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.