Rocks, bottles, rubber bullets lead to bloodshed in Bangkok

By Tim Johnston
Financial Times
Friday, May 14, 2010; 2:54 PM

BANGKOK -- Behind a stage at their makeshift camp in downtown Bangkok, protest leaders held an impromptu meeting Friday night. Despite sweltering heat, all but one wore a bullet-proof vest.

The perimeter of the "Red Shirt" base, with its stockades of tires and sharpened bamboo, has always looked like a war zone. But on Friday the protests crossed a new line, and the site took on the appearance of a besieged camp in the middle of enemy territory.

Powerful searchlights flashed over the roofs of skyscrapers, seeking out snipers like the one who allegedly shot and critically wounded protest leader Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdipol on Thursday.

In the rare moments between amplified belligerence from loudspeakers on the stage, the rattle and pop of gunfire could be heard on the southern perimeter of the protest zone, evidence of a lethal game of hide and seek being played in the darkness by soldiers and anti-government demonstrators.

The operation that sparked Friday's bloodshed was designed to quarantine the sprawling protest site, cutting off reinforcements and supplies. A scrappy battle developed. Troops -- many of them appearing frightened and ill-disciplined -- began by firing tear gas and rubber bullets, then escalated to live ammunition.

The protesters initially appeared to be armed only with rocks, bottles and slingshots. But there was evidence that they also had a small number of weapons, including grenade launchers and homemade rockets.

Caught in the crossfire were two Thai reporters and a Canadian cameraman. The three suffered gunshot wounds, but their injuries were not believed to be life-threatening. At least five people were reported killed, and dozens of others were injured.

Friday was not the most violent day of the nine-week protest -- that was April 10, when 25 people, including 19 protesters, five soldiers and a cameraman, were killed -- but it marked a troubling low point.

At best, the violence showed that the protesters' claims to be a peaceful movement were seriously flawed. At worst, it suggested that the movement has been hijacked by militants who believe that their road to victory lies through chaos.

Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister who was once the moving spirit behind the protests, now is calling for negotiations. Thaksin, a telecommunications billionaire who lives in self-imposed exile to avoid a two-year sentence for corruption, reportedly was instrumental in blocking the protesters' acceptance of embattled Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's offer last week of early elections.

There were fears that the protests, which have been confined to a relatively small if high-profile part of Bangkok, could spread to the countryside, where Thaksin and the Red Shirt movement draw most of their support.

Confrontations already have been reported outside Bangkok, and the government has responded by extending a state of emergency to 17 of the country's 76 provinces.

But if the clashes spread and there are more shadowy meetings of men in bullet-proof jackets, the conflict may start to look less like a political protest and more like an insurrection.

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