Michael's Dispatches

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


Day and night speeches echoed through loudspeakers spread up and down the streets of the protest area.  I do not speak Thai and so the specific messages were mostly lost on me though I used translators at times.  None of the western journalists I spoke with could speak Thai.  The violence and heavy emotions coming from the speakers at night was as unmistakable as thunder.  There were other unmistakable parts that seemed to fall through the cracks.

Inside Red camp a man shows a shotshell of the type used by the Army.

It is widely accepted, and I believe to be true, that billionaire and ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was funding the protests—or at least was majorly contributing to the funding—which from simple observation must have cost tens of millions of dollars.  Though I have read thick stacks of articles and talked with seemingly endless numbers of people, ranging from farmers to political elite, to foreigners who have lived here for years or even decades, the political intrigues provide endless speculative fancy, though nobody in any camp: yellow, red, government, “neutral,” doubts that Thaksin is in the middle of these troubles.

Missing from analysis but jumping out to me on Day 1 (actually several years ago in Thailand) were echoes of communism among the Reds.  Having spent some years in communist or formerly communist countries, the signs are clear, such as when you walk into an old house and smell rats, cats, or bats.  Once your nose is tuned to the smell, it will leap out despite that someone else might say you are imagining things.   Some journalists sensed the communist smell, while others missed it or would not entertain the thought.

There also seems to be a clear desire to overthrow the Monarchy, despite that the King has done a great deal for Thailand and is a man of peace.  From an outsider’s perspective, it would seem that the loss of the King of Thailand would be a huge loss for Thailand, and would also be a significant loss of a friend of the United States.  The King has been a major cause for social progress, such as in promulgating religious tolerance.  In Washington, I spoke at length with General (ret.) Barry McCaffrey—a former American “Drug Czar”—about the opium problem in Afghanistan.  General (ret.) McCaffrey lamented that one of the problems the international community faces in Afghanistan is that it does not have someone like King Bhumibol of Thailand, who, according to General McCaffrey, said that growing opium is not Thai.  It’s immoral.  That, and tangible government action along with eradication and alternative crops, essentially vanquished the issue.  There is no such moral authority in Afghanistan (or nearly anywhere), matching that.

During some light gunfire.

Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, tribes and religion are not factors, nor are Warlords, though some will say “mafias” or patronage networks play a major part.  Unlike in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Philippines where ethnicities are factors leading to serious killing, ethnicity and racism are crucial factors in Thailand but have not led to the recent bone-crushing seen elsewhere.  Racism is a deep and seriously exacerbating problem in Thailand and plays into the scheme of the Thai platypus.  A retired U.S. Special Forces soldier living in Thailand said to me, “Race is a monstrous factor here.”

Fighters arrive during some minor shooting.  Minor shooting has a way of suddenly becoming major shooting, so I left.

Slingshots against guns comprised much of the skewed narrative.  A photographer could easily caption this photo, “Courageous resistance uses slingshots to take on heavily armed Thai Army.”  There is truth because that is exactly what he was doing—respect for his courage—and this makes for a heroic narrative that places the journalist in a romantic position.  In reality, some of these guys had heavy weapons and would commit massive arson against even small shop owners who had no more money or power than a hardworking farmer.

The scene was great for dramatic photography, and the more we trump up the danger, the more heroic correspondents become.  Which wasn’t hard to do this time; it was no-kidding dangerous.

Helicopters seldom flew.

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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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