In line of fire at Bangkok protests
It was 2 a.m. on a Friday morning and we were stuck in the Reuters office on the 35th floor of the U Chu Liang Building. Thai anti-government protesters had begun rioting after their military strategist, a flamboyant major-general known as “Commander Red” was shot in the head as he was being interviewed by the New York Times at the “red shirt” protest encampment that occupies a huge chunk of expensive real estate in the Thai capital.
The protesters had swarmed into our parking lot, troops hot on their heels. One red shirt was shot dead, taking a bullet through his eye, outside our office. Our managers had ordered us to evacuate, but we had to wait until the violence died down outside. I strapped on a 10 kg flak jacket and helmet emblazoned with “press stickers”, took a ride down the cargo elevator in a building under emergency power, and stepped carefully into the parking lot, looking around to see if it was safe for the remaining people in the newsroom to leave. It was quiet, as I crept around the parking lot, dodging from car to car, feeling slightly ridiculous. A taxi was parked just outside. I was beginning to understand what gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson meant when he said in his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: ”When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
I was about to enter the taxi, when BOOM! The sound of a grenade maybe 50 metres away, followed by the rat-a-tat-tat of automatic gunfire. I jumped into the taxi, and told the driver to take me to my hotel. Quickly please. “Boom!”, he said, and laughed. “Boom, boom,boom,” he added, mimicking the act of firing a gun. And laughing once more we drove off into the terrifying night.
For the past four days, journalists have been moving out of their offices into hotels, and then out of their hotels into ones further from the combat zone, as violence escalated across the city of 15 million people in random urban warfare. The military was firing at groups of protesters setting up barricades of burning tyres, behind which they hurled petrol bombs and projectiles with slingshots. At least five journalists have been among the seven foreigners shot. One journalist took a bullet in the chest, but since he was wearing a heavy flak jacket, he just fell down and hurt his back.
A Canadian journalist working for a French television station was not as well protected. He was shot three times — in the arm, leg and abdomen — while covering the protest on Friday, but was recovering in hospital. The spiralling violence that has turned Bangkok’s bustling business district into a war zone has killed 37 people and injured nearly 270 since Thursday. A Reuters television cameraman, Hiro Muramoto was among those killed in the melee of an April 10 protest that marked the point at which these protests that began rather festively turned violent.
I have moved hotels three times in the past week, as the combat zone widened
I was the last guest to leave the splendid Metropolitan Hotel on Sathorn Road on Saturday. The night before, I had walked back late at night on that road toward a line of soldiers metres away, who were firing on a group of protesters, muzzle flashes punctuating the darkness.
“I’m so happy you’re going,” the general manager told me. “We’ ve told all our guests not to come.” He then personally took my bags down the road to the five-star Sukhothai, weaving our way through soldiers and gawking tourists taking combat pictures with their camera phones, chattering excitedly about how bizarre it all was.
On Sunday night, a rocket — fired by who knows — smashed into the 14th floor of the Dusit Thani hotel and set a room ablaze. Guests, including a number of foreign journalists were rousted from their rooms and sent to cower in the basement until dawn.
Residents have turned to social media to update each other about what’s going on, tweeting frenetically and exchanging Youtube videos to make a case, one way or another, about who’s more responsible for the violence that has now killed 66 people and wounded 1,600 since the protests began in mid-March. A number of tweets have expressed outrage about foreign media coverage of the protests.