Today, I walked through the near-deserted Rajaprasong protest site in a state of disbelief. I went to interview the last remaining Red Shirts—many of them women, children and elderly—who had sought refuge in Pathumwanaram temple as troops stormed this area of central Bangkok on Wednesday. With dozens of their comrades dead, and their leaders either under arrest or on the run, how did they feel? The short answer: sad, angry, and determined to fight on.
After six weeks it was hard to imagine Rajaprasong ever being protest-free. I walked through a military checkpoint outside Central department store, then past burned-out trucks and the charred remains of Red Shirt barricades. Beyond lay hastily abandoned shelters where the ground was strewn with clothes, sleeping mats, cooking stoves, shoes, heart-shaped clappers, and bags of festering rubbish.
The stage, with its now familiar banner—PEACEFUL PROTESTERS, NOT TERRORISTS—was deserted. Yesterday, I watched live on television as Nattawut Saikua, a core Red Shirt leader, stood on this stage and announced that he was about to surrender to the police. The crowd had jeered him. Now, the only spectators were dozens of empty plastic chairs.
The military offensive yesterday sparked dozens of arson attacks by protesters across Bangkok. Here at Rajaprasong, Central World—a giant structure containing two large department stores and scores of smaller shops—sustained the most damage. A section of the building has collapsed. Firefighters were still hosing down the smoldering wreckage. What glass remains on the building’s south side is shattered, soot-blackened or pockmarked with what looks like bullet and grenade holes. This building was once called the World Trade Center: its superstitious owners changed its name after the 9/11 attacks in the U.S.
Almost next door is Pathumwanaram temple. As I arrived, hundreds of Red Shirts were filing out through its gates, across the road, and into the headquarters of the Royal Thai Police opposite. At the back of the temple, six bodies—five men, one woman—lay on bloodied mats beneath the trees. They had been shot outside the temple the night before, then dragged through its gates. There, next to a shop selling Buddhism books and other religious supplies, flies buzzed around pools of drying blood.
Across the road at the police headquarters, about 1,500 protesters waited to go home. They were separated according to their province of origin, fed, and put on buses bound for home. The process took all morning.
The protesters were dejected, anxious, and exhausted. They were also defiant. “They got us out of here,” said Puwanai Sorabud, 40, a tour guide returning to the northern town of Chiang Rai, “but that doesn’t mean they’ve won. They can’t fight this many voices.”
The exodus reminded Nuan Kulboon, 65, a northeasterner who lived in Bangkok, of her days working with refugees on the Thailand-Cambodian border. “This situation isn’t very different,” she said. “We are refugees in our own country.”
Nuan had been in the temple for four terrifying days. “Nobody wants to stop fighting. This is the truth. Everyone here is saying, ‘I want my rights. I want my freedom.’”
Outside, a police sound-truck cruised slowly through the area. “Leave! Leave!” ordered the officer through his microphone. A few stragglers scooped up their belongings and hurried towards the police headquarters. One woman, Mayuree Sawatasai, a Red Shirt leader from Ayuthaya, fought back tears as she packed up her things. She understood Nattawut’s decision to surrender, although didn’t agree with it. “He doesn’t want us to get hurt. But we insisted on staying. We didn’t want to stop.”
After two months of disruption and distress, Bangkok can breathe a little easier. But only a little. Talk to the Red Shirts today, and even those who disagree vehemently with their views will understand that Thailand’s political turbulence is far from over.
The Reds will return to Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, to Buriram and Mukdahan, to Nong Khai and Nan, bringing home first-hand accounts of the bloody battle of Bangkok. Towns and villages across the north and northeast will be further radicalized. Until talks between the Reds and the government collapsed last week, a November election had seemed possible. But it is hard to imagine an election ever being held in such a poisonous political atmosphere.
I asked Puwanai from Chiang Mai what he will do when he gets home. “I don’t know yet,” he replied. “But if there are more protests, I’ll be back. We have to fight.”
I asked Mayuree from Ayuthaya the same question. “Wait and see,” she replied.