The smell of teargas in the morning

I have been thinking quite hard about what I should write regarding Pitak Siam’s pretty disastrous weekend rally. There is much that could be said, and which I would maybe want to say, but I would then get into danger of slipping into purely speculative realms. There is much where independent confirmation will be required, and other aspects and implications which only the future will tell. So, I think it is best to just stick with my account of the day, as much as possible.

Acting on a tip-off, I woke up quite early, had a quick coffee, and switched briefly into Blue Sky TV’s live coverage, which was showing a caravan of protesters moving from their assembly point at the Royal Turf Club to the Royal Plaza. I then arrived at about 7.40 am there (there were no problems entering the site as I have already been there the night before and asked about open entry points), parked my motorcycle in the Metropolitan Police Headquarters, and walked up to the Royal Plaza, where I registered at the stage as a journalist. I received a yellow journalist’s armband, but decided not to wear it as I do not want to wear any protest group issued journalist’s identification openly (I also did not wear the UDD issued armband in 2010, but only the Thai Journalist Association issued armband). Wearing any protest group’s issued ID can easily lead to misunderstandings with the authorities. One of the guards told me that it took them ten days to assemble the complex mechanism of the huge tents, making it quite obvious that Pitak Siam planned for an extended stay there.

I walked then to the soft spot of the area – the barricade blocking the protest site from Government House at Misakawan intersection. The second soft spot was the opposite barricade at Makhawan, where a protest convoy was to join the main protest site. I decided though to stay at Misakawan because of the close proximity to the main rally site, while Makhawan would have been a huge detour as police did not allow journalists to walk past Government House. The protesters aim was to extend the rally site from Royal Plaza through Rajadamnern Avenue passing Government House, which the police were to strictly keep off limits to protesters, fearing another seizure of Government House. Police had already erected the night before a barricade with concrete slabs and several rows of barbed wire. Protesters of course claimed that the rally site was too small, which quite possibly might have been the case if the expected 70,000 protesters had arrived. While police counted maybe 50,000 protesters, privately I was told by high ranked officers that they thought that 30,000 protesters at most would come. Nobody though really expected such a low turnout, especially that so few hardcore guards were joining the protest, as intelligence was quite clear that more than 1000 guards were ready to join in Bangkok and in the provinces.

About 8.00 am protesters were assembling at the barricade facing police.

At about 8.20 they began dismantling the barbed wire.

By that time it was already quite clear that there definitely would be some action. The first commotion began at about 8.30, when a few protesters threw a large blue rubbish bin at police, pelted them with stones and bottles, and tried to hit police with sticks over the wire.

The few guards that were present calmed the protesters. At 8.45, the barbed wire in the center removed, concrete slabs thrown over, protesters began facing police directly and began pushing, and the skirmish started.

More stones and bottles were thrown, and police used their batons against protesters trying to take their shields or pushing too hard.

After some minutes protesters nearly broke through the police lines, and the first tear gas canisters were thrown by police, which almost instantly separated protesters from police. Some of the grenades were thrown back by the protesters.

I got quite a dose, nearly threw up, and ran back with the protesters. When my eyes cleared I saw an elderly protester with a PAD T-Shirt from 2008 behind a quickly erected make shift barricade maybe 50 meters away from the police lines firing a barrage of slingshot missiles into the police, and quickly snapped a picture.

As soon as he saw me taking pictures he grinned and hid the sling shot. I saw a huge cloud of teargas from the direction of Makkhawan bridge, and knew that at the same time a clash occurred there as well (I was afterwards told about the incident with the lorry and the many arrested protesters there, but one cannot be at two places at the same time).

When the cloud of teargas cleared, and it was obvious that the police was not attempting to disperse the protest or even to pursue the protesters, but just hold their line, protesters began confronting the police again, after which more teargas canisters were thrown, again quickly clearing the scene. I got some more nice pics of teargas.

One protester held up an empty teargas canister with an expiry date of May 2012.

Protesters again moved up to face the police lines, but kept a few meters distance, and the situation remained calm. A few overexcited protesters were quickly led away by guards. A loudspeaker duel between a mobile stage of the protesters and the police began which lasted the whole day (I tried to avoid listening as it was quite shrill at times – protesters accused police of being cruel, lackeys of Thaksin, and that they were fighting for the monarchy, while police said that they were following orders and doing their duty).

At about 10.00 am Samana Phothirak, the spiritual leader of the Santi Asoke sect, arrived at the barricade, and a retired general whose name I have forgotten, asking to negotiate with police.

The general was quite agitated, and when he was told by an officer talking with Samana Pothirak to wait for higher ranked officers, he climbed over the barricade, looking himself for a higher ranked officer, meeting one, and was told again to wait as some officers were on the way from the Metropolitan Police headquarters.

