As Thai troops staged a bloody operation to disperse anti-government protesters on Wednesday, thousands of red shirt supporters in a fortified camp appeared calm. Some were eating or sleeping. Others prepared for battle.
Protesters showed no obvious sign of fear, as gunfights raged at the entrance to their encampment, and as troops broke through burning barricades that sent black smoke engulfing office towers, hotels, malls and embassies in Bangkok’s commercial district.
“I’m not scared, I will fight all he way for democracy. We’re not armed, we having nothing. They have guns. We are here in peace,” said protester Somkiet Thongdamuang, a 38-year-old farmer from Kampheng Phet province.
But peace was nowhere to be seen as troops moved closer to the camp in a major operation that killed at least four people and wounded an estimated 50 people, the Thai News Agency said.
Thai television showed bodies being dragged away or hurriedly carried to safety, as ambulances ferried people to hospitals. Two journalists were among the wounded and one Western journalist identified as an Italian was believed dead.
The military operation, apparently part of a final offensive to disperse protesters, had successfully gained control of the Lumpini Park area south of the protest camp, said a government spokesperson, adding some protesters had fled.
But despite the claim, running clashes between protesters and troops continued, sometimes in front of major tourist hotels, forcing guests to lay on the ground for protection.
About 3 000 protesters are holed up in the fortified camp, which sprawls over three square kilometres, many of them women and old men, but few children.
In an impotent symbol of defiance, protesters shot fireworks towards military helicopters that constantly buzzed above.
Protesters have occupied their camp since April 3.
The violence in Bangkok, one of the world’s most popular city tourism destinations, has killed nearly 70 people and wounded more than 1 700 since the protests began in mid-March, raising concerns about the Southeast Asian nation’s stability.
As troops pushed protesters back towards their main camp, protester guards in black flak jackets prepared for the oncoming battle. One carried a large samurai sword, while another had a string of rifle bullets over his shoulder.
Many protest guards sped towards Bangkok’s Silom business district on motorbikes as reinforcements.
There was also a shadowy man dressed in black military-style fatigues, his face covered by a balaclava, riding on the back of a motorbike, carrying two camouflage flak jackets.
Mysterious snipers, which the government says are linked to the red shirts, have been blamed for several killings, including protest military strategist Major-General Khattiya Sawasdipol, better known as Commander Red, who was shot in the head.
The crackdown on the main protest camp has raised concerns it could unleash unrest in other parts of the capital and outside Bangkok. Protesters have already taken over intersections at two other places in the capital of 15-million people.
An adviser to Thailand Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva called on protesters to immediately surrender, but they defiantly called for democratic reform before they would disperse.
“We want an election. We didn’t choose this government, it does nothing for the people. Abhisit just serves the rich and powerful,” said protester Sompong Wuthaisaeng, 43, a port worker from Chon Buri province.
“I’m prepared to fight, I won’t run away. I’m not scared of the army.”
The mostly rural and urban poor broadly support former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, a graft-convicted populist billionaire ousted in a 2006 coup and living in exile.
Call for elections
The red shirts accuse British-born, Oxford-educated Prime Minister Abhisit of lacking a popular mandate after coming to power in a controversial parliamentary vote in 2008 with tacit backing from the military. They have demanded immediate elections.
As scores more troops started to move towards another end of the encampment, protesters dozed under tents or sat glued to television watching the offensive unfold. Tough-looking guards peered at the troops from afar with binoculars.
“I’ll stay here to fight. They have their bullets, we have our hands,” said red shirt guard Thatrat Chieusiripong, 40.
“Even if they beat us today, there are more than a million red shirts who will keep on fighting until there’s democracy in this country. This is not over.”
But hours later a senior protest leader offered to surrender.
“I apologise to you all but I don’t want any more losses. I am devastated too. We will surrender,” Jatuporn Prompan told supporters from the stage in the protest camp.
Within minutes, four senior protest leaders were seen in police custody on Thai television, one calling for supporters to give up and go home. — Reuters