Friday, January 3, 2014

Taking a Look Back: Red Shirt Protest in Bangkok 2009 - 2010 (Part 2)

In part two of the series, I will focus on the event on May 19, 2010. After 2 months of occupying Bangkok, the government issued an ultimatum; clear the street or the military will move in to force the Red shirt out. The protesters were given a chance to withdraw from the confrontation as a nearby temple was designated as a 'safe zone'. As long as they moved into the temple ground before the ultimatum deadline, they wouldn't be in the fight.

Here is my account of the day as I personally experienced it.

Since the roads were blocked, I had to move on foot through part of the city to get to the Red shirt camp. The whole experience was surreal. It kind of felt like an ordinary day with tourists enjoying coffee in hotel cafe, very light traffic, a squad of soldiers in full gear taking nap in a gas station while down the road a lone soldier was on sentry duty behind sand bags (looking really bored), foreign press scrambling to get coverage...not the kind of things you normally see on a single street.

The first sign of trouble I saw was a cloud of black smoke rising from the distance. As I followed the smoke I reached the Red shirt camp, a safe zone far away from all the fighting that was happening at the other end of the road. At the camp was members of the Red shirt, some members of the press who were kept away from the fighting, as I will explain below, and lots of banner and signs with Red shirt propaganda. Everyone was relaxed and seemed unconcerned with all the smoke and the sound of gunfire and bomb at the next junction. And that was my next destination.

A few minutes walk away and I entered the area where the fighting were taking place. No member of the press was there, only the Red shirt (who no longer wore their red shirts). The sounds of gunfire and explosion were load and clear, they came from the distance and around the crossroad somewhere. The gun shots were sporadic but the explosions apparently were consisted of 2 different kinds (which I could not tell apart). The reactions from the Red shirt gave me some clues. When one kind of bomb went off, they would duck and cover, hugging close to the walls. But when the other bomb went off, they would cheered. I would like to clarify that I did not see any actual explosion or muzzle flash of gun, I could only hear their sounds.
I was there to photograph the event so I have my camera hanging from my neck. When I joined the Red shirt to get close to the fighting, they spotted my camera. They told me no photograph allowed, which I was not too surprise given my previous experience and seeing members of the press keeping their distance. So I put my camera in my bag, after all I didn't want them to beat the living daylight out of me. What they said to me next just blew my mind.

"We are working."

They were working??? What did they mean, what kind of work were they talking about? Fighting, literally fighting, the government??? I really needed time to let that sink in and understand the mindset of the Red shirt. Why were they doing all this and how far were they willing to take it.

At that point I realized I wouldn't be getting any photographs from them and I didn't want to get myself killed for no good reason. So I decided to head back to the safe zone around the camp. That was when major development happened. People were gathering around a taxi, listening to the radio. The mood around the camp and that taxi were different from moments earlier, more somber, down and gloomy somehow. I listened in with the rest of the Red shirt then I realized the Red shirt leaders had just announced they would be surrendering themselves to the military and announced that the protest was over and the fighting to be stopped.

Clearly many were upset. A woman cried openly, disappointed with the decision of the leadership. An older man was more stoic, trying to explain to others that the decision was to save the lives of the protesters. The best response to the news came from the young man among them. He was furious, an shouted on the top of his lung:

"They betray Thaksin!"

That alone, I believed, summed up everything the Red shirt stood for. It was something many, me included, took for a fact since the beginning of the Red shirt movement. But to hear it with my own ears really confirmed all my suspicion and put everything into perspective. They were not there to fight for democracy or to oppose a corrupted tyrannical government to bring peace, justice or equality to the masses. They just wanted their corrupted criminal leader back in the country and back in power.

As I began to make my way back on foot, I heard a Red shirt woman behind the camp on the phone asking for more car tires to be sent over, a angry young man smashing the glass panel of a public phone booth.

Finally they set fire to the city.