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On Bangkok in Turmoil
By James Pringle

Bangkok - It is just like old times in South East Asia. War on the doorstep, and the prospect of it changing to a civil conflict, and spreading throughout the country.  Schools are closed, and there is talk of curfews in this vast capital of 13 million, and its large central commercial area has become a hazardous warzone.

The great shopping emporiums, where you can buy Maseratis or Hummers, and have botox beauty treatments,  are in rebel hands, and the goods are likely rotting in the 104 degree heat at the end of the dry season.

At 1 am this morning, with the sounds of fighting in several directions - and most was incoming, as the redshirts, largely country folks, are fighting the army with home-made bows and arrows, hand-held catapults and a medley of improvised weapons - a Thai redshirt woman, seeing my 'Press' armband,  asked me if I was scared.

Putting a brave face on it, I said that I wasn't - but I did not want to die just yet. She smiled, and indicated there were indeed good reasons for living.....

Later, when I tried to get out past roadblocks on Sukhumvit avenue, to return home to the presently safe district where I live, a series of grenades were fired or hurled, and the redshirts said I must try to find another exit.

As I was engaged in this mission in the near-darkness, I could not help but think that it was a quarter of a century this year since Old Hack cameraman Neil Davis was killed - accidentally or not - by the Thai army in this same city.

I was aware that I was pretty lucky to be an eye-witness to what was happening, and how so many of the Old Hacks would have enjoyed being here.  (Not least because the redshirt zone seems to contain an inordinate number of attractive young women who seem to think that older Caucasian men, as one once told a colleague of mine, then a middle-aged writer for the 'Spectator,' are 'sexy senior citizens.'

(In the redshirt zone, you can get a cheap haircut, food for next to nothing, beer in discreet improvised pubs for 25 cents a can and, believe it or not - and surely it could only happen in Thailand - have a stimulating massage. The only disadvantage is that it is rather public, and the girl masseuses are muscular rural types built like the proverbial brick shithouse.

Other local characters that in earlier weeks were to be seen in the redshirt zone were bar-girls, who are mostly country girls from north east Thailand, where the redshirts had their origin, who came down from Soi Cowboy after the bars closed at 2am.  Another Thai stereotype to be seen in the red zone are a small group of Bangkok's famous lady-boys, some wielding bows and arrows, wearing high heels and seemingly ready to do battle).

Later, with another journalist, Bill Barnes, a freelance for the Financial Times, and who, from weeks of coverage, thoroughly knows the tiny lanes, we managed to creep - and I found this particularly surreal -  round the side of the American Embassy, which has been closed to the public for the past few days (as has the British Embassy nearby), and dodge across a wide road under Thai army guns.

Bill was wearing a bright white shirt, but he said he did not want to wear dark clothes, like some of the toughest of the redshirts, who guard the periphery of the surrounded zone, as the Thai army were liable to shoot at them - so it was a kind of Hobson's choice, don't you think?   Anyway, no shots rang out.

As most of you know, this seems like a fundamental revolution in Thailand, the long scorned, put-upon country folks are sick of being treated as an underclass by the so-called elite in Bangkok, based around mainly ethnic Chinese big business, aristocracy, and those close to the monarchy or the army.

I noticed that last night, there seemed fewer redshirts than the previous night, when I had crossed zones at 10pm after getting in from the Thai-Cambodian border, and it seems likely the crunch is coming.

The government, which is descended from a military coup junta that seized power in 2010, and which I then covered, is not quite legitimate in that it is unelected and achieved power in parliamentary jiggery-pokery.  The redshirts demand that fresh elections are held soon - that is the main issue.

To add to the potential chaos, the police are said to support the redshirts, as the exiled, elected ex-prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in the 2006 coup, was a police colonel, who had helped improve the lot of rural folks.

For once, you should tell friends and relatives on no account come to Bangkok for the moment, though the Thai beach resorts are OK, and the airport is safe.  But all Old Hacks who themselves want to come to Bangkok to see history being made will be welcomed by Les Pringles.

(I believe the many young freelances seeing a form of war for the first time will remember it in the future - like we all did, though this is, of course, nothing like the scale of Indochina).

