Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Tense curfew falls on Bangkok after violent crackdown

Thai protesters carry a comrade on Tuesday after he was shot during a military push to rid Bangkok of a weeks-long demonstration.


Fighting raged Wednesday around Bangkok's Wat Pathum temple, where as many as 1,500 people took shelter amid the chaos.

The Globe's Mark MacKinnon was one of two foreign journalists inside the Buddhist temple and nearby peace park, which was surrounded by Thai troops. Here is his description of the scene, filed amid gunfire in a series of brief phone calls and Twitter updates.

Bullets were whizzing over the temple. Tear gas was in the air. Several people were shot within the walls of the compound, which is normally considered a sanctuary.

Story continues below advertisement

Medics in a makeshift medical area behind the temple said seven people were dead and another 10 were injured. For hours, the Red Cross couldn't get an ambulance in because of continued gunfire. Late in the night, however, a ceasefire was negotiated to allow the wounded - including a British journalist - to be taken away in ambulances.

Inside the temple, the air was filled with smoke and terrified residents - mostly women, children and elderly people - sought help from journalists, asking them to contact their embassies.

"You can go, right?" one asked a Globe reporter. "Take me!"

People had set up makeshift beds on straw mats. Food and water were in short supply.

Civilians were begging for the UN to protect the temple. "Is the UN coming?" one asked.

After Thai troops successfully cleared the main Red Shirt camp in the centre of Bangkok on Wednesday, Thais took refuge in the temple, which is located inside the encampment area. The troops moved behind a line of armoured personnel carriers, firing live rounds at anti-government protesters who continued to burn barricades in their path.

Follow Mark MacKinnon in Bangkok

Story continues below advertisement

Mobile readers: Click here for Mark's Twitter page

After Red Shirt leaders gave themselves up to police, rioters set fires at the stock exchange, several banks, the electricity authority's headquarters, the high-end Central World shopping mall and cinema that burned to the ground. In all, more than two dozen buildings were torched. Firefighters retreated after protesters shot guns at them, and thick smoke drifted across the sky of this city of 10 million people. Sporadic clashes between troops and protesters continued into the night. There were also reports of looting.

In addition to the death toll at the Wat Pathum temple, wire services reported that six people were dead and several dozen injured. Journalists are among the casualties: Italian freelance photographer Fabio Polenghi was killed in gunfire and Canadian freelance journalist Chandler Vandergrift was seriously wounded in a grenade blast.

Rioting also spread to the rural northeast of the country, where the bulk of the Red Shirt demonstrators are from. Local media reported that protesters had set fire to government offices in the city of Udon Thani and vandalized a city hall in Khon Kaen, also in the northeast. Udon Thani's governor asked the military to intervene. TV images also showed troops retreating after being attacked by mobs in Ubon Ratchathani.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva tried Wednesday night to reassure the country that the government would restore calm.

"I am confident and determined to end the problems and return the country to peace and order once again," he said in a televised address, adding that troops had been given the go-ahead to shoot at suspected arsonists.

Story continues below advertisement

The Thai government declared a curfew in Bangkok and 23 other provinces from 8 p.m. until 6 a.m. (9 a.m. to 7 p.m. ET.) An announcement signed by Mr. Abhisit and broadcast on television banned anyone from leaving home during those times without permission from authorities. The government also imposed a partial blackout on local TV stations, which aired programs of dancing and flag-waving Thais with periodic government-prepared bulletins.

Foreign tourists and Thai travellers, however, will be allowed to go to Bangkok airports on Wednesday night, getting a waiver from a curfew imposed by the authorities, said government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn.

Mr. Panitan announced on television that the curfew relaxation would be extended to those carrying passports and travel documents.

The chaos in Bangkok in the wake of the two-month protest will deepen the severe impact dealt to the economy and tourism industry of Thailand, a key U.S. ally and long considered one of the more stable countries in Southeast Asia. The Red Shirts had demanded the ouster of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government, the dissolution of Parliament and new elections.

Protesters also turned their rage on the local media, which they have accused of biased coverage toward the government. Groups of rioters attacked the offices of state-run Channel 3, where they set fires to cars parked outside, punctured water pipes that caused flooding and entered the building. The English-language Bangkok Post newspaper evacuated its staff after threats from the Red Shirts. A large office building down the street from the Post was set afire.

"At Channel 3 need urgent help from police, soldiers!!!" tweeted news anchor Patcharasri Benjamasa. "News cars were smashed and they are about to invade the building."

Hours later, the building was on fire. Executives were evacuated by helicopter and police rescued other staff. The English-language Bangkok Post newspaper also evacuated its staff after threats from the Red Shirts. A large office building down the street from the Post was set ablaze.

Cabinet minister Satit Vongnongteay described the chaos as anticipated "aftershocks."

"There are violent-prone protesters who remain angry," Mr. Satit told a news conference.

At least 45 people have been killed, most of them civilians, in a week of violence in Bangkok as a military attempt to blockade the protesters - who had camped in a 3-square-kilometre tourism and shopping district for six weeks - instead touched off street fighting, with soldiers firing on protesters who fought back mostly with homemade weapons.

The final crackdown began soon after dawn Wednesday, as hundreds of troops armed with M-16s converged on the Red Shirt base in Rajprasong, where high-end malls and hotels have been shuttered by the prolonged protest. Armoured vehicles crashed through barricades of piled tires and bamboo stakes, then soldiers gradually moved toward the protesters' hub, opening fire and drawing return fire from militant Red Shirts, Associated Press journalists saw.

Bullets flew overhead and several grenades exploded near the soldiers, forcing them to pull back and take cover briefly before pushing forward.

With no hope of resisting the military's advance, seven top Red Shirt leaders turned themselves in on Wednesday afternoon, saying they cannot see their supporters - women and children among them - being killed anymore.

"Brothers and sisters, I'm sorry I cannot see you off the way I welcomed you all when you arrived here. But please be assured that our hearts will always be with you," Nattawut Saikua, a key leader, said as he was being arrested.

"Please return home," he said.

By mid-afternoon, the army announced it had gained control of the protest zone and the operations had ended - nine hours after troops launched the pre-dawn assault.

"Police officers and soldiers have now stopped their operation," army spokesman Col. Sansern Kawekamnerd said.

Despite the army statement and the surrender by the leaders, many enraged Red Shirt protesters refused to give up.

Meanwhile, exiled former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said on Wednesday that a military crackdown on protesters backing him could spawn mass discontent and lead to guerrilla warfare.

Mr. Thaksin, ousted in a bloodless 2006 military coup, is denounced by adversaries as Thailand's most corrupt politician. To his anti-government supporters, he is a saviour.

Speaking from an undisclosed location, Mr. Thaksin said the crackdown could degenerate into widespread violence.

"There is a theory saying a military crackdown can spread resentment and these resentful people will become guerrillas," he told Reuters.

"There are lots and lots of people across the country who are upset because they were prevented from joining the Bangkok rally."

With reports from the Associated Press and Reuters

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.