Red Shirt protester Sakhorn Iamsri strides the front line with a slingshot hanging from his jeans pocket.
If the walnut-sized stones he shoots fail to hurt the Thai soldiers gathered behind sandbag bunkers, Sakhorn and his comrades have an arsenal to fall back on: firecrackers shot from metal pipes, Red Bull bottles brimming with glass shards, Molotov cocktails, burning tires and other weapons fashioned with ingenuity and scrap.
If it sounds like a David and Goliath fight, in most cases it is.
A ragtag army of Red Shirt anti-government protesters has spread out in central Bangkok, shouting obscenities at troops and attacking them with rudimentary weapons. Often, it seems that some of the demonstrators treated the fighting like a game of paintball. But for many, the price for losing was death.
Troops — including sharpshooters positioned on high buildings — have used live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas. Since the violence flared on May 14, 38 protesters were killed by gunfire and 313 wounded in violence that turned parts of Bangkok, a city known for its crime-free nightlife, into deserted wastelands. One soldier from the government side has died.
“Death is a normal thing, that’s what I told my wife when I joined the Red Shirts,” Sakhorn, a 58-year-old delivery driver, told The Associated Press during a lull in the fighting from behind a 3-meter (10-foot) -high wall of tires that protesters had built on a major boulevard.
Normally, the road that runs across Bangkok is choked with traffic. Today, it is littered with the debris of rioting: burning tires, broken bottles, confetti-like paper strips from detonated fireworks, and mounds of uncollected garbage.
The protesters fight with imaginative weapons. Behind one tire wall, masked rioters filled bottles with pieces of glass, taped it with a large firecracker, lit the fuse and hurled it at the soldiers about 100 meters away. It barely reached halfway.
Another helmeted protester tried to throw a Molotov cocktail but the top came off before he let it go, and burning gasoline spilled on his back, setting his shirt on fire. Friends quickly doused the flames.
In Bon Kai, a working class neighborhood, protesters put a few drops of flammable liquid into a metal pipe, one end of which was fitted with a firework bomb. A fuse was lit at the other end to ignite the liquid, which propelled the bomb toward the soldiers in a smoky trajectory.
Meanwhile, his comrade lit a string of firecrackers that made a sound similar to automatic rifle fire while a friend held up a dust pan and pointed its handle at soldiers, pretending to be firing a gun.
A shot rang out and another comrade fell, hit by a bullet. His injury was not life-threatening.
Not all protesters are so poorly armed. Some have been seen with guns, and the government says it has come under attack from rifle fire and grenades. It is these armed demonstrators that the army says are beings targeted with live ammunition.
“We have no policy to attack civilians. Our officers respond militarily when they are attacked. They do follow the rules. They work under the scrutiny of local and foreign media,” said government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn.
On Sunday night, AP reporters saw what appeared to be gunfire coming from both sides for about five hours near a luxury hotel.
Also raising concern among Thais is that some children have joined the fight.
Natchapon Soiket, a 15-year-old vocational school student, carries tires and food to fighters on the front line. His mother, a factory worker in Nakhon Pathom province outside Bangkok, told him not to go, but he ignored her.
“Ultimately I want to see peace, but I am willing to die for the sake of my brothers and sisters,” said the bare-chested teenager in dirty jeans, his hands and face black with residue from the tires he had been rolling.
AP reporters have seen children as young as 12 lighting fuses of homemade rockets.
The government has played a video on local TV showing a man holding a toddler over a tire barricade, alleging that the rioters are using children as human shields.
On Tuesday, a 12-year-old boy was arrested for setting buildings on fire.
The Red Shirts are mostly urban and rural poor, rebelling against a political structure that traditionally favored the rich and the military-backed political elite. The Reds are bankrolled by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup by the military and lives in exile.
Two subsequent pro-Thaksin governments were removed by court decisions, and Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva came to power in December 2008 without winning an election after being chosen by lawmakers. The turmoil continued as Thaksin roused his supporters with speeches delivered live by video link.
Thaksin, a telecommunications billionaire, was criticized as corrupt, but his populist policies made him into a Robin Hood-style figure for many of Thailand’s poor.
Abhisit says he is willing to hold elections in November and talk to the Red Shirts — if they stop the street violence and end their protest, which began two months ago. The Red Shirts say they will stop the violence if the troops withdraw.
“People of higher class look down upon us even though we serve them,” said the slingshot-wielding Sakhorn, who has spent the last four nights sleeping on the streets behind the tire barricades, without a shower or a change of clothes. “They think we are stupid because we are poor.”
With a flourish, he pulled the slingshot and white pebbles from the pocket of his jeans, which are shredded at the left knee.
“This is all I have got, and the government calls me a terrorist!” he said. “I believe in negotiations if it done by our leaders. If not, we will keep fighting even if it takes years.”
Associated Press writer Thanyarat Doksone contributed to this story.