To sum up, the redshirts may be beaten this time, but Thailand will never be quite the same again.  I trust that the beguiling Thai smile will survive, and that this does not turn into some version of former Cambodia.

J. Pringle


Report of 18 May:

Bows and Arrows - and another Flynn

Monday afternoon, and I decide to take Milly to see Ridley Scott's 'Robin Hood,' before heading for the redzone. It's symbolic of the other worldliness of the Thai capital that people can be killing themselves in one part of town, while watching just released movies in another.  Lots of folks with bows and arrows, just like Bangkok.

But Russell Crowe makes a leaden Robin, and Sherwood Forest, the remnants of which I drive through every year on my way to Edinburgh, is mentioned only once - this is because this over-long movie is a prequel:  we are going to have to suffer a second round before we actually get to the main part of the legend.  Yet it was King John, the English monarch at the time, who was forced to sign the Magna Carta.  Such citizens rights are also needed here.

I grow extremely anxious to go; after all, there is a real conflict in Bangkok. The cinema finally closes at 7pm, the same time as the department stores in a self-imposed curfew.  I tell Milly that Errol Flynn's 'Robin Hood' was much better. But an Old Hack, given our history, would say that, wouldn't he?

Stay in one piece, with your friendly local motorbike taxi driver

I pull on my green 'press' armband, courtesy of the Thai Journalists Association, and take a taxi down to the redzone entry towards the end of Sukhumvit Road. The Thai military let me through, but the road is in complete darkness, and there are rumors of an 8pm attack on the redzone here.  Discretion being the better part of valor, I decide to visit Rama 1V, a broad avenue at another redzone a mile or so away. I wave in a motorbike taxi, and tell the driver where I want to go.  He says that will be 40 Baht, just over a dollar.

The motorbike taximen switches off his lights.  He knows how to cross in semi-darkness between the battling sides by taking tiny lanes that avoid the checkpoints, and he deposits me 40 yards from Rama 1V.  But there is a good bit of action - burning tyre roadblocks, loud but harmless bangs, and the firing by redshirts of rockets which are little more than fireworks.  I don't know if the army is shooting back, because the redshirts, ever solicitous, stop me from getting closer.

'Stay in Melbourne,' he told his daughter that day

I get back to Sukhumvit, and take a taxi around a huge section of the city. I'm aiming for the Dusit Thani Hotel, which is at the edge of the military-controlled part of Bangkok.  The previous night it had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, in apparent retaliation for allegedly housing a sniper who a few days before had shot through the head a renegade general, then with the redshirts, who had died that afternoon.  The guests spent the night in the basement and were asked to check out that morning.

The driver is a cultivated Thai of Chinese origin, who tells me his business has failed in the recent downturn.  That day, he had talked to his daughter at the university in Melbourne, Australia.  "She told me she would like to stay in Melbourne, and I said urged her for God's sake do - there's no point in coming back to Thailand," he said.  Like most Thais he was anguished about the situation. He drops me after a 40 minute ride, cost US$5, in Silom, and I pass the closed and barricaded banks.

After a bit of give and take, the soldiers pull back the barbed wire, and allow me through to walk one kilometre towards the hotel.

A sinister transformer box

There are only a few groups of soldiers and some rather bored TV journalists on the road.  A middle-aged Japanese film cameraman points me towards the hotel, and when I - as a precaution - asked if there had been any shooting, he said he would accompany me.  I said it was not necessary, but I felt this was in the true tradition of Old Hacks.

About 50 yards from the hotel, he sits down on the sidewalk and says 'Good luck.'  But he had had the decency to stay with me till the last moment.  I walked towards the hotel, but after 30 yards, I can see nobody around this strategically important crossroads, and the hotel is empty.

Two nights previously I had been on the redzone side just 40 yards from me, and knew I would be watched by redshirts observing me from behind the wall of rubber tyres, now thankfully not burning.  Maybe they had bows and arrows (shades of Robin Hood) or maybe AK.47s and M.16s, as part of a black uniformed detail of the redshirts is believed to have. There was an eerie silence.

