The Laksi gunfight

*** WARNING: Graphic content ***

It has been almost a week since the Laksi gunfight on 1 February 2014, and the feeling that this incident was somewhat not real is still very strong. Even after all I have seen over recent years, the idea that a one hour long gunfight has taken place at daytime in front of a department store where I have looked for computer equipment many times in the past just sounds impossible, unimaginable and completely surreal. Even though I was in the middle of it, it is hard to process. And that’s the case even though I expected an incident the moment I received the information that Red Shirts and pro-election protesters from the Laski area had gathered at Wat Laksi close to the Chaeng Wattana protest site.

I arrived at Wat Laksi about 14.00. There were about 300 Red Shirts, and at least two dozen of my journalist colleagues — both foreign and Thai. I warned some of my colleagues to be extra-careful if a clash between Red and Yellow developed, fearing that this could quickly descend into a gunfight, especially also because PDRC re-enforcements from the Lad Phrao stage were expected to arrive in the area as well. Given the enormous hatred between the opposing groups I was quite nervous.

I saw several community radio station leaders from the area, and also Gotee was there, on a small mobile stage mounted on the back of a pickup truck. I did not pay too much attention to what was said on the stage, but the only thing I remember was that Gotee announced at the end that he did not lead the group, but simply joined it. There was also a brief negotiation between Gotee and a police officer, where the officer tried to persuade the protesters not to march, as the negotiations between authorities and anti-government protesters blocking the district office were still ongoing.

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03Soon the Red Shirts marched towards the district office, at around 15.00, passing a bunker with soldiers.

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The group turned right at Laksi intersection, and passed IT Square. They stopped at a small bridge over a klong, and let the remaining cars from Chaeng Wattana Road through. On the back of a pickup truck I saw a man wearing PDRC insignia. I told him to take it off, get inside the car or walk back as he would surely be beaten up by the Red Shirts if they saw him. He quickly got inside the passenger cabin, out of sight. Two police vans arrived with maybe 2 dozen officers who blocked the road so that the Red Shirts and pro-election protesters could not proceed.

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From the bridge I saw a small PDRC blockade maybe 200 meters further down Chaeng Wattana Road, and some distance behind that a large truck parked across the road. Soon the mobile stage of the Red Shirts retreated back to Laksi intersection in front of IT Square, and with it most of the protesters.

Suddenly a silver colored car arrived at the police block. I saw some protesters talking with the driver, and suddenly some began smashing the car, others trying to stop them. The car set back towards the Laksi intersection. More chaos. Again — several protesters smashed the car with iron bars, and even a machete, others tried to hinder them. A few police officers at the scene, both in uniform and plainclothes, tried to stop protesters from attacking the car. While the driver turned, one of the protesters was carried a few meters on the hood of the car before jumping off. The car drove off, and was stopped again at the corner of Laksi.

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A cracker exploded, but I have no idea who threw it. A few moments after that another cracker exploded just under the bridge at the intersection, a few meters away from me. The Red Shirt mobile stage quickly drove off, some loudspeakers falling from the back of the truck. The situation then calmed down again. In the police box under the bridge a Thai journalist and a woman who had slight injuries from the first cracker were given first aid by the army medics stationed there.

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Suddenly, maybe 20 minutes after, at about 16.20, a convoy of PDRC arrived at the intersection, from the outbound lane of Vibhavadi Rangsit Road, and parked their mobile stage under the bridge just opposite the remaining Red Shirts who were gathered at IT Square. I snapped a few images with my zoom, while most of my colleagues positioned themselves with the PDRC group, which was larger in numbers, and quite obviously far better organized. The PDRC protesters wore lime green colored arm and head bands, unfortunately the same color as our journalist armbands.

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Both sides shouted at each other, a few stones were thrown. Suddenly a few crackers were thrown, maybe 4 explosions. I moved away, towards the Red Shirts at IT Square. One Red Shirt protester was shot in the side of the chest, a flesh wound, entry and exit whole of the bullet visible. Rescue medics sat him on the back of a motorcycle and drove him out of the area. From the direction of the PDRC mobile stage I could hear the sound of a religious chant.

