Part 2: Momentum Gathers and a Clash at Khok Wua

By the end of March 2010, the Red Shirt protesters were fully entrenched in their Rajdamnern protest site. Speeches and concerts continued throughout the entire month with protesters holding mobile rallies around the city on motorcycles and pick up trucks.

The government seemed indecisive and unsure about how to stop the protests.

Abhisit Vejjajiva (Former Prime Minister and Democrat MP): We knew that this was going to be a huge challenge. We were determined to resolve the situation as peacefully as possible. We tried to negotiate.

I think it was probably the only time that you saw the Prime Minister of Thailand coming down to negotiate openly with the leaders of the protest. We were determined to make sure that there were minimal losses.

A Senior Police Officer who spoke on condition of anonymity: The Red Shirts were moving around the city holding impromptu rallies and bringing in supporters. The movement kept growing. The government and the police leadership agreed that the protests needed to be limited to the Rajdamnern area because it was causing too much chaos but we were not trained to stop this kind of movement and we weren’t willing to use force.

Abhisit: The police appeared not to cooperate very much, which made the management of this situation much more difficult. And that’s why the military needed to play a much more active role. A very good example was when the protest was in Rajdamnern, they were moving around the city and they were going to set up another protest site at Rajprasong.

Senior Police Officer: Looking back, I think maybe 70 to 80 per cent of the police were sympathetic to the Red Shirts. We were very abused and villainized by Sonthi Limthongkul and the Yellow Shirt movement so I guess you could say there was some sympathy towards the Reds. What the government wanted us to do required the use of force and we weren’t going to use sticks and shields on the citizens.

Red Shirt supporters of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra hold Thai national flags as they march during an anti-government protest in Bangkok on March 27, 2010. Some 80,000 red-shirted protesters fanned out through the Thai capital’s old quarter, reviving their campaign for new polls to replace a government they reject as undemocratic. (Photo by PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL / AFP)

By the beginning of April, the military became more involved in controlling the situation and maintaining security.

Led by Generals Anupong Paochinda, Prawit Wongsuwan and Prayut Chan-ocha, military units began controlling checkpoints throughout the city.

During this time, sporadic grenade attacks on establishment buildings took place around Bangkok, carried out by unknown assailants. It led to government accusations that the protesters were resorting to violence and intimidation. It is a charge that protest leaders deny to this day.

Thida Thawornsate (Red Shirt Leader): First of all, the understanding that the Red Shirts has two arms, a political arm and a militia arm is wrong. They do not understand that an armed force was not needed. 

What we were asking for was an election, not a revolution. There is no need for an armed force in this struggle, it was a misunderstanding on their part.

It wasn’t a revolution like the communist revolution.

Jatuporn Prompan (Red Shirt Leader, MP for PPP and Pheu Thai Party): It was an open demonstration. Journalists and everyone could come and go as they wished, visiting all the areas of the demonstration. Representatives from the government, led by Police Major General Vichai Sangprapai and his team at that time, were able to enter the demonstration areas at any time. This is why we still insist that our demonstration was without weapons.

Abhisit: I think that the movement of the armed elements and the organization of the protest, obviously were in sync with each other. Now I’ll put that carefully, because I’ve never accused anybody going to the protest of supporting violence. But it would be hard to believe that the leaders of the protest did not know they had this group of people, doing what they were doing.

Red Shirt supporters of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra wave at soldiers as they return to their barracks during an anti-government protest in Bangkok on March 27, 2010. Some 80,000 red-shirted protesters fanned out through the Thai capital’s old quarter, reviving their campaign for new polls to replace a government they reject as undemocratic. (Photo by PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL / AFP)

As the military began to make their presence felt, movement became more restricted and a growing sense that clashes were inevitable pervaded both the protesters and the government side.

Weng Tojirakarn (Red Shirt Leader and former Pheu Thai MP): We had decided since April 3 that we had to spread the rally out from Rajdamnern to cover more areas or else the military will close in like closing a door to beat up a cat.

It would have been extremely easy for them to kill us off if we allowed that to happen. This is why we spread out to another stage that was set up at Khok Wua where there are more exits and it is harder for the military to close in. It was the wrong decision.

