The Clouds Gather
I had heard that the Thais transport tourists about like cattle, but did not know what this was about until I arranged through my hotel to take a bus to Krabi, a jumping off point for many of the islands. A group of us were shuffled on and off to different buses with no notion of why, and at several points asked to wear a sticker. “Yellow stickers, get off here!” cried the Thai drover. “Where the hell are we?” demanded this one, dropped off at one tourist office and then another, always trying to get somewhere warm and cheap and complacent.
I vowed from this point on to only take the local buses.
I was looking for the cheapest place to stay on a beach somewhere and finding that the fabled $3 bungalows of Thailand no longer existed, or were at least very difficult to track down. There was a secret island community in Thailand, devoted to discovering the undiscovered spots, not in any guidebook, the little bungalows with a mosquito net and no power, the islands with just a restaurant and a paradisaical beach and no qualms about free-camping. The sunny cabals meet on a secret island, and they whisper to trusted friends the secret names of the places they have found—but regarding this, I will say no more, for I am self-sworn to secrecy, that I may preserve these unmapped places for those who truly deserve to find them.
I ended up on Koh Lanta, a happy little couple’s paradise, a song of the southern isles. It was a sublime, surreal place of high jungled ridges, steep and slim as lined up dominoes, like the oriental altars of some jade empire; coconut palm forests abutting silky sandy strands, gravelly with sea shells, romantic bungalows and cheery people, and magnificent sunsets, the star swimming through ranks of clouds and down past rocks and islands, to sink through the clear air past the end of the world. It was kind of expensive, but I still had a very nice place to stay for $10 a night and decided not to spit in the wind.
At night, bartender Bau would sometimes call Mister Noodle, a stocky man in a long Muslim sherwani and cap, who staggered around the beaches with a sort of barbell across his shoulders, bags of noodles and bags of chicken or duck soup and bags of spices hanging from either side, gleaming greasily in the moonlight. The bar speakers played Bob Marley and Tracy Chapman, and old ’80s hits.
The clouds had gathered all day, and after dark the thunderheads burst and collided, though usually at a safe distance offshore, providing an empyrean light show for all those nestled safely in the cocothatch bars, gambling twenty baht on games of twenty-one with a clatter of dice in cup and a Van Halen squeal from the Thais when they win. The firmament echoed with the cracks and boom of God moving carts across a tiled floor, electrons by the cartload, tripping them down Jacob’s ladder. One night as I sat on my terrace the lightning burst just overhead like a strafing run during the Blitz, so close that I wondered if I had been struck, and neighbors came out shouting from their bungalows.
It was strange that I had just read a short story by Melville about this very insolent fear of nature’s wrath, and as the narrator of that tale, I humbly cast aside my existential terror and surrendered to the imperceptible will of the universe. “The hairs of our heads are numbered,” writes Melville, “and the days of our lives. In thunder as in sunshine, I stand at ease in the hands of my God. False negotiator, away! See, the scroll of the storm is rolled back; the house is unharmed; and in the blue heavens I read in the rainbow that the Deity will not, of purpose, make war on man's earth.”
In the morning all was fresh and beautiful again by the washing of the rain. When the tide was high there was warm cerulean swimming, and when it lowered down you could walk along the rocky reef and examine the strange life of the tide pools—black and white eels, long black worms, side-stepping crabs, and little two-legged saurian things that scuttled away as soon as you saw them. The dark-skinned islander children swarmed across these pools, all laughs and smiles and diving hands, filling plastic bags with clams and muscles.
Koh Lanta’s 20,000 permanent residents are 90 per cent Muslim, happy in their big families, sometimes interfaith. The women don’t let their headscarves stop them from joking with foreign men. Most of the best and longest-inhabited islands of the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Thailand are inundated with tourists and their ways: toast and eggs and coffee, sex shows, cheap beer, and English-speakers. Koh Lanta is trying to keep foreigners away, but their legislation has only making the island’s tourist business expensive, as none of the backpacker businessmen can afford to work around the steep Lanta proscriptions. As a result, the island was being steadily annexed by resort communities and was growing in expense, like most of Thailand’s nicest spots.
It was especially popular among the Gallic tourists, as it was used in the first season of France’s Survivor, just called Koh Lanta. Tourists sat on the beach eating burgers and watching the isolated castaways cast out desperate lines for fish a few hundred meters from the bungalow hotels, which all the cameramen turned tactically away from, before retreating to the same hotels, restaurants, and internet cafes at the end of the production schedule.
It was a beautiful place. I rented a scooter and drove up across the picturesque hills in the island’s jungle core, to the long wharves and tidal plains around the Old Town on the island’s far side; stopping in local cafes for cheap seafood and noodle soup and local interactions. The Thais are always politely hilarious and interested.
One of the workers at the bungalow camp where I stayed, a lad my age named Pill, was married that same week to a pretty nineteen-year-old girl from a wealthy family, who had leased out some property for foreigners to build nightclubs on. Pill’s own family had arranged the match. They had a big outdoor ceremony, groom and bride seated like king and queen to receive everyone’s obeisance, great tureens of curries waiting for consumption, and a box for guests to place their donations. While presents were technically not allowed, donations were encouraged, and were to be placed in an envelope with the guest’s name on it.
