16 June 2010

Street-Fighting Tactics Used by Red Shirts and Army in Recent Crisis [long post]

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16 June 2010: Here I want to analyze only the street-fighting tactics used in Bangkok in the last few months by the Red Shirt protest movement and the Royal Thai Army’s tactics in response. (Questions of ethics will be set aside now, as they have been addressed earlier. Both sides are blaming the other for the death and destruction, and the official inquiry panel looking into the violence is only now being formed.)
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Overall, both the majority of Red Shirt protestors and the majority of Army troops followed non-violent methods.
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Most of the protestors acted peacefully throughout the rally. A small minority among the Reds were armed and ready to use deadly force from the start. Widespread arson, should the rally be broken up by the Army, was recommended beforehand from the Red rally stage by some, but not all, of the main Red leaders.
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The Army’s policy was to be as non-violent as possible, and most troops showed very good fire-discipline. However, once both sides had taken casualties, a small minority of individual soldiers did get trigger-happy and shoot without care into unarmed protestor crowds.
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From the beginning, the Army leadership was extremely reluctant to use force against the protestors. The government had ordered the Army to disperse the rallies a number of times, but police and Army did nothing. Many of the ultra-conservative Yellow Shirts criticized the government and the Army for their hesitancy, and they were threatening to take to the streets themselves against the Reds.
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Gen. Anupong, the Royal Thai Army commander, insisted that this crisis must be solved through peaceful political means and not force. There was also an issue of which Army commanders were loyal to the government and which to the Reds, and this paralyzed the Army until they sorted it all out.
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One of the tactics of the Red Shirts was optimal use of M-79 grenade launchers. With an explosive projectile almost as powerful as a hand grenade and a maximum effective range of 375 yards, this proved to be an efficient urban weapon. Most often used at night here, a grenadier could fire from the shadows and be gone before the slow, looping round detonated.
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The leader of the armed Red Shirt faction was the rouge Army officer Maj. Gen. Khattiya, aka “Seh Daeng” (“Red Commander”). He had been training a group of Red Shirts – his “Ronin” warriors – in hand-to-hand combat techniques. Many of the armed Red Shirt “men in black” were suspected of being ex-Army Rangers under his command. Khattiya’s rhetoric had long been full of violent threats. Because of his breach of Army rules in playing party politics, Gen. Anupong had suspended Khattiya in January 2010. The next day several M-79 grenades were shot at Gen. Anupong’s office from moving vehicles on a highway overpass.
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The Army’s policy when trying to clear protestors out of an area was to have unarmed troops with only batons, shields and helmets in the front rows confronting protestors. As back-up if needed were troops with rubber bullets and tear gas. Only in the last resort were troops with M-16s, and their orders were to fire in the air if needed and to aim at protestors only in self-defense of troops.
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The reluctance of the Army to engage is evident in the early instances when Red protestors, armed with clubs and rocks overwhelmed the security forces, chased them away, and took batons and shields away from police and soldiers. Later they took M-16s and even combat vehicles away from troops. The Army was becoming a joke.
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On 9 April the Army even fired tear gas into the wind and back into their own faces. On that same day, I had walked through the newly Red-occupied intersection of Ratchaprasong, the prime shopping district in Bangkok, and thought that these tough-looking characters looked like they could take on the Army. (See blog entry on 2 June, “My Experiences with Red Shirts.”) I remember thinking that the Army should seal off this area now, and allow anyone to leave but no Reds to enter – after all, the main stores had by now closed – but the Army didn’t do this for another month.
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The first big bloodbath was on 10 April, when the Army finally moved in to try and clear the Reds out of their first main rally site, Phan Fah bridge. As Army Deputy Chief of Staff Gen. Dapong admitted later, “It was worse than we thought.” The Reds’ armed faction, the “men in black,” showed up in the night shadows amongst the more peaceful Reds with AK-47s, M-16s and M-79s. Right off the bat, the Army commander on the scene, Col. Romklao, was killed (either by a rifle or an M-79 round, reports vary), decapitating the Army’s command structure and causing chaos in the ranks. This hit required good inside intel, and it spooked the Army into not knowing whom to trust. Five soldiers were killed. As the unarmed frontlines of troops fell back, the armed soldiers fired into the oncoming Red lines, and over two dozen Red Shirts were killed.
