I didn’t intend for my recent visit to Thailand to be dominated by the red shirts protests. After all, last year there were protests just before my visit, lasting a couple of weeks, and then everyone went home at about the same time I arrived. I figured the same would happen this year too, but that wasn’t the case.
I arrived in Bangkok on April 13, the start of Songkran or the Thai new year. I arranged for a serviced apartment on Lang Suan road, a great location in my opinion – relatively quiet, a ten minute walk from the sky train, close to Lumpini park, and as it turned out a ten minute walk from the main protest stage at Ratchaprasong. At first being so close to the protest area was great. However, as time went on the demonstrators expanded their occupation and it became a hassle to get in and out of the area. I relocated to a serviced studio apartment on Soi Thonglor.
Initially the demonstrations were spread across a few areas in Bangkok. The mood around Rathaprasong was festive. People – old, young, families, and children were gathering for something they believed in. It was also the Thai new year – there was plenty of water and white face paste. Everyone wore red. As the new year passed and days went by there were some clashes at other locations. The red shirt leaders consolidated the demonstrations to Ratchaprasong and the surrounding area. It made getting around difficult.
I made a couple of trips down south to Krabi, each time expecting the demonstrations to end before returning to Bangkok. Wishful thinking on my part – the opposite would happen. Each time violence erupted for a day or two. Upon returning to Bangkok you could feel that the mood had soured some. There weren’t as many families in the demonstration areas. Red shirts no longer wore red – they blended into the crowd. A more militant element, the so called black shirts, started to appear at barricades and as security guards near stages. The protest or demonstrations had turned into an occupation – there were swaths of Bangkok in which the police or army did not exercise any control.
It all came to a head on May 19, 2010 – the Thai government sent in the army to reclaim the areas controlled by the demonstrators. At around 7AM there was a large black smoke cloud rising near Lumpini park. I decided to try and get behind the Thai army and follow them throughout the day. However, I ended up on the other side – on the leading edge with the red shirts on Rajdamri road. The army was about 500 meters away down Rajdamri. There wasn’t much fighting. Tanks didn’t roll in. Instead army snipers would shoot a person or two and then everyone would scatter, retreating 50 meters or so. Red shirts would respond with slingshots. This scene repeated itself a few times. A journalist standing nearby was shot and killed. Over the entire day I saw two guns in red shirt possession. It was no contest.
By early afternoon we had retreated back to Rajdamri sky train station. It was apparent that the red shirt security or black shirts planned to make a last stand here. They had clear view of Rajdamri road and the Thai army from the sky train platform. The standoff never came – back at Ratchaprasong, maybe 200 meters up the road, the red shirt leaders had surrendered and asked their followers to go home. What followed were hours of mayhem and fire.
After watching a few hours of mayhem, looting, and fires I started to think about finding a safe way back to Soi Thonglor. Someone told me to look for the canal at the back of Pathum Wanaram temple and follow it out which is what I did. Many streets were closed – no cars, no taxis, very few people, and no motor bikes. After an hour or so I reached a police barricade where some motor bike taxis had gathered. After convincing the police to let me through the barricade I convinced (bribed) a motor bike taxi driver to take me back to Soi Thonglor. Due to so many roads being closed, it seemed like we made a half circle around Bangkok to get there.
In hindsight, I should have made the demonstrations the focus of my stay, never leaving Bangkok and staying on top of the event. Other than the last day, I was never in the center of conflict and didn’t try to cover it in more than a casual manner. While in Krabi, seeing some events on the television, I was kicking myself for not being there. Nonetheless, it was still an experience. One of the more surreal moments occurred on May 19. Everyone felt that the end was inevitable. You could see it in all of the faces. Yet someone from the red shirt camp walks up to us, handing out bottled water and snacks. I couldn’t help but think in the midst of this chaos, these fellows are more hospitable and courteous than United States run airlines.
I shot a number of photographs at the red shirt protests. Links to the photographs – some bad, some not so good, and some OK – are in the sidebar on the right.