Rajprasong was under siege. Police took up positions all around the Red Shirt encampment in that intersection, their only protest site since they abandoned the Phan Fa Bridge after the April 10th battle that killed 25 people.
All Heaven seemed arrayed against the rebels. Plague struck their camp, sending six Red Shirt guardsmen to the hospital with H1N1. The wearying heat would not let up into cool monsoon rains. Prime Minister Abhisit rejected their proposed compromise, and further began to harangue an uncovered plot amongst the Red Shirt leaders to overthrow the monarchy of the beloved King Rama IX. The accusations, even without evidence, and the persistence of the rebel disruption, which nobody expected to last beyond Songkran, and which would have collapsed if the Phan Fa Bridge stalemate had not revived morale—all this turned popular opinion back against the Red Shirts.
All those businessmen and businesses halted by the demonstrations demanded that Abhisit take immediate action to remove the Red Shirts from the commercial quarter, and accepted that violence may be necessary. The Thais were used to that necessity—in the past it was common, jab-tai or “targeted killings” a usual term, and they wondered why General Anupong had been so slow to use force except in self-defense. Some cried out against the “watermelon army,” green on the outside and red within. Meanwhile more colors gathered, the Shirts of Yellow and Pink and Blue. A revered monk led 1000 Thais dressed in white to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha to chant the phahung-mahaka, a prayer for phutthakhun, the blessing of the Buddha for king and country.
From the headquarters of the 11th Infantry Regiment, Abhisit plotted with Deputy Prime Minister Suthep, the malevolent chairman of the Center for the Resolution of Emergency Situations, and with the patient, passive General Anupong. They knew that time was on their side, and that more violence could only damage their cause and destroy young Abhisit’s political career. Yet more trucks of police and soldiers funneled into the capital. The convoys no longer tolerated Red Shirt blockades but arrested any attempts, in Bangkok and in the provinces—the Emergency Protocols banned meetings of more than five people. Only Rajprasong with its tens of thousands could hold out. They expected, even dreamed of, another gloriously martyring battle like that which rattled Phan Fa Bridge on the tenth, and as if to hasten its arrival became ever more militant.
There was a Red Shirt hero at Rajprasong, a renegade major general named Khattiya Sawasdipol, though the rebels called him Seh Daeng, "Red Commander." As a symbol of rebel lawlessness and government impotence, he was a principle character of the unfolding drama, and perhaps its most tragic. The army had suspended the major general’s salary after he called General Anupong nhom nam, “childish and weak,” when noble Anupong allowed Yellow Shirt leader Sondhi Limthongkul to offer insult several times without response, but Khattiya retained his military rank. He went around the Rajprasong encampment in army fatigues he had worn in the ’80s, the only soldier permitted freedom of movement.
“They believe that because Seh Daeng is here they won’t die,” he said of himself. “That’s why everywhere I go people cheer me and ask for my autograph.” And everywhere he went, along with a knife and a canteen, Seh Daeng carried a blue marker pen to write his name on scarlet shirts and crimson caps. He posed for photographs alongside his eager admirers, a short, slight man with the chockablock phrenology of a boxer and a smile on his energetic jowls, and he was a hero especially among the more “hardcore” of the rebel element.
Against the Damoclean sword of attempted dispersal, Seh Daeng had his Red Shirts construct barricades. Rajprasong was a perfect location for a rebel camp, a “dragon’s stomach,” its tight avenues surrounded by buildings of such height and importance that the government would have to take care in the event of an assault—the poor red wretches taking solace in the unassailable might of the rich they warred against, skyscrapers worth more than human lives.
Observe the strategy: Of the four intersections around Rajprasong, the western Pathumwan intersection at Siam Square has a palace and a department store and the massive MBK Mall; to the east the Phloenchit intersection hosted several embassies, including the British and American consulates, whose staff could be seen fleeing the area; and at the northern end the Pratunam intersection was the primary gathering place of the demonstrators, invariably blockaded by the Red Shirt crowds, cameras, and stage.
Seh Daeng built barricades on all these approaches, ten foot walls of tires and nam-prik bags and sharpened bamboo staves, as if to repel a cavalry charge, and reinforced by bricks that doubled as weapons when throne, and doused in fuel so they could be set aflame during the last stand. One suspects that the Red Shirts had other weapons concealed behind—slingshots, iron rods, petrol bombs, and worse. “The walls are built according to the local wisdom of the people,” said the hero Seh Daeng, who based them on the bulwarks used to repel a Burmese invasion during the eighteenth century.
Two-thousand Red Shirt guards, including 200 of Seh Daeng’s ex-rangers, manned the barricades, and a thousand new guards joined the rosters on April 30, all trained by the renegade general. He taught them to use bamboo spears and slingshots and rocks, and to shoot down helicopters with bangfai rockets, all bamboo and fireworks. Seh Daeng said the government would need at least 40,000 men to overrun his forces.
