First Posted: May 4, 2009
Civil unrest seems to follow Carrie and I wherever we go.
First we headed to India just after the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks. Then it was off to Sri Lanka where a 33 year old civil war was experiencing renewed fighting.
Now we find ourselves in Bangkok, Thailand, where the people have spent the past two years protesting against the current Prime Minister; who was instated after a bloodless coup left the man the public elected in exile.
Who Wears Thailand’s Red Shirts?
The protesters, known as the Red Shirts, feel that the ousted PM’s crime of failure to pay taxes does not merit replacing him with someone that came to power undemocratically.
It doesn’t hurt that the man bankrolling the protests is none other than the exiled PM himself. Last December the Red Shirts shut down all airports in Bangkok through sit-ins.
More recently, they began burning empty buses to block off streets filled with nearly 100,000 civilians protesting in front of the Parliament and state officials’ houses. The army was sent in as a precaution but had orders not to use violence against the Red Shirts.
It was during this precarious time that we arrived in Bangkok; and, on our second day, we saw the action with our own eyes.
The experience began when we, along with our new friend Sean, were in a cab heading to a touristy neighborhood to check out the Thai New Year festivities. However, our plans changed when our cab approached a traffic jam caused by an angry mob facing down an army blockade with a public bus burning behind the line of soldiers.
From what we gathered, the Red Shirts had set the bus on fire to form their own blockade against the oncoming army, but as a result the army had to stop all traffic from going by. This caused the motorists to become quite angry and as we got out of the cab and joined the scores of onlookers on the sidewalk tensions seemed to mount.
A Standoff With the Army? I’ve Gotta Photograph That!
I’m sure it will surprise no one that the first thing I did after leaving the cab was to start taking photos. The drivers of the blocked cars (none actually wearing red shirts) honked, yelled and kicked flower pots that lined the street in the direction of the army.
One man seemed to be the ringleader, as he continued to incite the crowd whenever the noise began to die down. Some people temped fate even further and went right up to the soldiers, yelling in their face and being as intimidating as possible without making physical contact.
I continued to shoot away, my adrenalin pumping higher than it ever has before, as plumes of smoke continued to bellow out of the bus behind the army. So this was what it is like to be a war photographer, I thought. No thanks!
Heading Behind the Lines With the Red Shirts
My time as an adrenalin junkie was short lived, however, as a few minutes later the army decided they had had enough and opened up the barricade to the motorists.
Naturally, we wanted to see more so we followed the cars past the burning bus and walked around until a rickshaw driver offered to take us to the Red Shirt encampment area. Smiles and open arms were all that greeted us when we reached the home base of the Red Shirt resistance.
Everywhere we went people wanted me to take their photos and were hopeful that we were with a news agency so they could tell their story. The encampment itself was extremely organized and well stocked. Booths were set up with free water, food, tarps to sit or sleep on and more.
It doesn’t hurt that the ousted PM is a billionaire and is self-financing his own revolution. I even had my toe, which I banged up earlier in the day, cleaned and wrapped by the super-friendly, and free, first aid staff.
So Who Are the Red Shirt Protesters?
Of the reported 100,000 plus protesters, we found that only a small percentage were actually on the front lines.
Most lined the streets in the encampment zone and waited for instructions while attending the frequent rallies inside. The majority of people we talked to came from modest backgrounds and just seemed to want to be a part of something.
Many were there with their entire family. The unifying fact was that they truly believe they are fighting for a just cause and are willing to do whatever it takes: as long as it is non violent.
Right Up to the Front Line
Later in the evening we found ourselves where so many protesters never would be: on the front line of defense for the night. A few hundred feet past the United Nations building another bus was burning, barricades were being set up by the Red Shirts and Molotov cocktails were prepared just in case.
Tear Gas and Molotov Cocktails
The predominant theory of the protesters we spoke with was that the army would break past the barricade at around 4am with tear gas to get the crowd to disperse.
Many were worried about what their first experience with tear gas would be like and one woman told Carrie that she would do it once, but never again.
Meanwhile, another man gave us white medical mouth masks to protect us in case the attack came early. We stuck around for a while longer, talking to protesters and taking it all in before heading back the way we came to find some dinner.
On the way we encountered one last Thai Red Shirt, though this man was wearing white and afraid to walk out by himself. He politely asked us if he could walk with us and, after determining that this was not a joke or a ploy, we agreed.
He genuinely was just worried of some kind of reprisal, as outside of the encampment zone the Red Shirts are very unpopular.
Returning to the Front Line
The next day, along with even more people from our guest house, we returned to the encampment area to continue our experience.
However, upon arriving, we found the army was on the way out, the stands and booths were being dismantled and the bottled water left there was being pillaged by local entrepreneurs who would surely sell it later.
Who had won the standoff, we wondered. After asking numerous people with varying degrees of English proficiency we pieced together that during the night the Red Shirts had decided to call off their current protest.
It was decided that the tactic of burning buses struck too much fear into the people of Bangkok, who worried about what would come next. The Red Shirts had begun to alienate those who were not affiliated with their faction and had strayed too far from their non violent principals.
They vowed to regroup and return stronger than ever, but something tells me that I will not be here to witness it.
The Raw Files
As you can imagine, I took hundreds of photographs during my day with Thailand’s Red Shirt protesters. Below are a selection of unedited favorites. Maybe one day they will make it to my digital darkroom; but, for now, here they are…