Michael's Dispatches

Some Thoughts About The Kingdom of Thailand


img001-1000With Former Prime Minister Abhisit.

29 December 2012

On Christmas Eve, ThaiPBS television interviewed me in Bangkok.  The interview is scheduled to air on 31 December at 9:40PM Thailand time.  Our interview will be online here.

Ms. Nattha Komolvadhin of ThaiPBS requested this interview after I made a statement on Facebook saying that murder charges against former Prime Minister Abhisit are factually baseless and morally wrong.

ThaiPBS is a publicly funded media organization, widely respected for addressing social issues that sometimes discomfit the government, regardless of which political party may be in power at the time.

The Thai government uses tax money to support ThaiPBS, which in turn sometimes slams the government.  Thailand has a moral compass.

My statements that the Royal Thai Army (RTA) and Mr. Abhisit did not commit murder are supportable, though they are contentious among some Thai, and among some journalists.

img002-1000Destroyed in Afghanistan during fighting (2011)

In 2010, I left Afghanistan and flew to Thailand, where I witnessed serious fighting.  Nearly 2,000 people were injured, and approximately 90 were killed.

I did not see all of the fighting.  Nobody did.  The troubles were spread too thinly over time and distance for any single person to witness all events.

Collectively, hundreds of journalists covered the fight.  In crowded downtown Bangkok, with its many skyscrapers, windows, and cameras, nothing happening on the streets could be kept secret.

This was not a remote Afghan battlefield, but a thunder dome, saturated with spectators with phones and cameras snapping and flashing by the thousands.

The Twitterverse was aflame. Citizen observers on Twitter posted some of the best and most immediate reporting.

Red Shirt protestors set up an immense armed camp in Bangkok’s central business district.  I often walked through the camp with my camera.  The police, Army, and protestors allowed complete access.  This was risky.  Firefights erupted without warning.

The RTA was initially ordered to contain Red Shirt mobs that caused many of the deaths and injuries.

After several months of violent protest and government patience, the RTA was ordered to break up the protest and to free downtown Bangkok so that people could get back to work.

The Thai work hard. The Red Shirts occupying the central business district was very disruptive.

It is unpopular in some circles to say that the Red Shirts committed murders, but it is a fact.  Never fear truth.

Many Red Shirts became angry that other Red Shirts resorted to violence.  Red Shirts denounced other Red Shirts who committed murder and arson.

There are many good and moral people among the Red Shirts who do not support crime of any sort.  They are my friends.

img003-1000Iraq, 2005

Some Red Shirts brought children into their camp even though bullets were flying.  It was dishonorable to bring children into a combat zone.  Images of children killed in war are branded into my memory.

Red Shirt leadership should have ordered that children be taken home.  Press members should not issue a free pass to leaders who allow kids to be brought to combat.  Any journalist who did not report on the children is professionally flawed.

This level of sustained and violent occupation would never have been permitted in the United States.   The first time that a protestor fired an M79 grenade launcher in downtown New York City, popular opinion would have demanded that the police or the Army put them down.

Occupy Wall Street is annoying, for example, but we can live with it.  If members of Occupy Wall Street fired grenades or an RPG, a final response would have been demanded.

Waging insurrection is not a constitutionally protected activity in any country. Peaceful protesting is protected in some countries, including the United States and Thailand.

Launching grenades is over the line.  Dozens of bombings, grenade attacks, and shootings were perpetrated in Bangkok during the Red Shirt protest, including a small car bomb. In addition to the protests, a steady insurrectional campaign targeting symbolic targets was waged.

Red Shirt protestors used automatic weapons, 40mm grenade launchers, bombs, firebombs, and firework rockets, not to mention slingshots and ball bearings.

Many Red Shirts were courageous and unafraid of combat.  I greatly respect Red Shirts for their courage under fire.  Much was caught on video.  I respect them though I believe that they should not have engaged in violence.

