Even as the World Watched IV: Peaceful, or Pistol?

26 Comments

Thai Soldier Watching for Snipers in Bangkok (May 2010).

12 July 2010
Chiang Mai, Thailand

During the Thailand fighting in May, the rain of media mixed with the dust of politics, creating mud that left honest people feeling bogged down.  People desiring clarity slogged knee deep, then waist deep, and it kept coming.

My reports avoided politics largely because I do not understand Thai politics.  There can be value in this, just as a Korean, for instance, can come to the United States and observe from a “here and now” perspective and, quite possibly—if he sticks to what he sees and not what people tell him to see—render a more accurate observation from a riot.  The “mouths of babes” are not restricted to children.

For many Americans, Asia is a murky, mysterious place inhabited by primitive people and repressive governments.  We see what we expect to see.  Mixing that with muddy journalism, many people at home in America seemed to think the Thai government was slaughtering helpless protesters in Bangkok.  This was untrue.

During bloody fighting on 19 May, a Thai soldier shows a good luck piece.  Heavily armed soldiers don't need good luck charms against unarmed fighters.

Many people—and even some journalists who were present—espoused that protesters were unarmed.  Some clearly were armed and to miss this would be egregious journalistic malpractice.  If a medical doctor missed something so big, a lawsuit might be the least of his problems; he’d probably lose his license to practice.

CNN’s Dan Rivers took heavy flak for what many believed was distorted coverage.  The themes would have been recognizable to Americans who watched the Iraq war unfold.  (I was not watching CNN enough in Bangkok to build viable perspective.)

This story ran in Thailand:

CNN, BBC fully deserve criticism
By Dave Sherman

Special to The Nation

Dan Rivers' assertion that CNN's coverage of the crackdown on the red-shirt protest was "impartial" ("CNN, BBC correspondents defend coverage", The Nation, June 12) is simply untrue. The misinformation, generalisations and biases seen on CNN and BBC cannot be easily excused, especially because these reports brought the story of Thailand's conflict to the world - and the story the world saw was not the story of what actually happened.

The point is not that CNN didn't report that some of the red shirts were armed or show those armed men to the viewers. This they did. Where CNN and Rivers failed is in properly explaining the context of what was happening during the May 14-19 crackdown - and without proper context, understanding the story becomes impossible.

When Dan Rivers reported on May 14 that soldiers were firing on protesters, whom Rivers repeatedly insisted were unarmed, he was misinforming his viewers. He was omitting the fact that the soldiers were firing defensively on men who had been attacking them all morning with makeshift weapons, guns and grenades after the Army tried to secure a perimeter around the protest zone. Rivers did not mention that such red-shirt assaults were part of a long-standing pattern of militancy. The red shirts had been attacking legal authorities and civilians for weeks - invading Parliament and Thaicom, beating and killing military officials, fatally attacking peaceful anti-red-shirt demonstrators in Silom, and storming Chulalongkorn Hospital, forcing it to evacuate its patients.

CNN, BBC fully deserve criticism

‘Ronin Warrior’ from Red Shirt Camp, with firebombs.

Insurgencies are like animals, and veterinarians deal with many sorts of animals.  Polar bears are different from kangaroos are different from dogs, and every sort of dog has different qualities and issues.  A highly experienced and equally determined veterinarian could probably spend a year explaining differences between cats and dogs, then switch hats a spend years explaining similarities.  The same is true with insurgencies.  Each is very different and similar.

Today, the insurgency in greater Thailand is in a pediatric stage.  It’s still in a condition that it’s small enough and sufficiently in control that an observer can make out the parts.  If a war matures, it will grow long hair; it will become wild and confusing to everyone.  (The Islamic issue in the deep south is far more mature but also limited.)

In Thailand, there are main morphological influence features that are still easy to discern.  Various powerful influence groups exist within Thailand and the latest Bangkok confrontation brought certain actors onto the stage: most visible were the Red Shirts and the government.  Less visible but crucially important were outside actors, which includes ex Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and agitators under his employ or influence.

The agitators definitely existed.  I saw and photographed some of them.

Luckily, there is zero tribal influence and religion is more spectator than participant here, and in any case is ointment not fuel.

Many observers—including many journalists—seemed to view this simplistically as a “Red Shirt” uprising where the peaceful poor were fighting for justice and equality, yet in reality this is a platypus.  If there be a symbol that best describes the insurgencies I have seen, that symbol might be the Platypus, or a Mr. Potato Head.  The Platypus, Mr. Potato Head, and insurgencies worldwide seem to be made out of spare parts.

The Men in Black seemed to have snapped themselves onto Red Shirts.  Here some agitators are setting tires ablaze just before bullets start flying.

Overlooking Red camp near Lumpini Park, Bangkok.

Inside Red shirtless camp.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Charlie Griffith · 8 years ago
    Attention: Pulitzer Committee on Photojournalism and the Nobel Committee on Photojournalism:

    Discard your rose colored glasses and create a well worded award for Michael Yon's photographic essays. Concentrate on the reality revealed by Yon's camera eye, and not on such evaporating chimeras as Obama's "charisma".

