Everything looked like the government had finally decided to use force and have a crackdown on the red-shirts. Having not much else to do and deciding that we wanted to see something interesting Emma and me decided to head out to Rajaprasong to see what was happening. Having waited for the bus which was obviously not running we tried to get some taxis but they were not heading there even though we just mentioned that we wanted to go to Pantip Plaza (Actually did want to get a portable hard-drive so actually did want to go to Pantip). Having given up on heading to Rajaprasong we decided to head down to Rajadamern instead and just see what was going on. Had heard that there was a crack down earlier in the day and expected that the red-shirts had dispersed. That was far from true. We managed to grab a taxi but the traffic was so bad, with Pinklao and Rama VIII bridge having been closed that we got off at Thewet and decided to walk the rest of the way.
Helicopters were circling overhead constantly scanning the situation from the air. We came straight down Sam Sen road and arrived at the end of Khao San road next to the police station and Wat Chanasongkram. A whole bunch of tourists were leading an exodus when we arrived, obviously desperate to find somewhere slightly safer to go. Khao San road itself was comparatively barren compared to what it would have been like on a normal Saturday afternoon. Walked on further and arrived at Pinklao Bridge which had been blocked off with some cars and trucks and a contingent of red-shirt guards and other hangers-on. Was taking a picture and starting chatting to a Khun Lung guy dressed with a long stick and a red bandanna. Asked him what was going on and he said that the red-shirts were still where they had been before and that it was perfectly fine to just walk down Rajadamnern.
We walked on down heading towards the imposing Democracy Monument but half way down something seemed odd. Lots of people were wearing cloths round their mouths and some were wearing goggles over their eyes. Suddenly it hit us, first it was just like a bad smell but then it hits your eyes and the back of your throat. The tear gas must only have been a small amount but it had a really strong effect. Eventually it seemed to pass and we continued on walking. We were just walking past the Kock Wua junction and there seemed to be a commotion.
Quite a lot of people were moving from the opposite side of the junction towards the Khao San road side. At first I assumed that people were trying to escape from something on that side but then realised that they were actually moving in to defend themselves from a contingent of riot-gear clad soldiers that were attempting to move in from the road that runs down past Khao San on the side of Burger King. Curious we moved in closer to see what was going on. There was a stand-off between the soldiers and the red-shirts. There was a lot of jeering from the red-shirts who as far as I could see were armed with either heart-clappers or long sticks. While I cannot confirm that none of the red-shirts were armed with any guns, I would be pretty certain that some were, but I certainly didn’t see or hear anyone firing one.
Suddenly, the sound of guns being fired. There was a large number of guns going off at the same time and each gun firing several bullets in quick succession. These were obviously the soldier’s guns and many of the red-shirts, to include Emma and I, made a hasty retreat. Whether the bullets were live or just blanks I do not know. If they were live then they must not have been fired into the crowd in that confined space or a large number of people would have been dead. We did not move back far, we didn’t even get back onto Rajadamern road. People stopped their retreat and stayed on, although maybe at a slightly safer distance than before. People were saying that they were not real bullets. The people who did not move at all were the red-shirt guards who stayed right where they were at the front of their barricade. These guys must either be crazy or very determined and well disciplined, or maybe a bit of both.
Various things were being thrown at the soldiers such as bottles, rocks and even a flaming stick. In the small and crowded area at the end of the back-packers haven of Khao San road the atmosphere was tense. We stayed there for maybe about five minutes and we saw a number of the guards from the front of the barracade get dragged back as they had been injured. A farang wearing hippy style light-green clothing and with long hair and a beard shouted loudly to some people “GET ME MY SAMURAI SWORD!” and other rather dramatic phrases. Soon some ambulances arrived and some trucks from the volunteer ambulance teams. Some people were taken away. Then the soldiers fired again and seemed to be advancing so we beat a hasty retreat to the relative safety of Rajadamern road.
We moved further down the road towards Democracy Monument where a large number of people were. At first I didn’t see them but there was another detachment of soldiers parked at the edge of the northern section of Dinsor road. They were sitting in trucks and Humvees and were belting out a song made by the King. They seemed to be at a stalemate with both sides pretty much just standing off against each other but with both sides making no real attempt to move further from their positions. Then it seemed to get more intense and the soldiers started up the engine on their truck.
