Michael's Dispatches

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


Just outside Red camp.

Inside Red camp at a temple where children were brought.  An impartial observer likely would say they were using children as human shields.

During some light fighting.

Massages were available inside the Red Shirt camp and the Army was allowing food and other supplies inside.  The camp had generators and portable toilets.  At one point, before I arrived, Red Shirts stormed a hospital and undermined a substantial part of their support base.

The government and Red Shirts seemed to be playing chess, and the government’s strategy seemed to avoid a push for a decisive win, while playing smart to minimize mistakes to capitalize on Red Shirt missteps.  The Reds seemed more emotional.  Many protestors were living on the streets for many weeks, and so seemed more apt to blunder, though others live and work in Bangkok and were known to join the protests after work.  The government took pressure from some Thais who thought the Army should take a tough line and eject the protesters from the crucial business center, which amounts to Times Square in New York, but what I saw was a government who was—at great expense and also risk—wearing down the numbers of protesters.  Slowly, slowly, more protesters were turning home, shrinking what might have been tens of thousands to what might now be five thousand.  The numbers of protestors was a contentious, subjective subject.  As with the so-called “Million Man March” in America, interests were vested.  Some would have downgraded it to the “The Thousand Guys Get Together” while others would have inflated it to the “Billion Man Revolution.”

Most of the protestors were poor and nobody was keeping the secret that they were being paid to stay.  Some are believed to have earned more to protest than they could earn by going home.  You could see food trucks roll up, and people would line up to eat without paying, and so it was impossible, at least for me, to discern who was there for ideological reasons versus, perhaps, just a temporary job as a paid protestor or maybe something in between.  Out on the streets, in the protest camp, were industrial-sized generators, similar to what our people use in Iraq and Afghanistan, running the Red Shirt fans, lights and televisions out on the streets.  It was commonly reported that the people were living rough, and compared to my hotel they certainly were, but compared to the way many of our troops live in Afghanistan, the Reds were living easy with foot massages available just next to the ice-cold Red Bull, and the popcorn-cooking lady, and the beer vendor, and they were in the middle of Bangkok and the Army allowed them to freely come and go.

Interestingly, whereas tourism—amounting to about 10% of the economy—was gutted, Prime Minister Abhisit would later tell me that the overall economy continued to grow.  Many articles published in international business publications lent support to PM Abhisit’s words.  And so the apparent plan to bleed the Thai government was not working in the broad sense.

During mid-May, as the protests were reaching climax, the government seemed to be moving wisely.  Though people losing money were angry, on a holistic national level, most people would forget the huge sums of money lost, especially given that the damage on the whole was not sinking Thailand, though many businesses—probably many thousands reliant on tourism—were bleeding bright red.  Still, bleeding cash does not make for dramatic photos or journalism; bleeding cash never grabs the eyes like real blood.  Whereas probably thousands of businesses were going bankrupt, they died quietly, while every human death would be magnified a hundred times and dragged through the streets for decades.  There was a classic leadership dilemma.  For someone who apparently had not fought a major counterinsurgency—or perhaps due to some sharp and bloody “feedback” after government mistakes fighting the separatist insurgency in the south—Prime Minister Abhisit seemed to be making decisions that even General David Petraeus might have acknowledged as masterful.

The government seemed to be playing a shrewd, long strategy and their short game mostly revolved around not allowing themselves to be baited out, preferring to bleed more cash than blood, which seemed to frustrate the remaining Red Shirts, whose leadership was trying to instigate violence, while circumventing rational thought with highly charged, emotional messages.  The “man behind the curtain” clearly understands that an arsonist only needs to succeed once, but for the life of him he had not been able to provoke Thailand into civil war.  He was throwing matches hoping to start a fire, while Abhisit mostly shot back with water.

Inside the Red camp politics were thick—after all, this was politics in red ink in every sense.  Much of the propaganda was in English, though few of the Reds spoke English.  The Reds were doing a better job of conveying their message, and this was strangely similar to Iraq and ever increasingly in Afghanistan.  The Reds seemed to be winning English-speaking media ground for several reasons. (I later met with top government press officials and suspicions were confirmed.)  These reasons were similar to what we saw in particular with Iraq.

