Sunday, May 30, 2010

Dueling Protests

Both sides of the immigration debate came to Phoenix today to make their points. More 30,000 immigrant rights activists marched six miles through central Phoenix to express their opposition to Arizona SB 1070 and to promote an economic boycott of the state as punishment for passage of the bill. (Full text of the bill here.

This evening, in neighboring Tempe, more than 3,000 people attended a “buy cott” organized by Tea Party activists, to show support of the bill and to encourage like minded folks to spend money in Arizona to counter the other side’s boycott.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Goodbye For Now

A Thai soldier on guard duty in an intersection on Silom Road Friday. Bangkok is trying to return to normal, but this is no “Mission Accomplished” moment. It’s more like a breather in what promises to be a long road to recovery.  

This is my last day in Bangkok. Very early tomorrow morning I catch a United Airlines flight home. This seems like a good time to reflect on the last two months. 

I came here in March to work on stories about the environment and climate change. I made my travel plans in December, months before the Red Shirt protests. When the Reds started their protest in early March, I assured everyone that the protests would be over before I got in or would end shortly after I got here. In the back of my mind there were some thoughts that it might drag on or end violently but I didn’t think it drag on as long or end as violently as it did.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Morning After

A medical worker rests his hand on the shrouded corpse of a person who died during street fighting in Ratchaprasong Intersection Wednesday. Authorities found six bodies in Wat Pathumwanaram, next to Central World, when they went into it this morning. The bodies found in the temple bring the death toll to at least 12, but it is certain to go up. No one knows yet if anyone died in the blazes the consumed the downtown malls. (NOTE: The latest casualty count is 52 killed, 406 injured since the first fighting on May 14. This has been the bloodiest week in Bangkok in years. MAY 21)
Bangkok woke up this morning with a massive hangover from its orgy of violence Wednesday. The hangover brought silence and some peace to the city. The curfew held overnight, most of the fires were out or close to out and the cleanup started. If you had a reason to be on the street you could move about reasonably freely.  
I drove around Bangkok some before going down to Ratchaprasong Intersection, ground zero for the Red Shirt protest and the objective of Wednesday’s military attack. 
Parts of the city are a mess but people were out cleaning up and the tension and violence that’s marked the last month or more is greatly reduced. There’s a huge military presence on the streets and they are stopping Thais to check IDs and searching vehicles for weapons. 
Ratchaprasong is devastated though. Central World, the second largest mall in southeast Asia and the cornerstone of the Ratchaprasong retail environment, is gone. Fire gutted the building and now, like a some kind of prehistoric animal in its death throes, the building is collapsing bit by bit, girder by girder. Like wheezing exhalations of breath, smoke is still coming out of the building and every once in a while you hear a large groan of metal grinding followed by a crash as a part of the building falls in. 
The movie theaters are gone. They were the first to go, burned to the ground and collapsed by late afternoon Wednesday. 
Another department store, “Big C” was gutted by fire. Firefighters were still inside the building this morning. There’s nothing left but a blackened shell. 

The Erawan Shrine, kitty corner from Central World, and one of my favorite places in Bangkok, was miraculously unscathed in the battles and fires. 
But the most gruesome discovery of the day was at Wat Pathumwanaram, next to Central World and across the street from the Royal Thai police headquarters. Thousands of people, mostly women and children but apparently also some armed Black Shirts, took shelter in the temple. The temple was supposed to be a safe haven for non combatants and bringing weapons in was a strict violation of the informal rules set up to protect the women and kids. 
The people who sheltered in the temple were moved across the street to the police headquarters and ultimately given transportation home. Thousands jammed into the police compound. 
The Black Shirts (the mysterious Black Shirts are thought to be the militia of assassinated Red Shirt military leader Seh Daeng) brought weapons into the temple and fired on troops. Troops returned fire and six people were killed, some Black Shirts, some protesters and some medical workers trying to bring the injured to safety. Their bodies were found and removed this morning. 
The are more photos from this morning’s clean up in my PhotoShelter archive and available from ZUMA Press

