From the Frontline

Journeywatch’s eyes and ears in Thailand, Chandler, gives a personal account of his experiences during the recent unrest and his lucky escape after being badly injured in a grenade blast. 

At approximately 1:20 pm on May 19, while unconscious and bleeding on a Bangkok street corner, I was pronounced dead.

For the last two months I had been on the frontlines of the Red Shirt protest movement. Over a hundred thousand people had massed in Bangkok demanding for fresh elections and an end to social and economic inequalities.

CBV_0731A protester waves a flag from a captured armoured personnel carrier

While the protests had been largely peaceful, Red Shirt leaders also had a secretive armed faction colloquially known as the Black Shirts.

The prospect of heavily armed militants clashing with the full might of the Thai military on the streets of Bangkok had already proved deadly.

On April 10th, I witnessed the first battle. During the day the protesters, armed with sticks and rocks, had fought running street battles with the Thai military firing M16s and hi-tech Tavor assault rifles. Thousands of live rounds were fired and I remember picking up a couple of spent shell casings, still hot and rolling away from troops, during the clashes.

But later that evening the violence would dramatically escalate. While skirmishes broke out on Bangkok’s tourist enclave of Khao San and adjacent Dinso roads, the Black Shirts made their debut. AK47s and rifle-launched M79 grenades, something that would later have terrible personal consequences, were wielded against troops.

The fighting was fierce and chaotic with the military and the Black Shirts exchanging fire amongst the crowd of protesters.

21 civilians and four soldiers were killed.

Reporters also suffered in the fighting. While most of us had been tear gassed and had minor wounds, some had been hit by shrapnel and bullets. A Japanese cameraman named Hiro Muramoto was shot in the chest and died.

In the aftermath of the battle I remember walking around the bloodied streets and bullet scarred buildings. The sight of armoured personnel carriers, captured and looted by protests, was a surreal spectacle. It no longer looked like a protest, it was a war zone.

That initial skirmish on April 10th would set the stage for even more violent encounters between protesters and the military. The protesters had hardened their resolve to oust the government while the government was equally recalcitrant.

The major difference was that an undeclared war had broken out on the streets of Bangkok.

 
Rebellion Begins
Between May 13th and 19th, Bangkok burned.

What had mostly been a peaceful protest for democracy and equality had been transformed in a rebellion. The military had sealed off the main Red Shirt encampment in the ritzy shopping district causing new protests to break out across Bangkok.

While the Red Shirts had been fuelled by an anti-elite ideology and desire for political change, the local nak leang – or tough guys – had taken over. The disenfranchised youths began a destructive rampage in the poor neighbourhoods of Bon Kai and Din Daeng. While most could only articulate a vague sense of injustice, they were fuelled by raw bravado.

They fought daily battles on burned out debris filled streets with the military. But while the military fought with sniper rifles, the nak leang fought with sharpened sticks, sling shots, and rocks.

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Amid tear gas and smoke from burning tyres, a rioter surveys the army positions from behind barricade cover.

They didn’t stand a chance. They would slowly move closer and closer to the military while hiding behind clouds of burned tires until, inevitably, snipers would cut them down. But after the killed and wounded were dragged away, the deadly game would continue. During the course of the protests and riots nearly a hundred would die and thousands were injured.

It was also a dangerous time for journalists. While the protest had transformed into rebellion, it became harder and harder to find the frontlines and the situation was extremely fluid.

The military declared a number of “live fire zones” and opened fire on anyone that moved.

Just how dangerous it had become was made abundantly clear when a close friend and fellow journalist was shot by the military. He was hit by M16 fire in the hand, abdomen, and leg while filming one of daily skirmishes. He was haemorrhaging blood and barely survived the trip to the hospital.

I remember returning home on the night of May 18th, the day before I was hit. My clothes were blackened from all the burning tires, I was exhausted from lack of sleep, and adrenaline was still pumping through my veins.

It had been an ugly day of violence and death in Bangkok. And the 19th would be worse.

 
Blown Up

After two months on the frontlines of the Red Shirt protest, I was hit by an M79 grenade and nearly lost my life.

It was May 19th, during the final military crackdown on the Red Shirts, and I changed tactics and was travelling with the army. Considering Thai troops were firing live rounds and nearly 100 would die and thousands were injured, it seemed sensible precaution to make.

But the military was not the only armed group. The Black Shirts had engaged the army on the corner of Sarasan and Ratchadamri roads in the heart of the protesters camp.

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The author before the grenade blast

While I took cover from the Black Shirts’ automatic fire, a series of M79 grenades were launched on to an empty road, into a park, and right into a group of soldiers and myself.

The blast sent 24 pieces of shrapnel tearing through my back and legs, broke a number of ribs, and punctured both my lung and colon. Three additional pieces of shrapnel had struck the back of my head, shattered my skull, and entered my brain. A journalist would later tell me he found pieces of my skull on the ground.

I was unconscious, my eyes were open and staring vacantly, and I was heavily bleeding. Military medics at the scene took my pulse and pronounced me dead. They also stole my camera.

Journalists soon arrived, noticed that I was trying to breathe, and rushed me to hospital.

I woke up three days later in a Bangkok intensive care unit.

While my shrapnel wounds would take an astounding seven weeks to heal, my head injuries were the most serious.

Shrapnel had penetrated my skull and hit my brain. The neurosurgeon was able to removes two pieces but the third was too dangerous and remains lodged in my head. Damage to my brain caused my right arm and leg to be completely paralyzed and had serious damaged my vision.

Despite the seriousness of my injuries, I surprised everyone – including my gaggle of doctors – by hobbling out of the hospital just three weeks after the incident. And two months later, I emerged with very few permanent injuries. I have hearing damage from the blast and a serious limp, but I am up and walking and back at work.

While those of us who were on the frontlines of the Red Shirt protests are left with physical scars, Thai society has my psychological scars to heal.

The political divide in society has split apart families, friends, and communities.

While everyone hopes that peace will return to Thailand, very few see a solution in sight.