I decided today to take a tour of the peaceful areas so I left the house hoping to visit the five reported stages that the red shirts have put on around the city and take pictures of the monks chanting in Victory Monument. I drove down Sathorn where the empty road was dotted of burned phone boots (where are the phones?) and somebody put a statue of two people in black twisted in a fight at the corner with Soi Convent.
I then drove down Narathiwat and turned into Surawong, emptied out with small crowds of people watching the situation. First military check point. I passed through easily with the excuse of visiting a friend house. Down Surawong turned into Rama IV in the direction of MBK. Second checkpoint. The street is completely empty, just some soldiers here and there and a column of smoke coming from Sala Daeng. Then got out of the military zone at the corner with Ratchatewi, this time after being checked by soldier as a young Thai man opens his motorbike’s seat to reveal a compartment full of 10 bath coins, wrapped in plastic bags.
Down in the direction of Hualompong and then into Rama VI until Aree, then back to Victory Monument. As I pass chanel 5 station, the police is setting up a road block. At the entrance of the highway right before Victory Monument as big crowd of motorcycle and people starts moving frenetically, bringing plastic barriers and wood in the middle of the street and piling them before starting to burn the pile. “The army is coming” shout a motortaxi driver as many people move in the direction of Victory Monument. Goodbye peacefulness today.
I drive into the back soi, to try to cut into Victory Monument but end up in a small closed community where police officers in anti-riot gear lounge inside a compound, taking pictures of what is going on in the street. I drive back and cut into Victory Monument as a barricade is created in the middle of the street with whatever is available and a big fire set in front of it.
The round square is surreal, completely empty with few groups of curious standing on the long overpasses that surrounds the empty roundabout. Again stillness is accentuated by the memories of this buzzing transportation node. A long line of police officers in uniform with no weapons or protection crosses the roundabout and stop underneath a tend on the northern side of the square, they arrive quietly saluted by the crowd. I ask around and a woman tells me that they came to prevent the army from attacking from Phahon Yothin. She also tells me that the only way out of the area is toward Ratchawithi, as the other two exits are blocked one by a military line and the other by the heavy fighting in Din Daeng.
Slowly the police officers take position in rows and move to Phahon Yothin were the fire is now releasing black smoke. The police scatter beyond the barricades and start taking it off as the crowd looks trying to understand their role. From a small gate beside the highway entrance the groups of anti-riot police exit from their refuge and take position at the right side of the crowd. An older policeman tells people around to let them do their job and reassure they are here to protect the people. A loud applause follows his words. The police take charge of the situation, rapidly removing the barricade and putting off the fire.
Never in my life I thought I would see the police dismantling a barricade just built being cheered by the same people who put it on, standing cheerfully around. Only smoking debris remains in the middle of the big road as the police takes again position in rows and the anti-riot group goes back to where they came from. An older police officer, who act as the person in charge, stands in the middle of the street and tells a small crowd formed around him mostly by motortaxi drivers to be calm. If they don’t stop the street the military will not arrive. “Do you believe me?” he ends. “believe” is the common answer as people applause and cheer the police battalion moving back into Victory Monument and leaving the area.
I decide to take a look in the direction of Ratchaprarop, without getting too close. At that side of the roundabout a much bigger crowd is chatting and sitting on at least 500 motorcycles parked everywhere. I have never seen this many motortaxi drivers around protests since the violent turn. I recognize many of them in the crowd and greet some of them. We exchange information about what is going on in different parts of the city for five minute and greet each other, but only after having wished good luck and reminded ourselves to be careful.
Same unspoke routine over and over. I decide to keep going down the street when in the small soi people have stored big objects to put up more barricades. In the empty street, crowded only on the sides, a guy on a motorcycle stands in behind the barricade, as if was speaking to the phones (here what they do with the phones inside the boots) that compose this motley barricade. I walk pass him, smiling at the odd scene and walk down.