The commander’s barricades guarded Pathumwan, Phloenchit, and Pratunam, but the largest and strongest of them defended the southern entrance at Lumpini Park, a wide open area of green hills and placid lagoons that was the most vulnerable entrance to Rajprasong. Here the walls circled the whole park, and the scarlet legions gathered around the statue of some older King Rama, waiting; and hither on one evening came a counter-protest gathered of anti-reds, who called themselves “multicolored shirts.”
About a thousand of them took up signs on Silom Road, across the street from the park, on Friday April 23rd, mostly office workers and salesmen and tailors from the area who wanted to go back to work and wages, worrying the rebels with their shouts. Some of those in red whispered that the new protesters were Yellow Shirts in disguise—that is, members of the pro-government People’s Alliance for Democracy, who wore the gilded hue, and had temporarily suspended their involvement. They say that soldiers also wear yellow when it suits them, and in this guise they shoot unwary rebels with slingshots. The Red Shirts feared and hated both, and they feared and hated these businessmen who opposed the cause to which they had committed their lives.
A Red Shirt commander named Arisman took the stage at Pratunam, and he told the rebels not to worry, that help was on the way to their brothers in Lumpini, in the form of “men in black.”
These black-clad bravos, the most devious and mysterious of all those colors involved in the war, arrived at Lumpini Park that night, and with M79 grenade launchers and from near the old king’s statue fired seven grenades into the thousand protesters gathered on Silom. The ordnance fell in among people in the street and in the Sala Daeng skytrain station and exploded on hitting the ground, leaving one woman dead and 87 protesters injured, including foreigners. Bloodied and terrified masses rushed this way and that, and in minutes of havoc the whole crowd had dispersed.
Soldiers took up positions in the streets behind walled riot shields, like the Roman legionaries at Carrhae, but by then the attack had ceased. A few hours later, 300 of the anti-rebel protesters returned to Silom, but the Red Shirts routed them a second time with petroleum bombs. At Pratunam, another commander took the stage and said the Red Shirts had nothing to do with it, blaming terrorists, “and we hope the attackers get arrested.” As for the woman who died, Abhisit was there at his funeral on Wednesday, being photographed in an embrace with the woman’s youngest son. Politics first.
Since the bridge battle, Abhisit and especially General Anupong had been uncompromisingly non-violent, while everything the Red Shirt commanders did was designed to bring about a second conflict. They selected Rajprasong for their last stand so that businesses would put pressure on Abhisit to bring about a quick conclusion (“A company is a country, a country is a company,” as Thaksin had said), which could only be a violent confrontation. Commissars stormed their hatred over the camp speakers, about the tyranny of the government, the oppression of the poor at the hands of the elite, and how they would never give up without a fight, and the rebels grew dangerously desperate. They antagonized the police and used the “men in black” to bring down vengeance on the red swarms, to turn disparaging rout into rousing martyrdom.
Even their proposed compromise was a joke. The Red Shirt commanders said they would disband and retire at once if Abhisit agreed to dissolve the House of Representatives within 30 days, rather than immediately, with an additional 60 day “caretaking” period until fresh elections could be held; but the government had yet to pass next year’s budget or to make the changes to the 2007 constitution that the people clamored for. Dissolving now would mean chaos.
It was impossible for Abhisit to agree to such terms, and the rebel commanders knew it, though publicly they decried the tyrant’s intransigence. They knew they needed more deaths to bring Abhisit down and to keep hold of their movement so that they could take advantage of the ensuing power vacuum to put their own in power—they could only keep the arm by sacrificing a finger.
Morale had waned since the unifying excitement of the Phan Fa Bridge skirmishes. The red march grew bored and agitated with the lack of progress, with none of their interests being addressed, and with the unconstitutional government gaining ground even after two months of marching and so many deaths; the heat wave and unseasonable rains sent many protesters fleeing home, ostensibly to take care of their crops; and the commanders knew they needed a renewal of violence to restore the movement’s soul. No revolution can survive if it is not oppressed. Some more Red Shirts had to die! So the rebels set about stirring up the hornet’s nest that had penned them in.
Things went no better on Abhisit’s side, with his vague and unproven accusations of a conspiracy to overthrow the monarchy, a conspiracy which happened to include all his enemies, including Red Shirt leaders, members of the Puea Thai Party, academics, journalists, the hosts of community radio programs, a few critical generals, and exiled Thaksin himself. Most of those charged with treason expressed a laughing incredulity, and Thaksin filed a lawsuit for defamation of character from Montenegro. Abhisit was not amused! Wielding his emergency powers like a truncheon, the man they call a tyrant closed down ten satellite, cable, and radio stations and 36 Web sites, then 190, and eventually 420, without explanation. He then appeared on his own stations to stress the sanctity of law and how his enemies defiled it.
The government released the names of top Red Shirt leaders implicated in the monarchy plot—and this after Abhisit and General Anupong had said their strategy was to isolate or eliminate the commanders without casualties among the great unwashed. The tactic was comically obvious: recall the term jab-tai, “targeted killing.”
