This has indeed been a black day for the people of Thailand. Literally, as the black smoke from burning tyres made it look like that the city was on fire. Today should have been a day of joy as people celebrated the start of the traditional Thai new year. Although Songkran activities were cancelled in Bangkok and surrounding provinces, the Thai people still managed to go out to have some fun splashing water at each other. In this first picture of Songkran that I took this morning, young children are using water guns to ambush a motorcyclist.
At the same time in downtown Bangkok, fully armed soldiers were marching down a deserted road. At the far end was their target. A group of several hundred red shirted protesters who had taken over an intersection. The soldiers shot live rounds into the air and the protesters threw Molotov cocktails and rocks. The government said that no-one was killed but dozens were seriously injured. The battle for Bangkok didn’t just take place in this one location. The red shirts were spread out at various intersections.
This next picture shows the innocence of youth. While riots were raging in Bangkok, the children of Thailand were able to briefly forget the troubles of their parents and they went out to enjoy the greatest water fight of the year. Although the adults were fighting with real guns, these youngsters just wanted to have some fun. I took this picture this afternoon in Samut Prakan. Although we also have an emergency decree forbidding assembly of crowds with more than five people, the youth of Samut Prakan chose to ignore it.
Meanwhile, in Bangkok, the red shirt protesters had hijacked metropolitan buses and used them as barriers to block major intersections. They set tyres on fire and even at least one of the hijacked buses. In this picture by Getty Images, Thai soldiers are using a water cannon to put out the fires before advancing forward. Just last week everyone thought that the protesters would all go home at the weekend for the long Songkran holidays. No-one was prepared for a Red Songkran, let alone a black one like this. Although the soldiers retook this section of Bangkok today, the war is far from over. As night fell, reports came out of two deaths.
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This is really not the blog that I wanted to write today. In the early hours of morning, Thai soldiers were on the streets of Bangkok trying to clear red shirt protesters who were blocking many of the intersections. Shots were fired and tear gas cannisters discharged. The red shirt protesters are claiming six people were killed including a monk. Thai authorities are denying this. Twenty fours ago I was preparing to write a blog with the theme “Thailand is safe to travel”. This was due to the state of emergency that was declared in Pattaya City on Saturday. Personally I thought that Prime Minister Abhsit had overstepped his mark by announcing this as the red shirts had already declared victory and were heading back to Bangkok. Although the state of emergency was rescinded by early evening, the damage had already been done. Newspaper headlines around the world reported clashes in the tourist town of Pattaya and the state of emergency.
On Sunday morning, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) were desperately trying to do damage control. They feared tourists would stay away from Pattaya even though there was no longer any danger there. In fact, most tourists did not see anything of the protests at all. Steve was enlisted by the TAT to go down there Saturday night to do video interviews with foreign tourists. On Sunday I had a phone call from a TAT official who asked if I had a video camera that they could borrow. They said that the situation was getting desperate and they had been ordered to do more interviews with foreigners in Bangkok. However, all of their efforts became pointless when the PM announced a state of emergency in Bangkok and in surrounding provinces. I spoke to Steve on the phone and he said that the TAT had now cancelled the interviews and said that there was no point in him going to Khao San Road. The situation was going fast out of control.
Last night, according to the Bangkok Post, the Governor of Bangkok cancelled all Songkran activities in the city. “ML Sukhumbhand Paribatra said the emergency decree would disrupt activities and spoil the atmosphere of the water festival, so he decided to scrap the ceremonies. Songkran celebrations at Khao San road – one of the most popular activities hosted by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration – were also cancelled as the political turmoil worsened.” In Samut Prakan we are also living under the state of emergency which forbids groups of five people or more coming together. I went out into the city early this morning. Despite the emergency decree, there were hundreds of people at their local temples making merit as normal. The Songkran merit making ceremony organized by the city was also being held. A large group of people were giving alms to hundreds of monks. Afterwards they took turns to pour water over the hands of their elders. However, soldiers are guarding the entrance to city hall and the Songkran Parade through the town has been cancelled.
At the moment events are moving very fast. A number of countries are now advising their nationals from travelling to Thailand. They are saying that if you are in Bangkok at the moment then you should stay indoors. Other places around Thailand should be safe. Although the incidents in Bangkok are isolated and most tourists there won’t see anything, I am personally not planning on going to Bangkok today. I was going to take pictures on Khao San Road of Songkran celebrations. But the situation at the moment is too dangerous and anything could happen. However, I just saw some live pictures from Khao San and it shows that there are some people playing there but certainly not as many as in previous years. There are a lot of foreigners staying on that road and I am sure they won’t want to miss the fun. However, there just won’t be so many people going to join them this year. I guess by this afternoon, though, things will pick up as more people see on television that they are playing Songkran.
I think it must be a very scary time for foreign tourists in Bangkok at this moment with young families. There hasn’t been much news on the Thai terrestrial television stations as they mainly show their soaps and game shows. Even when they have news programmes with live pictures of the riots, everything is in Thai and they won’t understand anything. Even the declaration of the state of emergency splashed over the screens are only in Thai. I think that is really bad of them not to do anything to help inform foreign nationals. At the very least they could put up subtitles with newsflashes warning people to stay inside or what areas in Bangkok to avoid. But nothing. The only news they can get is either from CNN if they are staying in an upmarket hotel or from the Internet if they can find an Internet cafe open. There are two nationals newspapers in English but of course their news is going to be a day old. However, you can check their websites for updates.
We are monitoring all the Thai tv stations including DStation which is run by the red shirts. On their channel at this moment they are giving speeches on the stage. I can see several thousands red shirts sitting on the ground in front of Government House. For all the latest news, please visit ThailandQA Forums which we are updating 24/7. Also check out our Maps of the Danger Zones in Bangkok. I have also posted pictures of the clashes at our sister blogs at www.ThaiPhotoBlogs.com.
All pictures here by Associated Press