We decided to make a move away from the area in case it erupted into something more violent. Walking across the road circling Democracy Monument the road seemed to be very slippery in places and it was hard to walk. A motorcyclist had slipped over previously and now I saw why. It was hard to tell if it was just wet or whether it was oil or something. We decided that we had had enough of the protest and decided to find a way to leave. I expected that if we could make it back up to Sanam Luang then there would probably be a way out through one of the many roads that led off the area and would certainly not all have been closed off. Although before we had moved far, I saw three or four tear-gas canisters hit the ground across the road from us. They seemed to fall onto the roof of a fairly low lying building. We rushed to move up the road but soon the gas hit our eyes and mouth and it completely incapacitated us. All that could be done was to stand still and close our eyes hoping it would ease. Normally I don’t spit in public but I had to repeatedly spit out the saliva in my mouth to get rid of the taste. Getting a hit of chillies in the eyes is something that often happens in Thailand but tear-gas is on a whole much more intense level that Thai chillies just cannot compete with.
This must have happened a few more times and we were nicely helped out by some people who gave us water to try and wash our eyes with. We had got back up the road half way between democracy monument and Kock wua junction and I noticed that there was tear-gas coming from near to kaosan road and the red-shirts seemed to have been pushed back significantly. We could not move forward on this side of the road but also we could not move back towards democracy monument. I knew we needed to keep moving towards Sanam Luang so we were forced to climb over the potted plants that run along the central reservation of the road. On the other side we were able to move on further and then moved on down a side road that led away from Rajadamnern. We moved along a road that moved parallel to Rajadamnern and numerous ambulances tore past us making their way to the nearest hospitals. Randomly we actually met someone we knew and then carried on until we emerged at Sanam Luang next to the Ratanakosin Hotel which was made famous for the massacre that happened there only about 20 years previously when other groups of protesters had dared to call for democracy. Having seen the way the red-shirts are prepared to fight back against the police and the army I think that if the government is determined to use force to end this protest then it may take a massacre on the same scale to get the red-shirts out of Rajadamern road. I sincerely hope this does not happen.
We passed a rather new looking Mercedes Benz that was adorned right at the front with a very proud looking “truth today” sticker. Obviously this red-shirt supporter was not one of the “poor rural hoards” that the red-shirts have previously been stereotyped as. We went into the nearby Seven-Eleven and got some water and then, as we had been walking since Thewet, we sat down for a rest. While we were sitting there we were approached by a middle-aged slightly dirty and poor looking gentlemen who proceeded to burst another of the red-shirt stereotypes by showing that while he did not have a high formal education, he certainly had a very clear knowledge of politics and why he was there. Another red-shirt stereotype is that they are all paid to be there. I have no idea of this guy was paid to be there, I personally doubt he was, but all I know was that even if he had be paid he certainly would have been there protesting even if he hadn’t. A final stereotype that he broke was that all the red-shirts are republicans. He proudly pointed out the picture of the King that adorns the front of the Ratanakosin Hotel and explained how he loved both the King and Thaksin, although certainly doesn’t like Prem and the other “Ammart”.
Finally deciding to head back home we headed over to the end of Khao San road next to Wat Chansongkran that we had about an hour ago seen hordes of tourists leaving in droves. The road now seemed almost deserted. Almost all shops, bars and guesthouses were shut. A few remained open entertaining the tourists who hadn’t been scared off. Banners informing people to have a safe and enjoyable Songkran seem to have been put up to early and now almost seemed to be ironic in their pleas to people to be safe. Having heard that the army had already retreated we decided that we would walk along Khao San to the other end to see what was left after the battle with the red-shirts.
We got there and there were a number of red-shirts, some tourists standing around taking pictures and various members of the press. The area was completely trashed. There was broken glass all over the road and so too were pieces of wood, some army helmets and shields. Pools of blood were also splayed on the floor in some parts. People were searching the rubble and found numerous bullet casings which they were collecting as evidence. A pick-up truck that had been part of the barricade had numerous bullet holes in the window and body of the car. A foreigner handed some bullets he had found to one of the red-shirt guards and explained to me how one of these bullet casings was certainly not a blank as the shape of the end of the casing would have been different if it was a blank. Knowing very little about bullets I took him at his word but have also taken a picture of the casing so am sure someone can confirm this for me. The owner of the car that had been used as part of the barricade arrived and was taking some of his possessions from his now wreck of a car. Oh, also the bullet holes in the car certainly came from the direction of the soldiers and not the side of the red-shirts.
After this we finally decided to go home but decided to stop off at a favourite Israeli restaurant of ours for some food as we were pretty hungry. After this we walked up Rambutri road and saw that the army truly had retreated. Obviously so that they can come back and fight another day, possibly early in the morning of the following day, we don’t know just yet.
I have learnt a few things in these last few hours. One is that tear-gas is really nasty stuff; the other is that the soldiers will need to use a hell of a lot of it to remove the red-shirts from Rajadamnern road.