There was also one of these sinister transformer boxes, about 4 feet high, behind which Old Hack Neil Davis was only partly protected when he was killed 25 years ago this year filming a failed coup attempt here.  I could not see any Thai soldiers on my side, in fact not a living soul in this usually busiest part of Bangkok, and I turned and walked back.

Patpong - the 'Land of Smiles has become the land of guns'

I crossed the road, and some few hundred yards down, I looked up and saw 'Patpong Entertainment Zone.'  Patpong, which Old Hack John Edwards, the Welsh wizard, had volunteered last weekend to defend, was once Bangkok's most notorious stretch of nightlife, but now, I had been told, the bars had all closed because of its proximity to the warzone.  The street was empty apart from scurrying rats and ambling cockroaches - it's easy to see these creatures will remain on earth long after we are all gone.

I walked into the void, but pretty soon I could make out some dim lights ahead to my left. Was it an oasis in the dark?  It was indeed, and there were two bars, kind of half open.

One was the infamous Kangaroo Bar, up which many an Old Hack had climbed in the old days, when he was on leave from Vietnam, his heart pounding.

The other that was open was next door, the Kiss Bar; the girls were a little clunky, being from the rural north east, source of the redshirts, but they were dancing on stage.

Now, Elizabeth Becker kindly said the other day that in the 19th century, I would have been 'celebrated as a diarist.'  I wonder if she meant Samuel Pepys, the 17th century diarist.  Pepys' success at his craft rested in part on his piquant disclosures - romps with the servant maids, and such things.

Though I would not be so bold as to rank myself on anything like that scale - I'm a workaday Old Hack after all - what follows in somewhat piquant.

The girls at the Kangaroo were known for their skills in - what shall we say? - the Monica Lewinsky aptitude.  The two girls who had braved the bullets were pressing in their invitations in that direction.  I insisted in my dedication to my duties to the Old Hacks, and they politely desisted.

One of them said to me, in philosophical mode,  that 'the land of Smiles had become the land of guns.'   When she saw me writing it in my notebook, she put her hand out and said:  "That will cost you forty pounds."  'Only joking,' she added.

The cold light of dawn

I was down in mid-morning today in the central redcamp.  Enthusiasms for the struggle, I have to say, seemed to be ebbing, as no kind of breakthrough towards serious negotiations with the government seemed apparent.

Numbers are down by two thirds, though food was still being delivered - rice, vegetables - even the government had sworn that lack access to food and water would be thoroughly enforced.

A little 'bonjour' - the Cambodian catchword for bribe - works wonders here too.

Rubbish was still being gathered up and removed, but a sour aroma hung over the camp.  A sense of defeat may not have hung in the air, but there was a decided lack of confidence.

The government seems to have no stomach either for a fight, and they keep moving forward deadlines for the rebels to give up.

The Thai soldiers one meets are apparently not brutes; they clearly do not seem to want to slaughter their fellow Thais.  They are often, one has to say, courteous to foreign journalists, and let us through their checkpoints.

Stimulating as it is here, and although social change cannot be avoided, it is better it is done peacefully.

One slaughter, as in Cambodia, in the region is enough for anyone's lifetime.


Report of 20 May:

The last redshirt?

A 54 year old nurse, Ms Phusadee Ngamkham, may be the last redshirt in Bangkok, at least for the present.  There she sat, in front of a stage used by the movement's leaders, still defiant and carrying the movement's red flag, and wearing a red T-shirt, as soldiers try to persuade her to go home.

"I will stay here until they take me to prison, or until they kill me," she told me. "There is not another country in the world that would treat their citizens this way.  I no longer wish to live here, I will go somewhere else, if I survive."

Of course, there are other countries like this, the Burmese generals, China at Tiananmen, Guatemala in the past.

Ms Wan Pen, an elegant woman of about 40, a Bangkok hairdresser, was making her way to the edge of the camp. "This is not the end - it is just the beginning," she said, unwittingly paraphrasing Churchill's words after the battle of El Alamein, which go:  "This is not the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning."