1)    The Reds had more media “mass.”  As we see in Afghanistan now, ANYBODY can get out the Taliban message, but only the Coalition can get out the Coalition message.  To be clear—I have friends who are Red Shirts and am not comparing them to Taliban.  My Red Shirt friends are peaceful and we talk and have dinner often and have travelled around Thailand together over the last couple years.  This comparison is one of insurgent to government, not of Reds to Taliban.  Bottom line: Communications are excellent in Thailand and techno-savvy is common.  With cell phones, Internet, and venues such as Facebook and Twitter, information flies faster than bullets, and in total the Reds have more mass.

2)    Despite having more mass, the Reds have less media inertia.  We see this in Afghanistan where the Taliban often can run circles around us.

3)    Western media tends to have bias for underdogs, and especially so in areas where we suspect the governments of being overly corrupt or forceful.  In other words, we have a built-in media bias and this is likely due more to experience than some natural propensity.

In regard to the United States and United Kingdom, despite having highly trained, career media officers in our militaries who spend enormous amounts of money hiring outside consultants, our opponents and enemies often overwhelm us with mass, outrun us, and outmaneuver us with experimentation.  They evolve quicker.  After talking for hours over a couple different days with Thai media specialists, the parallels with the U.S./U.K. were clear.  In short, the Thai government will be held to a far higher standard, while the media bias will severely punish their mistakes while tending to overlook transgressions from the underdog.

And so the government was wise to keep its inevitable mistakes to a minimum.  They will be punished for every mistake and misrepresentation, while Red Shirt mistakes and flagrant propaganda will seem to evaporate into thin air.

Another “secret weapon” (if accidental) was that the Red Shirt protestors, being Thai to begin with, were very polite and friendly.  This is normal Thai.  However, when the Reds saw a camera, suddenly you were treated extra special.  One could sense “Stockholm Syndrome” setting in among some of the journalists, but not so much among others.  Though Thaksin hired public relations experts and there were talking points about dictatorship and democracy, the biggest secret weapon was Red Shirts just being friendly.  It’s difficult to write bad words against sincerely friendly, peaceful people.  The Men in Black are a different story.

Jedi mind trick at the main protest area.  Some media people were actually buying the mantra.

The undeniable reality is that most of the Reds are peaceful.  But this is a platypus, and part of this animal is poison.  (Male platypuses actually are venomous.)  The violent agitators are energetic and clearly were using terrorism with their bombs, firearms, and arson.  I am suspicious of people who spend effort claiming they are not terrorists.

This man was giving a speech under the “PEACEFUL PROTESTORS NOT TERRORISTS” banner, while wearing a breaker advertising the Beretta 92FS pistol. U.S. forces likely would recognize this as the pistol they are issued.  This man was talking in front of the cameras.  What message was he trying to convey?  Peaceful, or Pistol?  The message was clear: GUN.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Charlie Griffith · 10 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 · 10 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 · 10 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 · 10 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 · 10 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 · 10 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 · 10 years ago
    Those guys look and act more like an anarchist 'Black Bloc' than Islamists.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jeff Stanley · 10 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 · 10 years ago
    What trite commentary. Good photos though. How much did they pay you to provide such pablum?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Volfinkinder · 10 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 · 10 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 · 10 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 · 10 years ago
    What??? Is it like burnt onions, or roast chicken?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Zoe Goetz · 10 years ago
    http://www.nationmultimedia.com/home/2010/07/17/national/Ex-Khattiya-aide-behind-weapons-attacks-DSI- 01 96 .html
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Art · 10 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 · 10 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 · 10 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 · 10 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 · 10 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 -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 · 10 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 · 10 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 · 10 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.

  • This commment is unpublished.
    jonny · 10 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 · 8 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 · 8 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 · 7 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 201 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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