Bangkok’s Stupid War — FCCJ magazine

Bangkok’s Stupid War

by Christopher Johnson

The banality of war and the folly of our attempts to cover it really hit home when you visit a wounded journalist in a hospital. Nelson Rand was lying in bed, doped up on morphine, unable to even sit up. The left side of his body was riddled with purplish gunshot wounds that made me want to vomit. Nicknamed “Le Castor (The Beaver)” by his colleagues at France 24 TV, the brave young Canadian journalist could only smile like an infant at our attempts to converse with him.

Rand probably wasn’t hit by accident. Somebody shot him three times — in the leg, abdomen and wrist — while he was near Lumpini Park in central Bangkok, doing his job just like journalists in safe and sanitary Tokyo. Was he targeted because he was wearing a black shirt, the colors of the mysterious renegade military unit allegedly fighting alongside the ordinary Red Shirts against thousands of Thai soldiers? Or did they try to kill him specifically because he was a journalist with a camera in hand? This is what goes through the mind of journalists in Bangkok and other danger zones. (What goes through my mind in Tokyo, by comparison, is: What stocks should I buy? What kind of dog is that?) Every journalist in Tokyo should go to Bangkok and hang out with their colleagues down there. Too often in Tokyo, we will avoid eye contact or try to bar each other from cliquish clubs, or dish out name cards but go no further in cultivating a friendship. Without a war or common enemy to unite us, it’s easy to hate or envy our colleagues, and fall into passive-aggressive behavior or a gravy-train mentality that justifies the bullying of newcomers who challenge our turf. While journalists in Tokyo get their noses out of joint, Bangkok journalists get their arteries ruptured or their brains punctured or their hearts pierced with bullets.

Since Bangkok journos spend time together sneaking into Burma, taking fire in Afghanistan and Iraq, or caring for each other at hospitals and funerals, they are a friendly and footloose bunch, and perhaps the best group of journalists in the world. When another young Canadian, Chandler Vandergrift, was hit in the head and back by exploding grenades during the military assault on the Red Shirts’ protest camp in central Bangkok on May 19, the army’s medics ignored him, and even yelled in Thai “pai loei!” at cameramen to get the hell out of there (as captured on film by Cyril Paen for France 24 TV’s reportage series.). But journos in helmets and flak jackets stopped their work — on perhaps the most potentially lucrative day of their careers — to save a colleague they didn’t even know from bleeding to death on the street. (Meanwhile, back in Tokyo, someone was trying to steal someone’s shifts or strings, or was compiling a dossier to kick someone out of a club.)


During the Battle of Bangkok, out of at least 80 dead and 1,400 wounded, no fewer than eight journalists were shot, and two were killed: Hiro Muramoto from Japan and Fabio Polenghi from Italy. They were careful professionals, not reckless bounty hunters. Like many of us, they perhaps felt safe among smiling Thai farmers, maids and motorcycle taxi drivers who were finally standing up for themselves and demanding a greater share of wealth and power. Many of the journos were injured in a city they had chosen as their safe haven away from Afghanistan or Iraq. For them, the presence of war in their own backyard seemed unreal (as best depicted in Richard Erlich’s blog, Every war zone seems to have its hotel, and it was shocking to see the royally connected Dusit Thani endure grenade attacks and rumors that snipers used it to gun down Black Shirt leader Seh Daeng while he was across the street talking to Thomas Fuller of the International Herald Tribune. With snipers in half-built high-rises picking off people in the Din Daeng area as well, it seemed nowhere was safe in central Bangkok. 

On the climactic day of May 19, I took the advice of some wise producers overseas and fled to what I thought would be the safety of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, 16 stories above the battleground. Having survived my own foolishness in Yugoslavia in 1991 and Baghdad in 2003, to name a few, I decided that I wasn’t going to die on May 19 because some fat-cat politicos and generals were using conscripted soldiers and brainwashed peasants and migrant workers to fight their battles for them ahead of an annual military reshuffle and the inevitable passing of the beloved King Bhumipol, hospitalized since September. Out the wide glass windows near the FCCT, I could see soldiers marching on the Skytrain line to my right; protesters setting fires under the Chidlom train station below me; and residents and maids escaping down side streets in their flip flops. Even as the sound of gunfire and grenade explosions sent us to the floor and behind pillars, we at least felt safely above the fray. But then the black smoke of fires engulfing Bangkok began to seep through the building and into our nostrils, and heavy explosions nearby forced us to remove jerry cans of fuel (for use in generators) away from the windows. For a while, we were trapped. To my left, explosions rocked the Central World shopping complex, one of Asia’s largest, triggering fires and smoke. Along with disgruntled protesters, Bangkok’s underworld of dek wen (young hooligans) and drug-dealing, brothel-running thugs were burning down 30 key buildings, including banks and convenience stores owned by Chinese-Thai tycoons seen as having links to the governing Democratic Party and 1980s strongman and privy councilor Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda.

