Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

A Thai armoured vehicle and a soldier approach a barricade during an operation to evict anti-government "red shirt" protesters from their encampment in . Caren Firouz/Reuters (CAREN FIROUZ)
A Thai armoured vehicle and a soldier approach a barricade during an operation to evict anti-government "red shirt" protesters from their encampment in . Caren Firouz/Reuters (CAREN FIROUZ)

D-Day in Battle of Bangkok Add to ...

"I'm quite confident," Wanpot Chiewcharn said, standing amid a pile of stones he has amassed behind the barricade of bamboo poles and tires that is the western edge of the protest site.

By dawn Wednesday, Mr. Wanpot was likely reassessing as the military roared in.

A fruit farmer in the province of Chiang Mai in normal times, Mr. Wanpot spent two years in the army 30 years ago. These days, the 53-year-old is part of a newly armed organization, albeit a crudely equipped one, that could be called the paramilitary wing of the Red Shirt protest movement. While the main body of the protesters is still trying to claim they are non-violent, the Black Shirts, as they're known after the colour the guards wear, say they are ready and willing to fight.

Led until recently by the assassinated "Red General" Khattiya Sawasdipol, some received hand-to-hand combat training in sessions that were held months before the anti-government protests began. The black-shirted fighters are both the defenders of the Red Shirt camp, and arguably the movement's biggest liability now that its leaders are again calling for a negotiated solution to the crisis.

Several hundred Black Shirts guard the medieval-looking fort that surrounds the Red Shirt camp. It's unclear how much co-ordination there is between the two groups.

"We're not nervous. We believe in what we're doing," said Suriyathep Pitaksettee, a 43-year-old grocer and army veteran who is among a core group of Black Shirts that sport red scarves around their necks and are assigned to protect the top Red leaders as well as the main stage area at the centre of the protest site. Mr. Suriyathep said the core group consisted of about 100 men, all ex-soldiers.

Mr. Suriyathep said the Black Shirts received free food and cigarettes from the Red Shirt leadership, but no other payment. He said they possessed no weapons other than the stones and sharpened bamboo poles that are stockpiled around the camp, but warned that a time might soon come when they would be forced to acquire other arms.

The government calls the Black Shirts "terrorists," and alleges they are on the payroll of fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Government spokesman Mr. Panitan said the government and military have for the past few days been trying to isolate the fighters from the main body of protesters, some 5,000 of whom remained in the Red camp Tuesday in defiance of a government order for them to leave.

"For the first time, an armed element has been embedded [in the protest movement]" Mr. Panitan said. "This armed element is the least understood, because it's new."

The government rejected a Red Shirt call for a ceasefire, saying the protesters needed to disperse before any new negotiations can occur. It also declared the rest of the week would be a "holiday" in Bangkok and told businesses and government offices to stay closed.

The Thai military has distributed videos that appear to show black-shirted protesters using rifles to target soldiers, and several blasts around the city have been attributed to M-79 grenades fired by the protesters. But even if they do possess weapons that they don't display in public, the black shirted fighters on the barricades are clearly outgunned and they know it.

"We will use firecrackers to scare the soldiers off. If they continue, we will burn tires. If they still continue, I will try and find a place to hide," said Hiam Sukrod, a 32-year-old farmer who was identified by other Black Shirts as the man responsible for heading up the defence of the camp's easternmost entrance.

It's a bizarre strategy that both undermines the efforts of the main Red Shirt leaders to portray the movement as a peaceful uprising while at the same time offering the Black Shirts almost no hope of winning their deadly and spreading confrontation with the army. Of those killed in the fighting that began Thursday, only one was a soldier.

It's nonetheless a plan that seems to have been made well in advance. Mr. Hiam said he and some of the other Black Shirts attended a camp outside Bangkok in January where people he described as dissident soldiers currently serving in the Thai army trained him for exactly the sort of close-quarters combat that may now be unfolding as troops storm the Red defences.

The Red Shirts were led by Gen. Khattiya, a dissident officer who joined the protest movement and who was viewed as the commander of the Black Shirts. Gen. Khattiya was shot by a sniper last week and later died in hospital, an assassination that many believe was a government attempt to weaken the Black Shirts ahead of the fighting that has raged since then.

With reports from Reuters and the Associated Press

Single page

Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

 

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories