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Frowns in the Land of Smiles

Amid the violence, one can only hope the kind, generous Thai people will resolve their seemingly impossible divisions.
Last modified: 2 Dec 2013 20:56
Al Jazeera correspondent Robert Kennedy dons his 'Doraemon' mask to protect himself from tear gas, as protest rages in Bangkok.

Another day, another Bangkok protest. But this afternoon was nothing like I'd seen in previous days.

No more boisterous but peaceful disturbances outside key institutions, with parents and small children attending. Today was different. It was no longer a rally but a riot.

My biggest shock came suddenly when a wounded demonstrator arrived out of nowhere with what appeared to be a gunshot wound to his abdomen.

Journalists and others converged as the motionless man was carefully placed into the back of an ambulance.

Thailand - known as the Land of Smiles - is frowning again.

Bangkok - a city of about nine million souls - is a place I called home for 10 years. The latest round of political violence saddened me as I reflected on the supreme kindness I've experienced from Thais of all walks of life during my years here. 

I was caught up in the government-aligned Red Shirt protests in 2010, when months of downtown occupation - which included the area around my former office - erupted in deadly street battles, with exploding grenades and sniper fire engulfing the main business district.

I was forced to stay in a hotel connected to my office, unable to safely make it home for the day, and then back to work the next.

I hoped for the sake of this country that that would be the end of it.

Three years later, however, Thailand is back to square one.

Fierce confrontation

Our reporting team arrived at Thailand's centre of power, Government House, as canisters of tear-gas exploded into a wave of chemical smoke, driving dozens of people hastily back in retreat.

Loud periodic booms thundered out - apparently firecrackers lit and tossed at riot police over razor-wire strewn barricades.

"Medics, medics!" someone screeched in Thai to emergency workers stationed behind the chaos.

Two medics quickly grabbed a stretcher and ran into the melee to carry out a wounded demonstrator.

The protests were smaller in number but much fiercer in spirit compared to previous days.

Instead of the family atmosphere, today was about groups of militant young men repeatedly and fearlessly challenging heavily fortified police barriers.

In return they received stinging tear gas, chemical-laden water, and rubber-coated metal bullets.

At one point, a crowd of about 50 antagonists commandeered a police vehicle that had its windows smashed out, using it as shelter against police retaliation.

The Thai way

Amid the fierce confrontation between riot police and the protesters, the Thais' polite and caring human nature still shone through.

I was struck by the organised dispersal of basic needs.

Food vendors on motorcycles arrived and plopped down bags full of rice dishes in the middle of the street for anyone to grab - free of charge.

Others carried in packages of water, medical masks, even swim googles to neutralise the effects of the swirling tear gas and chemical water.

Despite the tension and animosity of the conflict zone, good manners were needed - that's the Thai way.

The anti-government protesters, mostly Bangkok's middle and upper classes, have thrown down the gauntlet against a government democratically elected by the majority of Thais who live in mostly impoverished rural areas.

The demonstrators want the government out, but they have not made it clear what their precise plans are for the future rule of this Southeast Asian nation.

What happens next remains to be seen.

I can only hope the kind and generous people of this great country resolve their seemingly impossible divisions. And remember it must remain the Land of Smiles.