Thailand's Thin Blue Line Starts to Disintegrate

Thailand's police and military continue to be embarrassed by the tactics of the Red Shirt protesters who are attempting to bring down the government, most recently Friday by a daring escape -- flashed across televisions worldwide - by one of the Red Shirts' most aggressive and outspoken leaders.

Wearing a bright red, short-sleeved shirt and black trousers, Arisman Pongruangrong rolled himself over a third-floor parapet as authorities surrounded his hotel, wrapped an electrical cord around his back and chest, and was lowered down with the help of a couple of Red Shirts on the parapet holding the cord. A cluster of supporters reached up to soften his landing.

"The policeman tried to kill me," Arisman shouted through a megaphone to Red Shirt activists who gathered at the hotel after being tipped off about the impending police assault. "My room 377 has two bombs in it." Police said six grenades were found in Arisman's room. It was not immediately clear who was responsible for their presence.

"I would like to thank all of the people who saved me. You have helped save democracy," Arisman said. Before joining the Red Shirts, Arisman was a popular singer of love songs, but has since personally led thousands of protesters to confront troops at various sites in Bangkok, including the gates of a military base.

Certainly the April 10 shoot-out, now known by everybody as Black Saturday because it was Thailand's worst violence in nearly two decades, proved that the authorities were unable to crush thousands of mostly unarmed civilian Red Shirts despite the use of helicopters, armored personnel carriers, Humvees and other equipment.

Despite gruesome scenes in Bangkok's hospitals as protesters with gunshot wounds were carried in, the government and military said their troops fired mostly rubber bullets -- though experts say those can be lethal. Officials said live bullets were used only in "self-defense."

Nine of the dead were slain by high velocity bullets, according to Police General Hospital autopsies, including some who were shot at close range of less than one meter away, forensic team member Police Lt. Gen. Jongjait Aowjenpong said.

The troops ultimately retreated in disarray during the night Saturday, abandoning armored personnel carriers and other vehicles in the street, along with a cache of weapons and ammunition which the Red Shirts seized. They were also unable to prevent the capture of four soldiers, who were later displayed as hostages on a stage at a Red Shirts' rally before being released.

The military now seems to be debating whether or not to unleash another assault against the Reds, or remain in the barracks while all sides squabble over the date of a future nationwide election, letting the police handle the situation in the streets. Another source told Asia Sentinel rifts are widespread in the police as well, however, with many backing the Red Shirts.

Splits among Thailand's police, military, government officials, academics, media and Buddhist clergy have worsened in recent weeks, with some supporting the red-clad protesters, who demand immediate elections, while others strongly oppose them.

The US-trained military in particular appear to be riven with squabbles over lost promotions, threats of prosecution and other problems which may have resulted in some internal fighting during the April 10 clashes. In one attack, grenades and rifle fire targeted officers at an intersection, killing the Royal Guard's 2nd Infantry Division's deputy chief of staff, Col. Romklao Thuwatham, and injuring two other officers. They were crouched behind armored personnel carriers, organizing their division's next move.

Just how deep the rifts are is exemplified by a handful of mysterious, black-clad men who fired assault rifles and possibly grenade launchers during Bangkok's clash on April 10. They appear to be paramilitary forces with connections to the military, but no one knows who they are or what side they are on.

The unidentified lone shooters were been caught on videos and photographs spread across Bangkok's newspapers, television and Facebook and Twitter as evidence, amid fierce debate about their role and loyalties. Each gunman wore a black balaclava, concealing his face. They appeared to deliberately target their prey before firing and slowly walking away. They may have killed people on both sides.

During the clashes, some Red Shirts also attacked the army with makeshift weapons, such as Molotov cocktails, rocks, plastic chairs and other objects, according to videos and eyewitnesses. After the army retreated, they counted six dead soldiers. In another incident, a man armed with an assault rifle was photographed with his balaclava pulled back, exposing most of his face and distinct features, including his prominent nose, and a camouflage-patterned shirt. He was quickly matched to a photograph of a shaven-headed man who showed some resemblance, and was identified by military authorities as an alleged Ranger. Both photographs were published in Thailand's newspapers.

Thailand's fearsome Rangers are a paramilitary group used by the military, mostly along the borders and in other isolated, rural trouble spots. A few months ago, Thai media reported some disgruntled Rangers, mostly from the Red Shirts' stronghold in Thailand's north and northeast, were joining the protesters and teaching them urban warfare tactics. Red Shirt leaders, however, said the man in both photographs was not a Ranger, was not present during the fighting, and had merely collected the assault rifle earlier and was handing it over.

A Red Shirt spokesman said the man was a "stage guard who was collecting weapons from captured soldiers. Guards were depositing weapons on the stage all evening." Red Shirt leaders denied their supporters were killers, and claimed the balaclava-wearing gunmen were sent by the government as agents provocateurs. Government officials in turn blamed the Red Shirts.

"These people can do just about anything to achieve their goals, no matter how many people -- either Red Shirt demonstrators, or soldiers and government officials -- die," said Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban on April 13.

So-called "watermelon soldiers" -- who wear green uniforms on the outside, but are "red" on the inside because they sympathize with the Red Shirts -- have also created widespread fear among the government and military.

"There is no denying that the rift within the army is real," the Bangkok Post reported. "Another batch of 'watermelon' involves military men seen as being close to ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra," it reported. Thaksin, who won three nationwide elections, was ousted in a bloodless September 2006 military coup, and his return is supported by many Red Shirts. Fearful of another attack, thousands of Red Shirts consolidated their red-clad supporters on April 14 by departing their Pan Fa Bridge rally site in the old section of the capital where the fighting occurred, and bolstering their newer, more strategic protest zone in Bangkok's wealthiest intersection where they have squatted since April 3.

That intersection of two main streets -- Rama I Road and Ratchadamri Road -- rests in a canyon of luxury shopping malls, five-star hotels and office buildings, and is shaded by an overhead "sky train" public rail station. The American, British, Dutch, Swiss, Vietnamese, New Zealand and Spanish embassies are about one block outside those main barricades, and face large numbers of Red Shirts walking to and from the rally sites. The embassies of Finland and Turkey are much closer.

The upscale site "makes it difficult for the army to move in. Teargas from the helicopter is risky with so many embassies here," an enthusiastic Red Shirt spokesman said on April 14.

"The awful thing is to be careful of snipers being sent to assassinate the leaders from the high buildings nearby," another Red Shirt warned. The intersection is four lanes wide, and the Red Shirts' makeshift barricades could slow military vehicles, unlike the previous site which opened onto wider boulevards fed by a multi-pronged traffic circle.

"Thailand cannot go on behaving like a banana republic, in the sense of failing to make the grade all the time, and becoming a problem child," Thailand's staunchly pro-American Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya declared in a speech at Johns Hopkins University's Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC on April 12.