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

My City of Ruins

NOTE: Graphic Content in photos and text. 
The crackdown has started. Central Bangkok is a war zone. Soldiers with armored personnel carriers breached the Red Shirt walls in Lumpini Park at about 10AM (Bangkok time). There were numerous small explosions (probably from the protesters’ yaso rockets and ping pong bombs). Soldiers returned fire with assault rifles and shotguns. At least one army sniper was using a World War II vintage M1 Garand with a scope. 
This morning I left my apartment at about 6:30. It was pleasant in Bangkok this morning. A little cooler than normal and the sun was out. But that quickly changed. The first thing I heard was a Blackhawk helicopter. The second thing was a distant explosion. I asked one of my neighbors, also out early, what the explosion was. “M79” he said without hesitation. Then he asked where I was going. I told him maybe Nana (Sukhumvit Soi 4 and the last line of government control of this part of Bangkok) and he said okay. I said maybe Rama IV, which has been a tinderbox. And he said “not safe.” Then I said Sala Daeng, he said “don’t go there. Many soldiers, shooting.” 
I hired a motorcycle taxi and headed for Rama IV and Sala Daeng. Rama IV was the usual scene. Another Red Shirt stage. People listening to speakers and Thai music. Some partying, but in the distance a huge cloud of black oily smoke was billowing up. I headed down the road on foot and a Thai yelled at me, “You stop! Stop! You no go! Army! Snipers!” I turned and walked back to my moto. 
We took some back roads and worked our way closer to the burning barricades. In the days since I was last here, the barricades had grown to well over six feet high. There were thousands of tires stacked here. Lots of fuel for lots of flame. I tried to walk down to the barricade and a Thai man grabbed my arm as I crossed a soi about 50 meters from the barricade. “Snipers,” he said. An Australian TV crew taping from the spot also said not to go down the road. I made some photos of Thai protesters shooting at Blackhawk helicopters with sling shots and walked back to my moto.   
We passed through a couple of checkpoints and ended at the Sala Daeng intersection and Lumpini Park. When I got off the bike, the driver said he would wait 15 minutes and no more. 
There were hundreds of Thai soldiers in the area along with several armored personnel carriers. Shortly after I got to the intersection the APCs roared to life and tried to breach the barricade on Rama IV. I thought the barricades were pretty flimsy but the APC got stuck in the bamboo, razor wire, cement block and couldn’t get over the barricade. Then Thai troops moved forward and several small explosions came from the park. A few troops returned fire and the rest took cover behind the median. 
I photographed the troops under cover. The firing subsided in seconds and I got up and moved to another position. The APCs made another run at the barricade and were stopped a second time. 
I looked at my watch and realized I had been at the line for an hour. I left and walked back to my moto driver, who had waited and was very happy to see me. 
I had decided to stay. I told him “I stay, you go home” and I paid him. He looked at me and said, “no, you come, we not stay.” I told him I wouldn’t leave and he said “no, you come.” I told him again, “no, I stay.” He looked at me and shook his head. He reached into the bike’s little storage bin and gave me a couple of bottles of water. Then he took his Buddhist amulet from his neck and pressed it into my hand and said, “You need Buddha today.” I showed him the Buddhist amulet I keep in my camera bag and said, “I have Buddha, you keep yours.” Then he hugged me. I found it incredibly touching. I had just met this man three hours earlier. We didn’t know each other or speak the same language, all of our talking had been through his very bad pidgin English. 
I walked back down to the front lines and the soldiers were still gearing up for the assault. The APCs made another run at the barricades along Rama IV. Finally soldiers stormed the barricade and took up positions along the bamboo fence. No more explosions had come the park and there was no outgoing fire. One of the soldiers shouted something, another held up a wire running through the barricade. Fearing it was mined, the soldiers fell back to the median.  
The soldiers called in two water canon trucks who knocked the barricades down in minutes. Since nothing exploded, the wire was either a dummy or used to hold the barricade together. 
On the north side of the wall soldiers were moving up Ratchadamri Road on foot towards that end of the barricade. I walked back up there and worked my way forward with them. 
There was a group of Bangkok firefighters at the front line trying to put out fires protesters had started when they retreated (we didn’t know they had fallen back at this point). There was a small explosion on the back (protester) side of the barricade. The firefighters continued to pour foam on the barricade but the Thai soldiers and I got back to cover. More explosions soon followed and Thai soldiers aggressively charged the barricade, moving quickly but carefully using the skytrain abutments for cover. 
Back on the Rama IV side, the APCs went back to work trying to breach the barricade. They attacked the barricade at the same place the water canons had been called in and this time got it. Thai troops stormed over the barricade and into Lumpini Park. I followed them into the park. 
They worked their way through the front of the park, which has been a part of the Red Shirt camp for nearly a month. It was deserted. Their tents and shade structures were still there, but there wasn’t a living soul in the place.
About 200 meters into the park soldiers took cover from unseen snipers. I photographed a soldier in a bus stop. In the corner of the frame I saw what I thought was a Thai civilian laying on the pavement. It was the body of a protester. There were several other bodies in the immediate area. I don’t know when they were killed. Rigor had already set in, they were bloated and insects were buzzing around them. It was a hellish.  
After I photographed the soldier in the bus stop I moved forward to photograph a sniper moving into position. His role was obvious. All of the Thai soldiers had shotguns, open sighted M16s or HK33s, both assault rifles that fire 5.56mm ammunition. This soldier had a scoped M1 Garand, which fires the much more powerful and longer range .30-06 round. When I saw him I couldn’t help but think about the man I saw shot by a sniper on Sunday. The sniper was at the front of the body of soldiers. He turned to me and started yelling “You get out - get out.” I moved back a few meters to the main body of troops.
More explosions came from within the park along with the sound of sustained small arms fire from the direction of Witthayu (Wireless) Road, about 500 meters away, where another unit of Thai troops was attacking Red Shirt barricades. What sounded like rifle shots came from the no man’s land between the Thai units and the soldiers poured out returning fire. I had taken cover behind a toilet bus and the air was rotten with the smell of decaying excrement, urine, burning tires and dead bodies. I was stuck behind the bus with about five Thai soldiers. There were soldiers along a cinder block wall about five meters away firing into the park. The soldiers I was with couldn’t identify where the fire was coming from or where it was safe to move to. I pressed myself against the bus and waited for it to stop. I didn’t want to stay but I couldn’t leave. There was no where to go. 
As suddenly as it started, the firing stopped. First the unidentified firing then the outbound fire. The Thai soldiers I was with stood up. After a few minutes I stood and looked around. The troops around me were taking up positions before pushing further into the park. They were visibly more at ease than they had been just minutes before. Back at the entrance of the park I could see a long column of Thai troops entering the park. I took advantage of the temporary lull to leave. I walked back to Rama IV. From there I walked down Silom Road and caught a taxi back to my apartment. The whole walk was about two kilometers.
I am writing this at 7:30PM, about seven hours after I left the park. In the time since then the city has erupted. Power was cut (along with internet and some mobile phone signals) for several hours. There are fires all over town - the malls in Ratchaprsong have burned down or are burning. The Siam Theater, across the street from the malls, was set ablaze and collapsed. The Thai Stock Exchange (about 2 kilometers from my apartment) is on fire. Thai TV stations are on fire, one of the newspapers is surrounded and being threatened with fire. Hotels near Din Daeng (where I was yesterday) are reportedly on fire. For the first time, foreigners in the protest areas are being threatened by protesters (up until now they have been very, very friendly. Solicitous almost). My city is in ruins. Several provincial halls have been attacked and set afire. Clearly this was a part of the protesters’, the “peaceful protesters, not terrorists” plans. The fires broke out practically simultaneously. Seh Daeng, before his assassination, promised a violent retribution if the government moved in. Clearly he meant it. 
Bangkok is under a curfew. No one can be on the streets from 8PM to 6AM. I am dreading the dawn. 
The are more photos from the assault on Lumpini Park in my PhotoShelter archive and available from ZUMA Press. The gallery is some of the photos I made this morning. There is some graphic content. 

