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Trapped in a gunfight: CNN producer's harrowing account of Thai election violence

By Kocha Olarn, CNN
February 3, 2014 -- Updated 0950 GMT (1750 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CNN reporter Kocha Olarn saw pro-election protester shot in the chest
  • Gunmen with anti-government protesters fired towards pro-election ralliers
  • Olarn escaped by crawling away

Editor's note: Kocha Olarn is CNN International's producer in Bangkok.

(CNN) -- It was late morning on Saturday and the day so far had been relatively calm. Fears of widespread bloody clashes during Thailand's election process had failed to turn into reality.

We had decided to go to a suburb of Bangkok, an area called Lak Si, where I had heard a group of pro-election campaigners were marching to the Lak Si administration office where voting ballots for that constituency were kept. That office had been blocked by anti-election protestors.

A few hours later, the pro-election protesters arrived but kept a distance of several hundred meters from their counterparts. All of a sudden, I heard the sound of firecrackers being thrown back and forth though I couldn't work out exactly where the noise was coming from.

Then -- the sound of a gunshot.

I saw pro-election protesters flinch and throw themselves to the ground. Things went quiet for a bit. Then some pro-election protesters started gathering together, and I ran over to see what was going on.

It was a man sitting on the floor. He was shot in the chest, but could still talk. What had been a relatively peaceful protest that day turned violent with no warning and this man the first casualty. More was to come.

The pro-election protesters started to yell at an anti-government protest group who had just arrived with a big loudspeaker truck on the other side of Lak Si intersection in Bangkok. One pro-election protester told me the shot was fired from that side.

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I thought I should withdraw, and decided to catch up with my colleagues, who had just crossed the road.

As I crossed the road, a speaker on the truck said "Please keep hidden on the left side of our truck, and walk slowly."

I moved behind a square-shaped cement barrier, and thought maybe I could put my camera on top of the barrier and take a steady shot as the truck passed by.

That's when a group of three masked men ran from behind the truck. I thought, "That's strange, their leader said to walk along the truck."

That's when I realized the men were running toward me, toward my camera. They saw me for sure.

The group of men reached my position and there was only a low cement barrier between us. Suddenly they started firing handguns in the direction of the pro-election protesters. One man carried a large green bag, which looked to conceal a rifle.

I was sitting upright, but I dropped my back to the ground immediately. All I could think was that I had to keep my camera recording. Would my lens capture the gunmen?

You journalist, don't film this. If I have to destroy your camera, then don't blame me.

Once I felt like I had gotten the footage, my next thought was: "I should get out of here? After all, the gunfire was still going."

I peeked my head from behind the cement barricade and I asked a nearby man, "Can I leave, please? Or should I stay?" Only after I had spoken, did I notice the pistol in his hand.

His face looked stern. "You journalist, don't film this. If I have to destroy your camera, then don't blame me."

So I had to put my camera down. Apart from myself, there were at least a half-dozen other cameramen who were stuck and trapped along these gunmen, for 40 minutes or more.

Eventually I tried again. I asked the same man, "Is it a good time for us to leave?"

He said okay. "Keep yourself lower than the barriers and crawl."

So we left -- I went first. We crawled along the road, keeping next to the cement barriers along the way.

I crawled past six pistol-wielding gunmen who were mingling with anti-government protesters. Some gunmen wore masks, some didn't. They were firing toward the pro-election protesters the whole time. I could feel bullets zipping not far past my ears.

While crawling, I also saw another two gunmen with rifles, unmasked. They, too, were shooting in the direction of the pro-election protesters.

In the end, it probably took about 15 minutes to reunite with my colleagues at the other side of the road.

But it felt like forever. And though only a small moment in what has been months of protests, it served as a reminder and a warning that the situation is far from resolved in Thailand -- that passions remain high and that bloodshed is sadly only a moment of madness away.

READ: After disrupting Thailand election, protesters pledge more demonstrations

READ: Protests delay elections in Bangkok district

READ: 10 questions: What's behind the protests in Thailand?

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