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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When the Bangkok fighting was intense, I was conservative and put on my writing hat, and prayed that the photographers would not get hit. Some did.
Combat is too familiar for me to treat every firefight as if it were the last train running. In my world, firefights are a continuously looping train. Sometimes I sit and watch the bloody train go round-and-round.
This year, 2012, is the first year since December 2004 that I have not been in a serious war. I witnessed sustained and serious combat in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011. If fortune graces me for 48 hours, 2012 will be the first year that I did not witness war since December 2004.
By 2010, having already spent much time in Thailand, I was in a good position to understand the fighting.
I do not comprehensively understand the politics behind the fighting—only Thai or specialized analysts can make that claim—but I can analyze the fighting itself.
Many of the amateurs said that my words were false. They said that the RTA, under orders from then-Prime Minister Abhisit, committed murder. They produced no proof to support these sensational murder allegations.
Thailand enjoys freedom of the press. Few topics are off limits. Pornography is off limits.
An insult to the Royal institution can get you imprisoned. If you disparage the Royalty on Facebook while in Kansas, and months later fly to Thailand, you may be arrested and jailed.
A task force in Bangkok combs the Internet for acts of lèse majesté. I took a drive recently with one of the officers who works on that task force. He said that offenders residing in the United States commit most violations.
If you are an American and you commit lèse majesté, the King may pardon you after some time in prison. If you are fortunate you may be sent back to America and blacklisted. You will not be tortured or beaten.
You will endure the same penal conditions as any other convict, which in Thailand, as anywhere, can be unpleasant. You will be declared persona non grata, and you will not be welcome to return to the Kingdom.
His Majesty King Bhumibol of Thailand is an excellent man of peace, and he is revered as a grandfatherly figure here. I could easily leave Thailand and write otherwise, but this is true.
The King is highly respected by American military and government officials. I was invited to a private clubhouse for American military veterans, and they had a portrait of His Majesty the King and Her Majesty the Queen on the wall.
Behind closed doors, amongst themselves, the veterans of our military hold King Bhumibol Adulyadej in the highest esteem. The King earned respect through hard work for his people. He is beloved.
The King spent much time in the United States in his youth. He is always welcome in America. The King will never go thirsty when I have water.
Criticizing the King of Thailand is not like disparaging the President of the United States or the Prime Minister of Thailand.
It is permissible to criticize the Prime Minister of Thailand. The Thai often do it, no matter who he or she may be. Thai people criticize their leadership with passion and imagination.
The current Prime Minister of Thailand is a woman. The United States has never had a female president, while Poland, Germany, the UK, and Pakistan all have had female leaders. South Korea just elected a woman.
While the gender of the chief executive may not be a critical matter, it is clear that America does not have a patent on “democracy,” and in some ways, compared to other countries, Americans are not as free as we like to believe and advertise.
But insulting His Majesty the King is like insulting the beloved grandfather of millions of proud Thai people. I doubt that the King himself cares about such comments, but millions of his subjects do, and passionately.
My Thai friends will defend the King with their lives. The same way that we would protect our grandparents. These many words are meant to underline a matter of utmost seriousness.
Aside from issues of lèse majesté, press freedoms are more liberal in Thailand than most other countries that I have seen.
People are free to write words in the Kingdom that would get them thrown in jail in Singapore, or that might start religious riots in India, or that might get them stoned to death in Pakistan, or a fatwa put on their head.
Cartoons that would cause riots in other countries are ignored or laughed at here.
Journalists are required to obtain special visas in countries such as India, Myanmar, Israel, China, and the United States. Not Thailand.
Thailand does not fear ink.
You are free to write until your pen runs dry.
Foreign journalists without an office in the United States must apply for a special visa or risk deportation at the border.
I went to Israel without a visa and inadvertently caused a kerfuffle, but to their credit, the Israelis were good about it.
I was asked to speak at a conference in India. Hassles getting a visa led me to cancel.
India is freer than the United States in many respects, but a misplaced word can launch riots. Indians deal with complexities that are unfamiliar to most Americans and Thai.