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Destroying A City The Thai Way

An anti government protesters turns away after setting a tire barricade on fire in the Din Daeng Intersection. 
Today was quiet in Bangkok. There were a couple of arson fires and lots of burning tires but so far there have been no reports of shooting or wholesale bloodletting. Given what the city’s been through since Friday, that’s progress. 
I think most of the “main stream media” is missing the big story here. These protests have spread well beyond Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts. Since Friday night it’s been Bangkok’s underclass and slum dwellers, allied with some Red Shirts, vs. the government. The Red Shirt stage, in the center of the city, has been the safest place in town for the last four days. (NOTE: That will change the instant the “crackdown” starts.) The trauma has taken place on Rama IV and Din Daeng and most of the protesters are not members of the Red Shirts. That’s not to say they don’t support the Red Shirts. They do. But they are not Red Shirts from up country. 
The protests since Friday afternoon have made public the splits in Thai society, between the middle and wealthy classes the vast number of Thais living in poverty. Looking at the photos from today’s scene at the Din Daeng barricade it’s clear. These aren’t farmers. They’re the urban poor. 
Just as troubling is the way government security agencies are lining up. During the early days of the Red Shirt protest, back in March, the Royal Thai Police would bring water to the Reds during their marches. They stopped Red Shirts to take photos with them. Sunday, at the Rama IV barricade, police helped protesters erect barricades. 
Last night at Din Daeng, protesters set a tire barricade on fire. When it threatened to go out of control, the police put it out and the protesters who started the fire applauded. Today, police passed through the protesters’ Din Daeng barricades freely all afternoon. 
It was the police who allowed Red Shirt leaders to literally walk away after a botched attempt to arrest them at a meeting in a four star hotel.
The main gate to the Royal Thai Police headquarters is right next to the main protest stage in Ratchaprasong. You’d think, given the tension, that there would be a massive security presence there. You’d be wrong. Unless two unarmed beat cops in lawn chairs is a massive security presence. 
Then there’s the army. There’s little doubt in the minds of most of the protesters that their enemy is the army. It’s the army who has repeatedly opened fire on protesters when there’s been violence during the protests. 
It was the army who opened fire on Red Shirts in April 2009 during the Songkran Riots. 
It was the army who ousted Thaksin, their hero.
I don’t think the government can count on the police to support the army in case the real crackdown comes. (Amazingly, the violence we’re seen so far is not even the main crackdown. According to the government, we’re still in the early stages of a multilayered approach to solving the crisis. The crackdown is yet to come.)
Today I went to the Din Daeng barricades, near Victory Monument. These barricades were the scene of heavy fighting and numerous sniper attacks over the weekend and on Monday. 
Today it was quiet. Protesters were making tire barricades and lighting them on fire. Some were setting off their rockets and launching ping pong bombs. Others were throwing petrol bombs towards the troops. But the soldiers, who were several blocks away did not respond. 
The are more photos from the Din Daeng barricade in my PhotoShelter archive and available from ZUMA Press.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Seh Daeng Is Dead

