BANGKOK—Most businesses were shut along a long stretch of central Bangkok’s Sukhumvit road on Sunday. The road led toward one of the numerous bamboo and tire barricade entry points of the fortified encampment held by red shirt anti-government protesters.
While everyday Bangkokians mostly avoided the road as it neared the sprawling red-shirt camp, plenty of street vendors, prostitutes, and pimps continued to loiter under the shade provided by commercial buildings. Armed soldiers posed for photographs with tourists who were blissfully unaware that deadly street battles were occurring several miles away between the military and anti-government protesters. Dozens of protesters have been killed in the past few days.
Through a road block where soldiers checked and diverted vehicles, a final line of military peered through binoculars toward a red-shirt barricade further down the road.
The last line of soldiers also marked the beginning of 1,600 feet or so of no man’s land that separated them from the protesters who have occupied a high end retail and hotel area since April 5 in a bid to force Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva dissolve Parliament and call an early election.
Walking through this no man’s land the only signs of life were a stray dog and several poorly-paid building security officers. The protester’s first two barricades were deserted and no one was making use of a long line of marquees that were set up a week ago for the increasing numbers of protesters who were arriving from northern rural areas. The government last week began blockading the camp, stopping reinforcements coming in but allowing people to leave.
In the Camp
The first red shirts seen were those manning the third and last set of barricades on this road. They were few in number; presumably thinking this entry point is of little importance, as street battles raged at several flashpoints on the outskirts of their encampment.
The number of protesters camping out has halved to around 5,000 and the mood on Sunday was comparatively more tense than earlier visits, which often had a festive atmosphere; that is if you ignore the fiery and hateful speeches from the centre stage condemning Prime Minister Abhisit’s government being a mere front for the military and elite establishment.
Many of the protesters look up at the towering buildings for military snipers they believe are positioned on roof tops. Others are watching and having some fun sending large lanterns to float up into the air in a vain bid to hinder the spotter airplane that continuously circles above them. Others shoot ineffective homemade rockets in its direction.
The children of many protesters remain in the camp—even infants. Local media report that red shirt leaders have declared that children and the elderly can take refuge in a nearby Buddhist temple if the military goes on the offensive. The government has made repeated pleas for the children and elderly to leave the camp for their safety and government aircraft dropped pamphlets on Monday further urging them to leave.
Meanwhile the red shirt leaders who were usually on stage, or behind it, were not seen on Sunday. Media has reported some have fled or are trying to flee after one—a pro-red rogue general with leadership aspirations—was shot in the head by a sniper last Thursday.
With only an hour left before dusk on Sunday, groups of men discussed tactics for the feared attack that they, and most in Bangkok, consider will happen very soon; perhaps that night or later this week. Many of them were wearing black, the signature color of the red guard—the red shirt movement’s security. Not far away is a woman with a red sash around her head who was featured in news footage participating in hand-to-hand fighting with soldiers on April 10 when the military tried and failed to eject the protesters from an earlier camp. That clash left 25 dead.
Several older red shirts were marshalling two dozen or so younger protesters to stay 300 feet behind the most northern barricades. They were mostly adolescents, one was a teenage girl with club in hand and a boy no older than 10 was partially dressed in riot gear.
Unseen is what most observers recognize is a more militant arm of the red shirt movement, which they believe is trained in modern weaponry and tactics.
When the red shirts first arrived in Bangkok en masse in mid-March their leaders compared their movement to those led by Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr.
At the northern barricade overlooking what is usually a busy intersection, debris and carnage of an earlier battle remain and a plume of black smoke rises in the distance. The road ahead of it had been designated by the army as a ''live-fire zone,'' and subsequently, anyone entering this position does so at pace, with their head down.
However the red guards manning the barricade are relaxed, perhaps intoxicated. Their bamboo fighting poles, sling shots, homemade bombs, and Molotov cocktails are on standby.
A couple of Thai photojournalists decked out in flak jackets request they light a homemade rocket so they could take a photo. The red guards do so but the rocket is a fizzer and fails to lift off. Red guards laugh and the photographers move on.
A nearby European photojournalist says his Thai colleagues would be only churning out government propaganda, further demonizing the protesters who come from northern rural areas and poorer areas of the Thai capital.
Across the encampment the protesters stand to attention once the national anthem is played via street speakers at its regular 6 p.m. slot. Following further speeches from the stage, monks dressed in golden yellow robes lead the protesters in prayer.
From the direction of the southern barricades a motor bike carrying an injured young protester scoots past a tall English gentleman who has made Thailand his home since 1992. In his 70s, he has visited the camp every day since it was established and he said he was not optimistic about a peaceful resolution to the crisis. “The situation is an awful mess,” he muttered. “It is going to end in tears. There will be much bloodshed.”