Pitching like a boat on the feelings of the vulgar, the Prime Minister called every Red Shirt a terrorist and promised just revenge, and then asked for compromise and negotiation and stressed his nonviolence. We’ll crush them immediately, he said, and then, Crushing them would not solve the political crisis. He bandied around the term “parallel solution,” military and political. No matter what the eventual resolution, Abhisit could say he was at the head of it. Meanwhile Deputy Suthep went one way, General Anupong another, as the forces around and against the government proceeded towards a seemingly inevitable conclusion.
A monsoon cloud swept in from India, hot and full, on northwestern thermals, right as I decided to transfer from Koh Lanta to Au Nang, though I had not really settled on Au Nang until I got there. It rained on and off on the bus ride to Krabi, and the gray skies had quieted when I got off in the station. I asked some other tourists what their plans were, trying to form my own. They said Krabi was expensive and Au Nang cheap, so I got in a tuk-tuk with four Austrians on their way there. I riding shotgun and they were on benches in the back.
We were halfway there, chugging up a hill on empty, when the gas really ran out. The Thai driver told us to wait and ran off down the highway. It started to rain, first a trickle, then a storm. I collected my things from the open back and sat them in my lap. Water pounded on the roof and poured in through the cracks in the door, and I hunkered down in the middle, holding all my possessions, and just sitting there thinking, “Yep, that’s about all I can do.”
One of the Austrians banged on the window and said, “We’re getting out of here.” I didn’t know what the hell he meant until I saw another tuk-tuk behind ours, and our same driver behind the wheel. I ran off to the front seat and hunkered down again, the whole rainy way to Au Nang, coming up with contingency plans for how I would get myself and my things from the cab to some shelter with minimal damage. My bags were cheap made-in-Asia things and not made for this sort of weather.
When we parked next to a guesthouse on Au Nang’s main drag, all of us rushed out into cover. I haggled with the owner for a while but couldn’t get a good price, so when it stopped raining I went off down the street looking for somewhere better. The town looked like any beach town in the US, all Italian and seafood restaurants and travel agents and bars. Eventually some guy offered me a room at some dingy place behind the laundromat and got a woman to show it to me. The room had clean sheets, mosquito nets in the windows, a small safe, and a fine bathroom, but at that point I was more looking for a reason to say yes than for anything in particular—so of course I accepted.
Au Nang was a central location. Boats came and went from the beach to the islands, to famously expensive Koh Phi Phi and Phuket, to James Bond Island where Roger Moore dueled Christopher Lee as Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun. Just south of Au Nang, around the high-rising headland, was an isolated cove called Hat Ton Sai, completely enclosed by limestone cliffs which were themselves covered in bolts and rivets for rock climbers. It was famous—I’d heard about it from climbers in Wadi Rum and Hampi. To the north there was a beach famous among with the Thais, and you could get there by driving. A solitary island stood out past the surf, shaped like a tortoise shell and shaggy with trees, and very surreal looking.
It rained often. The monsoon downpour descended in sheets, obscuring the limestone rises around the town with a grim gray aurora; rain forming rivers in the streets and streamlets in the alleys outside my small room, sandals swept away from the doorsteps.
I looked everywhere for fresh newspapers. The chaos in Bangkok was only a little matter internationally, without relevance abroad. I knew it would be resolved soon enough, that the Red Shirts would collapse and that Abhisit would lose the next election, but I had taken a great interest in it. Not only was it an unreal story, but it spoke to me of that old Themistoclean theme, of what dangers fear can wreak on mankind. There were heroes here, and villains, painted in all the shades of gray. It was a story of democracy at its noblest and meanest, of political passions and national hopes, of a nation’s poor fighting the established order, and of how neighbors can learn to hate each other. Alas, what fear can wreak!
More than a week passed and I felt like I should go back. The bus to Bangkok was an air conditioned double-decker that showed two films, Ninja Assassin and Land of the Dead, censored only for the breasts visible at one point during the zombie movie, and not for any of the bloody violence.
The siege closed in on Rajprasong, with six security checkpoints set up by police and soldiers at the entrances to Seh Daeng’s “dragon’s stomach.” Gunmen stood all along the nearby streets and bridges, leaning rifles on their shoulders and shields against the wall, or they sat in lawn chairs waiting for something to happen.
Deputy Suthep told the security forces he would transfer out anyone reluctant to use violence. “Those who believe they cannot do this should come forward and let it be known,” proclaimed the Deputy,— “you will be moved out and replaced by those who can carry out the task.” An army colonel commented, “At present we are ready in terms of manpower, we are only waiting for a suitable time.” Some sources numbered the soldiers at 65,000, including 50,000 conscripts.
When the Crackdown came, Abhsit’s forces would come in by armored car and by helicopter and skytrain, behind walls of shields, with snipers on the rooftops—yet it seemed the gathered clouds would never burst. Strategists said wait and see, time and patience. The Chinese call it wuwei, or inaction—wait for the rebellion to collapse of its own accord, to choke on the slightest pressure of the army at its throat and the increasing apathy of the whole rest of Bangkok to the rebel cause. General Anupong played the role of Kutuzov or Fabius Maximus, the Great Delayer—We cannot win a confrontation, he seemed to think, as any casualties will make the reconquest of Rajprasong a Pyrrhic victory. Time will give us victory, not a fight. “Politics must be resolved by politics,” the General said on television.