Thai Army Maj. General Khattiya Sawasdipol, aka “Seh Daeng” is dead. He was shot by a sniper on May 13 during an interview with an American reporter and died Monday morning in a Bangkok hospital. I photographed Seh Daeng on May 12, the day before he was shot. 
The General was something of folk legend in Thailand. He often bragged of his exploits, especially the number of communists he personally killed, during Thailand’s communist insurgency in the 1970’s and 80’s. He bragged about his close connections to the US CIA and he wrote a series of popular action novels. He was very popular in northeast Thailand because he is credited with ending the communist insurgency. 
He was promoted to the head of Thailand’s internal security operations command and then he became active in the Red Shirts. The Army Chief of Staff couldn’t fire or demote him (under Thai law that responsibility is reserved for the King) so he did the next best thing. He made the general the army’s chief aerobics instructor. 
Apparently Seh Daeng is no fan of aerobics. He refused the transfer and told the Chief of Staff he would teach him the “Grenade Dance.” The next day someone fired a 40mm grenade from a M79 grenade launcher into the Chief of Staff’s office. (The Chief of Staff was out at the time and not hurt.) 
Seh Daeng denied any involvement in the attack. Shortly afterwards a series of grenade attacks fell on Bangkok. Seh Daeng denied involvement but the government continued to imply that he was involved and issued warrants for his arrest. 
Seh Daeng took on the role of unofficial military commander of the Red Shirts and was the architect of the bamboo and tire barricades the Reds built around their protest site. 
He was the hardest of hard core red leaders. When moderate leaders wavered and suggested accepting a government offer for early elections Seh Daeng called them traitors to the cause and suggested they were on the government payroll. The government issued arrest warrants for him and started proceedings to have the King dismiss him. (All of this happened while he was still a general.) 
At one point Red Shirt leaders disowned him and told the government to arrest him if they could. I ran into the general in the Red Shirt camp. I was walking through the camp towards their stage and he was out walking around, inspecting the barricades and talking with supporters. I photographed him for about 20 minutes before he got on a motorbike and rode away. I made some of the last photos of Seh Daeng before he was shot. 
The next day he was giving an interview to the New York Times at one of the barricades. Someone turned on video camera light to record the interview and as soon as the light came on a shot rang out. Seh Daeng fell to the ground with a bullet through his brain. 
Seh Daeng has been a huge thorn in the side of the government and his death has to be good news for the people in power. Just the same, the Thai government has denied any role in the shooting of their chief nemesis and said the matter is under investigation. I bet they hire the same Private Investigator OJ hired to find the person who killed Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman.
I was at the Red Shirt camp in Ratchaprasong this morning when his death was announced. People stood in respect. Some started weeping uncontrollably. Others accepted the news in silence. That’s when the photos in the slide show were made. 
The are more photos of Seh Daeng in my PhotoShelter archive and available from ZUMA Press

