Thai protesters head home

After their surrender, anti-government protesters make their way home.

May 20, 2010 02:30
3 minute read.

Thailand protesters walk home 311. (photo credit: AP)

BANGKOK – Amid the cacophony of wailing sirens, scrawny strays barking at German shepherd police dogs, and an armored personnel carrier’s loudspeakers issuing orders at the protest site here on Wednesday, women and men in flip-flops filed past in silent surrender.

On the verge of tears, they clutched worn plastic shopping bags holding their few possessions, avoiding eye contact with the troops and policemen in their bulletproof vests toting automatic weapons.

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Several bare-chested men shuffled along with their arms raised.

At a sandbagged military fortification, they were searched, then allowed to proceed down the razor-wire-strewn road to waiting Red Cross medics and black police vans.

On the sidewalk there was a growing pile of confiscated items: the movement’s trademark red shirts, its foot-shaped plastic clappers, rolled-up rattan mats, flashlights, walkie-talkies, political pamphlets.

Laid out on one side were several wooden slingshots with marbles, ball bearings, bolts and nuts, which some protesters had used to taunt security forces.

A few hundred meters behind the procession of anti-government “red shirt” protesters surrendering themselves to security forces, thick gray plumes billowed skyward from the burning remains of a marquee movie hall at Siam Square.

Further in the distance, columns of smoke rose from the ultramodern Central World Plaza shopping mall, the Stock Exchange, and the offices of a local television station, all three set ablaze by protesters in apparent revenge attacks.

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The scene, reminiscent perhaps of a Hollywood take on the evacuation of the Warsaw Ghetto, had surreal, conflicting elements to it.

Although forbidding in their combat gear and with their automatic weapons, several soldiers seemed welcoming toward the men and women leaving their protest site in central Bangkok’s commercial heart after a six-week standoff with Thai security forces.

One of the officers amiably shook hands with several protesters, wishing them good luck on their way home to the impoverished northeast region.

A man hobbled by with a leg wound.

Down the road, three young men, their hands tied behind their backs with plastic handcuffs, were being interrogated by police officers in riot gear poring through cheap toiletries, boxes of cigarettes and bottles of Thai whiskey.

The goods had allegedly been looted from a shuttered 7-Eleven during the chaotic, deadly clashes that ensued earlier in the day after security forces began forcefully reclaiming the area that had been occupied by the anti-government protesters.

After four days of violence that left at least 40 people dead and hundreds injured, the military launched an all-out assault on the protesters’ encampment in the predawn hours on Wednesday.

Troops breached the encampment’s medieval-looking fortifications, fashioned from rubber tires and bamboo stakes. They proceeded to round up the thousands of steadfast redshirts entrenched in their sprawling, self-contained village – a protest center with a distinctly rural flavor erected outside some of Asia’s glitziest shopping malls and five-star hotels.

Several protesters retaliated with slingshots and homemade explosives fired from bamboo tubes. Protest leaders soon surrendered, but defiant bands of red shirts engaged in hit-and-run guerrilla-style skirmishes with security forces into the night.

This reporter’s furtive late afternoon foray into the western side of Siam Square, now under military control, revealed an eerie, deserted scene at what is normally a trendy teenage haunt bustling with life.

On streets strewn with the litter of the hastily evacuated camp, soldiers milled about, poking the debris with their boots and giving some discarded items a closer inspection.

A protester with severe burns on his forearms and face was receiving first-aid. From the distance came the muffled sound of shots.

Although Thailand’s seemingly intractable political conflict is generally described as a struggle between the rural poor supporters of ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006, and the Thai military and its political allies among well-off urbanites, loyalties are often blurred.

One of the soldiers at a sandbagged fortification outside a convenience store talked politics, clearly unaware he was speaking to a journalist.

“Do you like Thaksin?” he asked.

Despite being a fugitive in exile, the ex-premier is still very popular in the country’s northeast and among its urban poor. He’s reviled by Bangkok’s political and business elite.

“Do you like him?” I shot back.

The soldier, who said he came from Nakhon Rachasima province in the northeast, flicked his eyebrows in an apparent affirmative.

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