Yesterday, May 19, army troops stormed the red shirt camp, breaking up anti-government demonstrations that had lasted for more than two months here in Bangkok.
Soldiers first destroyed the red shirt barricades in Silom1 with armored personnel carriers. Then the troops pressed north on Rajadamri toward the Rajaprasong camp2, securing Lumphini Park and coming under fire from armed men clad in black.
Red shirt leaders soon surrendered to police, and the army eventually secured the entire protest site. Later, red shirt protesters would set scores of buildings on fire: the Stock Exchange of Thailand, CentralWorld shopping mall, two banks, a TV station, and more.
Some protesters who took refuge from the army crackdown sheltered in a nearby temple. Here’s a Globe and Mail story about people there — including the journalist who penned the piece — coming under fire throughout the night.
The day began with speculation that an army operation was imminent. The day ended with a deserted Rajaprasong protest site and plumes of smoke on the horizon.
At least 12 people were killed. Unrest also spread to the country’s northeast, but things now seem relatively calm here in Bangkok.
My day started at 5 a.m., when I learned that army troops had taken up positions around the red shirt camp in the pre-dawn hours. So I quickly headed in that direction. I stopped at Phloenchit Rd., where I noticed a gathering of soldiers. (Note: please excuse the low-quality mobile phone images.)
Dozens of camouflage clad troops armed with rifles had established a checkpoint here. They had set up sandbags and took up positions in the Phloenchit BTS station.
Most of the troops were focused on an area further down the road, where the easternmost red shirt barricade was located. But at one point I ducked around the side of a gas station and was surprised to see to soldiers staring up into surrounding buildings with binoculars.
It became clear to me that the fighting was happening on the southern end of the protest site, near the red shirt barricade near Silom and Lumphini Park, and that these troops were merely holding their position, not planning to enter Rajaprasong.
So I walked along Phloenchit to the Rajaprasong main stage area. Along the way, I talked to a few red shirt “guards” manning the barricades. They said they were aware that the army was surrounding the protest zone, but they didn’t seem overly concerned. They told me that they believed that there were snipers in the high rise buildings near the Wireless Rd. and Langsuan Rd. intersections.
Here’s what the barricade looked like:
At the main protest site, several hundred meters further along the road, demonstrators gathered and listened to speeches. But there were fewer protesters than in days past. Still, men and women — a few of them with children — milled about as if it were any other day at the demonstration site.
Some red shirt supporters watched Thai TV coverage of the army buildup at the southern end of the protest site.
After hearing reports that the army was advancing up Rajadamri Rd., I made my way away from the stage, heading back to the east along Phloenchit. Red shirt supporters were still congregating in an area behind the barricades.
A tire was smoldering from an earlier fire.
Motorcycle taxi drivers — either red shirt supporters, opportunistic entrepreneurs, or both — were hanging out here, ferrying people around.
I traveled further east and soon noticed smoke rising from the Asoke junction, one of Bangkok’s busiest intersections. Reports suggested that a bus or a pile of tires — or both — had been lit on fire here.
There was also a thick plume of smoke coming from the Rama IV area, to the south. I would later learn that arsonists had torched the Channel 3 building. The fire raged for hours.
And later I saw smoke coming from the west. This was likely from the CentralWorld fire.
The government then announced a curfew from 8 p.m. until 6 a.m.
I was out along Sukhumvit Rd. briefly during this time and it was a very strange scene: virtually no traffic on what is typically one of the Thai capital’s most congested avenues. There were just a handful of pedestrians; there were long stretches of darkness; and there was very little noise.
Here’s the full Flickr photoset of my images.
Obviously, many questions remain. What will happen to the red shirt leaders — and the red shirt movement? Will there be more fires? Or shootings? What does the military operation mean for the future of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government?