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Bangkok Is Burning

Unarmed anti government protesters try to spot unidentified snipers who opened fire on their position Sunday. 
Bangkok is descending into chaos. If I had any doubt about that, the man I saw murdered today was all the confirmation I need. 
After Friday’s experiences, I elected to stay away from the barricades on Saturday. I went out for lunch and to a local mall to find a DVD to watch on my computer back in the apartment. The mall was too weird, so I left. 
Dr. Zhivago is one of my favorite movies. There’s a scene early in the film where the Russian bourgeoisie, and the movie’s main characters, Zhivago, Lara, Tonya and Komarovsky, are at a fancy ball in Moscow while the Communists were marching in the street and Tsarists soldiers were setting up ambushes for the marchers. 
That’s what the mall felt like. I could see smoke from the barricades as I went in but everybody inside seemed oblivious to what was happening in the streets. I had to leave. 
My apartment is about three kilometers (less than two miles) from the Rama IV Road protest area. Last night when I turned off the computer (I don’t have a television so I don’t know this is being reported on BBC or CNN) I heard occasional gun fire and a few explosions. The sound of gunfire and explosions have replaced classic rock as the soundtrack of my life in Bangkok. 
This morning I went out to see how things are in the City of Angels. Things aren’t too good. I hired a taxi - 700B per hour (about $22), up from about 1500B (about $47) per day a week ago - and set off. 
First I went to the end of Sukhumvit Road near Phloen Chit. This is one of the busiest intersections in the city. But not today. The army had set up a roadblock there (finally) and was checking documents on all the Thais going in. They were trying to clear civilians out of the area. A steady line of people left the area clutching their belongings as a steady rain fell. 
Then I went back to Rama IV where last night’s gun fire was coming from. I was shocked to see that not only was the road open but there was a party going on. Welcome to revolution in Thailand I guess. This was a “Live Fire Zone” (meaning troops could use live ammunition without warning) yesterday and the scene of repeated shootings. During the night, troops withdrew, anti government protesters set up a stage and started to party. 
Next I went to Sala Daeng. After Ratchaprasong (the main protest site) this is the fanciest corner in the city. The most radical, hard core, Red Shirts have a fortress of sorts on one side of the intersection. There are two high end hotels here - the Dusit Thani and the Pan Pacific - and most of the international financial services companies have their main offices in Sala Daeng. Some of the wire service photographers are staying in the Pan Pacific but otherwise it’s empty. I don’t know if anyone is staying at the Dusit Thani. 
The intersection was eerily silent, like a science fiction movie after the comets hit. 
Even the 7/11 and McDonald’s were closed. There were a couple of soldiers at a roadblock near the intersection, I took some photos of them and then tried to walk past the roadblock. One of the soldiers said to me “mai bai” (don’t go) then in English “sniper” (apparently there is no Thai word for sniper, since it’s the one English word every Thai I would later meet could say and I heard it a lot today). I pointed to the Red Shirt fortress across the street. He shook his head no and pointed to government positions up the street. I turned and walked slowly back to my waiting cab. 
My next intended stop was Petchaburi Road on the opposite side of the Red Shirt camp. I couldn’t even get past the roadblock there, which is kind of weird because foreign journalists usually have carte blanche to move around here. I was a little spooked after the Sala Daeng warning though so I didn’t push it. 
I told my taxi driver to take me back to the apartment. Because of road closures, we had to go around the same way we came. As we drove back across Rama IV I was surprised to see the road was closed again. This time it was closed by the size of the crowd partying in the street. I told my taxi driver to let me out, I paid him off and walked through the party. Thousands of people had come to watch whatever was going to happen and party. The most militant partiers were at the front of the crowd, under a highway overpass.
I could see smoke billowing up from the far end of the street and I walked down to the overpass to see what was happening. There was a large, agitated crowd under the bridge but not much to see except the burning barricades in the distance. 
I walked past the front edge of the crowd and a Thai pulled me back in under the bridge and said “sniper” while he made a shooting gesture and pointed to buildings far down the road towards Sala Daeng. I was a little surprised because we were a long ways from the burning barricades and the barricades were a long ways from the Thai army lines. 
I walked back under the bridge and a Thai woman came up to me and asked if I spoke English (there are huge numbers of German and Russian tourists here, though I don’t particularly look like a Russian tourist). She went on to tell me that army snipers were down the road and that someone had decided 500 meters was a safe distance to be from the snipers because they’re using M16’s and the Thais believe an M16 is not effective beyond 500 meters. We were about 800 meters from the army lines and 300 meters from the barricades. While we were well in a safe area, the people at the barricades were just within what the Thais thought the maximum range of the M16 is. 
I stayed under the bridge for about 90 minutes while other journalists walked down the street using empty store fronts and phone poles for cover. Protesters built more barricades at the bridge to cut off expressway access to Rama IV. The protesters set fire to the barricades, sending more smoke over Bangkok. One of the things that made me nervous about the barricade construction was that the harder they worked to keep the army out, they were also working to create a fence that would keep us blocked in. 