Yet a western journalist can read this, then drive to an airport, buy the next available ticket, and fly to Thailand. No visa required. No charge for Americans.
If you are in California, and you get the notion that “I will fly to Bangkok this afternoon,” you can. No need to pack a bag. Buy everything here.
You can land in Bangkok with nothing but your passport and a return ticket. Airlines are required to stipulate that you have a return ticket, unless you have a long-stay visa, but in my experience Thai authorities never ask to see the ticket. I almost never have one.
Thai authorities do not require that you declare that you are a journalist (in my case a writer), carrying the most dangerous weapon on the planet (a camera) and the second most dangerous weapon (a pen).
Not that it matters if you bring a camera. You can purchase the latest hardware at the airport, or downtown.
You can show up with ten cameras in bags, and another camera over your shoulder, wearing a t-shirt emblazoned, “I am a journalist. I will make Thailand look bad,” wearing a hat that says, “I hate Thailand. I am a journalist.”
I do not recommend this action, but you can, and you would probably be admitted to the Kingdom along with all other visitors, with no hassle.
Do not try that in China, Singapore, Israel, India, or in the United States.
In Thailand, the immigration officer will stamp your passport and wave you through.
If you are smuggling drugs, you risk execution.
If not, you are free to travel anywhere, anytime, with few restrictions of any kind.
You are free to file stories night and day, describing how much you hate Thailand, and how terrible it is, and how terrible the government is.
You can focus on drug abuse, prostitution, corruption, on people who drive motorbikes without helmets or lights while talking on a cell phone, and ignore the innumerable virtues of this delightful Kingdom.
Most Thai will smile and shrug. They have other matters of concern.
Many people may not like you, but you will be free to criticize Thailand and its government until your visa expires. Then they will renew your visa and you can continue.
If you go to the United States and are observed photographing government buildings or infrastructure, you might be arrested, even if the law permits such activity.
I was arrested in America for not telling immigration officials how much money I make. I was handcuffed. I never answered. I was willing to go to jail.
They came to their senses and they released me, and I endured a painful vacation in the land of the free, and later returned to Afghanistan, where American Soldiers were trying to free the Afghan people whether they liked it or not. Americans like to set people free so that we can ignore that we are shackled.
In Thailand, you can travel into every tiny village and photograph and video until your cameras fall apart.
In the United States, when there is an incident, law enforcement cordons off a large area. No press members are allowed to enter.
During the protests in Thailand, the press, and tourists, were free to roam the battlefields during the middle of the fighting. Many did.
Hundreds of journalists were there, stacked up with the Royal Thai Army during the fighting. Bullets were flying everywhere.
The RTA ignored journalists like they were gnats. Soldiers often smiled and shared their water.
Before I got there, a courageous Japanese journalist was shot and killed. Many blamed the government. But again, how? Who did it? It could have been anyone.
Every time someone was shot . . . which happened many times . . . some blamed the government, though I saw nothing but discipline from the RTA.
There were zero restrictions on photography, on video, or access. Any journalist who says otherwise was either not there, or is lying.
If you wanted to cross between the lines you were free. I did so many times. That is a freedom that many Americans say that they want, but we seem eager to surrender.
In India, if you want to swim with crocodiles, the Indian Police might say, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” but then they will watch you go. Later that day, Indian police will dutifully alert the US Embassy that you were eaten. Indians do not protect you from yourself. Thailand is similar. I love it.
Personal responsibility is real here. You are free. All consequences are on you.
You are free to wade into a firefight or to pet crocodiles. Do not whine when you get bitten or shot.
We say that we want freedom, but Americans do not live in freedom. We Americans seem to spend every waking hour plotting how to shackle ourselves. Freedom is becoming an empty word in America.
America does not want fewer laws. Many Americans want more laws. You could never cover fighting so freely in America.
Hundreds of journalists covered the months of fighting. When it came to the showdown, all of the big players were here. CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera, Reuters, AP, AFP, New York Times.
