By Wanpen Møller
The crackdown on the Red Shirt protesters in 2010 caused a body count of at least 94 and left around 2,000 people injured. As a member of the press who witnessed the events, it is still a trauma wound in my heart. I get deeply distressed every time my mind wanders back to that time, or when the memories sneak back into my mind.
Let’s go back to March 12, 2010. The United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), also known as the Red Shirts, had gathered on Ratchadamnoen Road and taken over a large swath of the area. A sea of red spread from the old lottery building, all the way to the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives. Its epicenter was at the Phan Fa Lilat Bridge, parallel to the stage erected at the Ratchaprasong intersection.
The Red Shirts were calling for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to dissolve parliament and call for fresh elections. They contended that the courts had connived to dissolve the predecessor government of the Palang Prachachon Party. This, they believed, was orchestrated by the military in order to put Abhisit’s establishment-friendly Democrat Party into power. The standoff between protesters and the authorities lasted until April 10.
Revisiting the memories of April 10
Late that morning, as I recall, the news desk editor called me. He told me to drop what I was doing and hurry to the protest stage at the Phan Fa Bridge. The soldiers there had just received fresh reinforcements from up-country and it looked as if force might be used to disperse the protest.
I remember that, as I got there at about 11 a.m., the atmosphere was incredibly tense. Khwanchai Phraiphanna, the head of the “We Love Udon” [Thani] group, was leading some protesters away from the Phan Fa Bridge to encircle the 1st Army headquarters. He had also put male volunteers to work blockading all of the surrounding entry points and exits, and to repel any efforts to disperse the protestors. Everyone else was told to gather at the stage.
As far as I could see, most of the rest were women and the elderly. It was incredibly hot, and Thai New Year was being celebrated so there weren’t many people present.
As the morning turned into the afternoon, I was about to order some food while standing by the stage when I received a phone call from a fellow reporter who was observing the 1st Army positions. He told me that clashes had started and that there were already two separate skirmishes going on.
He told me that the soldiers had fired teargas and used water cannons to disperse the protestors from Ratchadamnoen Road, from the spot in front of the 1st Army headquarters all the way to Phan Fa Bridge.
Then, I began to hear what sounded like sporadic gunfire and explosions.
It wasn’t long until we began to see injured protestors being carried in to receive first aid behind the stage by Phan Fa Bridge. They just kept coming, and coming.
Sometime before that I had heard reports that some protestors and a foreign journalist had been shot dead. I later found out their names; Kriangkrai Khamnoi, a protestor, was shot in front of the Ministry of Education. Hiroki Muramoto, a Japanese photographer for Reuters, was shot in the chest in front of Satri Wittaya school on Dinso Road, near the Khok Wua intersection.
All afternoon, we were at the Phan Fa bridge observing. The protestors were exhausted but they were in good spirits. They seemed to believe that luck was on their side that day because after the soldiers fired teargas into their midst, the wind immediately picked up and blew the acrid fumes back towards the soldiers.
As the soldiers prepared to make a second advance, rumors began flying that “watermelon” soldiers –so called for their sympathies for the Red Shirts–had sent word to the protestors that there was disunity in the ranks of the soldiers facing off with them. We heard that Lt. Gen. Khanit Saphitak, the commanding officer of the 1st Army on that day, had refused to obey direct orders from above to mount a frontal assault on the protestors.
What happened next was quite astonishing and only served to lend credence to those rumors. Troops of the 1st Army disappeared from the area right in front of their own barracks. They were replaced by jungle warfare troops who had just arrived from the eastern provinces, commanded by Lt. Gen. Dapong Ratanasuwan, a member of the politically active Burapha Payak faction of army officers. They were also joined by troops of the 2nd Infantry Division (Queen Sirikit’s own), commanded by Maj. Gen. Walit Rojanaphakdi.
Lt. Gen. Khanit had, apparently, been swiftly dismissed from his own doorstep.
The leadership of the UDD had miscalculated the situation. They had assumed that the military would move first on the Ratchaprasong protest stage which was closest to the commercial districts.
That night (April 10), leading figures of the protest such as Nattawut Saikua, Jatuporn Prompan, and Veera Musikapong were all at the Ratchaprasong stage. As far as I can remember, the Phan Fa bridge protest stage was being led by Khwanchai Phraiphanna, Suporn Attawong, Adisorn Piangket, and some Bangkok parliamentarians.
The soldiers eventually sealed all the entry-exit points to the stage area, and the protestors switched to using river boats at the Phan Fa Bridge pier behind the stage for transportation.
Chaos in the dark
As the dusk grew darker, the crowd before the stage grew larger.
At the same time, news was filtering in that Red Shirt guards from the Ratchaprasong stage were being sent to bolster the defences at Khok Wua intersection. Their job was to prevent soldiers from completely surrounding the protesters via Dinso Road in front of Satri Wittaya School, Tanao Road, Khaosan Road, and the Khok Wua intersection itself.
We then went to see how the protestors were getting on around the Democracy Monument. At around 6 p.m. we began to see tear gas canisters launched from helicopters flying overhead.
The protestors responded in kind to the helicopters with fireworks. As far as I could see, they were armed with wooden sticks, glass bottles, bricks, and slabs taken out of the pavement. Some were using metal washing basins as shields. Countless other versions of improvised armor materialized as the crowd was stirred into a commotion.