(In a real WTF moment the few police remaining at the bridge cleared traffic so protesters could get old tires and petrol in for the barricades. Some of the barricades are coated in diesel and protesters are stockpiling petrol bombs at almost all of the barricades.) 
The whole time people came running out of the nearby neighborhoods, clutching their belongings. Some hired motorcycle taxis who weaved left to right as they sped to the bridge. Every time I approached the front of the bridge someone would whisper “sniper” and point to army lines. 
I finally decided to abandon good sense and walk down to the burning barricades. I copied the moves of the other photographers, using empty store fronts, planters and phone poles, anything I could really, for cover all the while feeling kind of foolish. This is Bangkok, and the concept of snipers shooting unarmed civilians at random didn’t seem possible. 
I got to the barricade and discovered there wasn’t much to photograph. A group of Thai journalists (who have been extremely gracious and helpful this whole time) had moved further down the street. They appeared to be wearing body armor (I am not) and were being very cautious. I considered trying to catch up to them, but I don’t speak Thai and I wasn’t sure if I could safely maneuver up to their position. The whole 500 meter thing had me spooked. So I stayed under cover at the barricade.
I had just given up on getting anything and started walking back to the relative safety of the bridge when the crowd, almost as one, started screaming. I turned to see three men running, holding shopping bags, down the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street, more than 50 meters away. The crowd around me was encouraging them, much the way fans at a track meet cheer for the athletes. Then one of the runners appeared to trip. At the same time the report of a rifle shot echoed down the empty street. The other two men also went down as more shots rang out. The people around me all dove to the sidewalk. 
The last two men to fall scrambled to their feet and crawled to safety. The first man did not get up. I photographed the people around me as they took cover but the man across the street was obscured by a planter in the median phone poles along the curb. As I stayed in cover I could see the tops of some courageous people’s heads as they worked to pull the downed man to safety. An ambulance siren blared and an ambulance weaved left to right down the street, it turned down a narrow soi (sidestreet) and moments later emerged from the same soi weaving back to the bridge. 
Now thoroughly spooked, I decided it was time to leave the area of the barricades. I worked my way back to the bridge, moving from cover to cover not feeling nearly as foolish as I did the first time I made the walk. At the bridge a Thai medic told me the man appeared to be shot in the lung, that it looked like the bullet passed through him back to front and he was not expected to live. 
I’ve been a photojournalist for more than 25 years. I’ve covered political violence and drug violence in Mexico, Nicaragua, and the US. I watched a mob in Haiti pull a man from his home and beat him mercilessly. In the Philippines, I’ve spent nights hunkered down in hiding as local troops scoured a village looking for me. I’ve been in the middle of riots in the US and Mexico. I’ve never seen a person shot in the back by a sniper. This was not something I saw out of the corner of my eye. I watched as he ran, his arms pumping and then as he collapsed, heard the shots and saw that he did not to get up. 
On Friday I wrote that I was impressed with the discipline displayed by some of the Thai soldiers I encountered during a street battle. I’m not sure how well disciplined they are. I think now I was very lucky. Lucky that an experienced NCO was with the troops and lucky that it was the first day of violent protests. I think if something like that happened again, under the changing rules of engagement the outcome would be different.   
The US Embassy in Bangkok is holding a “town hall meeting” to talk about the situation in Bangkok on Tuesday. I am writing this on Sunday night. I think Tuesday may be too late. (Ironically the town hall meeting is at the S31 hotel on Sukhumvit, about 2 kilometers from my apartment and one block away from the home of the Thai Prime Minister, the man partially responsible for this whole mess.) 
I don’t see this situation stabilizing before then and the protests are spreading. What was once localized to Ratchaprasong has become a contagion and is spreading to other parts of the city and country. There are reports of violent Red Shirt protests in some of the Isan provinces. In Bangkok, it’s no longer just “Red Shirts” either. The actions I photographed Friday morning were Reds vs. the Army. But Friday afternoon and today it was Bangkok residents, not Red Shirts, who were leading the charge. 
The situation is deteriorating much faster and worse than I thought it would. I expected a crackdown against the Red Shirts, a day of violence and a day of mop up followed by recriminations and accusations. That’s the Thai way. Instead Bangkok, the city I grew up in and my favorite place in the world, is burning. I don’t see how Thailand, let alone Bangkok, can recover from the spasm of violence ripping it apart. 
As I wrote Friday, “The leaders on both sides either don’t see what’s happening or they’re so obsessed with preserving their personal fortunes (for the Yellows’ leaders) or drunk with ambition (the Reds’ leaders) that they don’t care. And the country tears itself apart.“
There are more photos from Sunday in Bangkok in my PhotoShelter account and available from ZUMA Press

