In the first open show of violence in a month-long battle for power in Thailand, thousands of anti-government protesters yesterday stormed a satellite station and forced detachments of soldiers and police officers in full riot uniform to ignominiously retreat.
The protesters, from the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, converged on the Thaicom building in Ladlumkaew, 60 kilometres north of Bangkok, on motor-scooters and in vans and pick-ups. They had one simple demand: their People TV cable channel had been blocked from broadcasting under the emergency decree enacted in Thailand on Wednesday, and they wanted the ban lifted.
Known as the red-shirts, the UDD protesters swarmed into the country lanes near the building and began yelling their demands, and soon began pushing on the gates and the razor wire left in double coils on the fenced perimeter of the Thaicom grounds.
The military detachment fired tear-gas at the crowds, which forced many of the red-shirts to momentarily retreat, but they soon resumed their push for access. They hurled rocks and half-spent tear gas canisters back at the ranks of the military. They quickly won through, and threw themselves bodily against the security forces. Discarded helmets, riot shields, shin pads and large coils of razor wire were soon seen floating in the large pond in front of the Thaicom building, mute testimony to a battle which seemed to be over in a matter of minutes.
Later, jubilant red-shirt protesters bore weapons aloft in a march through the grounds, but it was unclear whether the rifles came from disarmed soldiers and police officers or from the building’s security guards.
Queues of disarmed police officers and soldiers, some bandaged and some barefoot, began trudging through the crowds of red-shirts milling in the Thaicom grounds. Slapped on the back and cheered by the magnanimous red-shirt protesters, only a few could raise a smile or shake the hands of their victors. Their rapid defeat raised the question of their willingness to do battle with red-shirts who were seemingly armed with little but invective. Certainly Thailand’s government has shied away from a direct confrontation with the red-shirts, preferring to allow them to remain on one of Bangkok’s prime retail intersections where they have been camped since the weekend.
Polly Karakate, a 49-year-old nurse from Bangkok, and a devout red-shirt, was appalled by the violence and the disabling tear-gas. “It really hurt,” she said. “It affected one or two children as well, People fell down. Red-shirts were hurt by the shooting. They shot gas, but after that the wind blew the gas to them.” Ms Polly said the red-shirts soon disarmed the troops. “We are not frightened of them,” she said. “We are prepared to die for democracy in Thailand, all of us are prepared to die.”
Army spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd had earlier said that security forces would maintain order “in accordance with the law, from use of soft to harsh means in seven steps”, including baton and shield charges, water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets, if protesters breached the emergency decree.
The red-shirts, representing the rural poor of Thailand’s north and north-east, want Thailand’s prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to resign and his government dissolved. They say the ruling coalition won power illegitimately, it has never won a mandate from the Thai people, and it is in thrall to the nation’s military and urban power elites. The red-shirts support ousted and exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and they have been demanding a fresh election in the near future.
Eakachai Pitooprom, a 32-year-old construction worker wearing a bright red t-shirt and scarf, said the red-shirts were determined the People TV cable channel, P-TV, would resume broadcasting. It was blocked on Thursday, in accordance with the emergency decree.
Although the red-shirts did not actually get into the Thaicom building, Mr Eakachai said the protest would ensure that freedom of speech was maintained for the protesters in Thailand. “We want to open a signal for the many people who watch this channel,” he said, at ease in the Thaicom grounds, looking up at circling helicopters. “We pushed our way in, and now the soldiers have gone.”