Monday, May 17, 2010

Bangkok Is Burning

Unarmed anti government protesters try to spot unidentified snipers who opened fire on their position Sunday. 
Bangkok is descending into chaos. If I had any doubt about that, the man I saw murdered today was all the confirmation I need. 
After Friday’s experiences, I elected to stay away from the barricades on Saturday. I went out for lunch and to a local mall to find a DVD to watch on my computer back in the apartment. The mall was too weird, so I left. 
Dr. Zhivago is one of my favorite movies. There’s a scene early in the film where the Russian bourgeoisie, and the movie’s main characters, Zhivago, Lara, Tonya and Komarovsky, are at a fancy ball in Moscow while the Communists were marching in the street and Tsarists soldiers were setting up ambushes for the marchers. 
That’s what the mall felt like. I could see smoke from the barricades as I went in but everybody inside seemed oblivious to what was happening in the streets. I had to leave. 
My apartment is about three kilometers (less than two miles) from the Rama IV Road protest area. Last night when I turned off the computer (I don’t have a television so I don’t know this is being reported on BBC or CNN) I heard occasional gun fire and a few explosions. The sound of gunfire and explosions have replaced classic rock as the soundtrack of my life in Bangkok. 
This morning I went out to see how things are in the City of Angels. Things aren’t too good. I hired a taxi - 700B per hour (about $22), up from about 1500B (about $47) per day a week ago - and set off. 
First I went to the end of Sukhumvit Road near Phloen Chit. This is one of the busiest intersections in the city. But not today. The army had set up a roadblock there (finally) and was checking documents on all the Thais going in. They were trying to clear civilians out of the area. A steady line of people left the area clutching their belongings as a steady rain fell. 
Then I went back to Rama IV where last night’s gun fire was coming from. I was shocked to see that not only was the road open but there was a party going on. Welcome to revolution in Thailand I guess. This was a “Live Fire Zone” (meaning troops could use live ammunition without warning) yesterday and the scene of repeated shootings. During the night, troops withdrew, anti government protesters set up a stage and started to party. 
Next I went to Sala Daeng. After Ratchaprasong (the main protest site) this is the fanciest corner in the city. The most radical, hard core, Red Shirts have a fortress of sorts on one side of the intersection. There are two high end hotels here - the Dusit Thani and the Pan Pacific - and most of the international financial services companies have their main offices in Sala Daeng. Some of the wire service photographers are staying in the Pan Pacific but otherwise it’s empty. I don’t know if anyone is staying at the Dusit Thani. 
The intersection was eerily silent, like a science fiction movie after the comets hit. 
Even the 7/11 and McDonald’s were closed. There were a couple of soldiers at a roadblock near the intersection, I took some photos of them and then tried to walk past the roadblock. One of the soldiers said to me “mai bai” (don’t go) then in English “sniper” (apparently there is no Thai word for sniper, since it’s the one English word every Thai I would later meet could say and I heard it a lot today). I pointed to the Red Shirt fortress across the street. He shook his head no and pointed to government positions up the street. I turned and walked slowly back to my waiting cab. 
My next intended stop was Petchaburi Road on the opposite side of the Red Shirt camp. I couldn’t even get past the roadblock there, which is kind of weird because foreign journalists usually have carte blanche to move around here. I was a little spooked after the Sala Daeng warning though so I didn’t push it. 
I told my taxi driver to take me back to the apartment. Because of road closures, we had to go around the same way we came. As we drove back across Rama IV I was surprised to see the road was closed again. This time it was closed by the size of the crowd partying in the street. I told my taxi driver to let me out, I paid him off and walked through the party. Thousands of people had come to watch whatever was going to happen and party. The most militant partiers were at the front of the crowd, under a highway overpass.
I could see smoke billowing up from the far end of the street and I walked down to the overpass to see what was happening. There was a large, agitated crowd under the bridge but not much to see except the burning barricades in the distance. 
I walked past the front edge of the crowd and a Thai pulled me back in under the bridge and said “sniper” while he made a shooting gesture and pointed to buildings far down the road towards Sala Daeng. I was a little surprised because we were a long ways from the burning barricades and the barricades were a long ways from the Thai army lines. 
I walked back under the bridge and a Thai woman came up to me and asked if I spoke English (there are huge numbers of German and Russian tourists here, though I don’t particularly look like a Russian tourist). She went on to tell me that army snipers were down the road and that someone had decided 500 meters was a safe distance to be from the snipers because they’re using M16’s and the Thais believe an M16 is not effective beyond 500 meters. We were about 800 meters from the army lines and 300 meters from the barricades. While we were well in a safe area, the people at the barricades were just within what the Thais thought the maximum range of the M16 is. 
I stayed under the bridge for about 90 minutes while other journalists walked down the street using empty store fronts and phone poles for cover. Protesters built more barricades at the bridge to cut off expressway access to Rama IV. The protesters set fire to the barricades, sending more smoke over Bangkok. One of the things that made me nervous about the barricade construction was that the harder they worked to keep the army out, they were also working to create a fence that would keep us blocked in. 