Saturday, May 15, 2010

This Is A "Rubber" Bullet

This is a rubber bullet fired by Thai troops at protesters Friday, I put the quarter next to it for scale. The first time I saw one of these, I thought, “wow, that’s big.” This was one was fired from a 12 gauge shotgun. The fins at the back stabilize it in flight, making it a little more accurate. Security forces are also firing rubber bullets from M16‘s and the other assault rifles in the Thai inventory. These litter the ground at conflict sites in Bangkok like stale popcorn on the floor of a movie theater. 
When you hear the term “rubber” bullet you may think nerf ball. This ain’t that. It doesn’t bounce and it’s not a toy. The green part of the body is hard plastic, the nose is rubber and both parts are wrapped around a metal rod. It’s fired from a shotgun using reduced powder charge so it’s effective range is pretty short, probably under 100 yards. It’s considered a “less than lethal” weapon. But that depends on where it hits you and how close you are to the person shooting. At close range a head shot will kill you. Even at a distance, you can suffer serious injury from a broken bone to losing an eye. 

Friday, May 14, 2010

Surrendering to Authorities

Thai protesters wait for government troops to detain them during a street battle in Bangkok Friday. 
I went back out to Rama IV Road this afternoon after I edited my morning take. Thai TV was reporting that a crowd had gathered there and the situation was tense. 
When you get into a situation like the one I am in now, the first thing that disappears is the taxis. That’s why when journalists in a conflict zone find a good driver or translator they pay them a lot to keep them around. I didn’t think I was in a conflict zone and my regular taxi won’t go near the protests anyhow. 
I asked a couple of motorcycle taxis to take me to Rama IV. One young man looked at me, looked at my cameras and finally at my helmet (we’re all wearing helmets now) and made a shooting motion and said Rama IV? I said yes. He said no. That little drama played out two more times (and should have been enough warning for me) before one driver said okay for 100B, about $3US. Normally it’s about 40B cab ride or 30B mototaxi ride. But desperate times and all that. 
We headed down to Rama IV, got about half the distance I wanted to go and ran into a large angry crowd. But these were not Red Shirts, they were residents of Khlong Toey, a huge Bangkok slum area. The driver wouldn’t go past the crowd so I paid him and walked in. 
I walked about 1/2 of a mile down to the line between the protesters and ranks of standing soldiers. A solitary protester was the middle of the street waving a Thai flag. The 100 yards between the two was a no man's land. 
Some in the crowd started using slingshots to launch rocks and small home made explosives, called ping pong bombs, towards the soldiers, a few thew petrol bombs. A rocket went off and skittered down the road and between the soldiers' ranks. The soldiers raised their weapons and the next sound was that of a grenade launcher going off. 
I was talking to another American photographer when the gas grenade hit the ground about 20 feet from me, started spinning and almost immediately soldiers opened fire with shotguns firing rubber bullets. The crowd, choking from the gas, dove to the ground. We both made a couple of pictures then ran, choking also, for cover near an empty boxing stadium. 
While we waited in the entry of the closed stadium we could hear the continuous fire of rifles and shotguns. The Thais around us all got into submissive positions on the ground, hunched down, hands up, palms open. We did the same. 
The firing slowed and we could hear running and shouting coming into our area. Thai soldiers burst in screaming orders to people. I don't speak Thai so I don't know what they were saying. One soldier put his M16 in my face and started screaming at me. His NCO saw me, slapped the rifle down, pulled me out of the crowd, and let me go on my way. I photographed the soldiers arresting the protesters and walked to what I thought was a secure area. 
At this point, even if I wanted to leave there was no where to go. I was behind the army, which was the safest place to be. Getting to a taxi would have meant leaving the safety of the army positions and crossing into the crowds, which were in a frenzy. So I continued to work. 
As I was crossing the secure area, behind a line of soldiers to get to where most of the other photographers were, the soldiers opened fire again with shotguns. First an occasional shot but very quickly in fusillades, both shotguns and rifles, down the street. I ran to shelter again until I could determine what was happening. 
The soldiers started advancing down the street. I walked parallel to the soldiers photographing as they fired. Each time the soldiers advanced the crowd would fall back, staying just out of rubber bullet range. The soldiers firing live ammunition were shooting into the air. This continued for another 90 minutes or so.
By now I was in a pack of photographers and felt pretty safe but physically tired and psychologically on edge. I was talking to an AP photographer who said he just got a call from the AP office. A French TV person had been shot three times. AP and Reuters were pulling their people off the street. 
