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Sunday May 2, 2010

Red Shirts remain entrenched

Three days ago, the Red Shirts shockingly barged into the Chulalongkorn Hospital to look for soldiers. They found none but the intrusion exacerbated the emotional hardship of the people.

ON Monday, I took a walk through Chulalongkorn Hospital. The hospital’s deputy director for academic affairs Assoc Prof Somrat Charuluxananan was kind enough to show me around.

“I am worried. I worry for the hospital and like other Thai people, I also worry about the country,” he said as he walked me through the beautiful halls of the 96-year-old hospital.

The hospital is right next to where a huge group of Red Shirts have been camping out at the Sala Daeng intercession to face off with the police and soldiers across the road leading into Silom, Bangkok’s financial district.

In the danger zone: Assoc Prof Somrat outside the emergency room which is 20m from where the Red Shirts have set up camp.

The emergency room is barely 20m from where the anti-government Red Shirts, determined to bring down the Abhisit Vejjajiva government, are occupying.

Chulalongkorn Hospital would be one of the closest to receive patients in case of a military crackdown by the Government to reclaim the areas occupied by the Red Shirts.

(The other is the Police Hospital which straddles the Rajchaprasong intersection, the upmarket shopping district, which is the Red Shirts’ main rally site.)

Here at Chulalongkorn Hospital, furniture has been cleared from one of the huge halls with its elaborate decorative ceilings.

The hall used to host dinners years ago but now it has been readied to receive emergency cases should casualties start pouring in. Chulalongkorn’s 7,000 staff including 440 medical lecturers, 400 residents and 1,000 medical students, have also been prepped up to handle such an emergency.

“We are one of the best in the country. We can accept up to 300 emergency cases at one go – that is if our place is not destroyed,” said Assoc Prof Somrat.

Readied for emergency: One of the beautiful halls at Chulalongkorn Hospital has been emptied in preparation for emergency cases should there be a military crackdown against the Red Shirts. The hospital is right next to where a big group of Red Shirts have set up camp and are facing off with police and troops across the road.

Staff divided

The hospital itself is divided, he confessed.

Some of its staff, particularly the academics, are pro-government while the other staff are anti-government and subscribe to the Red Shirts ideals.

This can be a very potent mix.

“Both sides are not cruel but we are not sure about emotions when they get out of hand. I am afraid of that,” he said.

Walking this delicate balance, the hospital has tried hard to stay neutral.

It refused police protection and insists soldiers stay away because it wanted to keep weapons out.

It gave the Red Shirts full use of its toilets and put out benches on its grounds for tired Red Shirts to rest.

“It is unacceptable to Thai society for anyone to attack a hospital. If they do that, it will have negative impact on themselves,” he said.

On Thursday, Assoc Prof Somrat’s concerns became reality when a group of Red Shirts stormed into the hospital because they heard soldiers were hiding in there.

One of the Red Shirts leader, Payap Panket, who is wanted by the police, demanded that the hospital let them enter and examine the hospital premises.

At first the hospital refused but under intense pressure, the hospital caved in and agreed to allow five Red Shirt guards in.

But as soon as the door was opened, there was no control and some 200 Red Shirts barged in.

Though they found no soldiers, they threatened to come back the following morning for further checks.

Where they are camped out by the hospital, the Red Shirts have erected a barricade of tyres, nets, barbed wires and sharpened bamboo sticks to stop soldiers and police from coming in to get them.

On April 22 night, five grenades were launched from the Red Shirts side of the road over to the sky train station and into a crowd of pro-government protestors killing one and injuring over 80.

Even before the latest storming-the-hospital incident, the hospital had already seen a 50% drop in the number of new patients. “People are nervous to come here,” said Assoc Prof Somrat.

On Friday morning, Chulalongkorn Hospital decided to play it safe. It evacuated 1,000 patients to safer hospitals further away with about 600 patients remaining but they too have since been moved to buildings farther away from the rally site.

Although one of the Red Shirts’ leader Dr Weng Tojirakarn, apologised for the raid on the hospital, saying it was “inappropriate, too much, and unreasonable” and had gotten out of control – the damage was already done.

Not only were the hospital staff and patients affected, many Thais were outraged too. Dr Supong Limtanakool, chairman of strategic studies at Bangkok University, described it as a “barbaric act that people don’t do even in times of war and major conflict.” For him, the sentiment is really backfiring against the Red Shirts and he wouldn’t be surprised to see “real action” to evict the Red Shirts soon.

Armed and deadly

But the Government has to be careful because both sides have arms and there are women and children in their midst.

An attempt by the Government on April 10 to evict the Red Shirts from the Rajdamnoen-Phan Fa area ended as a disaster when shots were fired and violence broke out, resulting in 25 deaths and more than 800 injured.

A few days later, the Red Shirts left that site and consolidated in the upmarket shopping area where designer stores, huge department malls and five-star hotels are located, forcing almost all businesses to close, with the exception of McDonalds and 7-11 outlets.

And after what happened on April 10, the Government has been making threat after threat to force the Red Shirts out but to no avail.

The Red Shirts are pro ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. They will only go if Abhisit, whom they see as an illegitimate Prime Minister, agrees to fresh elections soon.

It is coming up to a month now since the Red Shirts’ takeover of Bangkok’s shopping district. They have dug their heels in and will not leave voluntarily. If anything, they seem to have grown bolder and some have been acting on their own.

A few days ago, a bunch of them stopped the skytrain from running for a few hours by placing tyres on the tracks of the Chitlom station, which is just above the rally site, because they feared soldiers would use the trains to get to them.

This was a nightmare for people who rely on the train to get to work.

Again a Red Shirts leader came out to say the group had acted on their own accord and apologised to the commuters for the inconvenience caused.

Even if there is a clampdown and the Government takes the Rajchaprasong area back, the Red Shirts problem will not disappear.

One of the leaders of pro-government multi coloured group Dr Tul Sitthisomwong found this out first hand when he decided to go up north to Khon Kaen to campaign against the Red Shirts.

Groups of Red Shirts blocked the exit near the Khon Kaen airport to hunt for him. He never left the airport. He took the next flight back into Bangkok.

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