Tom Vater

Irreverent, informed and downright eclectic crime fiction and reportage from Southeast Asia and beyond

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Apocalypse Now – Bangkok Burns!

The night is not far away and likely to bring out an army of looters and black guards who have promised to set the city on fire. The battle is over but the war is only just starting. Bangkok, my city, is burning.

This morning started with the military moving into the Red Zone with massive manpower and armored personnel carriers.  The Red Shirts, most of them armed with nothing but anger, sling shots and fire crackers, fought the advancing troops as best as they could, assisted by men dressed in black, carrying M16 machine guns and allegedly loyal to recently assassinated renegade major general Sae Daeng. Monks carrying field binoculars, women in cowboy outfits and teenagers in rags assisted them. This is what a disenfranchised community rearing its angry head looks like.

Around mid-day, behind the Red stage in Rajaprasong, the leaders of this revolt sit around a table drinking cans of ice coffee. Jatuporn is still wearing his Gandhi shirt. A few meters away a group of monks, knocking back bottles of energy drinks, is watching the war on a flickering television set. The table with the microphones against a poster backdrop showing the victims of the protest, stands abandoned, never to be used again, robbed of its purpose. The kitchen behind the stage has stopped working, the staff has disappeared. The atmosphere in the area behind the stage smells of defeat, senseless swagger and bravado and near panic. All at the same time. Explosions can be heard in the distance. As the army closes in, the men who have given countless rousing revolutionary speeches are making the final plans for their departure.

In front of the stage, it´s another story. Women and children, perhaps a thousand, dance to loud music and rotating MCs, including comedians, come and go to keep them going. After nine weeks of being shut into the sprawling Red Shirt camp, living in the sun on concrete plazas that now stink of garbage and toilet, a world within a world,  the bubble is about to burst – the remaining protesters look dazed, adrift in promises of victory that is beyond reach now. The men on stage do all they can to keep a quietly mounting hysteria at bay.

Along Rajadamri, loud explosions and gun fire, as well as casualties, including an Italian journalist who was apparently shot dead. The city looks half destroyed already, with trash piling up everywhere, broken bottles on the tarmac and the smell of feces on every street corner. Barbed wire piles up around the Four Seasons and other posh hotels, but it’s no use. Downtown Bangkok reminds of scenes from a JG Ballard novel – what we call civilization used up and broken, abandoned and without purpose. The city is burning. Beneath the sky train station, the Red Shirt fighters hunker down behind phone boxes and in hotel entrances.  Some carry bows and arrows, spears, swords, shields and lances. All of them, but a few old women who approach me crying with anger, are in good spirits. They have no fear of the slowly approaching army juggernaut in the far distance. It´s not quite like the surreal party in front of the main stage, but despite the ambulances that ferry back the wounded from a couple of meters ahead of us, the Red Shirts take time for a cigarettes and small talk, a can of beer or five minutes in the shade, before heading back behind their barricades to launch improbable projectiles at their opponents.

Amongst the fighters, katoeis (ladyboys) with smeared make-up, scrawny kids from the Klong Toei slums out in the flash part of town for the first time, a frightening cross-eyed woman with enormous breasts, dressed in black spandex and holding a long metal pole as if she knew exactly what to do with it, ninja-suited teenagers wielding iron bars. The Red Shirt front line is a carnival of the dispossessed, the ones with nothing to lose but a macabre sense of fun.

In the early afternoon, the Red Shirt leaders capitulate on the main stage in Rajaprasong, and are almost lynched. No More Gandhi shirts. The few hundred remaining supporters, many of them rural older women, scream and cry at the stage with immeasurable anger. Some wave flags, others tear their hair. Some faint to the baking hot tarmac. Months of suffering and now defeat. Months of promises and now, nothing but the possibility of being arrested. Nothing. Many protesters told me that they had been promised a 100.000 Baht, if  Mr. Thaksin came back into power through their collective action. A Muslim woman in her sixties cries uncontrollably, perhaps it’s as much a kind of tension release as it is grief and helplessness.  The remaining and crushed protesters wave Thai flags as smoke billows from almost every direction. This looks like the end of Thaksin´s revolution, as well as perhaps the beginning of something new – cold anger, pent up for decades, is rising against what the protesters perceive to be their oppressors – in Bangkok at this moment, that includes almost everything and everyone. Thaksin, alleged hero of the oppressed,  former owner of Manchester City football club and instigator of Thailand´s War on Drugs, a policy which led to almost 2.500 extra-judicial killings in 2003, an illustrious man by any stretch, has opened a Pandora´s box of horrors that might be hard to close.

