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Finding "Terrorists" in the Thai "Banana Republic"

Searching for Mysterious "Terrorists" in "Banana Republic" Thailand

by Richard S. Ehrlich

Lit candles commemorate the casualties suffered by the protesters a day after the clashes on April 10. (Image: CC, Flickr)
BANGKOK, Thailand -- Searching among bloodstained streets and grainy videos, investigators are trying to identify a handful of mysterious, black-clad men who fired assault rifles and possibly grenade launchers during Bangkok's clash on April 10 which left 24 people dead and 900 injured.

Thailand, meanwhile, has degenerated into "a banana republic" infested with "terrorists" supporting a popular ousted politician who is similar to Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, according to the Thai foreign minister.

The U.S.-trained military also appears dangerously split, with rivalries over lost promotions, threats of prosecution, and other problems which may have resulted in some internal fighting during the "Black Saturday" clashes, according to Thai officials and media.

Of immediate concern are the unidentified lone shooters who appeared on videos and in photographs during the military's crackdown against thousands of Red Shirt protesters in Bangkok.

Each lone gunman wore a black balaclava, concealing their face.

They appeared to deliberately target their prey before firing and slowly walking away, according to videos filmed by reporters and individuals which were posted on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere on Internet as evidence, amid fierce debate about their role.

They may have killed people on both sides during Thailand's worst violence in 18 years.

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 a total of six dead soldiers, mostly from the Royal Guard's 2nd Infantry Division, nicknamed "The Tiger of the East."

In one attack, grenades and rifle fire had targeted its officers at an intersection, killing the 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.

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 pattered shirt.

He was quickly matched to a photograph of a shaven-headed man who showed some resemblance, and 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.

The man was a Red Shirt "stage guard who was collecting weapons from captured soldiers," a Red Shirt spokesman said.

"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 agent provocateurs.

"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 a "green" uniform 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," reported the Bangkok Post, an anti-Red, English language newspaper.

"Another batch of 'watermelon' involves military men seen as being close to ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra," it reported.

Mr. Thaksin, who won three nationwide elections, was ousted in a bloodless September 2006 military coup, and his return is supported by many Red Shirts.

The April 10 shoot-out also proved that the military was unable to crush thousands of mostly unarmed civilian Red Shirts, despite the use of helicopters, armored personnel carriers, Humvees and other equipment.

The troops ultimately retreated in disarray during the night, abandoning some armored personnel carriers and other vehicles in the street, and a cache of weapons and ammunition which the Red Shirts seized.

Retreating troops 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 barracks while all sides squabble over the date of a future nationwide election.

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, Netherlands, 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 luxurious 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'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:

"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."

On the sidelines of Washington's global nuclear summit, Mr. Kasit also denounced his arch-enemy, former Prime Minister Thaksin, by saying: "He's a bloody terrorist."

Mr. Kasit compared Mr. Thaksin to the German Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, Italy's fascist prime minister Benito "Il Duce" Mussolini, and the Soviet Union's Communist Party head Joseph Stalin.

"Hitler was elected, Mussolini was elected, even Stalin could say that he was elected, also but what did they do to their very society?" Mr. Kasit said.

Thailand's besieged and vulnerable Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who has been living and working from inside a Bangkok military base since the protests began on March 12, has refused the Red Shirts' demands for an immediate nationwide election.

Mr. Abhisit said "terrorists," who were concealed among "innocent" demonstrators, killed many of the people during the clashes, and he defended the military's maneuvers.

The prime minister leads a shaky coalition which he cobbled together in Parliament in December 2008, and is widely perceived as unable to win a nationwide election at this time.

If the Red Shirts' candidates were elected, they would probably allow the caviar-eating Mr. Thaksin to return from self-exile in Dubai, restore the 1.4 billion U.S. dollars of his family assets which were seized by the government in a corruption case, and politically rehabilitate him.

The Red Shirts describe Mr. Abhisit as a "murderer" for orchestrating the April 10 assault, and demand his immediate expulsion from Thailand.

The government and military, meanwhile, 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.

*************

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of "Hello My Big Big Honey!", a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is

http://www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com

(Copyright 2010 Richard S Ehrlich)

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