Michael's Dispatches

Even as the World Watched III: Getting Hit to Get the Shot


Bullets fly fast

Published: 07 July 2010
Chiang Mai, Thailand

During the Bangkok fighting in May, radio interviewers back America kept asking about the overuse of force by the Thai Army.  I answered that’s not happening, and there seem to be hundreds of journalists crawling over the streets, and I see them with cameras on tripods on balconies (like mine was) or peering through windows.  How could the Thai government hide a herd of elephants in front of all those cameras?

Inside the Red Shirt camp

If there was a slaughter—where are the photos and videos?

There was a curfew at night but many journalists could see the streets from their rooms – I know because many were neighbors -- and the Red Shirts had their own phones and radios, and cameras.  If the Thai Army were performing a slaughter, we would have caught it.

If the Army committed atrocities with probably hundreds of journalists present, and nobody caught it, then we are all incompetent.  This is Pulitzer territory.  If a journalist catches the Army on film executing people, or murdering people who are trying to surrender, that journalist is in for some sort of prize.   If a journalist is not guided by morality, he definitely would be fired by ambition.  Morality, ambition, or both would have demanded exposure.

A huge message can be falsely conveyed with five true words: Thai Army.  Protestors.  Eighty-eight killed.

What I saw—any journalist who was there who missed this should be labeled incompetent—was a large group of protestors with honest grievances, and a small group of agitators who clearly, unmistakably, were seeking violent confrontation with the government.  These agitators were throwing firebombs, committing arson, and shooting grenades and small arms.  (The preponderance of evidence was overwhelming—plus I saw them with my own eyes committing some of these acts and photographed agitators in action.)

There are journalists both foreign and Thai who dismiss these agitators and hold the line that the violence was due to the Thai government.

Important note: I make no representation about what happened before or elsewhere, only here and now.  Much of the here and now reporting was flatly wrong, bringing question upon previous reporting.

The photo above was taken during actual clearance operations.  The Red Shirts were at this point being compressed like a piston.  Combat-experienced people know what usually happens when an adversary is compressed like a piston.  Either they will begin to surrender or will fire.  They fired.

Enormous respect is owed to the courageous journalists who stayed and kept the Army honest.  It’s only realistic that with such large numbers around, and bullets flying, journalists are probably going to get hit.

Sometimes you get killed because you willingly went into combat:

CPJ calls for Thailand to investigate journalist killings.

Unidentified photographer: Have seen the New York Times use panoramic cameras like that in Iraq.

Often just a waiting game.  This was inside what had just been the Red camp.

One night there was heavy gunfire and also I could see firebombs coming from the Red Shirt camp, and plenty of dangerous fireworks.  (The firebombs that I saw were only going into the street.)  One firework came straight at my window and hit low on a floor below.  These were not gigantic fireworks but if you got hit, at a minimum you were going to the hospital.  They were easily as deadly as bullets.  If you got hit in the foot, your foot would be mangled.  Hit in the head, probably dead or mentally incapacitated from there out.  During daytime, I had seen a firework barely miss some journalists, and when the rockets hit buildings they sometimes blew off small pieces of structure.   Nothing serious unless you took a hit.  Like bullets.  Some people argued that protestors only had fireworks.  How many people might have been seriously wounded or even killed by those rockets and other projectiles?

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Gordon LaVere · 11 years ago
    Did the Canadian in the blue shirt survive ?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Adol Christin · 11 years ago
    When I lived back in Thailand in the early '80s, with many, many coupes there was one that I read about in the newspapers. It happened so fast and the fighting was so quick and centered in only a small part of Bangkok it was something that was almost ephemeral in the thoughts of a young boy of myself. The real thing I did remember was that huge front page report about a Vietnam American photographer getting killed. The newspaper lauded the man and decried the Abominable actions of the military then as well. But from my looking at the the man (a picture was shown of him before his death there) holding a camera with a Huge Black telescopic lens I began to wonder in my young mind, "What kind of moron would wander around carrying something that looking straight on gives the profile of someone carrying a Rifle?"
    From the many, many pictures I saw in that link. The absolute same posture of the Canadian and the direction of his eyes in every one except for the one of him being moved.

    He is dead. No doubt too will be lauded for his "courage" back home like that American... I'm sorry; he was a fool like that other man too.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Blackmon · 11 years ago
    Did the Canadian in the blue shirt survive? No
  • This commment is unpublished.
    ret7army · 11 years ago
    Ernie Pyle in WWII was no fool, he was a man who reported the war as he saw it, the policeman walking the beat in the worst parts of LA, DC, NY, Chicago aren't fools, nor was Mr. Vandergrift a fool, he was a man who did his job. He knew the risks we can see that from his expressions above, but he did his job anyway. The same is true of the firefighter, the policeman, the soldier, and the combat journalist, combat photographer, combat videographer, and the combat medic. Rest in peace Mr. Vandergrift I hope you knew Christ.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    K-Stater · 11 years ago
    @Blackmon: Do you have any evidence for your claim?