Abhisit, always swerving between the non-violent peacemaker and the tough constitutional combatant, confronted his commander-in-chief in a sidelong way during a press conference on Sunday May 2. The square-faced premier with his symmetrical features and mail-ordered hair, his casual finger-taps on the glass table, always facing the camera with a halfway smile and eyes like a snake’s; and the rather plain-looking general, hair receding back from his sloped forehead, hands in his lap, metal stars and birds all over his jacket, turning towards the Prime Minister with an exasperated look. Abhisit spoke cool and confident about resolving the issue, easily articulate, and said, “You can ask the army commander yourself if there will be a dispersal or not.”
General Anupong slouched, calmly complacent in his own upbraiding, and stayed unwaveringly noncommittal. “If our actions can bring back law and order and end the problem,” said Anupong, “I would be ready to follow what the government orders, within the lawful framework of the CRES.” A load of nothing—ah, you noble man!
The Red Shirt commissars knew what General Anupong knew—that in time they would lose their loyal multitudes, as they had already lost everyone else. They said they would sally forth from Rajprasong to start new protest bases, like the Trojans fleeing Ilium to found Rome and London and Paris, but the Great Delayer caught wind and ordered his soldiers to stop any such attempt.
Nevertheless, at 1:30 p.m. on a gloomy-skied Thursday at the end of April, 2000 Red Shirts, led by a commander of Seh Daeng’s camp named Kwanchai, rode out on motorcycles and in pickup trucks towards the Talad Thai market. It looked like an old cavalry charge, all jousting spears and fierce figures. They no longer wore red shirts, so they would be harder to identify, so they could slink away into the city if necessary, as the commissars had told them to, but they wore headbands and bandanas and carried flags. An orange-robed monk carried in a sharp bamboo spear with a red bandana at the tip. They could wear anything except yellow, pink, or blue, as those were the colors of enemies.
General Anupong set up a hasty security cordon of army and air force soldiers and police officers on the Don Muang Tollway, next to the National Memorial, and at 1:50 the rebel mob dismounted from their vehicles and charged straight in, to break through the blockade, and so began the Battle of the Overpass.
They rushed down the median, in the dirt between the hedgerows that divided the traffic lanes. A man ran ahead of the others, his face a devil’s mask, all teeth and shadow and hard-edges, and he had a sledgehammer in his hand. He ran completely erect and smiling, while those behind him sulked low with terrified looks on their faces as if they had already been shot, as if waiting for this madman to be tumbled over so they could turn back and tear off their red bandanas and run for it. Two journalists lay down in the same dirt trail, over by the police, a cameraman with his free hand covering one ear and a woman screaming into a phone.
The security forces formed phalanxes, walls of translucent shields in the old Roman testudo, with ranks of shotguns loaded with rubber bullets. It looked like an old Napoleonic fusillade, a lineup of grenadiers, a shout and a crackle and a cirrus cloud of blue gunsmoke as they fired a volley. Some had live ammunition, and they fired over the heads of the Red Shirts. Snipers on the pedestrian walkways kept an eye out for “men in black.” Soldiers in green army helmets used slingshots, and rebels in red motorcycle helmets used slingshots right back. The rebels fought with sticks and stones. They lit and carefully aimed their homemade bangfai rockets, which guttered out on the pavement.
By 3 p.m. the fight had spread. Red Shirt detachments split off from the main group to try and rush around the security cordon, and a mobile task force of sixty officers on thirty motorcycles spread out to stop these small groups. One driver was shot in the back of the head by his own partner while heading towards the National Memorial. It was the only fatality of the day. Meanwhile, a thousand Red Shirt protesters mustered in front of the nearby Zeer Rangsit shopping center to come to the aid of their comrades, but the troops blocked them in.
Ten minutes later it began to rain: a drenching, crushing deluge that quelled everyone’s spirits and took the gunsmoke right out of the air. It had become too much. Red Shirt commanders in Rajprasong ordered a retreat. Hundreds and hundreds of motorcycles and trucks revved up and swarmed off through the rain back to the commercial district. The raid commander, Mr. Kwanchai, who was already facing arrest, managed to evade capture and return to the Rajprasong stage.
During the rainswept rout, somewhere on the freeway’s inbound lane, a motorcycle skidded to a halt in front of an air force checkpoint, and the rider jumped off and ran down the freeway. The troops searched the cycle and found 63 grenades and a few M79 launchers. They laid these out on a table after the battle for the press to photograph, yet the officers at the triumph couldn’t take their eyes off the little bombs, which looked like lightbulbs. The authorities later found out that the motorcycle and the ordnance belonged to a police sergeant involved in an arms trafficking gang, who was selling to the Red Shirts—grenades for 1200 baht a piece, or $40.
Other than the tragic death of the motorcycle driver, two soldiers and 16 Red Shirts were injured in the battle, many of them hospitalized.