Reporters flew in from Korea to Japan, from South America to Canada. I saw them every day. Some were killed.
Their work was honorable, but some of us have no patience with those who blame others after getting shot in a firefight that they volunteered to attend.
The general theme of some reporting was that Mr. Abhisit and the Royal Thai Army were on a rampage. This was false.
The allegation does not pass a sniff test.
It must be embarrassing for the hundreds of journalists, with thousands of cameras in the hands of civilians, that not a single one captured a photograph of the RTA committing an atrocity. Yes, tense videos depicting bullets flying have been published. That is combat.
Hundreds of second-rank journalists were there—great journalists but with no gold medal—and they had every interest in snapping that award-winning photograph.
Both sides were shooting. Red Shirts and Men in Black among them were videotaped firing automatic weapons.
I photographed Men in Black using firebombs.
The Men in Black were serious. The Men in Black were not angry college boys. They were commandos. Confident. Ready. Not to be trifled with.
It is my suspicion that that the Men in Black were RTA veterans or veterans of other government agencies. They were too good to be home-grown amateurs. Some people claim that MiB they were former Border Patrol personnel who were personally loyal to their commander. I do not know.
One General switched sides and went to the Red Shirt camp. I wanted to talk with him but before that chance came, he was shot in the head and killed by a sniper. I asked Prime Minister Abhisit if he knew who did this. He said no.
Some journalists were afraid of the Red Shirts, but not afraid of government personnel under Abhisit, because they knew that while Red Shirts might kill them, Abhisit would not.
The RTA would not shoot me, but I wondered about the Red Shirts. The Men in Black surely would kill anyone that they perceived as a threat. They were not as disciplined or as discriminating as the RTA.
Journalists captured video of rioters using grenade launchers.
In one fight, someone put a laser on a RTA officer and someone else used it to kill him.
I saw Red Shirts with lasers. I told journalists that if you see a laser illuminate you or the Soldiers around you, to run, as a 40mm grenade might be inbound.
A 40mm grenade will take perhaps five seconds to get to you (depending on how quickly the shooter can aim, and the range), and the kill radius of a 40mm grenade is small. A few seconds of running can save you. I carried an M79 Grenade Launcher when I was in the Army and I know it well.
Most eyewitnesses to the incident say that the Men in Black did the killing. Best friends make worst enemies. They must be veterans. That is my suspicion. They were too good with their techniques and tactics to be untrained young men.
I did not see the Thai Army with grenade launchers. Grenades came from the Red Shirts. They fired them on civilians and the RTA. This is a fact.
But to speak this fact aloud is sacrilegious. It is a professional affront to hundreds of journalists who did not get the award-winning imagery of the RTA committing atrocities.
How can journalists, who accuse Mr. Abhisit and the RTA of murder, reconcile that hundreds of camera-toting journalists, and thousands of civilians, were completely free in the battle zone, yet nobody witnessed RTA atrocities?
World-class photographers were combing the field and nobody caught the fish. Why? Because it did not happen.
Prime Minister Abhisit lost reelection, so he is now the leader of the opposition in Parliament. Recently he was charged with murder.
This is wrong.
I said and wrote that this is wrong. Today, critics accuse me of being buddies with Mr. Abhisit.
Photos of former Prime Minister Abhisit and me talking on an airplane from Bangkok to Hat Yai have appeared on the Internet. That was the only day that I communicated with Mr. Abhisit.
We do not email each other. I do not know his email address. I have never been to his home. We have never shared a coffee together. We never talk on the phone. We do not communicate directly or indirectly. Mr. Abhisit and I are not friends. I would be honored to know him, but the fact is that we are not buddies.
I did not even write a dispatch about this trip. Few people knew that I took it. This upset some of my friends who thought that I should have written something, but Mr. Abhisit’s staff never said a foul word for the great access they afforded that day and on others, and they never criticized me for failing to write about my interview with the Prime Minister.
I did the same with US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on a couple of trips, many American and British generals, and other officials at the highest levels of the government of the United States.
