Saturday, May 15, 2010

Bangkok in Turmoil

Our Bangkok correspondent H. Numan has filed an unusual report: a first-hand account of the ominous and sometimes deadly situation that has evolved in downtown Bangkok over the past few months.

Bangkok #1 — Silom Road demo

Bangkok in turmoil
By H. Numan

There is a Dutch proverb: “zachte heelmeesters maken stinkende wonden” which translates into ‘Gentle healers make stinking wounds’. That is nowhere more appropriate than here. The proverb comes from the past, when doctors were more proficient with saws due to lack of medical science. The doctors who sawed immediately were (sometimes) capable of saving a patient, who would almost certainly die anyway. Usually of gangrene.

Thailand is a young democracy. The absolute monarchy was abolished in 1932. There have been about 23 coups since, implying an average of three years and a few months before the present government is replaced by means of another coup. One could easily describe Thailand as a democratic constitutional coup-o-cracy.

That fact basically invalidates the main arguments of the red shirts. They claim that their hero Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a military coup. True. That happened. The military kept their word: after a year they handed power back to the politicians, after elections. These were won by the People’s Power Party (PPP), which was later renamed Pheu Thai. After the resignation of that government, the current government under Abhisit came to power.

The army had little, if anything at all, to do with that. If this had been the very first coup in the history of Thailand: yes, they would have been absolutely right and justified. But since this was the 23rd coup, this is bovine manure. Another argument against the Red Shirts: when they thought they could win by supporting the new constitution, they did. But now that they can’t, they claim a dictatorship. Rather hypocritical.

I’ve written an article previously about the problems in Thailand Here is a very brief outline of the events of the last seven weeks:

Number one is, of course, Thaksin Shinawatra. If he didn’t want this and didn’t finance it, nothing would have happened. He was ousted, and is now convicted of “gathering unusual wealth in office”. His assets have been seized, which so far amount to $2,500,000,000 he can write off. Not only that, but the case set a legal precedent. Others can use the verdict to file their claims. This might very well cost him another $ 8,800,000,000. Hopefully, few readers are naïve enough to think he would meekly accept his fate. Nobody with so much money would. Not even Gandhi or Albert Schweitzer.

After he went into exile, Thaksin set up or at least fully financed the UDD, the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship. With this club he tried to commit a coup last year. If you recall, last year I wrote about the Red Shirts wreaking havoc in the Royal Cliff Resort in Pattaya and in Bangkok the following days.

You don’t hear the UDD saying anything about that right now. Much less that all of them received full amnesty for their actions, which was a direct coup attempt.

Seven weeks ago (time flies when you’re having fun!) they launched another attempt. Peaceful, they claimed. They would march with a million men through Bangkok. With 70,000 demonstrators they almost made it. Just a measly 930,000 people short, but what the heck.
- - - - - - - - -
Then they tried their hand at voodoo. They would collect one million milliliters of human blood and curse the government. You may laugh about it, but Thais takes the supernatural very seriously. Search Youtube for ‘Thai ghosts’ to get the idea. This fell short too, about 70% below. They only collected 300 liters of blood, more than enough to start cursing around. The curse didn’t work and most people were horrified by the viciousness of this form of protest.

Next they went on marching again, to two areas: around Democracy Monument and the Rajprasong area, which is where I happen to live. What nobody expected was that they would dig themselves in. They simply stayed there and refused to go.

On 10 April, the army moved into the Democracy Monument area, where they tried to break up the barricades. This completely failed. Though I really like Thailand and the Thais, improvisation is not a strong point for them. A grenade killed the second in command and seriously injured the commander, which destroyed the chain of command. The army retreated in chaos. Several armored vehicles were left behind, many weapons (M16, Tavor rifle) were taken as booty by the red shirts. Twenty people were killed and 800 injured.

I reported that these killings were suspicious. A retreating army does not intentionally kill, and certainly not that many. They shoot at random, just to get the other party to take cover. Yet nine people were hit in the heart and two in the head. That is sniper work.

The question is: who has the motive for that? The government? Absolutely not. They have done everything and much more to solve this crisis peacefully. To the point that Neville Chamberlain looks like a bloodthirsty maniac in comparison. The army? Nope. In 1976 and in 1992 they learned that bloodbaths are not a good idea. It doesn’t work in the long run.

