Bangkok: People are hoarding food. Schools and businesses have closed. Hotels are pleading for guests to leave. Across Bangkok, residents worry about escalating violence that has killed 37 people and wounded hundreds in four days.
As troops moved to complete a security cordon around the “red shirt” protest encampment that occupies an area the size of New York’s Central Park, people in the area were seen dragging suitcases and children down streets to safer places.
Across the city, fears about food and security have grown after weeks of demonstrations have exacerbated one of the costliest dislocations of workers and residents in Bangkok’s long history.
Protests that have decimated the tourism industry in one of the world’s premier urban destinations has cut deeply into southeast Asia’s second-largest economy and tested the capital’s patience.
“My food here is running low,” said Boonyarat Lasana, a security guard at one of the office buildings located near Rama 4 Road, the scene of fierce battles between troops and anti-government protesters demanding elections.
“It’s OK for now, but if this protest keeps dragging on, I don’t know how I am going to get food,” Boonyarat, 43, said.
The clashes are largely the result of the army attempting to throw a security cordon around the protest encampment, where an estimated 5,000 people are hunkered down behind barricades made of tyres, bamboo poles and concrete, topped with razor wire.
Some women and children in the camp have moved to a nearby Buddhist temple, as the government’s strategy of starving protesters out showed signs of working. Supplies of food, water and fuel were running low because security forces were blocking red shirt delivery trucks.
“All our shops in the area are being closed,” said Bunyat Kamnoonwat, assistant vice president of CP All, an operator of 7-Eleven stores in Thailand. “We have no choice. It’s just too risky to be selling anything in there right now and the suppliers won’t come anywhere near it.”
Bangkok can flip like changing TV channels from periods of calm and apparent normalcy, to terror and pandemonium, with gunfire and explosions ringing out in the usually gridlocked streets.
Residents have turned to social media to update each other about what’s going on, tweeting frenetically and exchanging Youtube videos to make a case, one way or another, about who is more responsible for the violence that has now killed 66 people and wounded 1,600 since the protests began in mid-March.
A number of tweets have expressed outrage about foreign media coverage of the protests.
Guests at the luxury Dusit Thani hotel, a Bangkok landmark on the edge of the protest site, were evacuated on Monday after a rocket tore through a 14th floor window and set a room afire.
“We don’t know how much longer this nightmare is going to last and how far it will spread,” said Panna Srisuwan, a resident in a long line of people waiting at a supermarket check out counter in the business district.
“I went to the store this morning and there’s not even bottled water. I’m stocking up for the week,” she said.
Embassies near the encampment have closed, and their countries have issued ever more dire warnings about travel to the “Land of Smiles”.
Schools have been closed at least for another week and while Monday and Tuesday were declared public holidays, markets and banks remained open. A number of small shops and businesses have been closed for days, if not weeks, throwing an estimated 65,000 people out of work.
“It’s terrible we have to close the shop. My daughter can’t go to school. It’s just awful and getting worse,” said Ratana Veerasawat, a 48-year-old grocery store owner.
Inside the encampment, thousands steadfastly ignored warnings in leaflets dropped from helicopters on Monday to leave immediately or face criminal charges.
“My only worry is my kids,” Jiem Sookjai, a 40-year-old farmer from the northeast, who sat with her two children in a Buddhist temple near the Ratchprasong stage. “I’m afraid that we might not be safe but we can’t go back now.”