I had met Ms Wan Pen earlier in the day when I crossed into the redshirt territory through a hole in the barricade made of rubber tyres and bamboo.  From where she stood, the Thai army was just visible, but there was no shooting at this crossing point.  Pointing derisively in that direction, she said:  "They may killl us, but they will never defeat us."

Sgt Major Weeran and his Ist Cavalry

He and his troops were soldiers from Kanchanaburi, home of the Death Railway, the Bridge over the River Kwai and Hellfire Pass.  He told me a series of jokes that I found hard to get the point of, but he was full of goodwill.  I had spent much of the long day, since just after eight in the morning until four o'clock in the afternoon, in his troops' company, except for several brief incursions into the redzone.

He was in the First Air Cavalry, he told me, and was proud of his unit.  His soldiers were country boys, too, but from the west of Thailand near the border with Burma. In war, these days, it is OK for the troops to call their mothers on their mobiles.   Phones were continually in use, as anxious relatives called.

I had latched on to Sgt Major Weeran because I guessed that the entry in to the redzone might be made first by the two companies of soldiers here at Ploenchit, about 600 men.  He asked me to sit down on a red plastic chair behind a pillar supporting the Sky train, Bangkok's overhead railway, which had not been running since Thursday last week.  His troops were sheltering behind the railway support too, both from the broiling sun at the end of the dry season, and any fire that might come from beyond the barricade 50 yards ahead.  I knew there was no-one behind the barricade - I had been behind it several times earlier - but it wasn't my job to tell the army. in Cambodia, the Lon Nol army used to ask our advice on tactics, as you know.  Thankfully they don't do that here.

The army was attacking at three other major entries into the redzone, but apart from a walk to the American Embassy residence, where I was stopped by another unit for good reason - there was the whine of bullets coming from just ahead, and a solititious sergeant wouldn't let me go further without body armor, though the top team from a major broadcaster who were at the same place, were allowed forward with their spiffy flak jackets and helmets.  (The TV correspondent told me none of his team were covering the story inside the redzone, because of the risk of being entrapped by troops coming in from different directions; it seemed to be sensible).  It's said that the Italian photographer who tragically died today was too far ahead of the troops.

I worried during the day, however, that although the Aircav had large earth moving equipment it was not using it to shift the barricade.  But, in the end, we were the first to enter the redzone.  Before they did so, they had a bulldozer to knock down the barricade.  I warned several other reporters, new to the game, to stand clear,  it might be mined, and sure enough there was a round report of a mine exploding, though little damage was done.  There was what sounded like heavy rifle fire, but it was just the bamboo crackling as it was moved by the bulldozers.

Two monks, an old man, and three boys

Entering behind the troops, as the Sgt. Major insisted, I came upon some POWs, two monks, an old man, and three boys, one a  15 year old and two 16 years old.  The monks were from the improvised buddhist wat that had been erected in the camp.  The boys had been fighters - and their weapons were laid out:  three measly catapults.

When the mobile phone rang in the back pocket of the 15 year old, one of the soldiers fished it out for him, and handed it to him.  He was talking to his mother, who seemed dumbfounded to hear he was a prisoner.

Another monk was brought along and sat with the other two (when I left the redzone, an hour later, I saw this third monk walking to freedom past a military roadblock, and I presumed the other two were released).  Other prisoners, who were marched past, their arms pinioned behind their backs, were young adults;  they looked neither afraid nor arrogant.

Chris, a German lawyer

I had met a German who would only give his name as Chris, after I had seen him lurking behind the barricade before we were permitted to cross in. When he was able to come out, I stopped him and asked what he had been doing.  He was a 37 year old lawyer, and he said he had spent 20 days in the redzone - he did seem knowledgeable and on the level.  He said he had been there an hour or so before, when the redshirt leaders told an audience of 1,500 remaining hardcore redshirts, mainly women, that they were going to hand themselves over to the police, rather than risk more deaths.

"The audience, mostly women, turned their backs on the stage, and shouted 'No, no - no surrender.  We are ready to die here."

The redshirts had been surrounded by luxury brand stores since the sit-in began on 12th March.

"I was so proud of them, to be in front of such luxury and never to have taken a thing," Chris said.