That was all I needed. I left with the AP photographer. We walked out about two miles through eerily quiet streets until we found two people with motorcycles willing to get us out of the area. This time the moto driver wanted 200B (just under $7) to bring me back to my apartment. I told him okay, but one condition: “Mai army, mai bang bang, mai see daeng” (No army, no bang bang, no reds). A condition he was thrilled to meet. 
I don’t know where this leaves Bangkok or what it means for the Kingdom. The Red Shirts have been active for almost four years, since a coup deposed their hero, Thaksin Shinawatra, in September 2006. For the last year, since the Songkran Riot in March 2009, I’ve worried that Thailand is on the edge of civil war. Red Shirts and up country people vs the Yellow Shirt and Amataya (Thailand’s entrenched ruling elite).  
One can question the motives of their leaders, but I think many of the Red Shirt grievances are legitimate. 
Rural Thais have not benefitted nearly as much as urban Thais have from the country’s economic expansion. The family you are born into is a much more of a predictor of success than your personal traits. The ruling elite look with open disdain on people from the countryside, derogatorily calling them “water buffaloes.” I’ve had wealthy, well educated, reasonable Thais tell me “You don’t understand. Many of these farmers aren’t smart enough to vote properly.” Or, “We shouldn’t even have one person one vote in rural areas. There should be a formula for the rural people and Bangkok people have one person one vote.” What they need to remember is that water buffalo may be slow but it also has great stamina. These protests are not going to just go away. 
The Red Shirts (or their predecessors) have seen the last two elections they won freely and fairly snatched from them, first by a coup and then by a court ruling on an obscure law that forced their party at the time to disband. They believe, and I think they are right, that if another election is held, they will win only to have the courts nullify it in a year. 
Militant members of factions allied with the Red Shirts have been stockpiling weapons in the country side, preparing for some kind of an armed struggle. There are reportedly factions within the army that favor one side or another. The rhetoric only gets worse with each passing incident. 
Each time there is an outbreak of violence, things stay bad for a day or two then the tension recedes a little. But things never return to “normal.” 
So, for example, using an imaginary scale of 1 to 100, (with 100 being outright civil war) things were really tense after the botched military operations on April 10, around 75 on my imaginary scale. By April 12 things had calmed down, say to 65, but Thailand didn’t go back to where it was on April 7 or 8, around 50. Instead the “new normal” settled at 65. After Thursday night, when a sniper shot Seh Daeng, a very popular Red Shirt military leader (one of the troubling things is that although they deny it the Reds have a militia), things went up to 80 on the scale. By Friday’s street battles things had gone up to 85. If this plays out the way other outbursts have, by Monday a level calm will return but we’ll be at 75 or more on the imaginary 1 - 100 scale of civil tension. People will accept this as the “new normal” and seem not to realize what they are giving up. Slowly but surely society slides into the abyss. 
The leaders on both sides either don’t see what’s happening or they’re so obsessed about preserving their personal fortunes (for the Yellows’ leaders) or drunk with ambition (the Reds’ leaders) that they don’t care. And the country tears itself apart. 
It’s important to remember that while this is a class struggle, the Red Shirts are not, at this point, communists. No one is seriously talking about the redistribution of wealth, abolishing the Sangha (Buddhist clergy) or forming a republic. 
The rank and file Red Shirts are small farmers who want to keep their land. None of them are looking for communal land redistribution. 
Thais are inveterate entrepreneurs. Any time a crowd of 10 or more gets together, a drink or snack vendor sets up to sell them refreshments, mototaxis show up to ferry them around. State planned economy would die a swift death here.  
Virtually every Thai male enters the Sangha for some time of his adult life. Even the most hard core Red Shirt bows his head in a wai when he passes a temple or shrine.  State ordered atheism is not in the fabric of the Thai people. 
But each time the Red Shirts, or their political party, wins an election only to have it snatched away by the army or the courts, the people become a little more radicalized. That is a danger the ruling elite has to face up to. 
(NOTE: In the first draft of this blog entry I wrote that I was impressed with the discipline of Thai troops I encountered Friday. In the wake of events I’ve witnessed since Friday, and without condoning protesters’ tactics of trying to provoke troops into an armed response, I’ve had second thoughts and decided to remove references to the discipline of Thai troops. I now think it was nothing more than luck that kept me safe Friday. See Sunday’s blog entry for more.)
There are more photos from today’s activities in my PhotoShelter account and available from ZUMA Press