It was getting truly dark now. The surrounding soldiers were closing in tighter and tighter, pushing back and forth with the protestors wherever they met. Then, shots were fired. A singular cry erupted from the crowd, followed by shouts and screams as they scattered in every direction, yet could go nowhere. It was chaos.
We ran. We ran out past the October 14 Monument, past city hall, and huddled together with the other press people behind the Phan Fa stage. All the while, helicopters were constantly thudding overhead, releasing fliers warning people not involved in the protests to stay away from the area.
Meanwhile, what sounded like gunfire could be heard coming from the Khok Wua intersection. Yet, there people were still getting up on the Phan Fa stage to talk and sing songs in a desperate attempt to keep morale from sinking. But most of the protesters in sight were women, and they were visibly shaken.
The gunfire stopped. A ceasefire had been negotiated at around 9 p.m., and the first corpse was brought to the Phan Fa stage.
I can still remember that heavy smell of blood wafting through the air, as the dead bodies of the protesters were being piled together up on the stage, together with some weapons they managed to prise from the hands of soldiers. It’s a memory that’s seared into my mind.
The saddest, most depressing thing about it all was the announcements made for people trying to find friends and relatives they lost in the commotion. Fathers trying to find sons. Friends trying to find friends.
There was a lady who got up on stage and took the mic; she was trying to find her husband. She stood in the tent behind the stage–which became the designated meeting point–for what seemed like an eternity. She found out later that her husband was among those killed that night.
Aftermath of the tragedy
The next day we went back to Khok Wua intersection where the clashes had occurred. We walked around the area, taking in all the details. There was still blood on the streets and the wreckage of a military vehicle savaged beyond repair.
At the Democracy Monument, the telltale pockmarks of live ammunition were on display. The casualties from April 10 totalled 26 dead: five soldiers and 21 civilians.
Later on, the dead bodies of the protestors would be put into red caskets. They were all assembled at the Democracy Monument before being paraded along all the roads where the action had taken place, across Bangkok. Then they were taken to their home provinces, each for their own solemn parade to heap shame on the government.
As for the weapons that the Red Shirt guards managed to wrestle from the hands of soldiers on the night of April 10, when I first laid eyes on them being piled up on stage, I knew that it meant trouble. Alas, I was right.
On April 11, on the front pages of quite a few newspapers, were photos of the weapons on stage. The headlines all bore a message to the effect of “Here are the men in black. The protestors have assault weapons.” This messaging would go on to haunt everybody in the times to come.
It became a main talking point among the protesters at the Phan Fa Bridge on the evening of April 11, which really inflamed the atmosphere among the protestors. Many of the press who were there could feel the hostility and sought safety in the nearby Nang Loeng police station. Later on, the protestors would surround the police station and vent their anger at the way they were being portrayed in the press. Many tense, highly charged hours went by before the situation calmed down.
After the loss of life the previous night, the red shirts began to dismantle the stage at Phan Fa Bridge and moved to join up with the Ratchaprasong stage. Effectively, the protestors were left with just one stage for their protests.
In May, the government proposed a rapprochement, along with an election date. They also issued a deadline for all protests to stop by May 12. The leaders of the UDD agreed on condition that Suthep Thaugsuban–who had assumed the directorship of the Centre for Resolution of Emergency Situation (CRES)–hand himself over to the police. They wanted him to be prosecuted and held responsible for the deaths which occurred on April 10.
It was a condition that had almost zero chance of being met. All the while, the government was repeating the tit-for-tat narrative that there were mysterious men in black, armed with assault rifles, who had also caused loss of life among the military.
The negotiations then fell apart, leading to more violence in May.
The month of May was filled with continued unrest in various places, both in Bangkok and in the provinces. The month would also claim the life of Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdipol. Better known as Seh Daeng, the decorated veteran of the communist insurgency became the Red Shirts’ chief military tactician. On May 13, standing just outside Silom MRT station, Seh Daeng was answering the questions of the reporters gathered around him. He was killed mid-sentence by a single shot to the head, fired from afar.
Seh Daeng’s death would result in many more shots being fired, many more explosions, and yet more blood being spilled in the time that followed. Yet, amidst the anger, it was undeniable that Seh Daeng’s assassination shooked the Red Shirt movement and their muscular guards wing to the core.
On May 14, the government launched their so-called “area shrinking” operation. They kettled in the Ratchaprasong intersection, completely cutting the protestors off with a cordon of armored personnel carriers and thousands of troops. They then erected signs which declared the area to be a “live fire zone.”
The violence was continuous. It occurred in many different places, starting from the afternoon, and the reports of more dead and wounded just kept coming in.
The next morning, on May 16, I was on the expressway heading towards Suvarnabhumi International Airport. I was on my way to cover a summit in Russia when I saw an unforgettable sight.
Out in the near distance, downtown Bangkok was thick with plumes of black smoke from tires set ablaze. It looked like there was a civil war raging in Bangkok.
Even as I did my job as a reporter overseas, I still couldn’t look away from what was unfolding in Thailand. And on May 19, I was no longer able to look away even if I wanted to. The military crackdown on the protests in Thailand had become a global front-page story, even in Russia.
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