I arrive to soi 6 and sit there for a while, as the smoke coming from Ratchaprarop hugs the flyover. On a side of it a small group of people hides behind the street, rolling tears into the smoke, I guess to be picked by other hands down the street. As I stand watching the scene in Soi 6 two men come to me and say that the soldier shooting down Ratchaprasong are not Thai, but kmer send by Newim. "How do you know?" I ask "We just know, we have seen them. Go there and see yourself". Around people point in the direction of the Century Park Hotel that overlooks the area.
They ask me to take a picture in that direction with the zoom to see if there are any snipers. Lucky shot. I zoom with my camera and there they are at least two shapes that look like military guys, looking down at the street, kneeling in the plants that come out of the higher balcony.
Immediately the news runs around and I get assaulted by a myriad of people asking me to take a look, too fast to declare that the balcony is full of snipers and you can see them very clearly. As soon as they pose their eyes on the small camera screen people turn around saying out loud “it’s full of snipers, at least five or six” I keep repeating that at most it would be two but it take the instant to turn around for the story to grow bigger. Images in this situation come to play a strangely authoritative role. In a time where manufacturing pictures or just selecting what to show seems not only easy but diffused, an epoch of spin doctors and intrusions on the media-scapes is funny how images, often blury ones become the higher form of truth. Nowhere else more than in that small soi close to a cloud of smoke I have felt this.
The people who want to watch seem to never end. Again, again, again. My camera on play keeps turning off so I have to zoom again as people ask me to take pictures of my camera screen. Pictures of pictures, often taken with a small self phone camera. Small pixeled images of truth, the first victim in this kind of situations. People here seem, however, to be decided on not losing it, in their tenacity to hold on to a trace of it, stored in their self phone or memory card. Soon a camera crew comes around and wants to shot the small camera screen. I show the picture over and over again, moving from being sure of seeing snipers in it and thinking is just some strange shadows.
After a while I decide to walk back to Victory Monument. I see there a motortaxi driver whom I have met before at the protest site, as people distribute food and water, just arrived from a pick-up. I tell him that I am surprised to see so many motortaxi drivers around and he tells me that it has always been like this in street protest since 1992. “I was there” he says “hiding in a temple as the military shot people in the street. This time is not like that. On that day the soldier would fires straight at people, so many. You could just run away.” Funny to have this conversation on the 17th of May, in this bloody anniversary of the events of eighteen years ago. I ask his phone number to interview him on those events. “Call me later on” he says “now there is no time and besides that interviewing now is a very dangerous thing, you may get shoot”. His sour smile fails to open up in his face as he thinks at the recent death of Seh Daeng.
I show him the picture I just took and in a second another flow of people comes around, taking pictures of my camera screen, asking me to send it to the red shirt leaders and to put the picture on the internet. A guy walks to me and ask me if I would stay long enough for him to come back with his computer. People starving for “evidences” or just crumbs of it. I notice however how many of them do not really look at the picture to see something but rather to find something and see what they want to, as the older woman who showed me the Xerox copy of a picture of alleged bodies of military killed by other soldiers. A Thai journalist arrives and pulls out a small notebook. I pass him the picture, happy that we would take up the pressure and requests that come with that blurry frame.
I decide to drive away as people thank me and offer me food and water. I grab a bottle of water and drive back to the Rama IV area. Here in both Ngan-Dumphli and Sawan Sawat the situation is stable, military shooting, protesters hidden behind the corner of the sois and tire barricades. I stay there for a while watching the tense faces and words of people who are being shot at, but mostly close to, since three days, almost getting used to the sounds of shots and explosion but still interpreting them for the new comers. Rifle, rifle, M-16, M-16, M-16, us, us, us, sniper. A large tires barricade has been positioned across one lane of Rama IV 20 meters east of Sawan Sawat and behind it about 15 men hide in silence eating grilled pork and sticky rice. Cameras and self phone taking videos everywhere. One man completely covered in black stains from managing tires asks me where I am from and tells me he is a supporter of Inter Milan. We are on the same side I tell him. A younger man on his left tells me he likes Manchester United. Bullets pass over our heads. “Red devils” he laughs as he show me a foulard of the UDD wrapped around his waist.