Chaos in Bangkok, 1 December 2013
The Thai political situation is complex, but put simply: the government in power is supported by the Red Shirts, mostly rural folks. They’re being challenged by a coalition of protesters, mostly middle class city dwellers including the Yellow Shirts, student groups, and others. The protesters are trying to topple the current government, and have taken to the streets of Bangkok in huge numbers to do it.
Around Ramkhamhaeng university are the most violent and dangerous protests. The day before some taxis and buses transporting Red Shirts to a stadium for a rally were attacked and several people were killed by gunfire.
The streets here are obviously dangerous, with frightened citizens peering out under heavy metal shutters. The streets are thick with broken glass and makeshift weapons are strewn around from previous clashes. We saw dangerous looking groups of youths striding around aggressively, brandishing homemade clubs.
The Red Shirts at their staging area are protected by the riot police and move only in large numbers. The university students and other protesters nearby are hostile and will attack if the Red Shirts seem vulnerable.
At a nearby intersection tense ambulance drivers wait to be called. As we watch one ambulance arrives carrying a body wrapped in a cloth, dead from gunshot wounds sustained in the violence that morning. The driver stops and opens the hatch to allow the other medics to take pictures of the body with their phones.
Nearby the protesters have set up a roadblock and are inspecting every vehicle coming through. There are some tense moments when a rather oblivious old man tries to ride through the checkpoint wearing a red t-shirt.
Now and then we saw reporters carrying huge camera and arm-sized zoom lenses, wearing body armor and riot helmets. Very bulky and very obvious. We chose to stay slim and mobile so we could sneak through the crowd and blend in with the without getting noticed, then get away quickly when the situation turned dangerous. Besides, we’re not really journalists, but are here to experience the protest, rather than just taking photos. In fact, this let us roam through dangerous places where we saw no reporters at all.
Mobility is important for us. So we just wore our normal outfits – t-shirt and pants – and brought just small but powerful cameras: the mirrorless camera E-PL2 for zooming far ahead, and slim-rugged-waterproof Xperia Z1. Yes, it’s just a smartphone, but it’s waterproof – very important in case we get blasted by a water-cannon. It has an HDR mode to take photos under backlit conditions, and a Timeshift Burst mode to capture the best scene out of many when the action is fast and furious. These features are great for the rapidly changing and dynamic conditions that we were facing that day. In fact almost all of the photos shown in this post were taken using this cell phone camera!
In the tourist and commercial heart of the city, Siam Square, the protesters jam Sukhumvit Road. The huge malls that line the street have shut down and a festive atmosphere prevails.
The protesters here are in good spirits and have blockaded the police headquarters. The police are lined up behind barricades and stare calmly as protesters shout slogans through loudspeakers.
Government House, one of the centers of administration, is the big target. Occupying it will be a big step towards victory for the protesters in their attempted coup d’etat. It has been blockaded on all sides.
One side is fairly quiet and mostly manned by elderly and peaceful protesters. They seem to be having a festival more than a protest – after some fiery speeches they turn on the Thai music and a dance party breaks out.
At 6 pm, both sides – protesters and armoured riot police, still standing face to face separated by barbed wired barricades – put aside their conflict for a solemn moment, standing respectfully and singing the national anthem honouring the King. The booming voices of the police in unison military-style contrast with the raucous singing of the protesting masses. Still, it’s a reminder of how even in this chaos the people of Thailand’s loyalty to their king and nation is beyond question.
Government House Battle
Around the other side of Government House a different kind of protest is happening. There, protesters are actively fighting the police and attempting to topple concrete barriers to move in and occupy Government House.
Several barriers have already been knocked down when we arrive, and tear gas can still be detected in the air. We make our way to the front of the crowd and stare over the barriers at the phalanx of riot police at the other side. As the people creep forward, the police loudspeaker screams, in Thai, “If you approach the barriacades we will deploy the tear gas!”
Even though the goal of these protests is to topple the government, both the police and protesters have been remarkably friendly and welcoming. Protest paraphernalia is being handed out freely though the crowd. Trucks arrive every 20 or 30 minutes dropping off loads of free food and water, and there’s always at least one person who, unasked, fetches a meal or two for us. Others circulate through the mob dropping off snack cakes and bottles of Red Bull to keep the energy levels up.
Gear to survive teargassing is everywhere. Goggles, plastic bags, eye drops or big bottles of saline solution, cloths and masks to wrap around your face. Protesters approach us and give us tips on the right way to bag our heads to keep the tear gas from getting in.
Now and then we start to choke with no visible source of gas – it’s tear gas the police are pumping through the sewers. Someone will drag a heavy blanket soaked in water and plug up the offending grate.
After hours of tension, prepared for violence to explode at any moment, the protest leaders issue an ultimatum to the government: accept their demands or the mob will attack tomorrow in the morning. Supporters are encouraged to get enough rest for more action next day. Most stay up for a Red Bull-fueled all night session of chanting slogans and shouting at the police barricade. Those without so much energy lie down on plastic mats along the road to sleep. We made our way back through the empty streets to our hotel to charge our batteries and plan the next day.
These protests are still ongoing, and the opposition leader has announced a deadline of Monday, December 9 to either succeed in overthrowing the government or surrender. Would a victory for the protestors represent a triumph over corrupt rulers? Or would it be a democratic government removed by a mob? I won’t pretend to understand the complexities of the political issues involved here. But being on the front lines of a raging battle was a uniquely fascinating experience, and we’re looking forward to see what happens next.