Saturday, April 18, 2009

The day the streets ran red


A SKINNY man in a red T-shirt scurried up the stairs to the BTS (Bangkok Mass Transit System) Siam station, menacingly waving his hands and yelling in Thai while security guards hurriedly pulled down the shutters to prevent passengers from entering the Skytrain terminal.

The man, who was five metres from Vera Mopilin, a 36-year-old Malaysian expatriate, shouted at other red-shirted men to pursue an unknown target at around 3.30pm last Sunday.

Behind Vera, who was carrying her six-month-old born-in-Bangkok baby, security guards of Siam Paragon were shutting the entrance to the city’s biggest luxury mall.

Below, on the street, red-shirted demonstrators were dancing on top of two armoured personnel carriers that they had commandeered.

The red-shirted protesters had taken to the streets soon after Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva declared a state of emergency in Bangkok to quell a red-shirted uprising against his four-month-old coalition government.

Hugging her baby tightly, Vera told herself she was witnessing history unfolding.

“But my main concern was for the safety of Apsara (her baby). I was worried if I got trapped in Siam Paragon, I would run out of baby formula,” she said.

Since residing in Thailand in August 2006, Vera has lived through a coup, five Thai prime ministers, a general election, three states of emergency, New Year 2007 bombings and countless colour-coded protests.

Escape for her and the terrified shoppers, including foreign tourists, was walking 500m to the other entrance to Siam station to board the Skytrain.

Twenty minutes later, as she arrived at the On Nut station, her sister called, saying she had heard that all hell had broken loose in Thailand.

The bulk of Vera’s Songkran (Thai New Year) week was spent answering phone calls, SMSes and Facebook queries from worried family members and friends who pleaded with her to return to Malaysia immediately.

“After accessing the situation (with her clever journalist husband), I told everybody that everything was ok,” said Vera, my wife.

She told them she lived in Bangna which was far away from the hot spots. And if trouble escalated her family was prepared to fly home.

How was it living in Bangkok Dangerous during Abhisit’s emergency rule?

Bangna, a Bangkok suburb, is relatively safe as it’s about 25km from the Thai prime minister’s office, the usual epicentre of protests.

The suburb, however, is not impervious to the country’s political turmoil. In 2005 pro-Thaksin Shinawatra protesters besieged The Nation office and a bomb exploded at nearby Seacon Square shopping mall on New Year 2007.

During this week’s emergency rule, the only running “street battle” I witnessed in Bangna was the water fights Songkran revellers were engaging in.

The situation was different for the residents of Din Daeng, about 2km from the office of the prime minister. On Monday, an urban battle raged in the neighbourhood between the anti-government protesters armed with rocks and Molotov cocktails and soldiers carrying automatic weapons.

The protesters hijacked an LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) tanker and threatened to blow it up, prompting the evacuation of the residents.

On that Monday, at around 2pm, near Bangkok’s iconic Democracy Monument, two buses were set on fire by men wearing red shirts.

A handful of policemen stood by watching as the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority buses burnt. Their inaction prompted the perception that Abhisit had lost control of his country.

“Antharaai (‘dangerous’ in Thai), LPG (liquefied petroleum gas),” a red-shirted man shouted, pointing at the buses. Fearing an explosion, the crowd retreated as shopowners pulled down their shutters.

A Thai television crew arrived. While they were shooting the blaze, a Thai man, wearing neutral colour, egged a dozen red-shirted men to attack them. The crowd started to verbally abuse the journalists for being biased against the anti-government movement.

Just when it looked as if Bangkok would explode into the next Islamabad, the red-shirted protesters – whose numbers at the Prime Minister’s office grounds had by then dwindled to about 2,500, from 100,000 – packed their bags and returned home.

But yesterday’s assassination attempt on Sondhi Limthongkul, the co-leader of the yellow-shirted protesters, indicate that Vera still has to assure loved ones in Malaysia that the City of Angels is safe.

(Published in The Star on April 18, 2009)