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A Week in Review: May 15-21, 2010

From the brink of civil war to the prospect of lasting peace, it has been a truly pivotal week in the history of Thailand.   Read our week in review here...

The week began as the last one had ended with more skirmishes between red shirts and soldiers. The reds were filmed using a wide range of weapons, including handguns and grenade launchers as well as the usual rocks, slingshots, Molotov cocktails, and homemade rockets. The army responded with live ammunition.

Among the day’s six fatalities was a 10 year old boy who was unintentionally shot when his drunken father tried to ram his pickup truck through a military checkpoint.

The reds were running riot all over Bangkok now and most of the fighting was taking place outside their barricaded main camp at Rajaprasong, which had become almost exclusively populated by women, children, the elderly, a few guards and the UDD leaders.

Inside the camp, supplies were running low as the military blockade was beginning to have some effect; outside the camp, reds were helping themselves to whatever they wanted as they began looting 7/11s. Twenty seven reds were caught and sentenced to 6 months in prison in a rare case of quick justice in Thailand.

In addition to the now common rioting, looting and arson, Sunday also saw one of Bangkok’s iconic landmarks, the Dusit Thani Hotel, come under attack when 3 RPGs were fired from red-occupied Lumpini Park. But it wasn’t only buildings that were being targeted as the reds and army continued to face off at various locations outside the Rajaprasong camp. Nine more deaths were reported, including one air force officer who was shot in the head when another pickup truck tried to break through an army checkpoint at Sala Daeng.

As the situation intensified, the start of the new school term was postponed for a week and the government offered to take women and children out of the reds’ main camp.

Just as the reds were increasingly adopting guerrilla warfare tactics, so the government too was changing its own tactics. In addition to their physical blockade on the reds’ camp, they announced financial embargoes on 109 pro-red individuals and institutions to cut off cash flows to the reds.

Two UDD guards were arrested when their pickup truck was stopped and found to be full of weapons, but the big news on Monday was that Seh Daeng was finally pronounced dead. It was to be the only casualty of a relatively quiet day, however, as although the reds were still attacking soldiers, the army had established a no-man’s land in between the reds and themselves.

Monday also saw one of the sickest developments in the whole dirty war when photos and video began to appear of a smiling red protester hiding behind tyre barricades while he stood his young one or two year old son on raised tyres so that his head and upper body were exposed above the barricade. The fact that the crying toddler wasn’t shot underlines the army’s claim that they were only firing on rioters who were using weapons. The fact that no-one among the red ranks felt compelled to stop this despicable act makes each of them equally as guilty and epitomised the utter contempt for life that some red supporters clearly possess.

Partly because of the army’s no-man’s land and partly because of the rain, Tuesday was another quiet day. However, the reds were setting up satellite stages all across Bangkok and with no resolution in sight, the government extended its public holiday for another 3 days, and more pro-red bank accounts were frozen.

While his disciples suffered, Thaksin was maintaining a low personal profile apart from being photographed shopping at Louis Vuitton in Paris. However, his recently appointed lawyer squirmed during an interview by Al Jazeera when questioned about Thaksin funding the reds and his human rights record. He also completely sidestepped the question of what should happen next or how the problem could be resolved.

With the two sides at a stalemate, the Senate stepped in and offered to act as mediators in peace talks. After discussions with UDD leaders, they announced on the red stage that as part of the negotiating process, there would have to be an immediate end to all violence by red shirts. The crowd of mostly heavily indoctrinated women responded to this call for peace by shouting angrily and throwing things at the stage.

Following the latest refusal of the reds to even enter negotiations, the long-expected army crackdown finally began at dawn on Wednesday. After armoured personnel carriers broke through the reds’ tyre and bamboo barricades opposite Silom Road, hundreds of soldiers stormed though and engaged the retreating red guards in a battle to regain Lumpini Park before heading down Rajadamri towards the main stage at Rajaprasong. By early afternoon, the army were close to the main stage and although Arisman managed to escape, five of the reds’ main leaders surrendered, and the six-week occupation of Rajaprasong was finally over.

With the rally over, splinter groups across Bangkok, Isaan and the North went on an orgy of rioting, burning and looting. Din Daeng reds vowed to hunt down journalists for misreporting their cause. Channel 3 TV station was set on fire with 100 people inside; the Nation and Bangkok Post newspaper offices were evacuated; and all reporters were advised to remove their green armbands.

In addition to the Channel 3 building, a total of thirty-two buildings were set on fire, including the Stock Exchange of Thailand, various banks, the headquarters of the Metropolitan Electricity Authority and Central World shopping mall. Fire crews were prevented from putting out some of the fires by snipers and videos later appeared of red shirts cheering as Central World burnt.

A total of six deaths, including one Italian journalist, were reported for the day, but is perhaps worryingly symptomatic of the root cause of the problem that Bangkokians expressed far greater outrage over the burning of a luxury shopping mall than the deaths of six human beings. It is equally a sad reflection on the red shirts, however, that not one of them has ever condemned any of the violence committed by their supporters.

With Bangkok burning and many reds still on the rampage, the government announced a curfew.

Up to five thousand red shirts, some of them injured, had taken refuge in Wat Pathumwanaram but the police were being prevented from evacuating them on Thursday morning because of what is thought to have been sniper fire. An additional six people, including one medical volunteer, died of gunshot wounds at the temple and with other victims succumbing to their injuries from the previous day, the total death toll for the operation to clear Rajaprasong rose to fourteen. One soldier was among the dead while others were badly injured, including some who lost limbs from grenade explosions

As things began slowly returning to normal, three more red leaders handed themselves in on Thursday, although Arisman remained on the run. During the cleanup operations, several weapons were found in Lumpini Park and around Rajaprasong, and ten bodies were discovered in the burnt out remains of Central World.

A total of 53 people lost their lives and 413 had been injured since the latest unrest started just over a week earlier on May 14.

For the record: Thaksin remains on the run, and Thailand remains a democracy.

Paul Snowdon – May 22, 2010

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