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An armoured vehicle is obscured by smoke from a burning barricade during an operation to evict anti-government "red shirt" protesters from their encampment in Bangkok on May 19, 2010. (Caren Firouz/Reuters)
An armoured vehicle is obscured by smoke from a burning barricade during an operation to evict anti-government "red shirt" protesters from their encampment in Bangkok on May 19, 2010. (Caren Firouz/Reuters)

In a Bangkok Buddhist temple, the groans of the wounded shot seeking sanctuary Add to ...

When we got to within 400 metres of the still-intact western wall of the Red fort, we started going forward with our hands raised, shouting in Thai and English that we were foreign journalists. The familiar tire gate was now sealed shut, but there was no one guarding it. At another hospital, the director said they had already received 13 wounded, as well as the first fatality of the day, an Italian journalist.

Sobered, we pressed on to the Rajprasong stage area. There, life was continuing much as it had for the past month, even with soldiers and armoured personnel carriers now just a few blocks south - but with one ominous difference: the Red leadership was nowhere to be found. The men who had encouraged tens of thousands to risk their lives in the name of "democracy" - paralyzing the commercial heart of Bangkok in the process - had disappeared and left their followers to fend for themselves.

The Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, located on the top floor of a building in the middle of the Red protest area, offered air conditioning and a peek down on the situation from above. Soldiers were advancing on Rajprasong from the south, and smoke rose from battles raging in two other neighbourhoods to the north where Red Shirts were rallying.













Red Shirt protesters could be seen lighting the Chit Lom station of Bangkok's SkyTrain system ablaze, ostensibly to keep soldiers from advancing over the tracks. An hour later, fighters broke into the 45-storey Central World shopping mall, looting and then torching what was once one of the city's most popular destinations.

Suddenly, the gunfire that had been crackling through the city since dawn came to a halt. After half an hour, a text message announced that the military had declared a temporary pause in its operations. It was an opportunity to head back out to the main stage, to see if anyone remained at the heart of the Red camp.

A hardy band of Red fighters sat in the shade, slingshots and a pair of Molotov cocktails at the ready, as they kept a lookout for soldiers approaching the camp. They admitted that they wanted to leave, but could not figure out how to reach their vehicles.

At the Red stage, a lone woman remained where tens of thousands had once rallied almost every night. "I keep my promises," was the simple answer given by 45-year-old Pusdee Ngamcam, a retired nurse. "I promised not to leave until [the government]dissolved parliament. They haven't dissolved parliament, so I'm still here. I don't know where everyone else is gone."

But Ms. Pusdee was the only protester, or at least the only non-violent one, who had such courage of her convictions. All around her lay toppled plastic chairs and deserted straw mats. A sign reading "Peaceful Protesters, Not Terrorists" hung over a stage that was silent for the first time in weeks.

A short walk along Rama I Road, past the now-burning Central World shopping centre, revealed where many of Ms. Pusdee's comrades had gone. As the government repeatedly told protesters to leave the Rajprasong site, warning of violence and prison terms if they remained, the Red leaders asked their followers to stay, suggesting they would be safe in Wat Pathum if the army ever did move against the Red camp.

Inside was the backbone of the Red Shirt movement - the poor farmers and villagers who had come out to oppose a government they believe favours the elites - leaderless and terrified. Even while the sun was still up, some were bedding down in anticipation of a long stay. Others ran back and forth to the deserted protest site, gathering food, water and medicine.

"We will sleep here tonight because outside is very dangerous," Pai, a 45-year-old mother of three, said as she made a crude mattress out of potato chip bags. "We can't go anywhere else. We don't know who will shoot at us."

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