Bracing for the worst in Bangkok as troops gather

Exclusive inside look at protest-ridden Thailand.

bangkok protest tent 311 (photo credit: Tibor Krausz)
bangkok protest tent 311
(photo credit: Tibor Krausz)
BANGKOK - The perennially jam-packed intersection outside the hulking MBK shopping mall in Bangkok’s commercial heart stood eerily deserted at 4 p.m. on Monday.
Trudging through the no-man’s land between a gasoline-doused wall of tires
erected by anti-government protesters on their encampment’s eastern periphery and razor-wire roadblocks manned by Thai army soldiers with automatic weapons was a woman in tattered, unwashed clothes with a rickety garbage scavenger’s cart trailing behind her.
In it sat her young daughter, snacking on dried squid, beside her sinewy, rail-thin, shaven-headed grandmother.
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Just moments earlier, a couple of soldiers in helmets and combat fatigues - with white-and-purple ribbons pinned to their chest, as if for mother’s day – had fired off warning shots at protesters crouching behind their bamboo-and-rubber tire barricade armed with slings and wearing disposable medical masks.
But the strange little procession was allowed to pass between them undisturbed.
“My mother is very sick,” the woman, who was missing several front teeth, told this reporter shortly afterwards, as we stood at a shuttered traffic police observation booth. “I didn’t know where else to go.”
She’d been told that free medical help would be forthcoming at one of the volunteer medics’ tents inside the protest site. Knowingly or not, she was risking life and limb getting here. Soon after, another round of shots echoed on the street.
Beside a shuttered-up Au Bon Pain bakery, two protesters - one clad all in black, the other all in red, both with floppy hats sporting the movement’s “Truth Today” badge - shook their bamboo spears belligerently at the soldiers a few hundred meters away.
Further in, families lolled on plastic mats laid on the pavement damp with rain, seemingly unperturbed by the prospect of an imminent military onslaught. The deadline of a government ultimatum on protesters to leave had expired over an hour before, and a reported 30,000 troops were getting into position all around them.
A sprawling tent camp erected outside the city’s glitziest malls and hotels, all
closed for weeks, the protest site of the red shirts (so named for their trademark attire) has grown into a self-contained village. It has its own food kitchens, curbside hairstyling services, and myriad vendors peddling iced sodas, snacks, politically charged souvenirs and talismans believed to protect their wearers from harm.
Yet in place of a previous near-carnival atmosphere of cheerful bonhomie, a feeling of impotent defiance now permeated the site.
The Thai government has issued strongly worded warnings to the several thousand protesters remaining here to leave, or face the consequences.
“If we leave now, what have we achieved?” a farmer from the country’s impoverished northeast, insisted. “I won’t leave until this government leaves, too.”
“We don’t trust the authorities to give us safe passage,” added Pim, a young woman, who works and studies in Bangkok but hails from the countryside.
Such distrust underlines the palpable sense of siege mentality among the protesters, who have been demanding the dissolution of the country’s government, which they regard as the illegitimate product of a military coup in 2006 against populist ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
“We have to do this for people [back in the villages] because they are counting on us,” Pim added.
In recent days, the unrest has been spreading through Thailand’s north and northeast, where the government has declared a state of emergency in 22 provinces.
Refusing to leave the protest site in Bangkok, scores of women with children have found shelter at the Wat Pathum Wanaram Buddhist temple, wedged between two ultramodern shopping malls. They idle on rattan mats amid sculptured hedges around saffron-robed monks.
“You have to understand that this is a nonviolent struggle,” a monk with thick glasses said in fluent English, speaking to me with his eyes closed as if delivering a sermon. “As monks we’re not allowed to take sides in politics,” he added. “We consider what we’re doing here as helping the needy and the powerless.”
Two evenings ago, some 200 monks gathered at the city’s Victory Monument to pray for peace and reconciliation in a seemingly intractable conflict, which has left some 65 people dead in a Mad Max-style urban landscape with billowing pillars of smoke from tires set alight by protesters.
Near the main soundstage, about a thousand middle-aged and elderly men and women were listening to fiery speeches under a roof of black netting to protect them from potential snipers.
Squatting on a sidewalk, a woman tended to an injured or sick sparrow-size bird. Then she opened her palms and the bird flitted away, hesitantly but clearly eager for some freedom.