Who then? Well, Thaksin is slowly fading out of sight. He can’t possibly like that. The UDD is hell-bent on provoking the government any way possible. When the government doesn’t bite, they simply think of something new in the hope that this will give them the bloodbath to justify their revolution.

Thailand has a paramilitary unit called ‘Tahan Phran’ or Rangers. These chaps are trained as US Rangers, sort of, and do all kinds of nasty jobs right across the border. Don’t forget that there are regular clashes with drug gangs in Laos, the Burmese army once in a while, and Karen Liberation fighters.

Some of these Tahan Phran are hired as security for the Red shirts. General Chavalit (nicknamed general Alzheimer) is a great proponent of them, and so was (the almost late) major general Khattiya Sawasdipol, nicknamed Seh Daeng.

Chavalit is currently a major politician hired working for Peuh Thai. An arch politician in the most negative meaning of the word. Slippery as an eel, speaking his master’s voice, whoever that might be at the moment. Very happy to kill or sell his granny if that benefits him. He is one of the top leaders of the Peuh Thai, which acts as the political wing of the UDD in parliament.

Bangkok #3 — Silom Road demo

After the shooting on 10 April, the Comedy Capers Royal Thai Police gave a performance.

After that comical intermezzo we got a stalemate situation. To me it is obvious why. The government doesn’t have enough support from the Army and definitely not from the police to remove the rebels. But the rebels (Thaksin) couldn’t bribe enough army and police officers to force the government to resign.

That’s the reason why for seven weeks the Red Shirts have been able to completely fortify themselves in the Rajprasong area. The set up complete barricades of tires, supported by sharpened bamboo sticks and razor wire. In between filled with rags doused with petrol. The Red shirts tap the water supply and have their own generators for electricity. Inside the camp there are hospital units, rest and recreation areas, parties going on (it is actually good fun to walk around there, as I have done) and a big stage were almost non-stop red leaders denounce the government. Because the government can’t force them out, they are able to resupply themselves with food, water and new recruits.

Bangkok #2 — Silom Road demo

Here is a photo shoot I took during a demonstration on Silom Road a few days ago. This demonstration was organized by the ‘pink shirts’ in support of the government. The photos were taken four hours before the grenade attack on the Skytrain station above.

Now and then clashes break out between the Red Shirts and the local residents, who are understandably not quite happy to live in the middle of a war zone. The Red shirts have many M79 grenade launchers. Stolen from whom? Not many gunshops sell M79 blooptubes. Not good for duck hunting.

Which they use regularly. A recent attack was from their positions in Lumpini Park at Sala Daeng Skytrain station. Which wasn’t done by the red shirts, so they claim. Who else? The Salvation Army? A pensioner feeding the ducks at 10 in the evening?

So gradually I have painted a picture for you of the situation up until last Wednesday. By then the Red Shirts had refused the compromise offered by the government. Abhisit presented his plan to solve the crisis. Five points that would, hopefully, ease the situation. Some minor compromises for the Red Shirts, but major compromises from the government.

There is one thing I can admire Abhisit for: he is very capable of leaving the real villain of it all completely invisible. He hardly, if at all, mentions Thaksin Shinawatra. And certainly not in relation with the UDD or Peuh Thai. The compromise would be beneficial for the Red Shirts, but not for… exactly. Thaksin.

The Red Shirts have been very busy provoking wherever possible. For example, they decided that Chulalongkorn Red Cross hospital, right outside their camp, might be occupied by the army. So they sent a delegation to investigate. One or two persons walking quietly over the wards would have been more than enough. But that’s not provoking. That you do by storming the hospital with 400 men. Only to discover that neither soldiers nor police were present in the hospital.

From the moment the reconciliation plan was presented the Red Shirts have been thinking very hard for a good reason to reject it. Finally, they would, grudgingly, accept it. Under some conditions, that is. That list of conditions was too ridiculous for words. A full pardon for everybody, no criminal charges whatsoever, the Yellow Shirts must be brought to justice for the occupation of the airport two years ago, and more and more and a lot more. The only thing missing was they would only remove themselves if Abhisit personally with his toothbrush in a pink tutu would clean up the mess they created.

Their official rejection came after they demanded that the deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban in charge of the situation and held responsible for the 10 April shootings would submit himself to the police to be formally charged. When he did, it wasn’t considered enough.