  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tommy Barrios · 8 years ago
    Atta boy Charlie;-) I concur 110%

    Michael is THE ONLY voice of reason coming out of where ever he is at the moment. Our so called "journalists" are a major disgrace, pandering to the leftist morality of the aforementioned committees who have been taken over by sycophants of the American Communist Liars Union!

    We no have believable journalists in this country any more, probably a major reason Michael does not call himself a journalist.

    Our biggest problem is the oligarchy of communist professors who run all of the major journalism schools. Who, in the process, are turning out brainwashed ignorant drones who have an preset agenda before they even put one word to paper or video tape.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Romey Ross · 8 years ago
    This is an enormously important piece by Michael Yon. This is leadership by demonstration - doing rather than talking. He continues to eloquently make the case for exposure to bright light. The only VALID reporting must be scrupulously impartial AND must fully inform. The admonition to: "Believe only some of what you 'see', little of what you read, and none of what you hear." has never been more true.
    Insurgents have more agility and media mass, eh? Can we learn from them? Why not issue a still or video camera right along with every rifle, and then train our people to use both. You see, we can tell stories too. To the extent that we will adhere to 'truth-telling' and reject bias and 'spin', we can take the important high ground of media mass and agility. Just my $0.02.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Victoria · 8 years ago
    Thanks Mike. I forget how biased our most of our media can be until I read your posts and know I am getting the truth.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Robert · 8 years ago
    Wat kind of ethnic turmoil is there in Thailand? I think alot of those evil looking dudes had experience in spreading terror and anarchy. Were they from the moslem south? I wonder..
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Bob T · 8 years ago
    ...Michael, thanks for this article. It is a good read and a much appreciated
    one from your astute perspective. Keep it up.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    jic · 8 years ago
    Those guys look and act more like an anarchist 'Black Bloc' than Islamists.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jeff Stanley · 8 years ago
    Haven't Americans had enough of the stinking spew yet, coming out of the rotting corpse that is American journalism, out of the mouths of the likes of Dan Rivers? Why do people still watch his maggot-infested channel? I haven't watched in for more than two minutes in twenty years. And thanks to true professionals such as Yon, I'm orders of magnitude "better informed" than the average American yay-hoo on the street, posing as a citizen.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Piney · 8 years ago
    What trite commentary. Good photos though. How much did they pay you to provide such pablum?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Volfinkinder · 8 years ago
    Michael...I have been an avid reader of your for a long time and I would just like to take a minute to thank you for your reporting. You truly are an inspiration to me with your stories and honesty. It is hard to read or watch the news knowing full well that the mainstream media outlets are bias and they are interested in only producing stories that are exciting and not necessarily truthful ones.

    I, for one, appreciate all the stories of the positive changes that were happening in Iraq when the media was reporting all the negative. I am so glad that you report the GOOD as well as the bad and the ugly. Keep up the good work and ignore the naysayers and critics. The more critics that you have it must mean that you are doing a bang up job.

    You keep making references to the Men in Black in your post....Who exactly are they? How do they fit into the political situation there?

    Also, Back in 2009 you did some reporting from the Philippines and I am wondering if you have any plans to go back there and do some more?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mathew Francis · 8 years ago
    Michael, you have captured the essence of the confilict and dilemma beautifully. I lived in Thailand for several years and have friends both in the govt and the red shirts. The true colors of each's cause eventually were born out. Sadly the whole conflict was so uncharacteristic of Thai culture and hospitality. Your visual record and functional narrative did not come easy. Thanks for your efforts.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Destab · 8 years ago
    There are definately better places to holiday than Thailand like Australia and New Zealand.
    The cost of this iinsurrection could take years to calculate.
    Thanks Micheal your work is always relevant.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Nphuqu2 · 8 years ago
    What??? Is it like burnt onions, or roast chicken?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Zoe Goetz · 8 years ago
    http://www.nationmultimedia.com/home/2010/07/17/national/Ex-Khattiya-aide-behind-weapons-attacks-DSI-30133963.html
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Art · 8 years ago
    This reminds me of the anti Vietnam war demonstrators in the late 60's in the United States, particularly on college campuses. The local students were not all that committed and accepted leadership or instigation from outsiders from Berkley,CA who would get the students worked into a frenzy to try to damage the police or National Guard troops, while the instigators would sneak away to another crowd. The after action report at the University of Maryland showed on film that maybe 25 instigators from CA had been bussed or flown in, to fire up the otherwise unknowing students who attacked police and some got seriously hurt. Not as bad as Kent State, but some serious tear gas and pepper gas spray on sweaty faces. That left some bad scars for students who had no idea they were being led to slaughter by out of state instigators. This is when, upon reflection, I decided that JFK did not have a clue about anything from Cuba, the Soviet Union or college students, as it had not been that long ago when he proclaimed our students were our greatest asset in the USA. Well, not the college students at the University of Maryland that I observed.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Zoe Goetz · 8 years ago
    When I attended the press conference held by four of the Red leaders at the Thai Foreign Correspondent's Club just before the demonstration started, one of them was smilingly introduced as a "former communist guerriilla." Another, a woman, was introduced as "the accountant" but when Simon Montlake of the Christian Science Monitor, a Thai-speaking expat, grilled them about demonstrators being paid the stumbling response was that "most of them are volunteers."

