In Bangkok, gunfire outside a reporter's window

In Bangkok, gunfire outside a reporter's window

In Bangkok, gunfire outside a reporter's window

 Below me, over the ledge, is Bangkok, a twinkling city that I’ve always thought looked better in the dark.

But not tonight. The darkness on this Friday is terrifying. Explosions boom across Lumpini Park and bursts of gunfire carry through the small alleys across the street. There is some unexplained shouting and the tinny, amplified voice of a woman who seems to be warning people to stay indoors. Bangkok is a battlefield.

My first impression of Bangkok, when I lived here for a stint in the 1990s, was that it looked poor but did not act poor, a colossal failure in urban planning yet a place that managed to remain seductive, remarkably friendly — and safe.

Much has happened since then to bring Bangkok to a totally different state, one of political chaos and spiralling violence. The country has been in a long, slow burn. In recent years, there has been a military coup, anxiety over the declining health of the country’s king and the rise of protest movements that push their agendas in the streets rather than in parliament. But if any one idea can sum up the troubles, it is that Thailand’s politics have failed to develop as fast as its rising wealth.

Over the past two months, as a debilitating protest in Bangkok took hold and shadowy groups have operated with impunity, I have crouched behind furniture in hotels when grenades exploded on the street outside. I stood on a wide avenue as dozens of dead and wounded protesters were carried from the carnage of a failed military crackdown. I hid behind a telephone pole during an hourlong crackling barrage of gunfire. And on Thursday, a man I was interviewing was struck in the head by an assassin’s bullet and collapsed at my feet.

Bangkok today has many more high-rise condominiums and much more luxury than the city I knew 15 years ago, but is plagued by its dysfunctional politics. Is there any other city in the world today that has so many cloth-napkin restaurants, spas — and periodic grenade attacks? How many other world capitals have streets filled with fleets of luxury cars and armies of protesters apparently willing to die for their convictions? On Friday alone, 16 civilians were killed in clashes with the military that took place a few hundred yards from my apartment. Patrons were stuck in restaurants for hours because they were terrified to walk into the streets.

When I sat down to write this article in my apartment, I slipped on my ballistic helmet, a piece of equipment left over from a spell covering the Iraq war that is probably more useful to me in the streets of Bangkok.

An emblem of the turmoil
I donned the helmet because my desk faces floor-to-ceiling windows with no curtains or shutters and outside is the neighbourhood where protesters are battling with troops (Gunfire erupted when I typed the word ‘protesters’). I have come to view my windows as an emblem of the turmoil. The architects of this city’s gleaming apartment blocks and office towers did not anticipate gunfire. They thought about prestige and the liberating feeling of floating above a sprawling metropolis, separated only by glass.
A city with floor-to-ceiling windows is a confident city. Sheets of glass, unlike the thick walls and tiny windows of centuries past, send a message: We are not worried about what lurks outside.

But from my desk, it seems as if Bangkok’s architecture has outpaced its political maturity. Who in Bangkok today would feel confident behind a wall of glass when explosions rip through the night?

I spotted General Khattiya as he was greeting supporters on Thursday inside the encampment that protesters have built in central Bangkok.
He lingered for at least half-an-hour at a spot near a makeshift barricade of tires and bamboo spikes, answering questions from a group of reporters.

By 6.50 pm, the other reporters had drifted away, allowing me and my interpreter to fire away with questions. What turned out to be my last was about the likely outcome of a military crackdown. Would the army be able to penetrate the protesters’ fortifications?
Then there was a loud bang and he fell backward to the ground. There was no scream, no sign of agony, just his crumpled body on a slab of sidewalk with his eyes wide open.
From what I could see, the bullet struck Gen Khattiya somewhere on the top of his head, near the intersection of the temple and the forehead. The general was facing me, so my best guess is that the shot came from behind me, possibly from a sniper located somewhere in the business district across a busy road.
When calm returns to Bangkok’s streets, ballistic experts will presumably lead a more precise investigation.

But the thought occurs to me: How many more bullets will fly through the Bangkok sky before Thailand’s democracy reaches a level of maturity equal to the modernity and grandeur of its capital city?

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