BANGKOK – A full day after it was set ablaze in an apparent arson attack by antigovernment protesters, a landmark Bangkok luxury mall still smoldered on Thursday.
Amid prized real estate that now resembles the scene of some apocalyptic showdown in Bangkok’s commercial heart, a dozen weary firemen – on duty for the past 24 hours – were squirting jets of water at the gutted remains of an upscale seven-story department store.
“In my 10 years [of work], the only time I’ve seen anything like this was in a simulation training video,” said Den, a 30-something firefighter, as he surveyed the gaping wound in Central World Plaza, Southeast Asia’s second largest shopping complex.
Against a backdrop of twisted metal and charred rubble, a giant golden sculpture of a woman’s head with pouty red lips stared impassively ahead.
There, in the middle of a multilane road, stood a soundstage, faced by scores of empty plastic chairs and bamboo mats lying crumpled on the pavement.
Until two days ago the stage – sporting a large banner reading “PEACEFUL PROTESTERS NOT TERRORISTS” – was the raucous centerpiece of a monthlong anti-government demonstration that paralyzed the Ratchaprasong intersection, with its world-class malls and five-star hotels.
After days of violence, which saw security forces fire at protesters armed with slingshots and kill about three dozen people, the military’s armored personnel carriers on Tuesday knocked down the 4-square-kilometer protest-encampment’s fortifications of rubber tires bristling with bamboo stakes.
In the ensuing melee, mobs of Red Shirt protesters torched banks, a television station, a movie theater and several malls.
On Thursday, along roads and sidewalks carpeted with litter and discarded personal items, groups of soldiers heavily perspiring in their bulletproof vests and helmets poked around inquisitively.
One picked up an intact packet of cigarettes. Another perused a Thai boxing magazine. A third inspected a lost savings account passbook issued by a bank whose branch at nearby Siam Square had been burned to the ground by Red Shirts. An officer asked to take a picture with me as a souvenir, even handing me a rifle.
A few hundred meters away, a mutt lolled in the debris of an improvised campsite on the sidewalk, where two days before a family of protesters had made their home on the road near a support pillar of Bangkok’s modern elevated light rail.
Scrawled in large Thai letters with a blue marker pen on the dog’s off-white hide was a plea: “I’m scared. don’t hurt me.”
Nearby, a lone protester – a thin man of around 50, apparently left behind in the sprawling wasteland of a now deserted encampment – lay on a rattan mat, his eyes closed, his hands clasped to his chest as if ready for burial.
Beside an abandoned teddy bear nearby lay a creased photocopy of a young boy’s school report.
“Come have a look at this,” a sergeant invited me in fluent English, indicating a carton filled with a jumble of car and motorcycle keys, IDs and ATM cards.
“You see, the Black Shirts” – an alleged shadowy paramilitary unit of former army rangers providing security at the protest site – “withheld important items so protesters couldn’t leave without permission,” explained the sergeant, who said his name was Ae.
Another box contained soda bottles fashioned into crude Molotov cocktails.
Thailand’s security forces have insisted that the thousands of anti-government protesters – mostly middle-aged and elderly women and men, along with several parents with children – were held hostage by a small hard-core group of armed militants during the weeks of standoff, which pitted protesters armed largely with slingshots and sharpened bamboo stakes against combat soldiers and riot police with assault weapons.
Asked about the box, a Red Shirt demonstrator later said it was probably a lost-and-found depository.
As firemen busied themselves subduing the smoldering remains at Central World Plaza, a kilometer or so away a crowd of men, women and children (some mere babes in arms) shuffled along, two and three abreast, between lines of armed security men in combat gear.
Promised safe passage home, the men and women – each with an identifying number scribbled with a marker on a forearm – were being documented and searched.
A few younger men’s tatty bags yielded brand-name watches, sunglasses and other valuables they admitted to having looted from high-end shops.
The protesters – most from the impoverished rural northeast – had just been rounded up from inside a Buddhist monastery, behind Central World Plaza, where they sought shelter during the army’s crackdown.
Fearing for their lives, they had remained holed up in the Pathum Wanaram temple after the rest of the encampment was evacuated.
“They were shooting at us,” one woman whispered, glancing furtively at
Nearby, through loudspeakers mounted on an armored personnel carrier, an
army officer extolled the joys of returning home to one’s family.
“I saw several people shot with my own eyes,” the woman added.
Drained to the point of lethargy, several protesters looked defeated.
Others remained defiant.
“This is not the end,” insisted a 45-year-old woman from the central
Lopburi province with the temporary security ID No. 384 inked on her
forearm. “They can’t keep us down forever.”