Red Shirt instigation upset many Red Shirt sympathizers who have an honest set of problems that must be addressed by the Thai government.  The current government was elected with crucial support from the Red Shirts. Apparently the government has not yet addressed all Red Shirt complaints.

img004-1000Many journalists stayed at the Dusit Thani hotel.

Before I stepped into the protest area, I asked US Special Forces veterans, and others who lived in the Kingdom for many years, where I should go to witness events from the front lines.

My advisers opined that the best position was at the famous Dusit Thani hotel.  Five stars.  The Dusit Thani was at ground zero.

They also advised not to go.  This advice came from Vietnam-era Green Beret combat veterans, and from veterans of Grenada, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

img005-1000Man in Black with firebombs. Shortly after I took this photo, a man was shot dead.

Despite their warnings, I went and enjoyed the hotel’s amenities in between visits to the protest site. Because I stayed at the Dusit Thani, detractors later derided my stay as a vacation.

While I was talking on the phone in my room, an RPG struck and detonated three floors above.  This was no vacation.

The Dusit Thani was perfect.  You could eat, shower, sleep, and access the Internet.  That it happened to be a five-star hotel was ironic, and bizarrely nice compared to years of living in tents, trailers, and dirt.

I have been incredibly lucky in combat.  People regularly die around me.   I have so far escaped without a scratch.

The only time that I have been shot was in front of the Dusit Thani, just as another man was shot and killed a short distance down the street.  Luckily the bullet that hit me was a ricochet, and it caused me no bleeding.  The other man was dead.

But that is not the point, which is that I was not on vacation in the middle of a battlefield where thousands of bullets were flying, and where guests kept the curtains closed because of sniper fire.

img006-1000Scene of fighting a short walk from the Dusit Thani. Red Shirt battlements in the background.

That the Dusit Thani stayed open was preposterous.  In America, it is inconceivable that the police would allow hotel proprietors and customers to make their own mortal decisions.  Surely the hotel would have been closed.

The RPG shot was the final blow.  The Dusit Thani did not want a reputation as a venue where RPGs killed journalists.  The hotel closed.

I had to move, and so I took my gear to another hotel, which overlooked part of the battle area.

Staying at the Dusit Thani was the most comfortable danger that I ever experienced. I still recommend the hotel to friends.

img007-1000Many correspondents go to war, but war correspondents who spend years in combat are rare. War writers like Joe Galloway are exceptional. (Photo during 2011 combat in Afghanistan.)

Most of the reporters who covered the 2010 fighting in Bangkok had never seen combat.

For those who are not familiar with military operations, and with ground fighting in particular, Soldiers look like men in green carrying guns, and when they shoot, it is loud.

Amateur observers will miss much detail, even if they have video to replay.

img008-1000Artillery firing in support of combat operations, Afghanistan 2010.

There were many courageous and smart journalists at the protest site.  When the shooting picked up, most of them stuck to it.  Some moved in closer.

Photographers and videographers require the most courage.  They must be close to the action.  Writers and print journalists can see everything they need from twenty yards away in more safety.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    WF · 8 years ago
    Thank you Mr. Yon for covering the truth, many of us really appreciate your work on covering the truth. I myself really hate it now when the truth were twist for evil purpose and the false rumors were spend to destroying innocence people who do good deed.
    Still those who really need to face justice now become the one in power I don't know if us Thai people will really knows the real Peace. The situation is just like A group of Blind people believe they can see very clearly than before and refuse to accept the reality even we throw the truth at them they won't believe it.
    Thank you again for the details truth.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ralph Schatzki · 8 years ago
    Thank you so much for this very well-written and powerful piece. I lived as an ex-pat American in Bangkok for more than thirteen years, and I agree unreservedly with everything you have stated with regard to Thai hospitality and acceptance. Not long into my stay in the Kingdom- a wonderful and vastly different place than the USA- I realized that "freedom" can be construed very differently depending on one's expectations, background, culture, and experience. I underwent tremendous growth while living there, and I have no doubt that any American who desires to experience similar growth would benefit immeasurably by spending time there (or, for that matter, in any other culture significantly different from our own).

