It´s not easy to write about war. Harder still to write about war at home. Bangkok is my home and tonight, parts of the city were on the verge of giving way to total chaos. After eight weeks of street protests by the so-called Red Shirts aiming to force the Thai government to resign and call elections, the incessant heat, both political and sweat inducing, is catching up with both the demonstrators and the military. The walls of restraint built deeply into Thai culture are crumbling. The city is on the edge.
This afternoon, the government announced it would cut of electricity to the Ratchaprasong area, Bangkok’s flashiest shopping district, where the Red Shirts have been camped out for weeks. At the Siam Square entrance to the Red zone, where I’d come to meet a friend, a motorcycle taxi driver tells us that there had been bombs and shooting in Sala Daeng and that the infamous Sae Daeng, a renegade major general working for the Red Shirts, known to have an alleged penchant for death squads, and one of the more radical elements of the Red movement, has been shot by a sniper.
I arrive in the Sala Daeng area (near the famous Patpong go-go bar strip) at about 19.30pm. Soldiers are patrolling with automatic weapons near the Surawong entrance to Patpong. The restaurants are not full, but the street is still fairly busy with girls in hot-pants and ageing western sex tourists, undeterred by the threat of violence. Keen one might say.
Around the corner, it’s a different story. The crossing of Silom and Rama IV is deserted, the barricades of the Red Shirts can just be made out in the gloom under the sky train that passes here. It’s easier to smell the barricades than to see them. The petrol the protesters have poured over mountains of car tires hangs like a noxious cloud over the usually busy intersection. The heat is almost chilly. Soldiers sit hiding behind sandbags and orange plastic traffic barriers, guns pointing across the road. At the corner, a gaggle of journalists cowers behind a tourist information booth. As we approach, a broad shouldered man in a white shirt turns around and says hello. Chuwit Kamolvisit, Thailand’s former massage parlor king and sometime renegade politician is sweating like hell and tells me he is just taking a look at the situation. We leave him right there and walk back a hundred meters to shelter in a drive-way, when a couple of shots ring out across the intersection. Inside the drive-way, a group of Thais are loudly toasting the alleged death of Sae Daeng.
About 9pm, Vinai Dithajohn, a Thai photographer who has been following Thailand´s political struggles for many years, takes me to the hospital where Sae Daeng has been taken. The atmosphere outside is very tense. Rows of police in riot gear, their shields in front of them, are lining both sides of the road. Hundreds of Sae Daeng supporters are milling around the hospital forecourt. On either side of the hospital road, soldiers are manning check points, but the roofs of the houses around are unguarded and in the small sois opposite the hospital, restaurants still do brisk business. We go inside, but there is no way to see the renegade soldier. As we come back out, the military tries to come in, which leads to an immediate angry confrontation between several soldiers and the Sae Daeng’s followers. Everything is raw and to the bone. Police and hospital staff put some distance between the two groups. A pick-up stands parked in front of the hospital entrance, its back dotted with puddles of blood. People throng around it, then lose interest. I see this behavior all over the city all night. People throng around the darkness, then lose interest. After a while, a Red Shirt comes out of the hospital and announces that Sae Daeng is alive. The crowd cheers and bays for blood at the same time.
Around midnight, a crowd has gathered by the Thai Japanese Friendship Bridge near Lumpini Park. Red Shirts from the provinces trying to join the main demonstration are stuck here facing off troops a few hundred meters away. Lots of media, lots of angry people. Tough men with baseball bats. The clash has already been and gone. Later I find out that one person has been shot dead. The crowd sways to and thro across the intersection. Wild rumors and hard facts are hurled into the night by the most vocal demonstrators. A single shot sends everyone for cover under the fly-over. An hour later, a row of ambulances comes howling past. It’s almost 2am. The story that emanates from the crowd is as wild as the night – a group of people allegedly approached the Red Shirt guards on Sarasin and offered them coffee laced with poison. The ambulances keep howling.
Back at Ratchaprasong, the unreality of this conflict manifests itself completely. Here, amidst the Gucci ads and high rise shopping malls, the eight week Red Shirt party continues. Despite the fact that the government has cut the power to the area, old women and children are out for a stroll, rows of TVs replay the violence of the last weeks ad nauseam and the men selling the red plastic hand-clappers are doing brisk business. Everything is powered by generators. The street smells of piss and is covered in garbage. I see housewives purchasing grilled sausages. People wear T-Shirts with funny slogans. I see people laughing.
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
Images shot by Tom Vater