BANGKOK - A twenty-something protester manning an anti-government barricade of tires and sharpened bamboo stakes, facing massed ranks of combat soldiers with assault weapons a kilometer down the road, harbors no illusions about the kind of fate that may await him.
“They can shoot us dead any time they want,” he told this reporter late in the afternoon on Saturday, the third day of violent clashes here.
All around, dozens of other “red shirt” anti-government protesters (so called for their color-coded attire) stood or squatted in wait, their bamboo pikes, slingshots and energy drink bottles turned Molotov cocktails at the ready. A couple of them watched the soldiers through commercial binoculars, looking for signs of trouble.
“I have only my heart and two bare hands, but I’m ready for them,” another protester, a man of around 30, said.
Such sentiments are no mere bravado. In the past two days two dozen protesters have died, and scores of others have been wounded, during cat-and-mouse street battles in large swathes of central Bangkok declared “live-fire zones” by the Royal Thai Army.
Soldiers in full combat gear with shoot-to-kill orders have opened fire sporadically at roving groups of protesters from behind riot shields. This reporter witnessed several soldiers respond with live rounds to slingshots let off by a few protesters astride scooters.
As the military is ratcheting up its crackdown to reclaim a 4 square kilometer patch of prized real estate in Bangkok’s heart teeming with glitzy shopping malls and five-star hotels, which has been occupied by thousands of protesters for over a month, the casualty toll is bound to mount in the coming days.
Asked exactly what is the cause that is worth dying for here, a man in fraying sun-bleached jeans with a tousled mop top answered laconically: “Our dignity.”
The Thai government insists that the red shirts are hired thugs armed to the teeth and in the pay of Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist prime minister who was ousted in a bloodless coup in 2006 and remains a fugitive abroad following his conviction in 2008 on corruption charges.
A foray into the fortified encampment paints a different picture. The festive, village fair-like atmosphere of recent weeks is gone and the mood is now subdued. Piles of uncollected garbage litter the site, which is overlooked by posh shuttered malls with their Rolex and Louis Vuitton shops. The majority of protesters remain elderly and middle-aged men and women, often with young children around them. They sit in huddles of good-natured camaraderie listening to fiery speeches and live luk thung country music emanating from a giant stage.
Pinned to their flimsy tents, fashioned from sheets of nylon and tarpaulin, along both sides of intersecting multilane roads, printed and hand-written signs in Thai and English advertize their grievances. “Puppet Abhisit,” blares one, addressing Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, “you have NO MANDATE from the people. Get Out.” “Brought to power by criminal gangs and corrupt judges. Democracy Is Dead,” declares another.
“It’s not about Thaksin,” stresses a diminutive well-dressed woman who says she’s a university lecturer in Bangkok and is here out of solidarity for the red shirts. “You can’t keep [disenfranchising] people and expect them to like it.”
She’s standing by a generator-powered television set replaying gory images of a previous bloody army crackdown on protesters on April 10, which left over 20 protesters dead, many apparently killed by army snipers. Cardboard-mounted photographs and CDs with crudely edited home videos of the bloodbath have been ubiquitous around the encampment, further inflaming hatred at what protesters see as an illegitimate government.
A red shirt rallying cry has been Thai law-enforcement agencies’ failure to prosecute any of the rival “yellow shirt” movement. This enjoyed the tacit support of the country’s royalist elite for its own crippling months-long mass demonstrations against the elected government of Thaksin’s political allies, culminating in an eight-day seizure of Bangkok’s international airport in November 2008.
The perceived bias of Thailand’s justice system has further aggravated the festering socio-political divide between Bangkok’s well-off urban elite and the rural poor from the country’s populous northeastern boondocks, often openly derided as venal, uncouth, uneducated peasants.
One prominent yellow shirt leader, Kasit Piromya, is now Thailand’s
foreign minister. Kasit recently upbraided senior foreign diplomats for
allegedly meddling in Thai politics by sounding out the opinions of
anti-government demonstrators, whom he has repeatedly branded
Meanwhile, back at the barricade, amid sporadic bursts of gunfire ahead
on Rajaprarop Road near the Indra Regent Hotel, the young men remain in
wait in case of an army assault.
“No matter what color your shirt, your blood will make it red,” the
protester with the mop top tells me.
Somewhere nearby shots rang out.
I take cover.
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