Bangkok Thailand – The morning after the Thai troops’ bloody crackdown on anti-government protesters here, the mood among them remained as it was after the guns had gone silent only hours before. The red shirts, called such because of their signature protest colour, appeared defiant, edgy and, in some cases, victorious.
Tragedy had exploded on Saturday night, as heavily armed troops fought pitched battles with the protesters in an attempt to reclaim an area in the historic part of Bangkok that tens of thousands of red shirts with the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) have occupied for four weeks.
The death toll by midnight had risen to at least 18, including 14 civilians and four soldiers, according to hospital sources. A further 680 people were injured, according to the Erawan Emergency Centre.
The crackdown ordered by the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva marked the worst violence between troops and street protesters this South-east Asian kingdom has witnessed since 1992, when 48 people were killed. The attempted dispersal came three days after his government declared a state of emergency.
“I have been waiting for this moment, to be free,” said Parinda Muangngal, a 38-year-old from Surin, one of the provinces in north-east Thailand that is home to the poorer farming communities where the red shirts draw most of their support. “We expect to win now.”
Other red shirts, like Sunan Ankaew from the north-eastern province of Udon Thani, were disturbed at the level of force used by Thai troops to clear the protesters at Phan Fah bridge, where the UDD have set up a stage since Mar. 13 and held round-the-clock rallies to crowds that, on weekends, have reached 150,000.
“I didn’t expect the soldiers to do something like this to us. It is unbelievable,” said the owner of a second-hand car business. “The soldiers were shooting to kill.”
Abhisit, however, appeared determined that his 16-month-old administration will dig in its heels and remain in power. “The government will ask experts to examine independently how the deaths occurred in order to prove the truth to the public,” he said in a nationally televised speech close to midnight.
“I’m confident if we stay true to righteousness, we will win the day,” added the premier, saying that troops “were allowed only to use live bullets to shoot into the air or for self-defence.”
But the political overtones of Saturday’s crackdown may come to haunt the 45-year-old leader, widely supported by Bangkok’s elite thanks to his patrician upbringing, education in Britain and his pro-establishment loyalties.
The clashes brought into sharp focus what the UDD leaders have been saying — that they are waging a “class war” between the politically marginalised rural and urban poor against the kingdom’s political aristocracy or “amart”. To rectify this, the red shirts want the government to dissolve parliament and call for fresh elections, arguing that the Abhisit administration did not come to power through a popular vote but through backroom deals shaped by the country’s powerful military.
The Abhisit administration has been at pains to dismiss such a characterisation. It points out that the UDD’s political godfather is the fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has duped the red shirts.
Yet comparisons between two previous bloody confrontations between Thai troops and street protesters — in 1992 and 1973, where over 100 people were killed – confirm that the weekend showdown exposes a social fault line between Bangkok’s affluent and the marginalised rural millions, say analysts.
“The battle was between the army that supports the establishment, government and Bangkok’s urban elite against the people from the provinces,” Thanet Aphornsuvan, a historian at Thammasat University here, told IPS. “It is a real class war. Saturday’s crackdown confirms this.”
The scenarios that played out in 1973 and 1992 were different, he added. “Then it was a clash between Bangkok university students and the Bangkok middle class against military dictators. It was a Bangkok-centred clash.”
Saturday’s bloody end appeared hard to predict earlier in the day. Through the afternoon, flashpoints in the historic part of the city and near a popular neighbourhood for foreign backpackers saw scenes of hundreds of red shirts and troops in riot gear, armed with only batons, indulging in shoving contests to gain control of streets.
As the shadows lengthened, the red shirts, who have been camping out on broad boulevards and cooking meals, even attempted to feed Thai troops. “They are our brothers,” said one female protester after distributing sweets to soldiers.
By sunset, the Thai military responded with a novel tactic. From a military truck, music that had a surreal touch blared out. It began with John Lennon’s anthem for peace, ‘Imagine’, and moved on to catchy favourites like ‘Hands Up, Baby Hands Up’ and ‘My, My, My It’s a Beautiful Day’.
But this gave way after nightfall, as armed troops moved in. In an over one- hour long street battle on Tanao Road that IPS witnessed, soldiers crouched and opened fire with automatic weapons in the direction the protesters had massed.
Though protesters appeared armed with bamboo poles, eyewitnesses confirmed that they had two automatic guns. A steady stream of explosions rent the air, and there were reports of a protester hurling a grenade.
Near the nearby Democracy Monument, similar clashes unfolded. Armed troops charged the assembled red shirts who fought back, including women wielding wooden clubs.
But the red shirts had overwhelming numbers on their side. The Thai troops’ retreat after a “truce” was the latest humiliating moment for the government, a day after protesters overran troops at a satellite transmission station to get back on air a pro-UDD television station that the government had banned.
“Abhisit must resign,” said an enraged UDD supporter who runs a business exporting furniture to China. “We are a divided country now. His government is the cause.”