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
By Andrew Buncombe
Sunday, 16 May 2010
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.