    @Gordon LaVere: According to the Montreal Gazette on 6-12-2010, Mr. Chandler Vandergrift was alive and recovering in Thailand:
    http://www.montrealgazette.com/entertainment/movie-guide/Canadian+hurt+Thailand+hospital/ 145612/story.html

    The Star (Toront on 5-20-2010 reports that he was alive and underwent brain surgery:

    So, if the man in the blue shirt is Mr. Vandergrift, he survived.

    @Michael: Thanks for your dispatches from around the world. Appreciated the FB updates and glad to see it formulated into a dispatch. Keep it coming. Play it smart. Stay safe.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Michael Yon Author · 11 years ago
    Thank you, all. Yes, the intrepid Mr. Vandergrift survived and from what I read sounds like he is doing fine. Search the web and he has some incredible photos. The man has as much talent as he does courage -- though if he scales back on the courage he might live longer to use that great talent!

    There were quite a lot of courageous journalists out there. For instance, look at those who stopped to help the wounded soldier.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Nick · 11 years ago
    "Victoria filmmaker and journalist Chandler Vandergrift is now out of a Bangkok hospital, three weeks after being seriously injured from a grenade blast during violent political protests in Thailand.

    The 7-year-old suffered shrapnel injuries to his head, legs and back after the attack May 19 as anti-government protesters clashed with Thai soldiers on the streets of the capital."

  • This commment is unpublished.
    apiraven · 11 years ago
    Gas, beat, shoot the "journalists" and let the protesters protest. Honest to goodness the "journalists" cause more problems than is worth putting up with. Like a bunch of maggots drawn to rotting flesh.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mick · 11 years ago
    How graphic are the "Graphic images" in the link? I don't mind some, but don't want to click in case it's a case of "what is once seen cannot be unseen." Thanks.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Robert · 11 years ago
    wat a shame, the LOS, bathed in blood, where turmoil reigns. Its a great place to retire, but damn you are taking a chance. Mike, the photo-journalist looked dead. His lips were blue, but i saw no wounds. The soldier looked like his arm was shredded by a frag, they both looked bad. Hey, nice G- rifle, you could blow a door off with those rounds.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Hugh Jass · 11 years ago
    Just an FYI: for those of us on slower connections, the "graphic images" may take some time to load. I almost gave up on the page.

  • This commment is unpublished.
    clazy8 · 11 years ago
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Joo-Liz · 11 years ago
    Mick, the most graphic images seem to all be of one particular soldier.

    His arm is severely wounded, and there are numerous photos showing the arm torn to shreds and bleeding.

    Aside from that, it is mostly lots of uniformed soldiers, arrested protesters, photos of people lying wounded (though aside from the one soldier, most are not that graphic), and distance shots of smoke billowing.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Zoe Goetz · 11 years ago
    You are not a journalist. What you have going here is a personal blog and I can respect that. I was mistaken in thinking it was anything else. My apologies. However, in not "being" a journalist it lets you off the hook in terms of "normal" journalistic standards...such as they are...like providing context, ascribing sources etc.

    Like many foreigners, I am sympathetic with the job the PM is facing. He is responsible in the end. However, as you have said, the situation is complicated and there are many competing interests in the bureaucracy, the Privy Council, within and among the parties, within the police and within the military who are all fighting for position and power...and they all have deep pockets. Big job for any head of government to keep track of all that let alone control it. But, incidently, I don't believe for a moment that Abhisit doesn't know who was responsible for Sae Daeng's assassination. Or that he doesn't know who who the "Men In Black" were, (other than the Red Guards who were all dressed in black) and who were the so-called "Ronin Warriors."

    Regarding context: You mentioned that you are surprised that the police/military exhibited control. Yes, Thais loathe killing those of their own blood. But also, a majority of the police are from the same background as the Reds and were sympathetic with them. And of course the military is split and one faction had an interest in quick elections demanded by the Reds so that a probable win by a Thaksin proxy party could appoint the next general. I understand that all this is not your focus. But someone killed all those protestors. Only 4-5 police or military were killed out of over 90 deaths. Who killed them if not the police/military who were seen shooting at them? For weeks, professionals and amateurs were reporting on blogs, news forums, and with tweetpics and tweet video and much of it went up immediately on YouTube. As you have said, it's all out there. I do want to point out one reporter's important dispatch, though, that people may have missed...even if we don't have the context:


    BTW, I am not a journalist and never have been one. I am however, a retired professional who has dealt with more of them than I wish to remember.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Kong · 8 years ago
      There is a picture of a passed Japanese journalist showing that there're a groups of guys of the red shirts' side carrying machine guns, and operating military-liked tactical moves, with the red shirts cheering them from the back.

