German photojournalist just one victim of Thai conflict

Threats, beatings and isolation give long-time Thai resident insight into crisis tearing country apart

German photojournalist just one victim of Thai conflict

In the six months since Thailand's "Yellow Shirt" anti-government movement declared a German photojournalist living in Thailand their "enemy" he has been beaten up and survived a kidnap attempt. Nick Nostitz and his wife and child now live under police guard on the outskirts of Bangkok, fearful that an attempt will be made on his life.

The charge: being sympathetic to Thailand's "Red Shirt" movement. This is his story.

By Nick Nostitz


Six months ago, while I was covering an event involving the anti-government People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) in Bangkok, Chumpol Jurasai -- one of the movement's nine main leaders -- spotted me in the crowd, pointed at me from his stage, and screamed into his microphone that I was a "Red Shirt journalist."

Before he finished his sentence the first punches from his guards had landed on my face, the attack only stopping when police stepped in to save me. And thus began a hate campaign against me on "Yellow Shirt" protest stages, on their TV stations and in their social media nationwide.

After having closely covered both sides of the Red/Yellow conflict since its beginning in late 2005, I was forced -- in fear of my life -- to avoid anti-government rallies, and could only work at gatherings by their Red Shirt opposition. While Yellow Shirt protesters reviled me, Red Shirts championed me as they saw me as a victim of their opponents, and I became what a journalist should never be -- a part of the story.

Unfortunately, that also meant that in the eyes of the Yellow I was to be publically vilified: guilty as charged -- "a Red Shirt journalist."

Such a charge is not only incredibly short-sighted, but is also an attack on my role as a journalist -- that we are supposed to be factual and fair in our reporting. But when facts speak against statements by either the Red or Yellow side, then we have to point that out.

Such attempts to paint me as a Red Shirt underline an even larger issue in the country, and one of the most tragic truths that has continued to blight this conflict: For most Thais there is no middle ground, protesters have no time for a truth that lies between black or white, or in this case Red or Yellow. You are simply one or the other. They have no time for exception; Yellows see Reds as pro-Thaksin Shinawatra and anti-monarchy; Reds see Yellows as anti-democratic and representative of an elite that continues to view them as second-class citizens. Many families are even split along color lines. I have many friends who cannot discuss politics at their dinner tables -- wives and husbands, brothers and sisters, parents and children belonging to opposing colors.

On May 7, while covering the reading of the verdict against now former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra at the Constitutional Court, my situation dramatically worsened. I was on a cigarette break at the building’s entrance when several PDRC guards tried to abduct me and take me to a nearby protest camp led by extremist Buddhist monk Buddha Issara -- the same place where two special branch police officers were this year tortured for 7 hours. Police again came to my rescue, rushing me from the area while PDRC guards searched. The following day my house was put under police protection, two armed officers stationed there overnight, and regular patrols taking place during the day.

Over the past six months, I have had to learn to live with fear as a constant companion -- a fear that is one of the main components of this conflict. To the ultra-conservative Yellow alliance -- of which the PDRC is just the latest incarnation -- it is "fear" of a future that may see the society that they deeply love turning into a society that has lost everything they see as being "Thai." On the other side, the pro-government United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship has "fear" that their burgeoning democratic rights and aspirations will be taken away from them by their opponents. And of course they also "fear" the might of the military, which -- under the direction of a government controlled by the leaders of today's anti-government movement -- violently cracked down on their protests in 2010, costing almost 100 lives.

That crackdown remains in the back of my mind, and sometimes feels as if it were yesterday. And that is one of the reasons the Yellow alliance hates me so much. A month after the crackdown, on receiving confirmation that a protester who was shot in front of me by soldiers had died, I agreed to become a witness in the case. As it turned out, I may have been the first person who dared to turn witness, and the headlines may have encouraged others to take a stand.

I'm slowly coming to terms with the fact that after living in Thailand for 21 years, there are now parts of the country I cannot go, such as the country's south which is dominated by the Democrat Party who are allied with the PDRC. Normal activities such as going to restaurants or department stores are also too dangerous, and there are people or places I cannot photograph without putting myself in jeopardy. I wonder how I can continue to work as a journalist and photographer under these conditions.

It's when I am asked what this conflict is about, however, that I really struggle. 

It is impossible to explain this enormously complex situation in a few sentences, or in a two-minute interview. It isn’t exactly poor vs. rich, as Thailand does not have that many classic “poor” anymore, and while the Reds have on average more economically disadvantaged sectors, there are quite a few protesting in Yellow. 

Some academics have proposed the notion that the battle is of a traditional middle class versus a new middle class, a more realistic theory. Others find an explanation solely in an "elite-driven conflict involving traditional elites versus a new rich" more to their liking, which was the case when telecom billionaire and former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted by a military coup in 2006.

But that theory looks at the common protesters as simple puppets of the rich and powerful -- a view that after years of reporting on the conflict I cannot share. What for me is the most significant is the rise in political awareness of common protesters, especially those affiliated to the Red Shirt movement, who for years have increasingly challenged traditional Thai state ideology -- a very conservative view of the individual and society that is driven by a homogenous and hierarchal ideal based on a common and unquestioning respect to people higher up in social rank.

In trying to explain the conflict to outsiders it is difficult to find parallels. Maybe the closest could be the 1848 revolutions in France, Germany and Austria, and the subsequent turmoil we went through as we went from feudal societies to European democracies. 

Thailand’s conflict is an identity crisis -- a change from a semi-feudal society into a modern society. While the past 30 years have seen enormous developments in technology and in the economy, social developments have lagged far behind. However, as part of the Red/Yellow conflict, these developments are now rapidly taking place, but unfortunately not in an orderly way, but in a chaotic format, at times accompanied by shocking violence.

The hatred between the opposing camps is enormous, and it’s pushing Thailand further and further into economic distress. The country -- for years a Southeast Asian economic powerhouse -- is now at a watershed, and this is of great concern to the entire continent. As a hub of the manufacturing and hi-tech sector, the Kingdom shares a similar geo-political position to that of Germany in the European Union -- very much at the center of it all. 

When Thai army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha declared martial law Tuesday -- and then a coup Thursday -- it led to an outpouring of concern from surrounding nations, many ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) nations individually issuing statements stating their concern -- in doing so breaking a longstanding policy of not interfering in internal matters of member states.

Thursday afternoon, Chan-ocha ordered the arrest of protest leaders of both sides during the second day of army-ordered negotiations, and announced a military coup. Both Red Shirt and the PDRC protest camps were dissolved. Even though their leaders were arrested, PDRC protesters were jubilant, seeing the coup as a victory.

The Red Shirts, however, are distraught, and angry.

What is going to happen now? Will that anger spill into an insurgency, and eventually a civil war? Or, will it, as the army intends, lead Thailand back into a harmonious society?

The first tentative anti-coup protests have already been planned for today.

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