"It was such a disappointment today that the people were so angry that they smashed some windows and looted some clothes.  They were trying on T-shirts."

He said he had not seen any brutal treatment by soldiers that day, though last week he had witnessed soldiers shooting down two boys who had shot a firework rocket - a joke squib really -  at them, which fell well short of the target.

"The boys were shot at and fell down, one was wounded.  The crowd shouted at the soldiers to stop firing at them but every time they tried to drag them to safety, the soldiers opened fire."  In the end, he thought the wounded boy had died.

Inside the zone, and given that shooting in the neighborhood had died down, I got ahead of the troops, in order to visit a real buddhist wat adjoining the camp, where the women and children had taken shelter that morning.  People here seemed to be getting ready to go home to north east and north Thailand where their homes were.  Their faces were sad, wistful,  but determined that this was not the end.

I looked for a young man of 25 called B-Boy who had taken me on a tour of the redzone by night 48 hours before, and showed me where a renegade army general had been shot by a sniper, but B-Boy was lost in the mob of people.

The army has shown some solicitude, it seems to me.  It appeared the soldiers were not entering this part of the camp, but was leaving the redshirts to clear up their belongings under the improvised tents they had slept in for so long. (Chris had told me that as soon as the leaders surrendered, the soldiers did not fire more, and stopped moving into the most heavily populated part the red warzone).

I did see a beautifully made bow, with only one arrow - had the others been discharged?  I didn't touch it - one does not want souvenirs of this day.  It would be a kind of looting anyway.

It is true that our small band from the Ploenchit entry are the first to reach the center of the camp.  (This is not a boast, it was just good luck, but I did persist here).  But other commanders might have been less willing to cooperate with the press.

An empty stage

I walked back to the central square inside the redzone, and looked at the fancy shops and their products, Boss, Louis Vuitton, Chanel and the rest, but could not see where windows had been smashed and clothes looted.  However, I was so completed dehydrated and exhausted by this time that I probably couldn't find them anyway.  I went back to the center stage where for hours every day and night the redshirt leaders had addressed the crowd, and singers had sung.  It was now empty, and I clambered up on to it.

In front of the stage, the ground was empty except for Mde Phusadee staging her one-woman sit-in. The rest was a mass of abandoned clothes, petty possessions and redshirt souvenirs.  The redshirt leaders had stood on this stage exhorting their people for more than two months.  One could not but think of Shakespeare, and I quote from memory:  "All the world's a stage, and all the people on it but players.  They all have their entrances and exits."

End of the Beginning.

The army and this illegitimate Thai government was born of a military coup and is sustained in power, as I said the other day, by jiggery-pokery.  Hearing already about the demonstrations and burnings in North East Thailand, where most people speak Lao, and feel put upon by the Bangkok elite, I was not surprised at the violence there.  I was certainly not surprised about threats here against TV Channel 3, a government propaganda station, and against the leading English language paper, whose reporting of the whole two months of unrest has been outrageous.  I don't know where all the good Thai journalists have gone.

As I indicated before, this is a fundamental revolution brought on my exploitation and the treating of country folks as kind of slaves - the same kind of thing one had seen in Cambodia, and had contributed to the rise of the Khmer Rouge - that, and the illegal Nixon-Kissinger illegal bombings.  Thailand's country people, many of whom had accepted gratuities in the past to vote a certain way, seem to have thrown all that vote-wasting away; they have enfranchised themselves.

A Smell of Burning

With so much good reporting from the agencies and no doubt the dailies tomorrow, I've written this in diary style, rather than repeat the news file.  I write at an open window in my apartment, two miles from the former redzone.  A smell of burning pervades all.  The city, normally one of the most lively on earth, is deadly silent, under a 12 hour curfew. The banks won't open until Monday.  The clean-up job is enormous. The Skytrain, which normally hurtles past the window out of earshot 500 yards away, is not running.  You can hear the dogs barking several blocks away.  The bars are closed, and the bar-girls are having what they never have - an early night.  The tourists have been given permission to go to the airport, if they can get a curfew pass, probably no mean feat.

