29.8.2008: The destruction of lawful society

On 29 August 2008 police finally got the expected order to clear the situation at Government House and Makhawan Bridge. The strategy was to clear the streets around Government House, dismantle the tents and the stage, and encircle Government House.  They then wanted to stop, and let people out, but nobody in.

Orders were that police had to use minimal force, and they complied with this order, and it did amazingly well. There was very little usage of batons; no excessive force I could detect. A bit shuffling around with protesters; a bloody head or the like. In any western country a lot more force would have been used in similar conditions. Well, in the liberal west there would have been no similar condition as the protest site at Makhawan Bridge would not have been permitted and protesters would have been dispersed the day they tried to set up camp.

Most injured I could see simply lost consciousness, old people. One collapsed directly next to me.

Police took care to paste copies of their court orders on every structure, saying that these structures and contents were confiscated by the state, before pulling them down. Police pulled a weapons cache from People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) guards — countless swords, machetes, iron bars, and golf clubs. There were several dozen bullets and an empty gun holster. And one large sack of “Bai Kratom” — an illegal leaf stimulant.

The police was generally very upbeat, appearing proud of their success.

There was a slight confrontation when police tried to disperse PAD protesters that have gathered at Makhawan bridge behind the PAD stage. Nothing serious.

But then all operations halted. 30 Senators led by Rosana Tositrakul have came to visit the PAD in Government House. Then, the pipe smoking General Pathompong Kesornsook suddenly appeared. The mood rapidly changed. First he was with the police (I came too late to hear what he said), then he went to a few Border Patrol Police officers, and spoke. Some stood up, most kept sitting, but they were obviously stunned. The General told them that many years ago the Border Patrol Police killed Thai citizens, that they can’t do so again. And so forth.

He got back into his chauffeur driven Mercedes Benz, and drove off.

Then the 30 Senators came to Makhawan Bridge from the PAD site inside Government House. I asked one Senator if he had seen the weapons displayed by Police. He asked me if I was sure that they weren’t planted. I was. I told him that I have photographed the same already a month before. They all went back in.

Then suddenly Democrat leader Abhisit came. With him was a Member of Parliament who shouted to us media monkeys: “Look at me, take my pictures! I am a Democrat Member of Parliament! Look at what horrible things the Thai police have done to unarmed Thai citizens!”

“Yeah”, I thought, “right…and what about the weapons cache?”

Abhisit spent maybe 20 minutes with the “injured”, walked past the police, and spent about 20 seconds with them (I could not hear what he said). Abhisit disappeared, and suddenly PAD came with a mobile stage, and a mass of people out of Government House.

They came straight to the police line. A few objects were thrown, and police was pressed by the mass of people away. Police could not even defend themselves because of their limited orders. All ran, including me and other journalists. Within minutes the police lost all the ground they had gained, and the PAD ruled the streets again. At the corner opposite Royal Plaza a group of police was cornered, and extremely aggressive PAD protesters suddenly turned against them. I was caught in between, and felt close to panic. It was very scary. One PAD protester postured himself up like a Gorilla male, screaming strange noises. Fortunately a line of PAD guards was formed that held their protesters back.

General Pathompong appeared again, flanked by PAD protesters, and Senator Rosana Tositrakul, and marched towards Metropolitan Police headquarters. Several of the PAD protesters tried to hinder me taking photos, which I ignored. The General gave an order that the foreign photographer is allowed to take pictures, and I was not hindered anymore.

After the General disappeared into the headquarters, I briefly spoke with another spook/bodyguard type –the driver of a large SUV, who claimed that he “was with” Kraisak Choonhavan.

Later that afternoon/evening was the incident with the teargas and smoke bombs when PAD tried to get into Metropolitan Police headquarters. I wasn’t there, I was at home. A few hours later I came back to the protest site, walked a bit in front Metropolitan Police Headquarters. I could still feel the teargas. While I took a few pictures of vandalized police cars, an old police officer in plain clothes came to me, shook my hand, and close to crying said: ” Please, take these photos — show the reality.” Over and over again.

That day I was disgusted. I saw the destruction of the last chance to bring the situation under control within the means of the law. I have seen police behave in an absolutely professional manner, something not that often seen in Thailand. And then, because of a few bloody heads, a few people who collapsed, police were accused of “brutality”. What brutality? Why are PAD protesters allowed to carry weapons openly, use them against police, and the police can’t do anything?

How, based on such flimsy and manufactured evidence, were court orders that took ages to get, suddenly withdrawn that same afternoon?

When UDD protested in front of Prem’s Compound a year before, the army ordered police against their wishes to disperse the UDD protesters, and with much more violence, even though UDD sat there for more than 5 hours and held speeches, without any attack on Prem’s compound. UDD did not illegally occupy a government building, did not attack a TV station with knifes and a gun. It did not block for nearly three days 400 police officers and hindered them from leaving.

Are there two kinds of law against two kinds of protest groups? Are the unwashed masses not allowed what the supposedly “educated middle classes” of the PAD (and their southern army trained Naclop Srivichai thugs) are?

After this day the police have not been the same. Whenever I speak with police officers (and I do that a lot) — they appear to be completely demoralized. They are not even allowed to carry batons, while PAD can carry those unhindered.

And nowhere in the Thai media do I see any sympathy for the police on the ground.

29 August 2008 was a day that started as a day of pride for the Thai police force, having done their duty to the point of the law. And it ended as a day where the patronage system with its extrajudicial powers won against the law. And this day, I fear, will have consequences far beyond this current mess. A dismantled and demoralized police force is not going to be able to function.

Already now, in many areas of town, the security situation has deteriorated. At one level, the police force is stretched to its limits overseeing the still ongoing unprecedented illegal occupation of Government House. At another, maybe more important, level it is worth asking how such an unjustly defeated police force can be motivated to do its duty when it is hindered in such an unconstitutional manner on the very day when it was at the best I have seen it?

Update (9 September 2008): Readers looking for a Thai language discussion that draws on this analysis will appreciate this piece from Prachatai.

About Nick Nostitz, Guest Contributor