Part I – Background & A night on the bridge




Part I - Background & A night on the bridge
Part II - Crossing the lines
Part III - A hot afternoon
Part IV - The shooting starts
Part V - Ian Neumegen, a foreigner killed in the disturbances
Part VI - Soldiers advance through Banglampoo
Part VII - Aftermath
Comments on the Black May 1992 story
Note: This is not meant to be a comprehensive history of the Black May events. Like any civil disturbances, there are many individual accounts of the events. This is mine. - Ron Morris, Webmaster, 2Bangkok.com

Part I - Background & A night on the bridge
May 17, 1992
(Posted on 2Bangkok.com on May 18, 2004)

Background

On February 23, 1991, the military, led by Sunthorn Kongsompong, staged a bloodless coup and installed a group of generals called the National Peacekeeping Council to administer the country. The constitution was abolished and martial law imposed. This coup happened during the first days of the Gulf War invasion and was overshadowed by news of the war in the international press. The main coup generals were from Class 5--cadets from the same class that stick together as they move through the ranks.

As the coup occurred, all television channels showed the army TV station logo and occasionally a tape of a person, surrounded by menacing army personnel, reading a statement admitting he was involved in an assassination conspiracy (this was one of the reasons the generals said they had to take power).

There was not a large amount of popular dissent at the time. The Chatichai Choonhavan government that was overthrown notable as the first peaceful changeover of power from one democratically elected government to another when it took power from the Prem Tinsulanonda. Together the Prem and Chatchai governments were largely responsible for Thailand's economic miracle that created the Thailand most are familiar with today. However, the Chatchai government was perceived as corrupt and the Thai experiment with democracy was very young.

After the coup, disruption to everyday life was brief. A popular and credible interim Prime Minister--Anand Panyarachun--was installed. As a former Thai ambassador to the U.N., U.S., and Canada, he was well-known and liked internationally. Besides the veneer of respectability he gave the regime, his brief tenure was notable for allowing awareness of HIV prevention to be widely disseminated for the first time.

To cater to foreigners, a number of reforms were implemented, such as work permits in 30 days and abolition of the notorious procedure that required foreign businessmen to buy places in line to bribe officials to get a tax certificate before leaving the country. Today, foreigners are aware of corruption and may come into contact with it, but before the coup, the tax certificate system insured every foreigner was intimately aware and complicit in bribe giving and taking.

Cracking down on unions seemed to be a priority of the new regime. State labour unions were abolished and one of the more notable excesses was the unexplained disappearance of labour activist Thanong Po-an.

New elections were held in May 1992, and the public quickly labeled political parties as good or evil depending on which rushed to support the generals' agendas.

After the elections, a strange series of events culminated in one of the coup leaders, Suchinda Kraprayoon, being appointed prime minister. The opposition kept the pressure on the government to appoint an elected person to be prime minister citing previous promises from Suchinda that he would not take the post.

The appointment of Suchinda gave the opposition the issue they needed--an unelected prime minister boldly gaining taking the top post after innumerable denials that the generals intended to keep power.

A series of demonstrations against the government centered around Sanam Luang and were led by activist students. Eventually the protests attracted many common folk and paralyzed the city as the Sanam Luang and Rachadamneorn Road areas were occupied by police and protesters for many days.


(Photo: 2Bangkok.com)


(Photo: 2Bangkok.com)

Above left: Los Angeles, California, May 1992 - Humvees roam the streets
Above right: Los Angeles, California, May 1992 - Smoke from fires set by looters nears Beverly Hills

A night on the bridge - Sunday, May 17, 1992

Los Angeles had riots and looting the week before. Now, on the opposite side of the world, Bangkok was in a near-crisis situation over the appointment of a non-elected coup general as Prime Minister.

Censorship had been imposed, but most papers published as usual. The Bangkok Post bowed to the ban, but published with areas of white space where the banned news would have been. For some reason this is often praised as a sign of courage.

On the afternoon of May 17, 200,000 protesters walked down Rajadamneorn Avenue from Sanam Luang, apparently on their way to the parliament building. (Protest leaders have written extensively in English about the ebb and flow of the protests that led up to this point. See Labour Against Dictatorship, Somsak Kosaisuk, published by Fredrich Ebert Stiftung, Labour Museum Project, and Arom Pongpangan Foundation, no copyright information). Troops arrived and set up barbed wire on strategic bridges that would have led out of Rattanakosin Island area to bar the way of the protesters.

Soldiers from the 1st Combat Engineer Battalion arrive at the bridge (right) and prepare to set up barbed wire.

(Photo: 2Bangkok.com)

About this time, the bridge over Banglampoo Canal on Samsen Road was also sealed off. Angry residents besieged the troops there by lining up motorcycles and blowing exhaust at them. The troops set up mounds of barbed wire and stayed most of the night. Limited foot traffic was allowed to pass over the bridge and other footbridges on the canal were open. It seemed the blockade was more of a show of force to prevent larger crowds from passing and affirming army/governmental control of the situation.


(Photo: 2Bangkok.com)
Cheap helmets and wicker shields (left). In an unusual parallel to the riots in Los Angeles, it was later discovered that no government organization had much in way of a plan or equipment to deal with civil unrest. In Los Angeles it resulted in the government being paralyzed and doing nothing. In Bangkok it resulted in shooting demonstrators.


(Photo: 2Bangkok.com)

The crowd gets more rowdy as motorcyclists arrive and spray exhaust at the soldiers in an attempt to provoke them.


(Photo: 2Bangkok.com)

The flag is brought out.


(Photo: 2Bangkok.com)
Left: Some of the protesters attempt to stop motorcyclists from blowing exhaust into the soldiers.

Later in the night both the protesters and the soldiers seemed to spontaneously disperse. The barbed wire was pulled back and the bridge was reopened.

Part II - Crossing the lines

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