23:30 hrs, Saturday April 11 - Working today with some other journalists, I reached the Pan Fah bridge around 2.30pm and walked up Rajadamnoen to the Makkawan bridge. Pan Fah is where the original red shirt camp is; they have been there since early March.
Red shirts at a makeshift barrier just off Rajadamnoen Road. -- ST PHOTOS: NIRMAL GHOSH
All was quiet at Pan Fah. Reports of troops "moving in" and using water cannons there were all apparently bogus or deliberate disinformation. But at Makkawan in front of the UN building, soldiers were closing in from three sides and the acrid tear gas blew across milling red shirt crowds and soldiers alike under the baking sun. Vendors selling red shirt merchandise were beginning to pack their wares and began leaving as gunfire rattled down the leafy avenue.
Troops, the frontline armed only with shields and batons but others with shotguns, M16s and teargas, were advancing to clear the avenue. As they formed up and advanced a brief skirmish ensued with some gunshots and small explosions. Later I saw a 12 gauge shotgun shell on the road, probably used for rubber bullets. But red shirts also held up spent M16 shells. One red shirt, a Bangkok-resident engineer, held up the shells and screamed "all we want is an election, we have come with bare hands." There were no casualties from that clash though.
Military helicopters circled overhead. Red shirts released bunches of helium-filled red balloons to hinder them. Later a contraption firing rockets of the kind used in firework festivals, was rigged up on a truck and volleys were fired but of course were hopelessly short in range. Later there were reports of tear gas being dropped out of helicopters though I did not see any myself.
Red shirts protecting retreating troops in the afternoon; the friendly mood did not last.
All day the situation hung in balance with even some friendly local truces. At Makkawan red shirts even formed a line at one point to protect retreating soldiers. The red shirts cheered and danced as the soldiers left. Even later in the evening near Royal Plaza, there was no real animosity between the troops and the reds of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD).
Soldiers and the Boney M sound truck.
The army had bizarrely set up a sound truck which was blasting out '70s disco hits in an attempt to keep the mood light. When I got there they were playing Boney M's "Rasputin." A local truce was negotiated between a red shirt and the army unit commander.
But red shirts reinforced their fellow protestors in large numbers both at Ratchaprasong and at Rajadamnoen, and by nightfall it seemed inevitable that the army’s push to clear Rajadamnoen and Pan Fah, would go wrong.
Negotiating a truce.
The mood at Ratchaprasong where the main red shirt protest is camped was stable and even upbeat. But at Rajadamnoen in the Democracy Monument-Kao San road area, hours of standoffs and some skirmishes erupted into nasty full scale pitched battles with troops shooting directly at red shirts with both rubber and live bullets.
Red shirts fought back and after a long clash which saw petrol bombs and grenade explosions and troops firing directly at red shirts, the street near the tourist enclave of Kao San road was littered with broken glass and rubble, shoes and socks and fresh blood. Colleagues Willi Germund and Marwaan Macan-Markar saw two civilians – one of them definitely a red shirt – hit by bullets just 10 metres in front of them.
I was around the corner in Kao San road trying to file my stories in a restaurant which had been all but closed. Curious tourists filled the street as the rattle of gunfire and the occasional big explosion was heard at the bottom of the road where it turns to meet Democracy Monument.
While this battle raged with people running up and down the street outside, I tried to compose my thoughts, and had most of one story done when suddenly a squad of soldiers came charging in apparently running from the battle, and one collapsed right next to me and passed out. Two tourists and staff of the restaurant washed his face with water and carried him out. I was then told I had to leave, so I logged out and gathered my things and ran out to see two soldiers being loaded into ambulances.
I joined Willi and Marwaan after some time then, and saw fresh blood where one of the bodies had lain. The tenuously controlled situation that had prevailed through the day had disintegrated into a spiral of violence and roving riots. Red shirts and soldiers fought skirmishes virtually around every other street corner.
Angry red shirts holding up a 12 gauge and M16 cartridge cases.
By evening it was also evident from that hard core elements in the reds had also armed themselves, though most remained primitively armed. One journalist said he saw an AK47 and M16 in the hands of two red shirts. There was hand to hand combat between soldiers and red shirts.
As I beat a retreat from my Internet café on Kao San and went in search of my friends, I called professor Federico Ferrara, professor at National University of Singapore and author of the recent book "Thailand Unhinged."
He said "Under any circumstances a crackdown of this kind is a huge gamble. The possibility that it will end well is off the table. My advice to Abhisit would be to pack his bags."
Earlier in the day I had met Jaran Ditta-apichai, UDD co-leader, at Ratchaprasong and he told me "If the government wins this the country will be at war. This is just a battle. And if army fails to clear Rajadamnoen then Abhisit will have to go tomorrow."
But prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva showed no sign of budging even though army chief Anupong Paochinda called a truce after the bloody clashes at Rajadamnoen Road and Kao San Raod in the Democracy Monument area. Late at night he went on TV expressing regret for the deaths but saying red shirts had started the violence.
A lot of people tonight are keeping their fingers crossed that the truce will hold.
It was a bad day for journalists. In just one afternoon at least three were injured, and one was killed – Reuters cameraman Hiroyuki Muramoto. After the truce was called we made our way to Pan Fah and met with other colleagues, many of us stunned and exhausted from being out all day and often in the line of fire. Colleagues spoke of a firefight in which it seemed as if soldiers may have even been shooting at each other. Snipers were shooting from roofs. There had been so much chaos and confusion that the details and facts quickly became hazy.
While we talked and checked whether other friends were safe, a man was led by stripped to the waist, whimpering in fear, being bashed around by red shirt guards. He seemed to have been some kind of infiltrator. Some of us ran after them to ensure that he was not lynched. He was kicked in the back and made to sit and was interrogated by one of the red shirts who seemed to be in charge of security. Meanwhile up on the stage, five soldiers who had been "arrested" were on display for the big crowd at Pan Fah.
I decided to leave then. On the way back home a short while ago I passed Lumpini Park at the top of Silom road, and saw that red shirts had put up tents there and hundreds were standing about. This was on top of the few thousand at Pan Fah and the many thousands at Ratchaprasong. The fact that the movement has only grown since April 2009, is better organised, and has been able to consistently muster tens of thousands of supporters in Bangkok – and several thousand from Bangkok itself – came as little surprise to many foreign journalists who have been closely tracking Thailand’s political conflict.
01:00 Sunday - The death toll from just half a day’s violence has surpassed that of several days of violence in April 2009.