After the Battle of the Overpass, the police sealed off Rajprasong. Of course the blockade was ephemeral. Traffic in the area had slowed to a crunch, but Rajprasong remained packed with vendors selling all kinds of hot food and ice cold drinks, plus clothes and CDs and everything else you can find on a street corner in Bangkok. Tourists could wander in, although the guards of both sides would ask a few questions. The officers might check arriving Red Shirts for weapons if they were not busy.
The people of Bangkok and many of the generals wanted to make it a real siege in the medieval sense of the word—cut off their food, water, and electricity, then see how long this lasts. The Red Shirts said if that happened, they would burn Rajprasong to the ground. It was a collective feeling. The leaders didn’t matter any more. They were as caught up in rage and wrath of fear as everyone else, pushed ahead at the front of the storm, all itching for the fight that the government refused to give them.
If you cross the Bang Lamphu Canal just north of Khausan, you arrive on quiet pleasant Samsen road, with six side avenues of tightly spaced houses. Flags hang from streamers overhead, and there are flowers and motorcycles and food stalls against all the walls. It sometimes seems that everyone in Bangkok eats takeaway, brings home curries and soups and chili oil in little bags to mix with scoops from the rice cooker. There is always a place somewhere around Khausan serving rice and curry or fish noodle soup, and on Friday and Saturday there is music everywhere—Thai singers with a guitar and a mental library of Zeppelin, Floyd, Dylan, and AC-DC classics, or blues bands that know how to knead the strings for all they’re worth.
Actually, there is always music—a radio somewhere blaring Thai songs (the Thais are still caught up in a romance with electric rock ballads that are very fun to listen to even to those who cannot speak Thai as long as they understand the language of Whitesnake and the Eagles); the monks practicing on xylophones and horns in the temple halfway down the alley; a few neighbors around a table, sometimes around midnight, playing guitar and harmonica and singing songs they all know.
Away from the drunken tourist ghetto and the gleaming commercial blocks, Bangkok has a lived in feel, like a house with a family too big for it, warm and happy and lively with friendly faces everywhere. A sort of squalor that is not squalid, like an old pair of jeans, tattered and torn, but clean and loved at the same time.
It was always hot. Some days it rained, a heavy sky-cracking downpour that washed all the heat and humidity into the gutter and pounded on the tin rooftops and blurred all the streets. On the days it did not rain it was so hot and muggy you felt compelled to take your shirt off wherever it was appropriate. All you could do around noon was sit under a fan and sweat. In the cooler mornings or, more commonly, the afternoons and evenings, I sauntered around, talking to people, observing things, eating food in the alleyways, buying random things from street stalls and pointing at half-done dishes and saying, “One of those, please, same same.” I picked up the papers and read them at tables by the side of the road, making sense of the war.
I stayed in a guesthouse in an old wooden mansion, a creaking place that smelled like an open bottle of whiskey, and as I left one day I saw a mass of Red Shirts on the television and some manner of chaos.
“What’s happening?” I asked the owner’s wife, a small Thai woman, old but straight-backed. Her husband was a cantankerous old man who bought a bottle of whiskey every other night and spent most of his day in a rocking chair watching American war movies and History Channel specials on TV, but whenever it was just his wife around she would turn on the news.
She told me, “They attack hospital. Red Shirts run inside.”
A hundred of them had stormed Chalalongkorn Hospital, just next to Lumpini Park, on the suspicion that the government had posted snipers in the upper stories, though they only found the infirmed. The hospital staff stopped receiving outpatients while the rebels roved around, and later the staff moved most of their patients to other facilities in Bangkok.
I saw Seh Daeng’s blocky face in the middle of it, a palette of IV bags behind him, and he was pointing this way and that as he set up more of “the people’s barricades”—tires, razor wire, and sharp bamboo spears, all along the front of the hospital. He put guards there to check everyone coming in for weapons and charged the hospital’s director with serving the government.
“This is crazy,” said the owner’s wife, “even in times of war, armies trust the Red Cross.” She muttered about how it was all northerners.
The next day the more sober of Red Shirt leaders apologized. “On behalf of all leaders, I apologize to the public and Chulalongkorn Hospital for the incident,” said Weng Tojirakarn,—“The situation got out of control.” Only he did not speak for all the leaders. Already there were hints of the factions that would later tear the Red Shirts apart, the peaceful and the "hardcore."
The sober leaders negotiated with Seh Daeng and got him to take down some of the barricades, but the hospital had already ceased functioning. Then Seh Daeng and his hardliners scorned the hospital’s overreaction to their raid and continued presence. The evacuation of the hospital, said one leader, was “too strong a measure against the Red Shirts.” It was obvious to him that the hospital was being used as a propaganda tool by the government, that the government would stop at nothing to crush the rebellion.
It was obvious to me that the whole thing was coming apart at the paranoid seams.
Then Abhisit offered a compromise. He would dissolve the House of Representatives in September, giving them enough time to pass a budget for the new fiscal year in October, and to legislate reforms that balance between the popular 1997 constitution and the new one of 2007; he would hold a general election on November 14, and he would not declare martial law.