    Having said that, the situation is so convoluted and complex with so many people with "interests" that just about anything anyone says is pure speculation, IMO. And talking to Thai people themselves doesn't help much. One Thai Yellow Shirt who was arrested at the airport and charged with treason told me that "they (Reds) are just finishing what we started."
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Thomas · 8 years ago
    "Seems to be" x , y, etc? This point of view is overused in this commentary. Mr. Yon's perceptions are just that, perceptions. Truth? That's harder to get at and is helped greatly by understanding context. Mr. Yon admiits in the first paragraph to not understanding Thai politics, then goes on and on about how things seem to be, indeed are perceived, to him. I just question how information is responsibly distilled and reported through such a lens without understanding the political context?

    As for my criticism, as with anyone purporting to convey facts upon which others' opinions would be founded, a little critiquing by readers is a reasonable standard. All this "non-journalist" hero worship is a bit much. Obviously Mr. Yon can handle a challenge. His ego and his integrity are not so fragile. Military service is a legacy in my family up to the present and our toughness is only matched by our humility.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    jic · 8 years ago
    "By the way, none of the people you've identified as a Ronin warrior are in fact the so called men in black. Pity you can't distinguish between the guards, who also wore black, and the so-called men in black."

    I admit that I know very little about Thai security forces, but is it usual for them to carry Molotov Cocktails like the man that Michael identifies as a 'Ronin Warrior' in the fourth image on the first page?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Simon · 8 years ago
    Firstly a quick response to the comment above, the ronin warriors appeared to be "insurgents" as the word ronin means samurai without a master or something similiar.

    Michael, I think you're an excellent photographer and the texts you write are well written, but to add abit of contrast to the the comments .. this is a very american text, so to speak. As you do not understand thai politics you then go to draw lines and conclusions that to many thai would be insulting. Don't get me wrong, I've followed your writting for a good 3-4 years I'd say, but this mentality of not knowing the country or the politics but still judging is something you'll have to outgrow, stating facts and taking nice pictures is where your best work lies; at as an observer and not a political commentator.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    jic · 8 years ago
    "Firstly a quick response to the comment above[...]"

    If you are referring to my comment of the 20th of July, that was a sarcastic reply to a comment that was later deleted. I did not actually think that they were part of any legitimate security force.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ed · 8 years ago
    Has Mike hung up his camera for the last time? It's been around two months since his last update. Is he going to embed again? Anyone know what's going on?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Step · 8 years ago
    He was in Nepal for a while, but he is back in Thailand now. Pretty sure he's working up to a new embed. Join his page on Facebook to get regular (very, very regular :-) ) updates.

    http://www.facebook.com/#!/MichaelYonFanPage?ref=ts
  • This commment is unpublished.
    jonny · 7 years ago
    The relative lack of outrage at CNN / BBC (and Dan Rivers, especially) was stunning; beyond belief, at times. This is perhaps the first time I've read a legitimate source vocalise what every objective / intelligent observer on the ground was no doubt thinking. The fact that a privately-owned media conglomerate can exert so much power - so grotesquely unfairly, so provably biased - and simply walk away from the damage they inflicted without heads rolling...it's just...unacceptable. And - quite frankly - horribly frightening.

    Thank you Michael Yon, for being a (surprisingly rare) honest voice. You have a few new fans.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Thomas Clark · 5 years ago
    You have some good pics, but rocks and bottles are not m16's and sniper rifles, there are plenty of pics showing army snipers firing on protesters, how do you explain all the civilian deaths? you do not. i have said it before, michael yon you are a blithering idiot.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    ST · 5 years ago
    I second this report. The essence of the conflict is very well captured. However, this conflict is actually very difficult to judge/understand when one does not have a background knowledge about Thai politics. Outsiders can look at this event and think it's just a political violent crisis and whatever, but in reality, we have come a long way before this situation. Parliament invasion, Airport shutdown and more. Both red and yellow shirts used to stand for something else. For the past 6 years, many fight just gradually lost its purpose and direction. Even for the military, I can be in favor of them if I only look at this situation, but then there was a coup. Peaceful one, but still a coup nonetheless. Actually in my immature opinion, government is the only consistent player throughout this whole ordeal despite many changes. And now it almost feels like we are back to square one again.

    One thing I want to point out in the article though is about racism issue in Thailand. Can you elaborate more on this?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Al Nielsen · 4 years ago
    Michael Yon. A Westerner who's Brave enough to admit in the article that he doesn't understand Thai politics? You've got my respect there. I recently had a discussion about the current 2013 protest and what happened in 2010 and Thailand's democracy problems with a Westerner. After a discussion at length, I concluded that he doesn't understand Thai politics and he was annoyed. He said he spent 9 years watching Thai politics and he understands everything. My reply was, "ONLY 9 years" and he was angry. He kept saying Abhisit and Suthep used live ammunition. I wish more westerners are brave enough like you.

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