May 18. Thailand, having experienced fifteen coups since the Siamese Revolution of 1932, which transformed the kingdom from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy, is no stranger to political unrest. But recent events in the capital Bangkok have threatened to condemn the nation to full-scale civil war.
While hundreds of journalists from across the world have converged on the city to report on every nuance in the class-fuelled conflict, they have been joined by many more ‘citizen journalists’ using ‘social media’ to tweet, text and blog every development and their own opinions. But how accurate are such reports and should we trust this new species of reportage?
Gary Jones ventures onto Bangkok’s potential battlefields in an attempt to disentangle the truths, half truths, lies, assertions and slogans shrouding Thailand’s torment.
THE EARLY EVENING of Thursday, April 22 and Silom Road in the steamy Thai capital, Bangkok, appeared relatively untroubled for a major downtown shopping area in a city under siege. Thai office workers were stepping into the street to bypass razor wire that the army had stretched in rolls across pavements. But they were stopping off, as usual, at the end of another working day, for papaya salad and fish-ball noodle soup from busy roadside vendors before taking the Skytrain home.
Grinning tourists in garish shorts and singlets posed for photographs with heavily armed Thai soldiers, sweating profusely but seemingly relaxed under head-to-toe riot gear. With flak jackets hanging loose and protective matt-black helmets buckled to their belts, war correspondents, perhaps weaned on the hardships of Baghdad or Helmand Province, strolled by, ice-creams in hand, in the last of the day’s sunshine. Some kicked back on the patio of O’Reilly’s Irish pub with a pint and a cigarette.
From the eastern end of Silom Road, however, at Sala Daeng intersection, fiery speeches could be heard emanating from loudspeakers at the corner of Lumpini Park. The junction was the southern most and most determinedly defended limit of the Red Shirt encampment that, occupied by 10,000 to 20,000 anti-government protesters, had paralysed more than a square mile of central Bangkok’s prime commercial district for weeks.
In the days before April 22 the Reds – largely working-class supporters of Thailand’s ousted leader Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire former telecom magnate who, they say, gave the poor a voice, and who insist current Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government took power illegitimately, backed by the army and the judiciary – had fortified their side of the junction with banks of old tyres, thousands of sharpened bamboo staves, petrol canisters, protective netting and piles of smashed paving stones to be used as missiles. The government, the Reds claim, represents an élite unsympathetic to their problems. Journalists, along with the simply curious, were allowed access to the camp. Inside, women napped under the shade of Lumpini’s trees as heavily tattooed youths produced homemade rockets nearby. Small children played; Buddhist monks in saffron robes carried spears.
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