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