Down in the dirt, I went on countless combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan with units that I never mentioned. No slight was meant.
I thank everyone who entertained me at their expense for the education that has helped inform my views. I cannot write the truth if I do not smell it.
It upsets some folks that I enjoy access and I do not exploit it and write a major dispatch every time that I have a coffee with a General, but for me it is often background. I intend no arrogance with that statement. In my line of work, I talk to many people.
And so, regarding the fighting in 2010, this circles back to criticism from detractors who claim that they belong to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand.
I contacted the Club for clarification after this criticism but I was not graced with a response.
I was invited to the Club. I was very busy, and regretted that I could not attend. Then the criticism began.
No slight or insult was intended. But any member of the Club who did not write about the children in the Red Shirt camp, or the firebombs, does not have a professional stature. Cherry-picking facts is dishonest. Ignoring that children were brought to the camp is complicity.
As for Mr. Abhisit, I have no interest in defending a murderer. I do not believe that Mr. Abhisit is a murderer. Based on my observations, my estimate of Mr. Abhisit is that he is a man of rules.
If I thought that there was truth to the allegations of murder, I would remain silent, unless I had evidence, in which case I would speak and lay out any evidence in my possession.
Ironically, Mr. Abhisit was criticized for showing too much restraint. His personal courage was widely demonstrated in his openness to the public. The day that I accompanied Mr. Abhisit, he allowed normal citizens to walk up to him. I asked his staff if this was normal. They said yes, and that it worried them. Mr. Abhisit is physically and morally courageous.
I have no evidence of RTA atrocities.
The Royal Thai Army conducted itself with honor during the Red Shirt protests. Thai people should be proud to field such an Army.
The larger dispute between Red Shirts, Yellow Shirts, and Multicolor Shirts is complex, and it includes big players.
Mr. Thaksin the Billionaire is the major player, and I suspect that someone close to him is behind the accusations that Mr. Abhisit is a murderer.
I have no proof of this suspicion, just as there is no proof that a man’s hand is actually in the glove at the end of his arm.
Mr. Thaksin is more powerful than I am. He could order me killed with a gesture. Would he do it? Maybe. But at least he is not a torturing Mexican drug dealer. It would be a simple bullet.
Would Mr. Abhisit have me killed? Never.
And so I am defending someone who is now powerless, facing murder charges, and even if Mr. Abhisit were still in charge of the Thai government, he would not have me killed. He would ignore me.
I have nothing to gain from defending Mr. Abhisit. He has no power. He may wrongfully go to prison for murder.
There is nothing for me to gain but pain, and the peace of conscience that I did not passively watch an innocent man go to prison, while the RTA is accused of atrocity, when I know that silence is wrong, and speaking truth is right.
I have been warned that the current Thai government will punish me for writing these dangerous words.
Mr. Thaksin’s sister is the current Prime Minister. The elementary school that she attended is just down the road from my home. My friends went to school with her. This is her country. Red Shirts love her.
Mr. Thaksin’s government has not lifted a finger against me. They have been honorable despite my words. This is Thailand, not Iran.
Thailand can be dangerous, but mostly it is dangerous for those who bring their demons with them, or for those who do not know how to behave as guests.
I live on a street where a hundred Chiang Mai police officers live. The apartment buildings near my home are loaded with police. They all know me. They often say hello. They have been kind. Many are Red Shirts.
My home is just a short walk from the Red Shirt headquarters. They know me. They know where I live. Sometimes I go to their functions. I walk by their offices. The Red Shirts have made no threats against me.
The Thai government has not hampered me in any way. They renewed my visa with a smile even though I am writing and making statements that they do not like.
Life is short. We should stand up for what is right. Mr. Abhisit and the RTA did not commit murder.
The Kingdom of Thailand is a great and free country. Thai people, including those who hate Mr. Abhisit, should not allow perversions of their judicial system. This is wrong for such a great country as Thailand.
Charges against Mr. Abhisit should be dropped.
Long Live the King.
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