Red Uprising through Dark Ages

By Lee Yu Kyung in Bangkok

“I’m afraid honestly. But I don’t want to go home, leaving thousands fellow Red Shirts behind, who are fighting for democracy”

A 53 year old woman from Chaiyaphum province has said, sitting at Pathumwanaram temple on May 17. There were hundreds more Red Shirts protesters inside the temple, the wishful sanctuary to avoid possible army assault, as the government has given the protesters ‘3 pm ultimatum’ for leaving the protest site.

Red Shirts at Rachaprasong, the main protest site in Bangkok (Photo by Lee Yu Kyung)

However temple is located in the middle of Red Shirts occupied territory in central Bangkok. No much safe if army would move in. There were some 4,000 or 5,000 protesters, among who were women, elders and children in majority at the main rally site of Rajaprasong and surrounding area within some 5 sq km. If not leaving the area to the ultimatum, they were warned to be in jail for 2 years, let alone risking their lives.

‘Warfare’ launched in Bangkok

It came true indeed two days later. The protesters scattered area, including the sanctuary temple site, has been under fire since the army reached at Saladaeng intersection, the southern barricade of Red territory early morning on May 19. The armed forces have advanced their path, triggering M16 towards protesters who were resisting mainly with primitive weapons, such as stones, sharpen bamboo sticks, sling shots and Molotov cocktail. There were allegations about shooting back from protesters side. Nevertheless protesters were absolutely out powered by armored vehicles and automatic weapons of armed forces who apparently did ‘shoot on sight’ mission.

A protester fires a sling shot, which is favorite 'weapon' by Red Shirts protesters, at BonKai (Photo by Lee Yu Kyung)

Around 10 am, a few hundred protesters were again gathering several hundred meters away from Saladaeng intersection on west Rama V road. Yet, they embraced gun fire as well, as soldiers were using telescope, spot them and running fire after short shouting ‘Okbai’, which means ‘get out’ in Thai. In the last sanctuary of temple site, six people including one woman paramedic, were shot dead in the evening by possibly snipers who have been positioned in a high stance according to witnesses.

“It was a massacre and there was some brutality” said Dr. Paul Chamber, a senior research fellow of Political Institute in Heidelberg University. “The violence was not just on the government side” added the expert on Thai politics. He analyzed the latest military operation was carefully planned out comparing to the one of April 10, involving siege tactics.

True. The siege tactics have been major part of the latest operation on Red Shirts from May 13, the day when the former general Khattiya Swastipon, the vivid supporter of Red Shirts, was shot to be fatally injured. He died afterwards. Yet, it was not this incident which provoked fierce resistance by Red Shirts in different locations of the city. It was a seize tactic of the Red territory that led to blockade on protesters who could not be able to join the main site as a result of blockade, along with cut off basic supplies.

The first omen of eruption of fighting came as gun fire near Lumbini Park at night of 13. Hundred protesters who were stranded near Bon Kai were targeted in the fire and one protester was killed. Since then, parts of city, notably Din Daeng where lots of working class resides and Bon Kai (or Klong Toey) where biggest slum is, have turned to be either ghost town or battlefield. Even if the authority designated these areas ‘live fire zone’, defiance of Red Shirts has been further spilled over to Rankamhaeng, the last stand in May Uprising of 1992 as well as Reds strong hold Ladprao.

BonKai at Rama 4 road has been one of the heavist fighting zones since May 13. (Photo by Lee Yu Kyung)

Protester at Din Daeng, one of the heavist fighting zones since May 13. (Photo by Lee Yu Kyung)

There have been reports about small skirmishes in provinces. The country now seemed to be heading broader resistance against the army backed government and their assault on popular movement. Some described it as ‘undeclared-civil war’.

“I cannot bear this government, which has used weapons against unarmed protesters. Look, we have no weapons in our hands except those things – rocks and tires – That’s why I came here”, said Pairoj Thanomthan (41), salesman from Bang Na district, who travelled long kilometers to Din Daeng to join protest on May 16, despite much of transport has been stopped.

To the Red frontlines in both Din Daeng and Bon Kai, tires were endlessly brought to be burned. In a bit surprising, the primitive ‘weapons’ are somehow effective to reduce death toll, which has been rising though, as protesters were hiding themselves from bullets in black smokes. No one at the army side has been killed or hurt by Reds’ weapons until the full out operation was launched on May 19.