My worst nightmares about Thailand were coming true. When I first worked at The Nation newspaper in 1988 — and doing stuff such as idiotically speeding down Asoke Road without a helmet — I wondered what the noxious exhaust fumes and incessant construction noise would do to human beings after 20 years. When I was living on islands and in villages through the 1990s and beyond, I got worried about dark signs emerging in Thailand’s otherwise shiny society. Too many village kids were skipping out of school to play video war games (“The Terrorists Win”). Too many Thai women were murdering their foreign husbands to collect insurance payouts from Germany and elsewhere. Too many dek sen kids of wealthy parents were shooting up discos. And far too many foreign female backpackers were being found raped and murdered.

All of this brute force and savagery was coming to a head on May 19. Amid this madness, it was easy for the current government and most Bangkok media to blame exiled former leader and billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, who was seen shopping in Paris while his supporters were burning Bangkok. A decade ago, after buying his way into power by giving cheap loans to villages, he gave the police carte blanche during the “War on Drugs” to murder suspected drug dealers (which in the Thai context included ladies selling pineapples). His crackdown on separatists in the Islamic south gave Thailand something normally associated with Cambodia and Burma — a civil war. During Thaksin’s leadership, and the military coup that ousted him, Thailand went from being a peaceful Buddhist country to a neo-industrial state divided into camps for or against Thaksin. A former police captain, Thaksin still apparently had the loyalty of Bangkok police, who let the Red Shirts occupy the central business and hotel district. Seemingly unable to command the police, the young Oxford-educated Thai Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, who was accused at first of being too soft on the protesters, finally ordered some 20,000 troops to subdue a few thousand protesters and Seh Daeng’s unit of about 20 or 30 renegade soldiers. It was like Manchester United taking on the lads from the pub. The soldiers had APCs and M16s. The Red Shirts had motorcycles and “M150s” – bottles of stimulant drinks filled with gasoline. The Battle of Bangkok was so lopsided, in fact, that journalists in helmets and flak jackets seemed to outnumber the rebels at times.

All of which made us feel like targets for snipers on both sides. With smoke billowing across the city and vandals on a rampage, the government declared a curfew and threatened to shoot offenders on sight, meaning I would somehow have to get out of the closing FCCT, which had no food service anyway, and find a place to work all night, if not sleep. It would be impossible to get through the fires around Din Daeng back to my trusty guesthouse north of there. Without a place to stay, I thought of joining my colleagues sheltering at a temple along with hundreds of elderly female protesters and their children. Once at street level, I joined Thai troops who were marching in to take control of the Ratchaprasong intersection. One of them tore down a poster of Thaksin, while others rounded up suspected rebels, including a Buddhist monk in saffron robes. One exhausted soldier puked in the street, others gasped for air under heavy armor in 40C heat, as residents offered them water through their front gates. The soldiers told me they were from Kanchanaburi Province, and didn’t know Bangkok very well. Wearing pink tags on their helmets and yellow bandanas — royal colors — they didn’t walk with the swagger of a triumphant army liberating a city. They seemed almost embarrassed to be doing this inside their own country instead of taking on the Burmese or the Khmers. 

For some mindless reason, I wandered ahead of them, into the Ratchaprasong intersection. It was like a habit. For years, I could walk out of the FCCT, say a prayer at the Erawan Shrine and go to Central World to buy shoes or maybe catch a movie. But this time, the intersection was eerily gray and quiet. Thousands of protesters had fled, leaving only a single elderly lady, Phusadee Ngamkhaa, sitting there like a zombie telling me in Thai that “I’m not going to leave until they dissolve the parliament.” Next to us, the Central World shopping mall was hissing and spewing smoke toward us. Other than a few photographers, there was nobody else around. Even the soldiers were afraid to enter the intersection. It finally dawned on me: I should not be standing here, right now, at 5 p.m. on May 19, the worst day in Bangkok’s history, with a 300 mm telephoto lens that looks like a gun.

That’s when I heard the shots. They sounded like cap-gun toys. A bad sign. Sniper fire. The soldiers heard this too and started to run in their heavy boots. Disoriented, I walked at first, and then ran, ran for my life, as fast as I could.

