- The Washington Times - Monday, May 17, 2010

BANGKOK | Black smoke billowed over downtown streets from rubber tires set ablaze by angry pro-democracy protesters armed with Molotov cocktails, slingshots and fireworks to fend off trained snipers and inexperienced troops.

Four days of clashes between the so-called “Red Shirt” protesters and government troops have left at least 30 people dead and 250 injured amid the chaos in this capital city. The government has dismissed the protesters’ call for a U.N.-brokered settlement.

Thai officials last week began cracking down on the protesters, who have tied up downtown traffic and commerce for two months by barricading a 1-square-mile section of streets with tires, bamboo poles, razor wire and debris.

A flaming barricade of tires on Sunday shifted to a nearby convenience store along Rama 4 Road, burning it to charred wreckage despite efforts by Red Shirts and residents to douse the flames.

Many people fear hard-line protesters might set luxury hotels, malls, condominiums and offices ablaze if the army attacks the Reds’ central rally site at Ratchaprasong intersection, Bangkok’s equivalent to New York’s Times Square.

Those concerns, coupled with the danger widespread civilian casualties, have kept security forces from storming the Reds’ Ratchaprasong stronghold, preferring to surround its outer streets and try to starve protesters into submission.

Setting smaller, makeshift barricades on fire, however, has become the Red Shirts’ favorite tactic to block wide streets and stake out new territory north and southeast of their main encampment, where about 5,000 men, women and children are squatting.

Tall stacks of rubber tires and piles of black garbage bags filled with trash have been erected in countless scattered areas, creating fresh outposts of resistance for Reds against the military.

Many of the newest barricades are set on fire and kept ablaze by emboldened, shouting Reds, who demand the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the dissolution of parliament.

Protest leaders said they wanted the United Nations to mediate talks between them and Thai officials, as long as the government agreed to an immediate cease-fire and pulled its troops back from the barricades.

But the Associated Press reported that government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said a pause was unnecessary since troops were “not using weapons to crack down on civilians.” The government maintains it is targeting only armed “terrorists” among the demonstrators.

Still, trucks continually bring a seemingly endless supply of used tires to reinforce the bonfires in the city known as the “Detroit of Asia,” because it is a major assembly site for automobiles destined for U.S., European, Japanese and other markets.

Defying army gunfire, sweating men ignited stacks of rubber tires at various sites, including Rama 4 Road, a vital, four-lane throughway connecting their central barricaded zone to working-class Bon Kai and Klong Toey neighborhoods to the southeast.

They also burned tires on a major tollway’s exit ramp at Rama 4, blocking civilian and military traffic to Klong Toey.

The Reds’ tactics have vexed the Thai army.

The Pentagon taught many of the army’s troops and officers during decades of annual training exercises to fight in jungles, storm beaches and attack with heavy mechanized and aerial units.

“The military officers fight with conventional methods, while the opposing elements fight outside the rules,” said Gen. Watanachai Chaimuanwong, a national security adviser to a former military regime installed after a 2006 coup.

“What we need here is a new kind of thinking for the situation we are dealing with now,” he said.

Amid the smoke and debris, many residents have complained of the toxic stench.

Others have helped the Reds or passively watched them construct the burning barricades, while dodging bullets and cowering in shop doorways and behind lampposts and telephone booths along the sidewalk.

To extend their reach, the Reds drove a truck equipped with a portable sound system and stage to Klong Toey and roused hundreds of supporters with speeches and songs.

Many people have donated money into the Reds’ cardboard box at the newly created Klong Toey rally site, which features electricity, food, collapsible tables, plastic chairs, medical supplies and other comforts.

Tires also were burning north of the main Ratchaprasong barricades in and around Din Daeng, another blue-collar neighborhood.

A handful of people were fatally shot on Sunday along Rama 4 Road in Bon Kai and Klong Toey, and in Din Daeng and other areas, but the Reds remained defiant.

Nervous troops, many of them fresh draftees, hunkered behind sandbags throughout Bangkok, using binoculars to hunt Reds in the street.

Each sniper, firing an M-16 assault rifle equipped with a telescopic lens, sat perched in a tall building, atop a pedestrian bridge or at ground level, picking off targets.

Troops have kept their distance from the Reds in the streets, preferring to pick them off one by one from afar, instead of confronting them with tear gas, which soldiers used earlier with little effect.

Frustrated Reds have responded with handmade slingshots, shooting marbles and burning firecrackers in an high arc from their barricades to the troops’ sandbagged positions.

Protesters also have set off fireworks, which are usually harmless rockets, and dance in the street to demoralize the soldiers.

The Bangkok Post’s front-page headline on Saturday described the city as a “War Zone.” On Sunday, it said this Southeast Asian capital was teetering on “the Edge of Anarchy.”

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