Protesters defy soldiers in Thai stand-off

The rising death toll is failing to deter thousands of anti-government demonstrators camped in the centre of Bangkok
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The Independent Online

It was the morning they had feared the troops would come with their guns and drive them from their fortified encampment, but the old woman was unflinching. Sitting in front of a stage from which hung a banner that read "Peaceful protesters not terrorists", Sutjai Malasri said she had travelled more than 400 miles from her village to join the demonstrations two months ago. "I love democracy," declared the farmer's widow, her teeth broken, her mouth a mass of churning red betel nut. "We are not afraid. We are not afraid of the army."

The heavily defended encampment in the centre of Bangkok, in which anti-government protesters are holed up as they demand the ousting of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the calling of a new election, is many things. It is sprawling but bordered, frenetic yet orderly, tense yet ebullient. Most of all it is defiant. Speaker after speaker who took to the stage yesterday, where 75-year-old Mrs Malasri sweated it out with friends, trying to dodge from a bullying sun beneath a check-patterned umbrella, spoke of the need for the demonstrators to stand firm. Frequently Mrs Malasri and others would clap and cheer or else shake red plastic rattles in the shape of a heart. Different speakers kept taking to the stage.

It is two months since the so-called Red Shirts made their camp here in the hot, humid heart of one of the city's most important commercial districts. Beneath the arches of the Sky Train light railway and alongside mall after mall of luxury shops, the campaigners have set up home – cooking, eating and sleeping – and vowed not to leave until their demands are met.

Yet it is a struggle that is increasingly being paid for in blood. At least 24 people have been killed and more than 179 injured since Thursday. Among those badly wounded is a rouge army general who was acting as a military adviser to the Red Shirts. He was shot through the head – apparently by a sniper – as he spoke to reporters. He has undergone brain surgery but medical sources have reportedly said it will be a miracle if he survives. His shooting followed the scrapping of a so-called reconciliation plan, initially proposed by Mr Abhisit, to hold an election in November.

Yesterday, there were further clashes as heavily armed Thai troops took up positions behind sandbags and fired live rounds in the direction of the estimated 10,000 protesters. At the Din Daeng junction, just north of the protest site, reports said that three bodies were taken away on stretchers. They, too, had reportedly been shot by snipers. At one point, soldiers – who have already been given permission under emergency laws to shoot violent protesters in the lower section of the body – unrolled more razor wire across a main road and pinned up signs in both Thai and English saying "Live Firing Zone" and "Restricted Area. No Entry". Perhaps conscious of the damage created by such signs to the image of a country already losing millions of tourist dollars every day, they were later removed.

Elsewhere smoke billowed into the sky from fires set by the demonstrators. Inside the encampment, surrounded by walls of tyres, razor wire and sharpened bamboo staffs, the demonstrators prepared to resist. At the eastern end, where the atmosphere was distinctly more tense and where military commander General Khattiya Sawasdipol, or Seh Daeng (Commander Red), was shot on Thursday evening, young demonstrators had armed themselves with a motley, Mad Max-style assortment of homemade arms. Some were dressed in military fatigues and carrying heavy police night sticks. Others were equipped with fireworks on poles, some with slingshots, while some were setting alight floating lanterns and setting them into the sky in an effort to bring down military helicopters flying overhead. The army claims some of the protesters are carrying guns.

From the soldiers' positions beyond a nearby park, the sound of automatic gunfire and explosions broke sporadically. At one point, a small group of the besieged demonstrators hurried back from the edge of the encampment, bent low. "Keep down," said one of the young demonstrators, a teenager armed with a homemade slingshot and a clenched fist containing three stainless-steel nuts. "There's a sniper above." Everyone crouched and looked up but there was no obvious sign of any gunman.

At the other end of the encampment, past shut-up hotels and shops, the mood was more relaxed. People sat and talked, stretched out on bamboo mats or else cooked meals of fragrant noodle soup and skewers of chicken which they grilled over charcoal fires. The air was rich and pungent with the smell of cooking food, uncollected rubbish and the odour of thousands of people living in close proximity to one another. Among the crowds were a number of Buddhist monks, distinctive in their coloured robes, while on the walls of many of makeshift stalls were posted graphic images of Red Shirts who had been killed or horribly injured in clashes with the security forces.

Many of the demonstrators are supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a former telecommunications billionaire who was ousted by a military coup in 2006. Two successive prime ministers, both allies of Mr Thaksin, were forced from office in a constitutional crisis in late 2008 that saw the British-educated Mr Abhisit elected premier by a vote in parliament rather than a general election. As a result, the protesters believe he has no popular mandate to lead the country and should step down.

Yet beyond this are faultlines that go much deep within Thai society. Many of the twice-elected Mr Thaksin's supporters are from the country's rural and urban poor, who backed his populist policies that delivered affordable healthcare, cheap loans and specially priced fuel for farmers. At the same time, he was opposed by a coalition, often called the Yellow Shirts, made up of business leaders, urban conservatives, former military officers and – so it is said – elements within the monarchy. Such forces were not only behind repeated demonstrations that led the army to step in back in 2006 when Mr Thaksin was out of the country but also the opposition to the two subsequently elected prime ministers allied to him.

Many of these have accused Mr Thaksin of using his wealth to fund the Red Shirts over which, they say, he wields much control. Yet one of the leaders of the Red Shirts, more properly the National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), Weng Tohjirakarn, who was among those who took to the stage yesterday to deliver a rousing speech, denied such claims. He told The Independent on Sunday: "I speak for one hour every day. I have to take care of my people, to tell them that our cause is just, it's right and don't be afraid."

He claimed that in contrast to the tactics of the army, the UDD still emphasised non-violence and said those Red Shirts carrying weapons were only doing so to protect themselves against armed soldiers and police. He also stressed the need to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections. Dr Tohjirakarn denied that Mr Thaksin controlled the political group and added: "We want peace now. Not just for us but for the Thai people."

Precisely what the coming days have in store is unclear. Mr Abhisit is under mounting pressure to deal with a situation that has so visibly slipped from the government's control and which – by shutting down one of Bangkok's most important commercial districts – has already cost millions of dollars. At the same time, it is unclear how many of the Red Shirts the authorities are prepared to kill to end the stand-off and regain control. For now, the army claims it is merely trying to enforce a cordon around the encampment to isolate the demonstrators and choke off supplies. So far it has failed.

Many are wondering whether Thailand's monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, will break his silence to try to end the violence. The king – universally described as "widely revered" in a country where there are strictly enforced laws against any comments that question his position – has previously intervened during periods of turmoil to urge calm. In the meantime, the protesters are staying put behind their barricades, believing they have the numbers and, more importantly, the determination to force the prime minister to resign.

One of the Red Shirts, Jeab, a woman from the resort of Pattaya, said: "Abhisit is killing people – did you not see? When Thaksin was here everything was good. Now, I don't know what is happening in my country. I am a 55-year-old and I've not seen this before."