Michael's Dispatches

Some Thoughts About The Kingdom of Thailand

img001-1000With Former Prime Minister Abhisit.

29 December 2012

On Christmas Eve, ThaiPBS television interviewed me in Bangkok.  The interview is scheduled to air on 31 December at 9:40PM Thailand time.  Our interview will be online here.

Ms. Nattha Komolvadhin of ThaiPBS requested this interview after I made a statement on Facebook saying that murder charges against former Prime Minister Abhisit are factually baseless and morally wrong.

ThaiPBS is a publicly funded media organization, widely respected for addressing social issues that sometimes discomfit the government, regardless of which political party may be in power at the time.

The Thai government uses tax money to support ThaiPBS, which in turn sometimes slams the government.  Thailand has a moral compass.

My statements that the Royal Thai Army (RTA) and Mr. Abhisit did not commit murder are supportable, though they are contentious among some Thai, and among some journalists.

img002-1000Destroyed in Afghanistan during fighting (2011)

In 2010, I left Afghanistan and flew to Thailand, where I witnessed serious fighting.  Nearly 2,000 people were injured, and approximately 90 were killed.

I did not see all of the fighting.  Nobody did.  The troubles were spread too thinly over time and distance for any single person to witness all events.

Collectively, hundreds of journalists covered the fight.  In crowded downtown Bangkok, with its many skyscrapers, windows, and cameras, nothing happening on the streets could be kept secret.

This was not a remote Afghan battlefield, but a thunder dome, saturated with spectators with phones and cameras snapping and flashing by the thousands.

The Twitterverse was aflame. Citizen observers on Twitter posted some of the best and most immediate reporting.

Red Shirt protestors set up an immense armed camp in Bangkok’s central business district.  I often walked through the camp with my camera.  The police, Army, and protestors allowed complete access.  This was risky.  Firefights erupted without warning.

The RTA was initially ordered to contain Red Shirt mobs that caused many of the deaths and injuries.

After several months of violent protest and government patience, the RTA was ordered to break up the protest and to free downtown Bangkok so that people could get back to work.

The Thai work hard. The Red Shirts occupying the central business district was very disruptive.

It is unpopular in some circles to say that the Red Shirts committed murders, but it is a fact.  Never fear truth.

Many Red Shirts became angry that other Red Shirts resorted to violence.  Red Shirts denounced other Red Shirts who committed murder and arson.

There are many good and moral people among the Red Shirts who do not support crime of any sort.  They are my friends.

img003-1000Iraq, 2005

Some Red Shirts brought children into their camp even though bullets were flying.  It was dishonorable to bring children into a combat zone.  Images of children killed in war are branded into my memory.

Red Shirt leadership should have ordered that children be taken home.  Press members should not issue a free pass to leaders who allow kids to be brought to combat.  Any journalist who did not report on the children is professionally flawed.

This level of sustained and violent occupation would never have been permitted in the United States.   The first time that a protestor fired an M79 grenade launcher in downtown New York City, popular opinion would have demanded that the police or the Army put them down.

Occupy Wall Street is annoying, for example, but we can live with it.  If members of Occupy Wall Street fired grenades or an RPG, a final response would have been demanded.

Waging insurrection is not a constitutionally protected activity in any country. Peaceful protesting is protected in some countries, including the United States and Thailand.

Launching grenades is over the line.  Dozens of bombings, grenade attacks, and shootings were perpetrated in Bangkok during the Red Shirt protest, including a small car bomb. In addition to the protests, a steady insurrectional campaign targeting symbolic targets was waged.

Red Shirt protestors used automatic weapons, 40mm grenade launchers, bombs, firebombs, and firework rockets, not to mention slingshots and ball bearings.

Many Red Shirts were courageous and unafraid of combat.  I greatly respect Red Shirts for their courage under fire.  Much was caught on video.  I respect them though I believe that they should not have engaged in violence.

Red Shirt instigation upset many Red Shirt sympathizers who have an honest set of problems that must be addressed by the Thai government.  The current government was elected with crucial support from the Red Shirts. Apparently the government has not yet addressed all Red Shirt complaints.

img004-1000Many journalists stayed at the Dusit Thani hotel.

Before I stepped into the protest area, I asked US Special Forces veterans, and others who lived in the Kingdom for many years, where I should go to witness events from the front lines.

My advisers opined that the best position was at the famous Dusit Thani hotel.  Five stars.  The Dusit Thani was at ground zero.

They also advised not to go.  This advice came from Vietnam-era Green Beret combat veterans, and from veterans of Grenada, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

img005-1000Man in Black with firebombs. Shortly after I took this photo, a man was shot dead.

Despite their warnings, I went and enjoyed the hotel’s amenities in between visits to the protest site. Because I stayed at the Dusit Thani, detractors later derided my stay as a vacation.

While I was talking on the phone in my room, an RPG struck and detonated three floors above.  This was no vacation.

The Dusit Thani was perfect.  You could eat, shower, sleep, and access the Internet.  That it happened to be a five-star hotel was ironic, and bizarrely nice compared to years of living in tents, trailers, and dirt.

I have been incredibly lucky in combat.  People regularly die around me.   I have so far escaped without a scratch.

The only time that I have been shot was in front of the Dusit Thani, just as another man was shot and killed a short distance down the street.  Luckily the bullet that hit me was a ricochet, and it caused me no bleeding.  The other man was dead.

But that is not the point, which is that I was not on vacation in the middle of a battlefield where thousands of bullets were flying, and where guests kept the curtains closed because of sniper fire.

img006-1000Scene of fighting a short walk from the Dusit Thani. Red Shirt battlements in the background.

That the Dusit Thani stayed open was preposterous.  In America, it is inconceivable that the police would allow hotel proprietors and customers to make their own mortal decisions.  Surely the hotel would have been closed.

The RPG shot was the final blow.  The Dusit Thani did not want a reputation as a venue where RPGs killed journalists.  The hotel closed.

I had to move, and so I took my gear to another hotel, which overlooked part of the battle area.

Staying at the Dusit Thani was the most comfortable danger that I ever experienced. I still recommend the hotel to friends.

img007-1000Many correspondents go to war, but war correspondents who spend years in combat are rare. War writers like Joe Galloway are exceptional. (Photo during 2011 combat in Afghanistan.)

Most of the reporters who covered the 2010 fighting in Bangkok had never seen combat.

For those who are not familiar with military operations, and with ground fighting in particular, Soldiers look like men in green carrying guns, and when they shoot, it is loud.

Amateur observers will miss much detail, even if they have video to replay.

img008-1000Artillery firing in support of combat operations, Afghanistan 2010.

There were many courageous and smart journalists at the protest site.  When the shooting picked up, most of them stuck to it.  Some moved in closer.

Photographers and videographers require the most courage.  They must be close to the action.  Writers and print journalists can see everything they need from twenty yards away in more safety.

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