WITNESS: When chaos came to the "Land of Smiles"

Thu Apr 16, 2009 10:36am EDT
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By Martin Petty

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Armed troops charged toward me, shouting angrily as I moved away from flying rocks and the street fires that lit up the pre-dawn sky. Thailand's free-wheeling capital had descended into anarchy.

"Nakow" (reporter), I yelled in Thai, waving my identification card as sporadic gunfire rang out, aimed at scaring away hundreds of diehard anti-government protesters blocking one of Bangkok's biggest intersections on Monday.

"They're shooting at us too," said one soldier, his boyish face filled with fear and anger. His unit was well-armed and large in numbers but the soldiers appeared nervous and lacking any organization.

Further away, groups of thuggish "red shirt' supporters of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, armed with stakes, slingshots and metal poles, hurled rocks from nearby alleyways.

"They've come to kill us," a fierce-looking protester wearing a red headband and clutching a wooden stake told me. "But we won't give up our fight for democracy."

Thailand has been gripped by political unrest since a 2006 military coup removed Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon despised by the urban elites but adored by the rural poor, who gave him two landslide election victories.

Four months after prolonged "yellow shirt" protests helped undermine the Thaksin-backed People's Power Party by closing down Bangkok's main airport, the "red shirts," who say the current premier Abhisit Vejjajiva is an illegitimate army stooge, were making themselves heard.

A state of emergency was declared on Saturday after demonstrators shut down an Asian leaders summit in the resort town of Pattaya. In the capital, some had broken away from their Government House protest and were creating havoc around the city.   Continued...

<p>Supporters of ousted Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra carry his image while leaving the Government House area in Bangkok April 14, 2009. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom</p>