BANGKOK, Thailand -- Black smoke billows from burning tires in the streets, creating small volcanoes fed by angry Red Shirt protesters armed with Molotov cocktails, slingshots and fireworks against trained snipers and inexperienced troops.

Survival amid Bangkok's worsening chaos and violence is making many people increasingly nervous, as more Reds and other civilians are shot and fires blaze.

A flaming barricade of tires spread to a nearby convenience store on Sunday (May 16) along Rama 4 Road, burning it to charred wreckage despite efforts by Reds and residents to douse the fire.

Many people fear hard-line protesters might intentionally set luxury hotels, malls, condominiums and offices ablaze if the army attacks the Reds' central rally site at Ratchaprasong intersection, equivalent to New York's Times Square.

Those concerns, coupled with the danger widespread civilian casualties, has kept security forces from storming the Reds' heavily barricaded Ratchaprasong stronghold, preferring to surround its outer streets and try to starve protesters into submission.

Setting smaller makeshift barricades on fire, however, has become the Red Shirts' favorite tactic to block wide streets and stake out new territory north and southeast of their main encampment where about 5,000 men, women and children are squatting.

Tall stacks of rubber tires, and piles of black garbage bags filled with trash, have been erected in countless scattered areas, creating fresh outposts of resistance for Reds against the military.

Many of the newest barricades are set on fire and kept ablaze by emboldened, shouting Reds.

Trucks bring a seemingly endless supply of used tires to reinforce the bonfires in a city known as the "Detroit of Asia" because it is a major assembly site for automobiles destined for U.S., European, Japanese and other markets.

Defying army gunfire, sweating men ignite stacks of rubber tires at various sites including Rama 4 Road, a vital four-lane throughway connecting their central barricaded zone to working-class Bon Kai and Klong Toey neighborhoods to the southeast.

They also burn tires on a major tollway's exit ramp at Rama 4, blocking civilian and military traffic to Klong Toey.

Some residents complain of the toxic stench.

Others help the Reds, or passively watch them construct the burning barricades, while dodging bullets and cowering in shop doorways, behind lamp posts and telephone booths along the sidewalk.

To extend their reach, the Reds drove a truck equipped with a portable sound system and stage to Klong Toey, and roused hundreds of supporters with speeches and songs.

Many people are eagerly donating money into the Reds' cardboard box at the newly created Klong Toey rally site, which includes electricity, food, collapsible tables, plastic chairs, medical supplies and other comforts.

Tires are also burning north of the main Ratchaprasong barricades in and around Din Daeng, another blue collar neighborhood.

A handful of people were shot dead on Sunday (May 16) along Rama 4 Road in Bon Kai and Klong Toey, and in Din Daeng and other areas, but the Reds remain defiant.

Nervous troops, many of them fresh draftees, hunker behind sandbags throughout Bangkok, using binoculars to hunt Reds in the street.

Each sniper, firing an M-16 assault rifle equipped with a telescopic lens, sits perched in a tall building, atop a pedestrian bridge, or at ground level, picking off targets.

Troops are apparently now keeping their distance from the Reds in the streets, preferring to pick them off one by one from afar, instead of confronting them with tear gas which soldiers earlier used, with little effect.

Frustrated Reds respond with hand-made slingshots, shooting marbles and burning firecrackers in an high arc from their barricades to the troops' sandbagged positions.

Protesters also set off fireworks, which are usually harmless rockets, and dance in the street to demoralize the soldiers.

During the past few days, Bangkok's situation has gone from bad to worse.

At least 30 people have died -- all of them Reds and other civilians -- and 250 were injured, including some soldiers and police, from clashes which began on Thursday (May 13).

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's coalition government had ordered Thailand's reluctant military to surround the Red Shirts' one-square-mile (three-square-kilometer) Ratchaprasong zone.

But angry Reds poured out from those barricades into the surrounding streets, and are challenging the military in surprising and inventive ways.

The U.S. Pentagon taught many of the army's troops and officers during decades of annual Cobra Gold training exercises to fight in jungles, storm beaches, and attack with heavy mechanized and aerial units.

"The military officers fight with conventional methods, while the opposing elements fight outside the rules," said Gen. Watanachai Chaimuanwong, a national security adviser to a former military regime installed after a 2006 coup.

"What we need here is a new kind of thinking for the situation we are dealing with now," he said, referring to the Reds' rustic asymmetrical tactics.

Bangkok's most violent streets are marked by the military's white cloth banners which warn, in English and Thai: "Live Fire Area" -- a new official slogan for this Buddhist-majority "Land of Smiles."

The ominous designation emphasizes that troops are using live ammunition while hunting anyone they suspect of defiantly demanding immediate elections, or supporting the Reds in other ways.

A "Live Fire Area" could easily degenerate into a "Free-Fire Zone" for confused or angry soldiers, New York-based Human Rights Watch said, insisting Thailand drop the designation which covers neighborhoods packed with innocent Thai and foreign civilians who live and work there.

"We have absolutely no way of getting out without risking our lives," said Bernd Mechsner, whose apartment is in a Live Fire Area.

"Going near those army checkpoints is a Russian Roulette," Mr. Mechsner said in a desperate online message.

"No supplies of food or anything else is coming into our neighborhood. We are now living of our reserves."

Elsewhere, panicked Thai and foreign shoppers crowded Bangkok's supermarkets, stockpiling food and supplies.

The Reds began rallying on March 12 by occupying Bangkok's

streets, initially in an older section of the capital before taking over the Ratchaprasong intersection. Officially known as the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), the Red Shirts want immediate nationwide polls to reverse the 2006 coup which toppled a populist but repressive, thrice-elected prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra who was later convicted of corruption.


Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. He is co-author of Hello My Big Big Honey!, a non-fiction book of investigative journalism. His web page is:

Asia correspondent