Minutes later, several very loud explosions send the protesters running and the Red leaders are gone. I can hear sporadic machine gun fire in the distance, but as usual, I have no idea where it’s coming from. Except on the way into the Rajaprasong area in the morning, I have not seen the military yet. A couple of generators nearby sputter and fail and a moment of unearthly silence settles in the heart of Thailand´s capital. Gangs of kids appear out of the dense smoke rising from piles of refuse and car tires, and start setting the gigantic Central World Department Store on fire, shooting an endless series of fireworks and molotov cocktails into the entrances and glass windows, and turning downtown Bangkok into Thailand´s Ground Zero. Some of these youths appear to be targeted by snipers on the surrounding rooftops.  We can hear an occasional bullet whizzing into a window. Wounded fighters are rushed into the Police Hospital across the road, on motorcycles, on the back of pick-ups, on stretchers or on their friends´shoulders. Under the concrete pillars supporting the sky train, now blackened by smoke which rises high up into the grey sky above the city, men wearing motorcycle helmets release their frustrations with axes and poles, smashing the Gucci and Louis Vuitton show windows of Gaysorn Plaza, while teenagers look on, amused.

Elsewhere in the city, the stock market and many banks are burning. A historic cinema has been burned to the ground and supermarkets are being attacked. Outside Bangkok, provincial town halls are up in flames and majors are asking for military assistance.

Back on Rajaprasong, a man carries a Fender Stratocaster guitar past me through the smoky silence across the large empty space in front of the Central World shopping center – a solitary figure soon swallowed up in the smoke. The high-rises around are mere towering shadows looming upwards in the dense smoke. Phone reception is on and off. The eerie silence settles over a few remaining women, shocked into paralysis, sitting with eyes closed in their camping chairs, surrounded by trash, oblivious to what´s gone and what´s coming next. In front of the stage a woman in her 50sdressed all in red, , holding a red flag aloft, is the only remaining resistance to the soldiers that will soon appear. She is the Red Shirts´ last stand. Peaceful protesters – not terrorists, the banner on the stage reads behind her. Around the perfectly still woman who stares into empty space with her eyes wide open, piles of rubbish are burning unchecked. Dogs and street people are plowing through the mess looking for valuables, but she, like the country, is hardly aware of anything. Thick black smoke billows from piles of tires that have been set ablaze. The smoke gets worse on Rajaprasong and several powerful explosions shake the ground.

Together with camera man Steve Sandford, I head towards Chit Lom. A few people linger in doorways. Some are protesters, others firefighters and security guards. On Chit Lom, the battle has already been fought and lost. Burnt-out buses stand in the middle of the crossing, grotesque blackened shapes lying crushed in front of another department store. What’s left of the barricades is smoldering. A man, dressed in what looks like an old-fashioned dive suit, is poking around the debris. He’s a bomb disposal expert. I’m in no mood for the Hurt Locker. Not now. Not ever. We rush on. A little ahead, soldiers are advancing along the sky train rail. The barrels of their guns poke across the concrete barrier above us. We wave at them and they wave back. No problems crossing the front line. Under the cover of their colleagues above them, long lines of soldiers now advance towards us. They walk in single column, M16s pointed downwards, fingers on the trigger. Others lie in the flower beds in the center of the road, pointing their guns past us into the hell we have just walked out of. They look scared and tired, but they are doing what they have been told to do. Many of them look under twenty. No protesters will be able to leave the main site on this road.

At Ploenchit, one sky train station further east, armed police and military have set up a road block. Beyond, Nana Intersection looks normal, for want of a better word. As we leave Bangkok’s Life Fire Zone, I get a phone call informing me that the Tesco supermarket near my house in the far east of the city has been set on fire. It’s too late to check what’s happening in my neighborhood or whether my place has been looted. A curfew is imminent. The city awaits the rage of the black guards.

All images by Tom Vater

Read my previous recent entry on Thai politics, Postcard from the Edge of Bangkok

Read my previous recent entry on Thai politics, Life, Death and Game Shows in Bangkok

Read my previous recent entry on Thai politics, Bangkok Dangerous

Read my previous recent entry on Thai politics, Where is Batman? – Bangkok under Siege

Read my previous recent entry on Thai politics, Violent red tide washes across Bangkok

One Response to “Apocalypse Now – Bangkok Burns!”

  1. 1
    Michael LaPalme:

    Its ironic how Central World Plaza changed its name from the World Trade Center but ended up getting torched in a terrorist attack anyway. Glad to see you made it out of Sniper Alley unscathed.

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