As the military moved in to ‘reclaim’ land around the Rajdamnern Area on April 8 and 9, small clashes broke out. It culminated in a violent confrontation at Khok Wua on April 10.

Abhisit: Unfortunately, on April 10, when we tried to regain some space from the protesters, that night there were armed clashes beginning with the firing of grenades from a launcher which killed a number of military personnel.

Chaturon Chaisang (Former PPP MP and negotiator on April 10): I helped with the negotiations when the military were moving in to Khok Wua. We had been negotiating with the government since the middle of the day but the government never showed good faith. They kept carrying out their operations even while we were talking, soldiers moving in on civilians.

We were trying to stop them from reclaiming the area and leave the civilians in peace. They said they were trying to ‘reclaim the area.’

Why would they need to ‘reclaim’ the area? They said that they marked out this area for civilians to protest!

Patatida (Media officer for UDD): The first death occurred around Phan Fa bridge [on the 10th]. I did not know who it was but I heard people shouting that someone got shot.

During this time we were recruiting female protesters to come and stand in the front in order to prevent the soldiers from moving in. If it was men they would shove and shoot and so we put the women in front.

Thida: This idea that they did not use live rounds until soldiers were killed is not true. They had been using them since the afternoon. Many people died before the first soldier had a grenade thrown at them, and it wasn’t us that threw it.

Red Shirt supporters of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra clash with security forces during an anti-government protest in Bangkok on April 10, 2010. At least six people have been killed and almost 500 injured after violent clashes in Bangkok between security forces and anti-government protesters, emergency services said. (Photo by PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL / AFP)

During the chaos of that evening, dozens of men on both sides were killed or injured. Among those to die was Colonel Romklao Thuwatham, a fast rising commander in the 2nd Infantry Division.

Private Yai of the 2nd Infantry Division [who asked that his real name be withheld]: We had been operating all day and many of us were fatigued and tired. We had orders to retreat for the day as it was becoming night when the attacks happened.

We had been using rubber bullets throughout the day and were not carrying live rounds when the grenades went off around us. I don’t think any of us wanted to attack the civilians. Then [Colonel Romklao] was killed in a grenade attack and it became chaotic.

Patatida: I was walking around Satreewith school when they announced that Khun Romklao had been shot. I quickly tried to run into Khok Wua but people were already shoving to get in and I could not reach the area. I didn’t see anyone carrying weapons that were trying to get into the area.

Weng: By the time that Romklao was killed it was already dark, between 7pm to 9pm. There are accusations that it was a M79 grenade [launcher] that killed him, that it was fired by the Red Shirts. This has proven to be not true, it was a thrown grenade that killed him.

There must be a truth finding process to find out how Romklao died and where the grenade was thrown from. One thing I know is that it could not have been thrown from where the Red Shirts were at the Democracy Monument.

The person that killed Romklao must have known that there was a frontline command center there. The person had to know that Romklao would be there. The person must have known what time Romklao would be there. And, the person must have known exactly where the meeting would take place inside that command center.

During the chaos of that night, there were speculation and eye witness accounts that men in black shirts had been attacking government soldiers, prompting speculation of a third hand. The Red Shirt leaders deny such a force existing within the Red Shirt hierarchy.

Weng: There were no black shirts within the Red Shirts. If there were, how come the soldiers there did not shoot them? How come none of them were arrested until now? If the black shirts truly did exist, the Red Shirt co-leaders would have faced the death penalty by now.

Jatuporn: One foreign media agency reported on the black shirts, Al Jazeera. They said they had photos. They said some freelancer had sent them the photos, so it wasn’t even theirs. After that, the propaganda from the government side about the so-called black shirts began to circulate in full force.

Chaturon: I do not know who the black shirts are but they helped the civilians that day. There would have been more deaths if they had not been there.

Private Yai: I do not know who attacked us, red shirt, black shirt, yellow shirt, purple shirt, does it matter? When someone shoots at you, when someone tries to kill you, you shoot back, it is human nature.

None of us wanted to hurt civilians, I can tell you that with an open heart. No one wants to take another life; we are all Buddhists. But if you attack me, if you attack my friend next to me, I will have to shoot back, I will defend myself.

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