And that brings us to the beginning of this week. The government has more or less had enough. They’ve probably been able to gather enough political support to take a tougher position. On Wednesday they announced that any deals were now completely off. Matters were handed to the Army, who is setting up Operation Rajprasong. Water and electricity would be cut in the entire area at midnight, when a full blockade would be set up. Everybody would be checked. Nobody would be allowed in, only residents, and only after carefully checking of their documents.

That is when I had to relocate myself to a hotel, as I had an appointment out of town the next day. Better be safe than sorry; didn’t want to miss that appointment. But… this is Thailand. One hour before midnight they announced that severe complaints of the local residents and 15 embassies in the area were good enough reason not to cut water and power.

During the day the situation got tenser and tenser. On Thursday evening the proverbial manure hit the ventilator. Major-General Seh Daeng got what he deserved. While giving an interview to reporters he was popped by a.308. The shot went in the temple and exited in the small of the neck. A true beauty, honestly. The shooter deserves a promotion! Seh Daeng isn’t dead yet, but working on it. In the highly unlikely case he doesn’t die, he’ll be a vegetable. A 308 does nasty things with the brain when it impacts.

Who’s that Seh Daeng guy anyway? Why is he so important? In Thailand a few important families control everything. The Sawasdipol family is one of them. Seh Daeng is the black sheep of the family. Before he became an icon in the Red Shirt movement, he was already placed on non-active duty for grossly disobeying his orders and for (far too) open support of the Red Shirts. You need to be really outspoken to get that done. Seh Daeng is a guy like Tony Benn, an outspoken radical going far more radical. Worse: he doesn’t take no for an answer. What he says goes. Khattiya was the security boss for the Red Shirt guards, taught them how to set up the barricades, and the most outspoken hardcore leader. A real loose cannon.

I suspect very strongly that Seh Daeng organized the snipers that popped the 20 people on 10 April. I don’t have any evidence, but playing the Cluedo game: Major-General Mustard has the best and most convincing motive.

Even the other Red Shirt leaders were embarrassed by his actions. He is the chap that send in 400 red troopers to storm Chalongkorn hospital. This action cost what little goodwill the Red Shirts had left, and that wasn’t much.

When I heard about that, I knew Seh Daeng was already dead but didn’t realize it yet. Just a matter of time before something nasty would happen to him. Which it eventually did on Thursday night. His condition is stable, according to the latest news. Stable for a vegetable, I surmise. The lettuce in my fridge is quite stable as well.

Friday morning things cooled down enough for me to relocate myself back home again. I’ve stocked up on some food supplies, as all the shops are now closed. But I’d rather be here in my own house looking after it than worrying what I might find if I come back after the ruckus is over.

Friday afternoon the army set up the last roadblocks. The entire area is now surrounded. I got in without a problem or an ID check, but very likely that’s because I’m a foreigner. People do have to pass checkpoints to get in. In the early afternoon I heard gunfire, and saw that several minor clashes had occurred between the army and Red Shirts. The army is defending their roadblocks, while the Red Shirts try to keep them open.

Quite useless if you ask me, because even if they do manage to defeat one roadblock, the army will set up another one 10 meters down the road. One doesn’t have to be a major general to figure that one out.

After serious clashes last night the situation is slowly moving towards the endgame. I expect the army will slowly move in and end the occupation, with as little bloodshed as possible.

Be aware that this is not what the Red Shirts want. They have protected themselves with living shields: there are a lot of elderly, women, and children there. Completely voluntary. They know what they are doing, and are happy to act as human shields. That is the reason why the army is acting with restraint.

I think both the government and the army should be commended for acting with so much restraint after so much provocation.

What does this mean for you, who are on holiday or planning to go on a holiday?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing at all. Thailand and Bangkok are very safe. Even now, I feel more safe walking over Soi Chidlom or Ploenchit Road in the occupied area than I would be in Amsterdam in the Slotervaart area. (Fill in your own local hotspot.) Tourists are not attacked in any way, not targeted and not hindered. By nobody. At worst, smiling Red Shirts will ask if they can take your picture.

Of course, you are At Your Own Risk within the occupied area. Mainly because a crackdown is now imminent, and you might be unlucky enough to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Stay way from the area, and you’ll be fine. Only the Rajprasong area is affected, that is far less then 1% of the total area of Bangkok. Everywhere else you are pretty much safe.

This was Bangkok reporting,
H. Numan.