A red shirts protester shot in his head to death on May 19 near Saladaeng Intersection. (Photo by Lee Yu Kyung)

Several soldiers were injured as grenade attack took place in Lumbini park on May 19 while the army's crackdown on Red Shirts protesters were under way (Photo by Lee Yu Kyung)

The first injury on army side took place when M79 fired grenade fell near Lumbini Park between 1 – 2 pm of May 19. Four soldiers and one journalist were injured in this attack. This is the time right after a heavy gun fire between armed forces and the presumably same elements of ‘the men in black clad’ of April 10 or ‘hardcore Red Shirts’ as some media portrayed. However it was difficult to tell who exactly were firing all the bullets. During the heavy gun fire followed by grenade attacks, most of journalists on the ground -except few – choosed to fall down on the floor as the fire sounds were so heavy.

Weeks passed since the darkest day in Thai history. Bloody streets have been cleaned up by groups of gaggling Bangkokians during the first weekend after the crackdown. Normalcy was back to the city, the government has claimed. Yet a lot of things remain just murky, particularly ‘men in black clad’ at Red side and ‘snipers’ at most likely army side, among whom were supposed to be culprits on mass killing at temple in the evening of May 19 as well as several deaths of civilians.

Saladaeng barricade set up by Red Shirts has been bulldozed. (Photo by Lee Yu Kyung)

Moreoever the event of bloody crackdown has addressed nothing, but caused further rebellion sentiment among Red Shirts movement. Despite the leaders’ surrender, ordinary protesters were still on defiant mood. Whereas the authority has attracted broader criticism for gagging the press and heavy-hand measures on opponents, including the days-long detention of the respected historian Suthachai Yimprasert without charge  before releasing him on Tuesday. There are reportedly at least dozens of missing protesters after military operation. Some Red Shirts ‘prisoners’, who were blindfolded and whose hands were tied behind were taken in a police vehicle from Sarasin intersection to somewhere on May 19. Yet the authority has refused to reveal basic informations about the detainees, creating ‘black out’ of the missing and detainees alike.

Deadly crashed but defiant

Red Shirts, who are mainly from rural poor and urban working class, is said to be a byproduct of 2006 military coup. As pro-democracy, anti-coup activists and progressive elements have handed with the movement, however, it has been developed as a popular people’s movement, which was never seen in Thai history. They have radio stations and magazines and Red political school. Whether their struggle against military-backed regime would eventually bring the democratic election or not could be a turning point for democratization of Thailand, which has faced huge setback by the 2006 military coup.

“It’s not necessarily a class division or even class war to the Marxist terms, as lots of middle class, intellectuals and some business sectors joined the Red movement too. You can say, all walks of lives have been joining now Red Shirts”

Sarite Klamapibun(38), lecturer of ‘democracy and human rights’ in Mehidol university has observed the Red Shirt movement.

“Ruling elites in this country never conceded their privileged power, ignoring the rural poor as like second class. Their votes have been ignored by military coup and royalists’ protest. What Red Shirts demand is a democratic rights. We, student activists are with Reds now. Thailand needs change” said Anuthee Dejthevaporn (22), secretary general of Student Federation of Thailand (or SFT). He, himself, has had political conflict with his family, who are mostly side with royalists yellow.

Just days before the latest assault launched, the PAD has renewed its long-time demand of martial law to clear off Red Shirts protest. International community, including International Crisis Group, the neutral think tank based in Brussel, has already warned that the civil war in Thailand could break out, if not political solution immediately brought in. As for leaders of Red Shirts, they have demanded the UN-mediated talks with the government since May 15. On May 18, there was a short-lived hope for negotiation in the morning. But the government rejected it afternoon, leading tension to finally full out operation next morning.

Bloody crackdown on Red Shirts shed more shadow on Thailand. The country has been through 'Dark Age' with severe restriction on freedom of expression and heavy hand on protesters. (Photo by Lee Yu Kyung)

“In democratic countries, when there is a crisis, dissolving parliament and calling elections is a normal way to defuse serious tension” said Ji Unpakorn, the outspoken Thai critic, who’s been exiled in England. “If the government dissolved parliament, announced fresh elections and ordered a cease fire, the violence would end immediately and Red Shirts would all go home” he argued.

The early election might defuse the imminent tension to avoid unnecessary loss of life. It has been questioned by many, however, if the new election would resolve the conflict fundamentally, as the royalists Yellow Shirts backed by the powerful ruling elites and army would be likely to defy again the election result, which many do not doubt is Red sides’ win. The yellow shirted PAD has once vaguely framed ‘Thai style democracy’, in which they argue educated aristocratic ruler is better fit for Thai society, not what they called the ‘western style democracy’.

To challenge ‘Thai style democracy’ and repeating ignorance of their votes by ruling elites, Red Shirts, who were just been crashed once again though, is likely to wage another popular uprising in the future. Otherwise low-intensifed guerillas warfare is also expected by some experts. Thailand, no more land of smile, stands at now the crossroad of being towards democracy or civil war after unsettling event of black but ever bloody May in 2010.

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