Eyewitness: Under fire in Thailand
Andrew Buncombe reports from the streets of Bangkok which have become a lethal battle zone
Thursday 20 May 2010
There was nothing for us to do but take cover, as the incoming fire sprayed and hissed. People lay flat, terrified, crouched behind cars, tried to squeeze themselvesinto the meagre protection offered by the wheel hubs. They took cover frantically, diving behind not just cars, but trucks, trees and even flower pots.
This was near to the entrance of a Buddhist temple, a supposed oasis, a place of prayer. But we knew its sanctity had been fatally breached when the crack of rifles and the sound of bullets ricocheted close to the temple's souvenir shop.
One after the other, the injured were carried, rushed and dragged inside the temple compound. On bamboo mats, blankets anything to hand, they were carried in bloodied and screaming. Fearless Red Shirt volunteers did what they could. They used towels, bandages and plasters to try to treat ugly bullet wounds that needed surgery, not first aid kits.
The sign outside the temple says "apayatan" a word indicating that here in the centre of Bangkok is a safe zone – a haven. Yesterday afternoon, as buildings across the Thai capital blazed, thick black smoke billowing into the air, the streets outside the revered, 15O-year-old Buddhist compound had been transformed into an ugly, lethal battle zone from which no one could leave.
Of those killed yesterday, several died directly outside the temple – and many, many more wounded. Those sheltering inside the temple were just as vulnerable. In one of the compound's buildings, seven bodies were laid out on the floor.
Early yesterday, thousands of Red Shirt protesters fled the intersection that they had occupied for more than two months after government troops finally forced their way into the barricaded encampment and the protest leaders told them it "was all over". They moved to occupy the sprawling temple area, at the centre of which sits a series of gold-edged buildings. The mood was tense and anxious, but people believed – or so they prayed and hoped – that the troops would not turn their temple into a place of violence.
"After the leadership told us to go home, we came here. They told us it was all over," said one of the Red Shirts, a woman who had taken shelter within the compound. Another woman, Malee Ngaun Sanga, added: "As long as I have lived here I have never seen any government so evil."
And then things rapidly changed. From the west, we could hear loud firing as troops advanced towards the temple area. Some reporters who had been outside said that a small number of Red Shirts were firing back with sling-slots, hand guns and petrol bombs. A photographer said he saw a man shot in front of him as he ran away from a line of soldiers, two bullets hitting him in the back and apparently exiting from the chest. The image that photographer had taken did not look good.
Suddenly the firing intensified. The explosions grew louder and appeared to get nearer to us and the crack of weapons became more frequent, their cap-gun noises giving no clue as to their deadly capability.
A bare-chested young man ran in. He had a large, ugly hole in the lower back. Was he struck as he ran or had he already been wounded when he came in? It was too frenetic, too chaotic to be sure. Either way, as soon as they became aware of his injuries, a group of medics ran to his aid, dragging him to what they hoped was safety. The medics turned him over on to his stomach, pressing down with bandages and towels. One woman in particular appeared utterly fearless.
Soon afterwards, another victim was rushed in through the entrance to the temple. He appeared older, frail. It looked as if he had been shot in the shoulder. Once again, the volunteer medics rushed to his help. The man's moans were soft amid the ongoing clatter of gunfire.
That's when I – one of just a handful of journalists still present at the temple – was hit in the outer thigh by what appeared to be several pieces of shrapnel. They later transpired to be large pellets from a shotgun that buried themselves deep – perhaps three inches – into the flesh. Where had this shooting come from? Were soldiers now deliberately firing at journalists or did they simply not care? The medics dived over, pouring cold water on the burning wound and pressing down bandages to stop them. It was effectively just a bad flesh wound but the fragments of lead burned and stung. There were countless people with wounds, but the medics – who had set up a pharmacy and emergency clinic amid the temple's lush, exotic foliage could have done no more.
Precisely which positions the firing was coming from was unclear and why the troops would be shooting so widely, with so little caution, was unclear. Was it coming from snipers or from the regular troops? It seems almost certain it was coming from the troops. And who within the chain of command was ordering troops to fire so recklessly, so close to so many people, the vast overwhelming majority of whom were unarmed, unthreatening and who – as they had been asked by the authorities – had just left their place in the city centre. Had they had an opportunity to leave, safely, then they would have. Everyone recognised this was the end of their struggle, or at least this stage of it. Pressing, vital questions need to be answered by the highest levels.
Last night, the temple, built during the era of King Rama IV when the surrounding area was lakes and canals rather than sky-scrapers and shopping malls, was a cross between a refugee camp and a hospital. As orange-clad monks chanted prayers, people went about the task of trying to find a place to sleep, laying down sleeping mats, trying to arrange something to eat. Most had the most meagre possessions, many washing their single change of clothes every day. The mood was one of anxiety and uncertainty. How long would they have to stay?
The terrible irony was that a well-equipped police hospital – where staff had supposedly been preparing for this day for months in advance – was located just yards from the entrance to the temple. The road outside – now a deadly shooting gallery – was simply too dangerous to cross.
What was incongruous was why the injured could not be moved to safety. Some of the Red Shirts said that hardcore elements were still firing at the troops, who they feared would respond with the heavy weapons which they had been firing all day. With an 8pm curfew imposed and people too petrified to move, there was little option but for us to be laid out on deckchairs, stretchers or mats. Some sat quietly, others moaned. There was a feeling of utter helplessness.
Eventually, after the intervention of the office of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva – the man whom the protesters have been so desperately seeking to remove from office – some sort of ceasefire deal was brokered. Had the injured not included a foreign journalist whose Canadian colleague and translator made furious efforts to get help, would so many, high-level efforts have been made? Perhaps not. Either way, the Red Cross was able to send ambulances in convoy to the temple to take away the most badly injured. They said the injured women and children would be collected later today.
The injured were removed, with priority given to those most badly hurt.
The first to leave was the man shot in the lower back. Next was a man shot in the leg. As he was lifted on the stretcher and carried towards the ambulances, he moaned and cried. He pressed his palms together as if to say a prayer, perhaps both for himself and his country.
A man who had been shot in the thigh and I were taken out in the final two ambulances. That man's name was Narongsak Singmae, he was 49 and from the north-east of the country. As he lay waiting to be taken away to hospital, he said: "I cannot believe they are shooting in a temple."
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