    I had written a short piece awhile back, the gist of which was that Americans celebrate diversity, and in an almost paradoxical way this is what defines us. Thais, on the other hand, are in so many ways a very unified people. The colors of the Thai flag represent the country, the religion, and the King, and to criticize the King is tantamount to a renunciation of one's "Thai-ness."

    I salute both your tenacity and your courage to speak the truth. This is the kind of reporting of which the world needs more.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Thomas Dikel · 8 years ago
    As always, a beautifully written dispatch. Too bad I'm not on the Pulitzer committee, otherwise you'd have my vote. Thank you. Stay safe brother.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Will Fireatte · 8 years ago
    Beautifully written. I was not there during that difficult time, but everything else you wrote agrees with my own experiences. Thailand is such a wonderful country in many ways. I wish it, and it's people, the best. Thank you for acting with courage and integrity. You represent your own countrymen better than some of our diplomats (or tourists) do! Stay safe. Swasdee Pee Mai krub (Happy New Year)
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Kurt Olney · 8 years ago
    Not sure what to make of this. You have definitely placed yourself in harms way. The journalism you describe in Thailand is non existent in Mexico. Crime scenes in the U.S. are definitely restricted to journalist. Of course visiting any country you are subject to their laws and customs. I will give what you have a written a lot of thought. In the meantime I hope they don't decide to shoot you.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Heywood Jablomi · 8 years ago
    But it is also very simple.

    There are more Red Shirts than there are Yellow Shirts. So the Puea Thai party indisputably won the last election.

    Part of the problem is that the Red Shirts felt as though they were disenfranchised by the coup that deposed Mr. Thaksin in 2006, and there is no question that it was a national trauma inflicted on the Thai body politic.

    Because the Democrat party was able to form a governing coalition with the Bumjaithai party, Red Shirts felt that the Bangkok elites illegitimately took power. You must remember that the constitution and the judicial system disbanded both the PPP and the TRT parties, the predecessors of the currently ruling Puea Thai.

    This is the reason why the current government, and the Red Shirts (they are not synonymous), wish to amend the constitution. They want to delete the clauses that ban corrupt politicians who commit electoral fraud from participation in politics for five years, and most of all they want to delete the clauses that punish parties for the individual abuses of party members by disbanding the parties.

    Mr. Abhisit, as the opposition leader in Parliament, opposes these constitutional changes. He also opposes efforts by the government to pass "reconciliation" measures, which are really a mass pardon for all who committed violence in 2010. Such a pardon would magically make Mr. Thaksin's conviction for corruption vanish, as well as the plethora of criminal charges that are pending against him, including support for terrorism. Mr. Thaksin could, in the event of a pardon, finally return to Thailand.

    Mr. Thaksin and the Red Shirts believe that he was wrongly exiled. In truth, however, Mr. Thaksin has exiled himself. He was granted bail after his conviction on fraud charges, and he received permission from judicial authorities to attend the Olympic Games. Mr. Thaksin never returned to Thailand. He chose self-exile, rather than face the prospect of a jail term. In any case, Mr. Thaksin and the Red Shirts characterize his conviction as "political," and they insist that it was not legitimate.

    The primary obstacle to "reconciliation" and the changes to the constitution that the Red Shirts advocate is Mr. Abhisit. So they attack him. They attempted to have his military rank revoked, but only His Majesty can do that. So the Reds were stymied there. Now they are charging Mr. Abhisit with murder. There is no question that this is an abuse of police authority.

    When Thailand is a country that can prosecute former Prime Ministers for doing their job, (and Mr. Abhisit was very lenient, in my opinion, in his approach to the 2010 riots), it is on an evil path.

    The Reds are pursuing evil tactics in an effort to perpetrate evil goals.

    I grieve for Thailand.