There may still be bands of hardcore redshirts moving around.  When I came back on the back of a motorbike, most of Sukhumvit was closed.  The redshirts had tried to outflank the army and briefly seized a big intersection.

Even although it is past 11 o'clock local time, there is a red glow to the West, though long past sunset.  It is a burning department store.

Of course, tourism will recover; Thailand's beaches, and the exquisite service in its hotels, will see to that.

But the redshirts will be heard from again; nothing is surer.  Hopefully it will not be civil war, though that cannot be ruled out. This is, to repeat, just the end of the beginning.

Report of 21 May 2010:

The opinions of taxi-drivers

To anyone who spends any time in Bangkok, the recent invasion of rural folks from north and north east Thailand into the heart of the shopping malls here came as no surprise.  That's not because of the time one spends listening to the 'nattering classes' at diplomatic receptions, or round the cozy bar of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand.

It's because one passes a fair bit of the day in taxis, especially when there are big traffic jams.

Taxi fares are dirt-cheap, the traffic chaotic, and finding parking spaces hard, so I, like many foreigners, don't keep an automobile.  35 Baht, or US$1, is the cost of most taxis rides to the supermarkets or bookships or multiplex cinemas.

This puts one in constant touch with taxi-drivers, and the great majority of them come from the north east region called Isaan.

Not only are they mostly homesick, getting back to the village only in May to July for the rice-planting season, but they feel outsiders here, alone without their families, and unwelcome by Bangkok noveau riche who regard them as country bumpkins, and don't hide it.

Most of the city's taxi and motorbike drivers, building site brickies, maids, cooks, bartenders and waiters, massage parlor masseuses and bar-girls are Chao Isaan, or Isaan people.  I have hung around the neighborhood long enough to have picked up a few Lao words, which never fails to delight the Isaan exiles.

Their lives are better than they were not so long ago, but they are at the bottom of the heap, and along with the hairdressers and nurses that I interviewed for my last diary, one saw a lot of them inside the late redzone.

Especially with a foreigner, they are not slow to talk about their dissatisfaction, the hardness of making a living driving taxis in a city of too many of them, their families in Isaan, and what they - and all the other Chao Isaan - send back to them to send nephews and nieces to school, and pay the medical bills.

They are the people, and those in north Thailand, slightly over half of Thailand's 67 million people, who benefited from the populist policies of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a coup in 2006, but by far still Thailand's most popular and electable politician, bagman and patron on the redshirt movement, and implacable enemy of the Bangkok business elite, and those close to them in royal and aristocratic circles, and army bigwigs.

Now exiled, and not flawless in character, while in office he poured money into the villages, and gave everyone a chance of medical treatment.  "Once, we in Isaan used to sell our votes," a taxi driver told me recently. "But not now;  we understand how important it is to vote in a democracy."

At the dinner tables of Bangkok's elite, however, the Chao Isaan are talked about mostly in terms of vote sellers.

They don't know that the Isaan people have moved on out of that childish era, and were ready to fight for what they had gained, as we have just seen in Bangkok.

Looting in the nicest possible way

Yesterday I returned to the fortified camp to take a closer look at what was left behind in the precipitate departure when the army came in.

What was clear that most people had fled in whatever they were wearing, and raced to escape the army's push.

I walked down luxurious Langsuan, a street of the elite and rich foreigner apartments, to Lumpini Park, Bangkok's best relaxation green patch.  There was a terrific blast, and I was stopped from going further.  "We are still clearing mines and bombs," a sergeant told me.

A few Thai middle-class types pointed out 'weapons caches' that the redshirts had left behind, but to me they looked like a naughty young boy's playroom armory - catapults, bows and arrows, not seriously tipped.  Yes, I also saw a dozen Molotov cocktails primed for throwing, one M.79 grenade launcher and about 16 grenades, and one hand-grenade. But those wouldn't get you far in a punch-up

There was also a bit of oh-so-polite looting, done with embarrassed smiles.  One woman filled a plastic bag with small cans of baby powder.  She looked at me sheepishly.