His five conditions were that: (1) the monarchy must not be used as a tool in political conflicts; (2) the country must be reformed by tackling economic disparities and inequality; (3) the media must refrain from reports which exacerbate social or political conflicts; (4) an independent fact-finding panel must be appointed to review fatal incidents involving security forces and protesters; and (5) the reconciliation process must be carried out with the cooperation of all sides.
“This road map is the country's future but the government will not grant amnesty to the terrorists who hide among the Red Shirt rally,” said Abhisit, as conciliatory and accusatory as ever. "I do not receive any personal benefit from the road map, as it is intended to bring about peace in the country.”
His “five-point national reconciliation road map,” announced the first week of May, had the support of Abhisit’s coalition, his generals, the private sector, and the acceptance of the leaders of the UDD, who said they would turn themselves in to fight the terrorist charges.
There was a collective sigh. Though only a few thousand Red Shirts remained in Rajprasong, of the 100,000 that had at one point laid claim to it, those weary wretches cheered and put on Thaksin masks and danced around the commercial district in the wake of their leaders’ acceptance, for they had won. Abhisit smiled at the cameras and watched his popularity rise like floodwater. The good General Anupong, le chevalier sans peur et sans reproche, he had won as well. There had not been a crackdown, politics had resolved politics, and he would be released from his position in September, along with all the rest.
Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya called in the US ambassador, who on Sunday breakfasted with several Thaksin supporters, and he called in an assistant US secretary of state who had lunched with a few old Thai Rak Thai members, and he chastised them both—“Stay out of Thai affairs!” Then he called in representatives of 41 embassies and international organizations and harangued the lot of them for getting involved. “We are not a failed state!” shouted the minister.
There was such a tide of feel-good summary headlines that, if this were a movie, it would be the part when newspapers fly at the audience. It appeared to be the end, and nothing remained but that little concluding text at the end, where they say what happened to everyone after the main events.
But—O the mighty threats thrown around, the blame and the sorrow! For where there is compromise, where everybody wins a little, many feel they have surrendered everything. There were factions within factions, and they were not happy. They blamed Abhisit for his sins of weakness, they blamed noble General Anupong for forcing Abhisit to compromise by his Fabian inaction, and fractionalized Red Shirts blamed their cowardly leaders for surrendering without securing all their extraneous demands.
Far away, somewhere on the Adriatic, a little dictator cried out with all Napoleon’s bombast. Exiled Thaksin had lost control of his “red tiger” and it had left him behind. He said that September was not early enough. "If we cannot find justice in the country, we will need to use an international stage to fight for justice," said the forgotten exile, with no seat in the negotiations, his $1.6 billion in confiscated assets recently transferred to the state treasury. “But the more I demand [for reconciliation], the more I become a target.”
O thou poor martyr, thou lost cause! Such sufferance in thy Montenegrin estate. And now the foreign minister of that country says to keep thy mouth shut, that it is not any business of a citizen of Montenegro what happens in Thailand. Good riddance to you!
Another of those flying headlines proclaimed, “Seh Daeng to be stripped of his rank,” the first major general of the Royal Army to suffer such a fate. A tribunal concluded that “he had repeatedly defied orders from his superiors to not get involved in political movements, particularly with the red shirt United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship,” reported the Post, and he had met twice with Thaksin without informing his superiors and was suspected of involvement with the “men in black.”
The Commander of the Red Shirts was incredulous. “What have I done wrong?” he asked. “I've protected the army chief from being verbally attacked by the Yellow Shirts, and now I am protecting the lives of innocent people. No, I don't feel sorry at all—they can fire me while the judicial process is still pending. Then I will be able to work full time to help the Red Shirts.” Seh Daeng would fight to the end, because the end meant a military tribunal and most likely a jail cell.
(As for the "men in black," it seems that after Khattiya's salary suspension in January, the Defense Ministry and the Royal Thai Army Headquarters were bombarded by the same type of grenades used by the mysterious mercenaries—you do not trifle with Seh Daeng. When asked about this, the lively general cried out in English, “I deny! No one ever saw me.”)
More serious a threat were the Yellow Shirts, utterly deprived by the compromise. In an editorial, Bangkok Post editor Voranaj Vanijaka wrote of “the tangled web of political intrigue,” that Abhisit’s road map served some more than others:
The prime minister wouldn't have offered the Nov 14 compromise if he wasn't confident that the Democrat Party can win the general election in six months. After all, over the past couple of weeks, through shuffling, transferring and appointing, many of the right people have been put in the right positions in the civil and police bureaucracies in the north and northeastern provinces of Thailand [the Puea Thai heartland]. That's the way politics goes.
The UDD and Puea Thai Party wouldn't have accepted the compromise if they weren't confident that they can win the general election in six months. After all, despite the shuffling, transferring and appointing by the government, the Reds must be confident enough that they still have plenty of their own right people in the right positions. That's the way politics goes.
So that would leave one key player out in the cold: Sondhi Limthongkul of the Yellow Shirt PAD and New Politics Party.
