[UPDATE Sunday evening: here is another account of the aftermath.]
A reader has posted this account of the scene at Phan Fa in the comments to last night’s post on the crackdown.
I have just returned from the Pan Fa Bridge, after deciding to go and get a dose of reality on what I had been reading and writing about all day.
For starters, it was impossible to get close to in a taxi- since the Army retreat the Red Shirt guards have pushed out their perimeter and checkpoints a good three blocks or so, and the roads leading into it was jammed up with tens of thousands of protesters and sympathisers who had come to join the massive crowd already there.
Walking toward the protest, I noticed that there was a feeling of defiance in the air, but also weariness. All those walking back in the other direction looked extremely tired, and many were covered in grime, if not cuts and bruises. I also noticed here and there individuals (as well as an entire family, children included) who appeared to have “souvenired” some police helmets, riot shields and batons somewhere along the way.
I arrived at the stage area just in time for the commencement of a very moving commemoration for the dead, some of whom were physically present on stage, draped in Thai flags. Their names (including that of the Japanese journalist) were called out, and they were all hailed as heroes. The UDD leaders appeared to prostrate themselves before the bodies while monks chanted (and the crowd responded in unison) and people filed past before the stage to pay their respects.
All the while, Red Shirt guards were bringing in seized weapons, including a machine gun heavy enough that it could almost be classified as light artillery (and which I would later discover the origin of), and were piling them up on the corner of the stage. It is worth noting that the protesters have seized weapons before from the police and military during previous clashes. At one point they actually seized a prized LRAD sound weapon mounted atop a Humvee. In those cases they returned the weapons after agreements had been reached with the military. I realised that they would not be returned in this case.
I then began moving through the crowd (which by then had expanded to at least 50 000 in the immediate vicinity alone) toward Democracy Monument, remembering that it was in that area that some of the worst fighting had been reported. The Monument itself had been wrapped in red cloth, a powerful image if I ever saw one. But nothing could prepare me for what I saw next:
A column of Armoured Personnel Carriers extending into one of the side streets. Swarming all over them were hundreds of red shirts, who were literally tearing them to pieces with their bare hands. Occasionally, they would stop so a middle-class Bangkok family could come and pose in front of the APC’s, perhaps lifting their children up on top for a better shot, but it wasn’t long until the demolitions began again in earnest.
At one point, a smiling local offered me “a chair from a Thai tank.” It was a truly amazing scene, and thankfully I wasn’t alone to witness it: hundreds of tourists from Khao San were capturing every second on their expensive cameras mine, (mine unfortunately, wasn’t working.)
I talked to one English backpacker who looked a little too pale, and he told me that he had seen someone shot in the head in front of him and had captured it all on film.
But one didn’t need video evidence to know that violence had taken place there. The doors of all the shop-houses up and down the streets were riddled with the dents of rubber bullets. The streets themselves had been transformed into a mosaic of broken glass, stones and other debris. And then there was the blood.
The spots in which people had been killed had been transformed into shrines, fenced off, already littered with money, food and other offerings, and with Red Shirt storytellers on hand to relate to the sightseers the epic tale of their final hours. Being a hot country, the blood had not even congealed yet, and was sitting on the ground for everyone to plainly see.
There were more shrines and pools of blood at the entry to the haven of bohemians the world over, Khao San Rd. itself. That image of the road- the most desolate and empty I have ever seen it, blocked off by bullethole-ridden vehicles and makeshift barricades, will never leave my head, and nor would the sight of the bewildered tourists picking their way through the rubble, pulling their suitcases along behind them, clearly having gotten off the plane only hours earlier and wondering just what they had gotten themselves into.
The biggest shock of the night, however, was the missing portraits. You know the ones I mean. (Apologies, but I am writing this from inside Thailand and do not feel like a Computer Crimes charge.) The ones that you can see at least 3 of no matter which direction you look in while you are in the Old City. They had been taken down, leaving behind only empty frames and wooden scaffolding.
I dare not speculate what might have been the reason for this- I’ll leave that to you- but I will add that the massive golden banner with his face that usually hangs across the face of one of the buildings had been replaced by a purple one with a with his daughter on it.
By that time, rumours were spreading like wildfire that a coup and crackdown by the hardliners was imminent, so we decided it was time to go home. On the way, the Red Shirt roadblock warned our taxi driver that soldiers were incoming- and sure enough, they were everywhere to be seen along the sidestreets and back alleys from Dusit all the way to Victory Monument, looking hot and bothered and still carrying their M16’s.
So, that’s all for tonight. Returned home feeling very strange about having stepped into a moment in history that Thailand seems all too fond of revisiting. I hope for the countries sake that the Red Shirts get the change they are seeking. No other resistance in Thai history has ever accomplished what they have tonight. And I hope that noone will ever need to do the same again.