I noticed some soldiers putting chairs from the improvised tents the redshirts had slept in for two months on the back of pick-up trucks;  looting, I suppose, but nothing to write home about....   But on the platform was a magnificent set of professional drums, for the songs that intersperced the political speeches, and expensive television equipment for the redshirts' station, which had been abandoned.  Who would fall heir to it, I don't know.

The only sign I would have liked was one saying 'Foot massage, 15 Baht,' (40 cents)  at one of the massage tents I wrote about earlier.

I reached the buddhist wat, where women and children had been originally sheltered, and which I had entered at 5pm on Wednesday, the day of the assault.  There, a middle-aged woman told me that six people, a nurse and five men, had been killed by soldiers at 6pm.  She had not seen the killing herself, she said, but had heard the shots and seen the bodies.  A second version was that the six dead people had been killed elsewhere, and their bodies had been dumped by the army here.

I tended to believe the woman at the wat, whose name I have but will not publish. She was crying quietly over the death of the nurse.  She said there had been a fracas, and some redshirts had thrown firecrackers.  The soldiers had responded with bullets, perhaps thinking they were under fire.  I had not saying I know where the truth lies precisely, just trying to fill out the picture.

Curiously, I had felt the redshirt crowd, which had just been defeated and were preparing to go home to the north east while I was there, seemed unfriendly, for the first time.

I was the only foreigner around, and one woman I had met before, the hairdresser Ms Wan Pen, whom I named in the last diary, said I should be very careful. She didn't say why.  Today (Friday) I read another account by a journalist who said he had been bumped and jostled here by redshirts.

The Democratic Gladiator

I picked up a thin booklet called 'Questions and Answers:  United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) - Red in the land.'

Ever on the lookout of evidence of something that could turn, in the end, into a kind of Pol Pot-style 'Year Zero,' I put it into my pocket, salving my conscience by telling myself this was really for handing out to foreign journalists earlier.  "We want a free capitalist state, in which the gap between the rich and the poor is reduced," I read.

"We want to create more opportunies for the poor.

"We want the country to move forward with economic progress, and with a competitive economic edge on the world stage."

Nothing too revolutionary there, nothing Maoist about 'political power growing out of the barrel of a gun.'  One does have to be careful, as there is an extremist black-uniformed military force working alongside the redshirts, and may have been responsible for many of the fire-bombings on the night the redzone was occupied.   One of them is said to be a woman with dyed blonde hair.

Could another be Miss Parichart Lunjum, 'The Democratic Gladiator,' whose red ID card I saw lying on the ground at the site of some unused Molotov cocktails?  She looked somewhat like a Thai La Passionaria from the Spanish Civil War!

Sergeant-major Weeran again

I again met Sgt Maj. Weeran, with whose soldiers I had entered the redzone on Wednesday.  He greeted me warmly, told another couple of his torturous jokes, and we posed for a picture again.  He and his men were looking for redshirt documents. (Remember the captured documents in Vietnam that could prove anything?)

I had learned by then why the military company I was with  had been the first to reach the redshirts central platform and command center.

This was because an army unit at Lumpini Park, having made progress against the redshirts, was withdrawn after beginning to bog down, while a crack unit was sent in.  Correspondents with the first group were also pulled out.

Weeran's boy went in....and the handful of hacks with them.   They are from the Bridge over the River Kwai, after all.

What lies ahead

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said on Friday his government has restored order in Bangkok and the provinces. That remains to be seen.  The curfew is still in place, and there is a heavy military presence, and bristling roadblocks.  There have been outbreaks of violence, and the firing of government property in the north east and north.   There are still, no doubt, rebel groups lying low.

Abhisit, an elegant Oxford graduate who may have ruined his political fortunes by being linked to this mess and the killings that went with it, has said that his earlier offer of elections in November was now off the table.

What he should be doing is re-instating the elections, and attempting a compromise with the redshirts, who may grow in strength from all this.

We know why he doesn't - because Thaksin the populist would win again in any election.

The iron fist has turned many more people against the government. The immediate future of Thailand, once one of the most seriously developing, and charming countries one has known, is far from settled.  There could be more violence ahead that will make these recent events pale in comparison.