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With two Thai colleagues I walked up a steel stairway to an entry of IT Square on an elevated platform. I saw shoppers and store employees looking at the scene through the window. Suddenly there was a slight commotion at about 16.40 under the bridge at Laksi intersection a bit more than 100 meters away and I walked down the stair. I saw the PDRC protesters moving in the direction of Chaeng Wattana, ducking. I heard an explosion, and then the sound of gunfire. Red Shirts and whoever else was in front of IT Square ran away from the intersection. I jumped down the last steps of the stair, and hid behind it. A few people were hiding there already. Bullets flew towards us. About 30 meters away from me I saw a Red Shirt quickly firing a handgun towards the PDRC protesters. I was too slow to photograph him. People were hiding behind cars. Suddenly we were fired on from another direction as well. I went flat on my stomach. Bullets whizzed by, and one or the other hit steel and concrete close to us. Panic rose as I realized that I was caught in a bad place.

In a small group lying about 5 meters from us behind a steel pole there was an elderly woman shot in the arm and chest. One man pressed her bleeding arm wound.

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People pointed out a shooter with a rifle at a telephone relay box maybe 70 to 100 meters away near the railway tracks who was shooting at us. They said I should photograph him. I did not dare to lift my head over the small wall, fearing that I may be shot. A police officer in our group crawled towards the wall, pulled out his gun. He did not fire it though. I guess he did not have a clear shot.

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I saw a small group of people huddling on a pedestrian bridge above us. Some shouted that they may be shooters, others said not, as we would be dead already if they would had been shooters. In the parking lot slightly below us I heard people shouting that there was an injured man laying below the bridge, and asking to pull him out. Others shouted that they can’t get to him. The noise of gunfire intensified. There was even rapid fire from an automatic weapon. Some people in my group ran a few meters towards a tin fence next to the mall, broke it, and hid in the space behind. A police officer ran towards us.

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Most of the group 5 meters away from us ran towards the back of the mall, taking the injured woman along with them. I decided to run as well the 30 meters towards the next corner. While I ran I heard the impact of bullets. A few meters away was a stair to the basement of the mall. A group of maybe 20 people hid there, including two foreign journalists. A girl was sobbing. I had the feeling of being trapped. There was a steel door leading into the mall. I asked a mall guard if the door was open. He said no. I took photos of the injured woman. Suddenly a bullet hit with a sickening sound nearby, and ricocheted off with loud whizz.

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Somebody tried to open the steel door. It was open. One by one we ducked through the door into the mall, into safety, into a different world. It was 16.55. From the moment the gunfire began, until we got into the mall it took 13 minutes. But it seemed like an eternity.

A department store medic took care of the injured woman, 52-year-old Somboon Sakthong.

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Another injured man was brought in, his head bleeding. He said he was hit by a ricochet.

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The injured were brought out through the parking lot in the back of IT square. Department store employees and shoppers gathered there as well. Gunfire was still heard. I remained there as well, I had no intention to go anywhere close to the gunfire again. I called my wife and a few colleagues to tell them that I was safet. BBC called me from London, asking me for an interview, if I can give them a rundown of what had taken place. I said OK, and they called me back 20 minutes later for the live news, and I quickly said what I saw. By then the gunfire had stopped, and I walked back out in front of IT Square. The PDRC was gone by then.

By sunset I drove the short distance to the Don Mueang district office, where pro-election protesters gathered in an attempt to protect the venue from a possible PDRC blockade. I took a few images of their candle vigil, and while they sang the royal anthem.

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I talked then for a while with a few police officers and soldiers from the 11th Infantry Regiment stationed there, and then drove home, where I saw already that another Facebook hate campaign against me was proceeding, on account of my BBC interview. On the plus side — my Facebook page went viral with large numbers of new friend requests. I checked the many pictures and video clips of my colleagues who took cover with the PDRC, and was somewhat glad that my impressions I gave during the BBC interview just when the fight died down were correct, proven by the awesome images and videos of my colleagues who took cover on the side of the PDRC.