The myth of the popcorn gunman

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Photo by Nick Nostitz.

Nick Nostitz reflects on the sentencing of one of the shooters from the infamous Laksi gunfight. 

Nearly two years after the gunfight at the IT Square department store at Laksi, Vivat “Top” Yodprasit, the “Popcorn Gunman”, has been convicted to 37 years and four months in prison.

Top became infamous that day after firing an M16 assault rifle at pro-election protesters while dozens of journalists photographed and filmed him.

During the confrontation between PDRC protesters and Red Shirts four people on the Red Shirt side were injured by gunshots. One elderly man – Akaew Sae Liew, an innocent bystander who was paralyzed by a bullet in his neck – died seven months after the incident. On the PDRC side photographer James Nachtwey was slightly injured by a bullet in his leg.

In the aftermath, the Popcorn Gunman became a powerful symbol for both Red Shirts and PDRC protesters. The PDRC celebrated him as a saviour and even printed T-Shirts with the logo of the popcorn brand of the bag in which the assault rifle was hidden and fired from. For Red Shirts he was the proof of the violent overthrow of their elected government and democracy by dictatorial forces and the PDRC street movement led by Suthep Thaugsuban.

One-and-a-half months after the incident Vivat Yodprasit was arrested by police.

The mythical masked gunman turned out to be just a simple villager and day labourer from Phitsanulok province, who after joining the anti-government protests while looking for work in Bangkok, subsequently volunteered as a protest guard at Suthep’s Rajadamnern stage and, for some in the PDRC, became a quite unlikely figurehead. He was the only one of several dozen PDRC affiliated gunman from the Laksi incident who was arrested and jailed. He also remained the only PDRC affiliated armed militant who was refused bail after arrest.

Two years later, at the reading of the verdict in the Ratchada Criminal Court the Popcorn Gunman was quite obviously not a symbol anymore. Other than journalists, only his family and his girlfriend, and a few fellow guards showing their loyalty, attended the verdict reading. There were no PDRC leaders, no Buddha Issara, the monk under whom he was a protest guard, no Hiso PDRC protesters who once cheered him. It was as if he served his purpose and became an inconvenience to be forgotten as soon as possible.

The court found him guilty, dismissing the retraction of his confession, disbelieving his later claims that he was coerced into coming clean. During the re-enactment of the crime he was supportive of authorities and did not say anything to counter his original confession, despite the presence of many journalists. The court also mentioned interviews he gave immediately after Top’s arrest, during which he confessed in detail, and gave special weight to the police investigation.

After the judgment, Vivat’s girlfriend cried and fainted. The prison guards allowed him to briefly comfort her, before he was led back to the holding cells. The journalists left, filing their stories. I went down to the holding cells as I could not take pictures of Vivat in the morning when he was brought from prison to the court.

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Photo by Nick Nostitz.

Only his family, the guards and one ‘Phoojadkarn’ journalist, who soon left as well, remained. In the end, Vivat and his girlfriend silently stared at each other through the bars — 10 metres apart. When, after two hours, he was led to the bus taking him back to prison I took my pictures, the only photographer who was still there. The myth of the Popcorn Gunman is over, and a long time in prison is ahead.

Even though I was at the incident at Laksi and nearly shot by him and his fellow gunmen, I could not feel anger or even satisfaction. I was just thinking of the wasted life of this young man, who is from the same area of the lower north my wife is from, his life and upbringing very similar to my wife’s brothers’ upbringing, but who was caught up in something much larger than him, and who is now the only one made to suffer for his crimes that others carry far more responsibility for.

Just after Vivat Yodprasit’s arrest one investigative journalist did an outstanding extended interview with him, which can be found here.

The interview is in Thai, but I think it is very important, and have therefore transcribed and translated it into English. Download the English version here.

Nick Nostitz is a photo-journalist and long-time contributor to New Mandala.