      Before 2010, no protesters were harm.
      Now, every demonstration against ThugSin and/or the red shirts, someone got killed.

      Who do you think killing students in the demonstration against Red Shirts in RamKamHaeng District in Bangkok? Soldiers, again? Not even one of them came out.

      Even some of the rouge red shirts admit that they did the kills.

      Lastly, you seems to know many of the slang used during the red shirts mob. However, You know nothing true about Thailand. Don't you dare saying that the policemen are from the same class as the red shirts. Policemen are educated, the red shirts are not. Policemen were on the red side because of the benefit they rely on ThugSin regime.
      They can turn to every side who giving them the best interests.

      Most, 90% of the soldiers, are recruited from rural area of Thailand, where most of the red shirts live.

      Red shirts need the fake democracy from ThugSin because they will get the money. They do not care about the country as the whole.

      I could bet you that 80% of the people called themselves "Red Shirts" can literally not spell the word "democracy", ... well.. in Thai.

      They like to be fooled for the rest of their life.. by all the cunning and corrupted ThugSin people.

      We need CHANGE, we need a better democracy not just a fake one.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    ScottishWarrior · 11 years ago
    Can any1 clear up the following?? In the pictures before the "shooting" began, Mr. Vandergrift is seen crouching with a group of red shirt rebels? So, why after the "shooting" do we see him lying next to a badly injured soldier??? what has happened in between shots?? I am confused??? Good work Michael (as per usual) ur knowledge of military hardware (blast radius etc.) and battle tactics obviously give u a near sixth sense when the lead starts to fly!!! be cool, stay safe!!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Michael Yon Thailand · 11 years ago
    Good question -- those photos were taken on separate days. I took the photos of Chandler under the bridge while someone else made the other photos. I was not present when Chandler was hit.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dorothy Roush · 11 years ago
    Thanks Michael for everything youve done for us and shared.You are fantastic.... The Double Eyed Eagle that Runs with Warriors, journalism....fantastic.... photography fantastic......humanitarian extroidinaire, no doubt! Thanks graciously, you are a legend of time that wont be forgotten by many forever, any time soon. God Bless all of Gods people especially Our Troops and those who support them.Those who run with them, you have to be a real up lift to share their lives. Your one of a kind !
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Scot D · 11 years ago
    Sorry if I'm a bit late to this discussion, but the "fool" that Adol refers to higher up in the comments appears to be Neil Davis, a decorated Vietnam War correspondent who tragically died in one of Bangkok's coups.

  • This commment is unpublished.
    jonny · 11 years ago
    Incredibly late to the discussion as well, but to Zoe Goetz...a little pragmatism would be appropriate. If Sae Daeng was a rogue American general flying in and out of the country to meet with Bin Laden; and, whilst home, was saying things half as insane / inflammatory as Sae Daeng's rhetoric; the US sniper who took him out would be heralded as a hero. And quite rightly so.

    In Thailand, *if* the government took him out (which I actually believe is likely - and something they should have done much earlier), no matter who in the government gave the order; the soldier that took him down saved countless lives and hastened the end of the violence. But he would not have been heralded as a hero; quite the opposite, in fact. The US / global media was - at least partly - to blame for this. However:

    - there is no guarantee the sniper who took him down was a government sniper, though it is quite likely he was Royal Thai Army.
    - even if he was a loyal soldier, his orders may have come from literally dozens(?) of sources authorised to give such an order. PM Abhisit could well be telling the truth, and simply have no idea.
    - PM Abhisit might well know, or have a pretty good idea, or have given the order himself - yet deftly avoided the question without lying if his response was that he didn't know *who* fired the shot.
    - there has been increasing conjecture that element/s of the Red Shirt movement had him killed (i.e. he was seen arguing heatedly with Red Shirt leaders immediately prior to being targeted, and - he was batshit insane, of course)

    And just quickly to your question regarding who killed them, the answer is simple:
    - some were killed lawfully by Royal Thai Army soldiers restoring law and order
    - some were killed / betrayed by their 'own'; the violent Reds who needed a body count and frustrated that the government wasn't playing along
    - some might have been killed unlawfully by frustrated soldiers who wanted revenge for their buddies Red Shirts killed in gratitude for the soldiers refusing to open fire (this is pure hypothesising, of course)

    At the end of the two months, this single fact is IRREFUTABLE: Had a comparative situation occurred in New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Sydney or any major city...the death toll would not be 92. And anyone who cannot (or pretends they cannot) understand the reality of that fact is invested and embarrassingly biased.

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