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After this, the Red leaders decided to abandon the main Phan Fah rally site and move all their people to the Ratchaprasong shopping district because it was more defendable. It would also disrupt Bangkok more. The Red-occupied area then expanded east from Ratchaprasong and then south to Lumpini Park and just north of the Silom/ Sala Daeng area, the financial district. (I had thought that the Army should never allow the Reds to occupy Lumpini Park, but of course I wasn’t consulted.)
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The Reds built massive barricades around their positions on the streets with old tires, sharpened bamboo stakes and barbed wire. The Reds desperately wanted to take over the Silom financial district to further paralyze the city, so this Lumpini Park/ Sala Daeng border became the flashpoint of violence.
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On the evening of 22 April, Red Shirt M-79 grenadiers fired 5 grenades from Lumpini Park at the Sala Daeng Skytrain station, killing one civilian and wounding many. This was the maximum range of the M-79. Video footage from right behind the Red frontline barricade in Lumpini Park recorded the unmistakable sound of the M-79 (“bloop”) from the shadows, followed a few seconds later by the explosion at the station.
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On 3 May Prime Minister Abhisit offers a compromise reconciliation plan. Elections will be held early – at the end of the year – and the Red protestors must stop their rally now. The Red Shirt leaders were close to accepting it, but spoilers among the Reds derailed it, and Khattiya was thought to be the main spoiler.
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On the evening of 7 May Red gunmen on a motorcycle did a drive-by shooting into a group of policemen at Sala Daeng, killing one. (I was 400 yards away, unaware of it, while listening to live music in Nomads pub.) Later that night an M-79 attack killed another cop.
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On 13 May a sniper shot “Red Commander” Khattiya in the head while he was being interviewed by the NY Times at Lumpini Park. We will probably never know who exactly ordered the killing, but all bets are that it was Thai Army. Taking out Khattiya was a brilliant way to decapitate the command of the armed and violent Reds – just as the hit on Col. Romklao had decapitated the Army command on 10 April; and perhaps there was revenge involved because Col. Romklao was a respected former bodyguard to the Queen.
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From 14-18 May the Army finally tightens down with a quarantine of the Red Shirt rally, from its main stage at Ratchaprasong (where the more peaceful Red Shirts are centered) down to Lumpini Park (where the violent ones are). There is not much choice for the Army now, because the embassies of the USA and the UK, among others, are in the direct neighborhood of the Reds’ spreading occupied zone.
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Reds were allowed to leave Ratchaprasong but not to enter. The bulk of the peaceful Reds were there, while the violent ones went elsewhere. The Reds utilized motorcycles for quick transport to and escape from various flashpoints in the city. They would hit the Army at weak points while most of the troops were massed elsewhere.
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In the early hours of 19 May, the Army is finally ready. They move on Lumpini Park. They use armored vehicles to smash over and through the Red barricades. The Army moves into and clears out Lumpini and then the neighboring streets, and by the end of the day it tightens the noose on the Ratchaprasong Red center.
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The Red leaders surrender to the police at 13:30 and tell their Reds to go home. But the violent Red factions start burning buildings as they had threatened to do. Central World Plaza, one of the finest malls in Southeast Asia, is invaded, looted and torched. Firefighters cannot get near the building for many hours because Red snipers are shooting at them, so the fires burn on.
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The Army halts for the night before trying to take Ratchaprasong, because they don’t want the cornered Reds to panic and give rise to a bloodbath. To the west of the rally center, the government has buses ready to transport any Reds back to their home provinces for free. Inside the Ratchaprasong area is a big temple that is accepted as a safe zone by all parties, and the peaceful Reds go there for the night. (There are 6 bodies found the next day in the temple grounds, and both sides blame the others for the killings. Still a mystery.)
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The Army learns from the Reds and starts using motorcycles tactically. Squads of soldiers armed light with M-16s are on cycles and rush to trouble spots. On this evening of 19 May there are two of these “mounted” squads just outside our house with other soldiers who are guarding a street to a utilities office complex. Suddenly they roar off to another part of the city.
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After 20 May the city starts recovering and getting back to normal. There was a curfew for a while during the next week or so. Now (16 June) there is still a State of Emergency in Bangkok, which gives the police and Army room to move against any Red underground threats, but this will be ended soon.
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Both sides learned a lot from this crisis. The more hard-core violent Reds will probably go underground and make selective attacks on government targets. The Army learned a lot about crowd control and urban combat. We probably have not seen the end of this mess.
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-Zenwind.
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