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'This is Like Syria:' Bangkok Remains in Violent Crisis

Violence on the eve of Thailand's election unfolded near a shopping center 30 minutes from Bangkok.

by تجربة
Feb 4 2014, 5:00pm

Adam Gnych

On the eve of Thailand’s general election, a firefight broke out between government supporters and anti-government protesters at an intersection not far from the city center. It involved handguns, homemade explosives and assault riffles. It was, by far, the most violent episode in the series of demos that have engulfed Bangkok for months.

In the middle of the fight sat the police, who did very little, the army, who did even less, and masses of international press members -- including American photojournalist James Natchwey, who was shot through the leg. It was, many thought, the start of a new stage in the conflict. A return perhaps to the level of violence seen in 2010, when dozens of people were killed.

But it seems they may have been mistaken. On election day itself, the widespread violence that had been predicted for Bangkok was nowhere to be seen. Instead, the day passed with relative ease. Yes, in Bangkok, "relative ease" means guns being fired at people and cars, and thousands being unable to vote because of ongoing anti-government protests, but it wasn't the orgy of society-collapsing unrest that many feared.

The events on the eve of the election unfolded near a shopping center in Lak Si district, about 30 minutes' drive from the center of Bangkok and a stone's throw from Don Muang, one of its two international airports. A group of anti-government protesters were camping outside a polling distribution center in the area, determined to wake up the next day and disrupt the vote. Five minutes down the road, a group of pro-government "red-shirts" had assembled in a temple, listening to speeches by hardline red-shirt leaders.

At the anti-government site, protesters were building barricades around their position, using trucks, buses and tires to block the roads, and telling journalists that they expected a move by the red-shirts at any moment. On the barricades, men with full-face masks and helmets kept a close eye on whoever approached.

Over the road, in the red-shirt temple, the group had concluded its talks and had decided to make the short march towards their anti-government adversaries. The red-shirt group -- wearing white, just to confuse things -- chanted slogans and waved sticks in the air, but they were relatively small in number. The police, who are widely seen as sympathetic to the government and its supporters, were able to convince them to back off.

Yet just as it looked as if the situation might be calming, a car driving through the intersection was attacked by the red-shirts, who beat it with sticks, smashing the front window before it was able to drive away. Two firecrackers were then thrown, and the crowd dispersed.

Shortly after, things started to get really bad. Freelance photojournalist Adam Gynch, who had been following the red-shirt march, spent the next few hours pinned down by gunfire.

“After the car was smashed up, a group of anti-government People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) protesters turned up in a truck and got into a confrontation with the red-shirts,” Gynch said. “They seemed to have come out of nowhere and all of a sudden they were behind us and it took everybody by surprise.

"Initially it seemed very tense and everyone expected a clash straight away," Gynch continues, "but for a period of 10 to 15 minutes, nobody actually did anything. Someone was on a megaphone trying to calm things down but then a rock was thrown, a slingshot was fired and fireworks were used and things escalated from there. I couldn’t say who threw the first rock."

Gynch says that it quickly became apparent that among the PDRC group was a more hardcore contingent.

"As things escalated, the normal protesters apparently decided it had become too much and they move up into a safer area, using their trucks as cover," he said, adding that gunshots were fired, but he couldn’t say which side shot first.

Things escalated dramatically when these more hardcore protesters, wearing combat fatigues and balaclavas, were the only ones remaining at the scene.

"The rate of fire increased dramatically," Gynch said. "I saw pistols being used, a gun barrel coming out the end of a popcorn sack and being fired towards suspected red-shirt gunmen ... I saw an AK-47 later on, as the gunmen became more brazen. They were using the sacks to conceal the weapons, probably from the press."

Evidently, this plan wasn't a total success.

"We were on a highway, so when [the firing] started we took cover straight away behind concrete barriers," continues Gynch. "The teams of PDRC guys were moving around us and shooting very close to us towards the red-shirt positions.

"When we thought there was a lull, we spotted an area that we thought would be safer, in a ditch off the highway. We ran for cover, at which point the gunfire grew heavier again." he said.

It seems that Gynch wasn't the only journalist caught up in the street battle.

"We managed to find a sort of shantytown beyond the ditch and some other journalist who had taken shelter there," he said. "Locals were hiding in their homes. One old guy, who was crouched down taking cover with his wife and three dogs, turned to me and said in broken English, ‘this is like Syria.’ Shortly after that, another photographer turned to me and shouted, ‘fucking run!’ as we realized how exposed we were. We all scrambled for cover up an alley."

At this point, he says he couldn't tell which of the two sides was responsible for most of the gunfire.

"In a moment of absurdity, as we were trying to flee the area, we came to a small bridge and were trying to signal to the PDRC gunmen that we were press, and for them not to shoot, at which point a young girl came skipping over the bridge, seemingly oblivious to the chaos around her.

"While the shooting was going on everything else was very quiet," he said. "There was none of the usual blaring music and megaphones. Gradually people started to get back on the megaphones, as the firing seemed to stop from both sides but the occasional single shot meant people were still running for cover.

"The firefight started around mid-afternoon and didn’t finish until dusk. I expected more incidents during the night and for it to start up again on dawn of election day but, for some reason, this never happened,” he said.

In fact, voting proceeded in peace at 90 percent of polling stations. Which isn't to say that Thailand's political crisis is over -- the small but vocal opposition, which includes in its ranks many influential royalists and business people, has vowed to fight to annul the election results. The opposition’s quest to unseat the current government -- which it sees as intrinsically corrupt -- continues, and for as long as it does, so will the chaos on Bangkok's streets.

Follow George Henton on Twitter: @georgehenton