While waiting he showed a few empty cartridges from teargas grenades he found on the back of a police truck to the assembled journalists there, and posed for photos in front of police officers wearing gas masks.

Soon a group of high ranking officers arrived at the scene, one of them the general greeted with a hug. They talked a bit, the general asking to take down the barricades, and the police officers saying that if enough protesters would arrive that would warrant the space, they would open up the space to accommodate the officers. The general then walked to Makhawan with the police, but we journalists were told that we could not come along as this was police area, and we were not allowed in.

A long and quite boring stand-off between protesters and police followed. I walked up to the Royal Plaza, where I met Wayne from Al-Jazeera, walked back to the barricade, chatted with colleagues, many of them having been surprised by the early clash and arrived late. I had a great discussion with a young protester who was fluent in German, who studied for a while in Germany. I chatted with cops I knew; who told me off one badly injured police officer who was stabbed with a metal bar during the morning skirmish. Nirmal Ghosh, and Pravit Rojanaphruk from The Nation, arrived.

The protesters gave the police a deadline of 2.00 pm to open the barricade, or else. We all prepared for the next round, and tried to find the best positions, and discussed the best exit routes for when teargas would be thrown again.

A few drops of rain fell, and I already packed up my camera, thinking it not worth risking another camera. But the pushing began immediately, a few minutes before the end of the deadline, and I decided to continue taking photos.

At first I stood with the protesters, but then slipped at one side through the police lines, where they had a small opening for us journalists. Quite soon teargas was thrown again, and I retreated behind the police lines, and took pictures from there.

This time a huge cloud of teargas wafted over the quickly emptied space in the middle, making for great images.

Teargas grenades were thrown to and fro between police and protesters, lots of missiles came our way, and I could hear a couple of loud explosions coming from the teargas fog.

Suddenly I saw a few police officers carrying a protester out of the fog, I ran to the scene, snapping a few images, and got a massive dose of teargas, blinding me almost completely.

I staggered out of the fog, and a few police officers washed my eyes (it’s a great feeling when the burning stops). After only 6 minutes the skirmish was over, and only a few missiles came briefly our way, which I managed to evade.

One police officer suddenly fell to the ground a few meters away from me. At first I thought he was hit by a rock and I snapped a few quick pictures, but realized that he had an epileptic seizure.

I took my camera down, and helped to take care of him, when I realized that the officers did not know what to do. I asked for ice to rub him with to bring his body temperature down, which I learned is the best way to deal with a seizure when no other medicine is available. The officer quickly recovered and was carried away.

Quite soon the loudspeaker duel resumed (“Police are cruel and illegal”, “No, the police are doing their duty according to the law”, and so forth…). We journalists speculated on a possible third round.

At about 5.00 pm a very high ranked police officer came to the site, and I and a few other journalists took the opportunity to walk over to Makhawan while he was touring the area.

I climbed there on a firetruck and took images of the view over the faceoff between police and protesters under a dramatic sky.

Police officers there said that in the afternoon no clash took place at Makhawan. I decided to walk back to Misakawan, expecting round 3 there, as there were also more protesters. Quite quickly though heavy rain began to fall. I took cover in a tent and talked with a police officer from Chachoengsao. He was very tired, already for three days stationed at Government House, he could not change his clothes yet, and hoped to be able to go home soon. During the rain it was announced that Sae Ai had called the protest off. When the rain stopped, at about 6.00 pm, I walked over to the stage area, hoping to get a glimpse and a few images of the leaders.

When I arrived, I took photos of Samana Phothirak talking on the stage, and of Sae Ai when he shook hands with a few protesters.

When protesters asked him when he will call for new protests, he said to them that he had enough, and will step down. Some of the protesters were close to tears. I walked behind the stage, where I met Daniel Ten Kate from Bloomberg, who quickly interviewed Sae Ai, and I took pictures of Prasong Soonsiri.

The atmosphere behind the stage was quite depressed, some of the people were discussing how they lost today. People began dismantling the stage. I was exhausted, and went home.

All together, I was happy and relieved that the level of violence on the day was not too bad. There was enough action to raise the adrenaline, but no serious violence, and no really bad injuries as far as I I could see. I thought that the police was very restrained in their response, and disciplined, and I could see that they must have improved their training over the past years. Also the violence from the side of the protesters was not as bad as I have seen in many of the incidents over recent years. While many accuse the police of overreacting with the teargas, I have a different view: I believe that teargas prevents more serious violence. It separates the opposing sides, and prevents baton charges by the police, which can lead to severe injuries for protesters, especially internal injuries such as ruptured organs, as I often saw in Germany when I was young and attended protests there.

About Nick Nostitz, Guest Contributor