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.
Troops pounded batons against their shields and charged at the “red shirts,” pumping bullets into the air as petrol bombs, glass bottles and rocks rained down from the road above.
The defiant demonstrators retreated but soon returned, lining vandalized buses across the streets as thick, black smoke billowed out from piles of burning tires.
“I‘m sad it came to this but we’re doing it for democracy,” said protester Payat Phulaboon. “We’ll fight to the death.”
Emboldened by the military’s reluctance to use force, protesters deployed hundreds of reinforcements on hijacked buses and moved to within 50 meters of army lines. News they had seized a petrol tanker quickly spread.
“Don’t shoot, don’t shoot,” an army commander shouted after a soldier fired waist-height warning shots toward one protester. The army, better trained for humanitarian missions, was clearly not in control.
Saffron-robed Buddhist monks arrived to urge restraint “for the sake of the country” as smiling civilians handed out flowers to adrenaline-pumped troops clutching assault rifles.
Then a bus was set ablaze 20 meters from army lines. Troops charged at the “red shirts” again, firing volleys into the air or at the ground. Some soldiers tossed Molotov cocktails back at protesters.
An unmanned bus hurtled toward soldiers on the overpass, crashing into the guardrail, the front of the smashed vehicle hanging precariously above my head.
A street normally abuzz with cars, buses and packed restaurants now resembled a scene of violent chaos in a failed African state.
“This is madness,” said a photographer, running for cover. “What’s happening to this country?”
Soldiers cheered triumphantly as demonstrators fled but a hard-core group returned for one final anarchical push. They hurled rocks, torched several buses and drove more into trees and lampposts.
Meanwhile near where the soldiers were firing rifles and protesters lobbing bombs, excited children and drunken adults continued to celebrate Thailand’s Songkran festival, squirting water from plastic guns and hurling bucketloads at cars and motorcyclists.
This could only happen in Thailand, I thought.
Later I felt a grim sense of foreboding as hundreds of troop mobilized to clear the Government House protest. The last time this happened, in 1992, the army fired indiscriminately on demonstrators, killing dozens.
However, the night passed without incident -- aside from “red shirts” clashing with locals and torching more buses.
In the morning a protester commandeered a fire truck, accelerating dangerously toward an armored personnel carrier as journalists fled before the driver slammed on the brakes.
But facing the prospect of military force, the demonstrators decided to call it quits. A few thousand “red shirts” celebrated as they left the Government House area, shaking hands with soldiers who handed out water and wished them luck as they boarded buses back to their provinces.
Peace had finally returned to Bangkok. For how long, no one knows.
“I‘m happy this ended without violence, but this is not the end,” said protester Pong Srinaka.
“We’ll return again, for sure, to fight for our democracy.”
Editing by Bill Tarrant and Jerry Norton