The New Politics Party needed the same middle-class base as the Democrats. If the Democrats win in November, it’s four more years of waiting and campaigning. If the UDD’s Puea Thai party wins, then the New Politics Party is really down and out. So Yellow Shirt commander, Major General Chamlong Srimuang, condemned Abhisit’s plan, called the Prime Minister weak and selfish, more interested in saving himself than the country. He demanded that Abhisit resign, called for the other generals to declare martial law on their own and to destroy the Rajprasong camp, as they should have done all along.
Meanwhile the Red Shirt captains met in council to set a date to abandon that very camp, but they were split: some wanted to disband, and some wanted to fight. General Chavalit, chairman of the Puea Thai, asked his mobs to dissolve their protest as his birthday present. Seh Daeng laughed at the idea that the protesters would just walk away. They argued, those who would accept peace and those who would accept only victory.
The sober ones suggested May 5, Coronation Day, the sixtieth anniversary of the crowning of the beloved Rama IX and also the beginning of the bangfai fireworks festival, an auspicious day when everyone would want to go home. But that day came and that day went and the Red Shirts did not say their intent. The King's celebration lasted five days, where Thais turned out in droves to wave flags and cheer for the world’s longest reigning monarch, and the sky echoed with the sound and noise of colorful artillery, and the Red Shirts remained in Rajprasong.
They argued and argued, and on Saturday, May 8, were supposed to make a final declaration. Over 5000 fresh rebels poured in from the poor northeastern provinces of Udon Thani and Khon Kaen, filling Rajprasong to its skyscraper walls, rebel hordes jammed around the stage to clap and cheer. There was an energy there, a sulky expectation, a cusp of victory feel and gleam in the eyes that looked like a parking lot brawl after a game. They all wanted to be there for whatever was about to happen. Some did not want it to end.
The night before there were two attacks on the security forces around Lumpini Park. Rifle fire and grenades killed three officers and injuring ten, as well as three civilians. Elsewhere a UDD radio DJ’s truck was torched outside his house. Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts pointed fingers at one another, and Saturday came and Saturday went and the Red Shirts did not say their intent.
Abhisit remained committed and demanded an answer. “Schools are about to open. Parents are concerned about their children's safety,” he said on national television. “There should be a clear answer by tomorrow so that cooperation on the reconciliation plan will go ahead.” Deliver an answer by Monday, he said, or else.
And Monday came and Monday went and the Red Shirts did not say their intent. On Tuesday Abhisit said the Red Shirts must surrender and disperse by Wednesday or else. Seh Daeng laughed and kept piling up tires, and Wednesday came and Wednesday went and the Red Shirts did not say their intent.
Finally Abhisit received his reply: the Red Shirts will surrender when Deputy Suthep submits himself to police justice! For ordering the crackdown a month ago that killed 25, he must be held accountable. What heavy words, and what secret purpose—for if the Prime Minister's principle lackey was arrested, surely he would be granted bail and judicial leniency, and so too would the Red Shirt leaders, the churlish brigands. All the while they had been riding on the feelings of their mob, and now they saw where the mob’s weary willingness to compromise would land them—in a jail cell. While the Red Shirts sauntered home and the Puea Thai party prepared for the November elections, the rebel leaders would all be sitting in a courtroom somewhere, being made examples of by tactical Abhisit, and blamed for far more than they deserve—and really they don’t deserve much, those figureheads, those Mouths of Sauron.
Well, Suthep submitted himself to police custody, and the captains said it was the wrong precinct; and because of their heavy greed and postponement, waves of violent emotion crested once again, and the "road map" fell by the wayside.
Abhisit had had enough. The cool opportunist dropped all the auspices of peaceful negotiation. He became consumed by the popular vexation, like a shark smelling blood, became its spokesman, and he went back on his word. There would be no more bargaining with the Red Shirts! No more November 14th elections! The “road map” would proceed without them both! And now—now the siege is real!
Abhisit shouted the angry words, Deputy Suthep wrote the plans, and poor General Anupong issued the orders he had long feared to give: “Operation Rajprasong.” In the middle of the night he bolstered the number of troops around Rajprasong to 32,000 and sent in 120 armored vehicles from their base in Saraburi. He set snipers and their weapons on the high places. His aides assured the press that machineguns and grenades would not be used, and that live ammunition would only be used as warning shots, fired into the sky, and in self-defense against the “men in black.”
Anupong fortified the roadblocks around the camp. Red Shirts would be allowed to leave, but no one would be allowed to enter, including the regular supplies of ice and food that had before made camp life tolerable. And at 6 p.m. on the 13th, all water, telephone, bus, electric train, subway, and boat services to the area—an area of residences, businesses, and schools—would cease. The power might be cut in the future, depending on the rebel response. This promised to be profound.
The rejuvenated commanders, no longer in danger of imminent arrest, said that if the elections were canceled they would continue to protest in Rajprasong until Abhisit “steps down or is toppled,” thus securing at the same time their own future. Abhisit’s threats of violence kept all the mobs on their commanders’ cornered side, fortified everyone’s resolve. After six weeks of fighting, renewed hardship and oppression would unite them much more fully than any promise of peace. And God-willing there would be blood in the streets!