    Long Live His Majesty.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Russki Top · 8 years ago
      Excellent synopsis. I wish you were just polemicizign, but form the bit I keep up with you've pretty well nailed it.
      Michael, outstanding piece. My limited time with Thai government employees, soldiers, and civilians gibes with what you've written and experienced here. They take their democracy and their royalty very seriously. They also take personal responsibility equally as seriously. I hope they can get through this crisis with a minimum of pain. Were Thaksin to return and face the music, much of this could be put to rest.
      Thank you again for your reporting and your willingness to call it from the ground view.
      Stay safe.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Nazir · 8 years ago
    nicely written Michael, and i miss your Afghanistan photography
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Aranyabhuti · 8 years ago
    Thank you for sharing Truth.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Marybeauty · 8 years ago
    This considerate message might not change anything they did and will do with Abhisit but the intention was there. Really appreciated your honesty and courage.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    HP · 8 years ago
    I've lived in BKK for 4 years now lived through the red shirt protest living 500 meters from the battle zone ( if I may say it) and I saw exactly what you say, was in the center of things almost daily with my camera ( though I'm not a journalist) and have enough to show why this was never something the army created. Having a protest and what the red shirts did were very different, and shielding it behind innocent civilians and children were cowardly to say it mildly! I ain't no supporter of eithe party but I beleive the government acted like any government in power would and should! Maybe they should have acted earlier! Any death is sad but no group can be allowed to take over a city no matter what color they are! I wish only the best for this beautiful county and hope reds and yellows find a way to move forward and avoid such instances being repeated.
    Long Live the King!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Michael Yon author · 8 years ago
    Thank you for the thoughtful comments. My webmaster blocked one comment due to wild profanity. Otherwise, comments are only blocked when they are advertisements, pages of unrelated text, or simply vulgar or gratuitous ad hominem by any standard.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    leyla · 8 years ago
    Thank you for getting the truth out and God Bless you this coming New Year!!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Scotch7 · 8 years ago
    Delighted to recognize the Dusit Thani in your photo. Stayed there in the '80s. Many happy memories of architecture and staff. Sad to read it took fire, but I'm confident it will be repaired gracefully.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Skip · 8 years ago
    Very well written, nice to see a journalist with morals and honesty. There are so few left around the planet. Makes me want to visit Thailand for an extended stay.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Scott Dudley · 8 years ago
    I recall visiting the Dusit Thani in the '69-'70 timeframe in a brief respite from the gunline. Think the disco there was called the Panda room or the Boom Boom room. Latter might have been a different mission.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    F Thomas · 8 years ago
    Politics can turn ugly in places such as Thailand. Michael, your coverage I'm sure is factual and to the point.

    Happy New Year!
    Stay Safe - Keep your head down and rear end lower!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Chaik · 8 years ago
    Thank you and let the god-forsaken truth be told! We, the Thai people have to live with the twisted lies by the gov. controlled media day in and day out. Thank you again from all of the Thai people who want the world to know the real truth.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    DD · 8 years ago
    dude, you have balls of titanium.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    wolfemanjack · 8 years ago
    "In India, if you want to swim with crocodiles, the Indian Police might say, 'I wouldn’t do that if I were you,' but then they will watch you go. Later that day, Indian police will dutifully alert the US Embassy that you were eaten. Indians do not protect you from yourself. Thailand is similar. I love it. ***
    Personal responsibility is real here. You are free. All consequences are on you. *** You are free to wade into a firefight or to pet crocodiles. Do not whine when you get bitten or shot. *** We say that we want freedom, but Americans do not live in freedom. We Americans seem to spend every waking hour plotting how to shackle ourselves. Freedom is becoming an empty word in America. ***
    America does not want fewer laws. Many Americans want more laws."

    Sad but true (the part about America).

    I don't know much about Thai politics but thanks for the balanced reporting.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    RR · 8 years ago
    Thank you for your covering the truth. As a Thai, I wish Thai journalists are as honest and truthful as you are. We all need to hear the truth.
    Have a happy and safe year.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    por pae · 8 years ago
    can we use this in court? if summoned, will you testify?

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