Again, out of habit, I was wearing white tennis shoes, as if I were going to play tennis while on holiday in Bangkok. Running through smoke and ashes, my shoes became caked in the black tar of burning tires melting black-tarmac streets. Like a bad memory, the black would forever stain my formerly white shoes. I felt embarrassed, not exhilarated, for foolishly putting myself into a dangerous situation; I should have known better. Reaching the go-go bar area of Nana Plaza, it was a relief to see transvestites and mother-daughter tag-team whores buying fried insects for dinner. At the Asoke intersection, former BBC Tokyo correspondent Chris Hogg, who had just filed a calm and clear TV report, told me the curfew was 8 p.m. I had to go somewhere, where I could at least work all night safe from vandals and arsonists. Struggling to find a motorcycle taxi driver, since many of them were Red Shirts now on the run, I gave a driver three times the normal price to take me to the offices of the Associated Press on the other side of the downtown core. He sped down Asoke, just like I used to do, past the smoldering Stock Exchange of Thailand. Having filed live TV phoners every 30 minutes, I hadn’t eaten all day, and was hallucinating from exhaustion. I thought I saw the Queen Sirikit Convention center on fire. (It wasn’t). With Rama IV Road and others blocked by protesters setting fire to Channel 3 TV (forcing the staff to escape by helicopter), the driver got lost in Klong Toey slum, not far from where Bangkok Post employees were fleeing attacks on them for allegedly supporting the government. The poorest of Bangkok’s poor, who had little to lose in the destruction, were drunk and laughing at the absurdity of it all. When we finally emerged onto Silom, it was already dark, and just minutes before the 8 p.m. curfew. The whole area, normally raging with tourists and touts and nightlife, was a crab trap of razor wire and APCs. It was dark, and there wasn’t a soul on the street. I was seriously scared. Battle-weary soldiers searched us and only let us through after I begged in Thai and the driver gave them his ID card. Finally, the driver dropped me at the Pan-Pacific Hotel, and I gave him extra money in case he had to bribe his way back home. 

High above Lumpini Park, AP’s best photographers had a wide-angle view of the day’s action, as they processed their art and wiped the smoke and soot off their faces and L-class Canon lenses. Since I was filing for some of their clients, they kindly let me stay there overnight, along with another temporary guest, legendary photojournalist Al Rockoff (portrayed by John Malkovich in The Killing Fields). Again, it seemed to be a hallucination. Below us at 3 a.m., Bangkok was dead quiet and dark. Not a soul on the street, nor a car on the expressway. In his folksy drawl, Rockoff told me how he still loved Cambodia, because he had only been shot there once, compared with four times in Vietnam.

At 6 a.m., with plumes of smoke painting the horizon, the hotel guards finally let me onto the street to find a taxi to my room. Summarizing the hellish scene, a policeman said to me, “Muang Thai na beau (Thailand is boring).” The taxi driver, circling around a labyrinth of checkpoints, said poetically, “Prathet Thai mai wai (I can’t take Thailand any longer).” Yet somehow, I still loved the country, and didn’t want to leave just yet.

In the coming days, as troops arrested 400 Red Shirts and charged leaders with terrorism, and an 11 p.m. curfew forced people to scramble for taxis home in the rain, Thai media and academics would vent their anger not at the military or the government, but at the foreign media’s “biased” coverage in favor of the Red Shirts. Facebook and Twitter — which both Thaksin and Abhisit used as propaganda tools — were rife with friends blaming “the media” for the May mayhem. Thammasaat University, where students led democracy uprisings in the 1970s, even hosted a symposium to blame everything on the BBC and, in particular, CNN’s Dan Rivers, a truly courageous reporter who in addition to covering a war, was trying to track down camera gear stolen from his home. Like other journos, CNN and BBC crews had been interviewing Red Shirts, partly because it was easier to gain access to them than Abhisit and the generals, who were hiding inside barracks. Another reason: the color red looks really good on TV and through the lenses of cameras saturated to the max. There’s another reason why the media often seemed to be railing against the government and the military — they were shooting at us. Eight journalists wounded, two dead. What are we supposed to do? Print propaganda ad nauseum? Show non-stop images of Thais loving Thais, as the military forced all Thai TV channels to do on May 19? If the Thai government really wants 15 million tourists to come back to Thailand this year, they should sincerely investigate every single death and injury as a separate criminal case. They should pursue justice against people within their own ranks as well as the alleged “terrorists” who occupied parts of Bangkok for two months but didn’t kill any of us in their Red Zone, as far as we know. After surviving Bangkok’s stupid war, it was nice to be back in the peaceful boredom of heiwa-boke Tokyo, to look for minimalist photos of dogs and flowers, and to report on the Bank of Japan’s latest decision not to change interest rates. ❶

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