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Fear in Bangkok as bullets fly close to home

Urban warfare is raging outside luxury high-rises and crumbling shops in Bangkok. Residents — those who haven't fled — lock themselves inside and hope the violence comes no closer.
Image: Violence in Bangkok
An anti-government protester throws a tire atop a fire in downtown Bangkok on Sunday.Athit Perawongmetha / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

A dentist looks down from his 20th-story apartment and sees a body on the pavement, blood streaming from its head. Bonfires burn in major streets that normally would be jammed with shoppers and tourists. Hotels are filled with soldiers and police, their boots and shields lining the hallways.

In the capital of a nation that proudly calls itself The Land of Smiles, urban warfare is raging outside luxury high-rises and crumbling shops. Residents — those who haven't fled — lock themselves inside and hope the violence comes no closer.

"I don't have the stomach to go near the window anymore," said Teerawat Tussranapirom, the dentist who saw the body on the pavement. He photographed the gruesome scene and posted the image on his Facebook page.

"I haven't left the building," Teerawat said in a telephone interview. "I've stockpiled food and water for two days. I don't know what I'm going to do if it runs out."

Going outside is out of the question these days in parts of downtown Bangkok, most of which has become a battlefield, punctuated by thundering explosions and the constant clack-clack-clack of gunfire.

Soldiers have killed 30 people and wounded more than 220 since a crackdown on anti-government protesters began Thursday. There was no immediate end in sight after the government ominously said over the weekend that the only way to restore peace is to persist with its crackdown on the Red Shirt protesters, who have been camped since April 3 in an upscale shopping district. Protesters are demanding Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's resignation and new elections.

In a city known for its gentleness and easy smiles, nobody imagined Thailand's political problems, as bad as they have been, would come to this.

Many of Bangkok's biggest boulevards are empty as far as the eye can see. On sidewalks, military snipers are crouched behind sandbags and protesters lob explosives at them, torch tires and police vehicles. Bloody bodies are being dragged down the pavement to waiting ambulances.

Living in 'Live Fire Zone'
Teerawat lives in the Ratchaprarop area, a commercial district north of the main protest site that has been the scene of fierce fighting. Troops have declared it a "Live Fire Zone."

"How am I supposed to feel when I wake up and there are corpses of Thai people lying in front of my building," Teerawat said on his Facebook page.

Soldiers and police moved in Thursday night to seal off roads around the protest zone, which spans roughly 1 square mile. But rowdy groups have spilled into nearby streets filled with embassies, gleaming office towers and doorman apartment buildings.

The affected area of clashes and road closures now spans about 8 square miles, including the city's central business district.

Almost everything in the area is closed: restaurants, supermarkets, Bangkok's ubiquitous massage parlors and even the go-go bars on Patpong Road, one of the city's most famous sex-bar strips, which is now lined with water cannon trucks and military vehicles.

"It's like a cemetery here. It's dead," said Thanin Somboonsiri, sitting outside a bar called Super Girls. "Yesterday all day long I heard bang-bangs. There are no guests. Not even at night."

Soldiers and police are everywhere, camped at budget hotels and sleeping at outdoor swimming pools of strategically located apartment buildings.

Reporters covering the violence wear flak jackets and ballistic helmets. Four journalists have been injured by gunfire.

Some residents have fled for safety. The government declared Monday and Tuesday public holidays so nobody has to cross the danger zone to go to work.

Outside the city center, life goes on somewhat normally. People are buying groceries, taking their morning jogs and sipping lattes at outdoor cafes. But there are inconveniences — the elevated Skytrain will remain closed Monday for the third day and all schools in Bangkok were ordered closed for at least a week starting Monday.

There is also tension and fear the violence will spread, and everyone wonders how many lives will be lost before it stops.

Expats stay clear
Just a few blocks east of the Red Shirt protest zone, expatriates chatted over beers as on any weekend afternoon at an open-air restaurant off Sukhumvit Road, another district popular with expatriates and wealthy Thais.

"You get a lot of calls from home, from people asking if you're OK. They see the one shot on the news of a bus burning and they think all of Bangkok is the same," said Dutch businessman Ruud van der Linden, 52, who has lived in Bangkok with his family for six years.

Even from relative safety, there are new rules to live by. Notably, stay away from the center of Bangkok.

Indian expat Anna Khendry, 47, has forbidden her two teenage boys from going out at night even though they live far from the conflict.

"Everything is on hold because that's a war zone," she said. "When my kids want to go out at night, I restrict them. You could get a random bullet."

For that reason, many have evacuated to temporary housing.

"We're safe now. Thank God we got out just in time," said Indian expat Manisha Trivedi, a nursery school teacher whose gated apartment building on posh Langsuan Road was adjacent to the protest zone and is now hemmed in by the fighting. She and her family fled to the Sukhumvit area Thursday as a standoff intensified.

Toddlers at Trivedi's international school, not far from her home, rehearsed safety drills last week. Students were told to meet in the hall if alarm bells sounded.

"We told them if you hear three bells we take the class upstairs and we sit in the hall and basically we wait and we stay safe," Trivedi said. "You just think, what sort of place are we living in."