(In a real WTF moment the few police remaining at the bridge cleared traffic so protesters could get old tires and petrol in for the barricades. Some of the barricades are coated in diesel and protesters are stockpiling petrol bombs at almost all of the barricades.) 
The whole time people came running out of the nearby neighborhoods, clutching their belongings. Some hired motorcycle taxis who weaved left to right as they sped to the bridge. Every time I approached the front of the bridge someone would whisper “sniper” and point to army lines. 
I finally decided to abandon good sense and walk down to the burning barricades. I copied the moves of the other photographers, using empty store fronts, planters and phone poles, anything I could really, for cover all the while feeling kind of foolish. This is Bangkok, and the concept of snipers shooting unarmed civilians at random didn’t seem possible. 
I got to the barricade and discovered there wasn’t much to photograph. A group of Thai journalists (who have been extremely gracious and helpful this whole time) had moved further down the street. They appeared to be wearing body armor (I am not) and were being very cautious. I considered trying to catch up to them, but I don’t speak Thai and I wasn’t sure if I could safely maneuver up to their position. The whole 500 meter thing had me spooked. So I stayed under cover at the barricade.
I had just given up on getting anything and started walking back to the relative safety of the bridge when the crowd, almost as one, started screaming. I turned to see three men running, holding shopping bags, down the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street, more than 50 meters away. The crowd around me was encouraging them, much the way fans at a track meet cheer for the athletes. Then one of the runners appeared to trip. At the same time the report of a rifle shot echoed down the empty street. The other two men also went down as more shots rang out. The people around me all dove to the sidewalk. 
The last two men to fall scrambled to their feet and crawled to safety. The first man did not get up. I photographed the people around me as they took cover but the man across the street was obscured by a planter in the median phone poles along the curb. As I stayed in cover I could see the tops of some courageous people’s heads as they worked to pull the downed man to safety. An ambulance siren blared and an ambulance weaved left to right down the street, it turned down a narrow soi (sidestreet) and moments later emerged from the same soi weaving back to the bridge. 
Now thoroughly spooked, I decided it was time to leave the area of the barricades. I worked my way back to the bridge, moving from cover to cover not feeling nearly as foolish as I did the first time I made the walk. At the bridge a Thai medic told me the man appeared to be shot in the lung, that it looked like the bullet passed through him back to front and he was not expected to live. 
I’ve been a photojournalist for more than 25 years. I’ve covered political violence and drug violence in Mexico, Nicaragua, and the US. I watched a mob in Haiti pull a man from his home and beat him mercilessly. In the Philippines, I’ve spent nights hunkered down in hiding as local troops scoured a village looking for me. I’ve been in the middle of riots in the US and Mexico. I’ve never seen a person shot in the back by a sniper. This was not something I saw out of the corner of my eye. I watched as he ran, his arms pumping and then as he collapsed, heard the shots and saw that he did not to get up. 
On Friday I wrote that I was impressed with the discipline displayed by some of the Thai soldiers I encountered during a street battle. I’m not sure how well disciplined they are. I think now I was very lucky. Lucky that an experienced NCO was with the troops and lucky that it was the first day of violent protests. I think if something like that happened again, under the changing rules of engagement the outcome would be different.   
The US Embassy in Bangkok is holding a “town hall meeting” to talk about the situation in Bangkok on Tuesday. I am writing this on Sunday night. I think Tuesday may be too late. (Ironically the town hall meeting is at the S31 hotel on Sukhumvit, about 2 kilometers from my apartment and one block away from the home of the Thai Prime Minister, the man partially responsible for this whole mess.) 
I don’t see this situation stabilizing before then and the protests are spreading. What was once localized to Ratchaprasong has become a contagion and is spreading to other parts of the city and country. There are reports of violent Red Shirt protests in some of the Isan provinces. In Bangkok, it’s no longer just “Red Shirts” either. The actions I photographed Friday morning were Reds vs. the Army. But Friday afternoon and today it was Bangkok residents, not Red Shirts, who were leading the charge. 
The situation is deteriorating much faster and worse than I thought it would. I expected a crackdown against the Red Shirts, a day of violence and a day of mop up followed by recriminations and accusations. That’s the Thai way. Instead Bangkok, the city I grew up in and my favorite place in the world, is burning. I don’t see how Thailand, let alone Bangkok, can recover from the spasm of violence ripping it apart. 
As I wrote Friday, “The leaders on both sides either don’t see what’s happening or they’re so obsessed with preserving their personal fortunes (for the Yellows’ leaders) or drunk with ambition (the Reds’ leaders) that they don’t care. And the country tears itself apart.“
There are more photos from Sunday in Bangkok in my PhotoShelter account and available from ZUMA Press