A Canadian writer and photographer injured during a military crackdown on anti-government protesters in Bangkok has undergone brain surgery and remains in serious condition, a friend who witnessed the incident said Wednesday.
Chandler Vandergrift, a freelance journalist known for an adventurous spirit that often propelled him into the thick of the action, was struck in the head by shrapnel from a grenade blast.
It happened shortly after hundreds of Thai troops moved through the barricades to end a two-month protest by the so-called Red Shirts.
Nick Nostitz, a German freelance photographer who’s been living in Thailand for a few years, was about 60 metres from Vandergrift when the army stormed the protest camp.
“When the military started moving in, there was an enormous amount of gunfire,” Nostitz told The Canadian Press in an phone interview from Bangkok.
“Then the Black Shirts, a radical faction under the Red Shirts, started firing grenades against the military and Vandergrift was hit by one of the grenades.”
Nostitz said his friend seemed unconscious when he was carried away by the military in an armoured personnel carrier.
A University of Victoria professor said Vandergrift always had a passion for southeast Asia.
Helen Lansdowne, who taught Vandergrift while he was completing his undergraduate degree in Pacific and Asian studies, said that passion compelled him to learn the Thai language, immerse himself in the culture and ensure he was on the front lines to witness current events as they unfolded.
Lansdowne described her former student as bright, sensitive and thoughtful.
While chagrined to hear of Vandergrift’s injuries, Lansdowne said the news did not come as a shock.
“It’s not surprising he got hurt during this round because he was very much wanting to be in the thick of things,” she said from Victoria. “He wanted to be there to take pictures, to observe, and he wasn’t one to hide behind a building.”
Vandergrift, originally from Calgary, came to the University of Victoria later than most of his undergraduate peers, she said, adding he spent a few years travelling after high school.
His passion for the key social issues that dominate southeast Asia was evident throughout his studies, she said, adding he spent a summer in Cambodia volunteering for women’s organizations.
Vandergrift won a fellowship from the school that enabled him to study in Bangkok for a year and graduated in 2006, she said.
His Facebook profile indicates he completed a master’s degree in conflict analysis and management from Victoria’s Royal Roads University in 2010.
Vandergrift had been living in Bangkok for several years where he was working on a film about Muslims in southern Thailand, Lansdowne said.
Her former pupil had a real eye for photography, she said. She described a slide show he compiled from pictures taken on his previous travels was the “most magnificent” she had ever seen.
“He was very humble about it, he wasn’t trying to show off, he really just wanted to share it with the class.”
Vandergrift is the latest Canadian to be injured during the unrest that has rocked the Thai capital for nearly two months.
Last week, journalist Nelson Rand was shot three times while covering the clashes between military troops and government protesters. An Italian photojournalist has also been killed.
Vandergrift was one of three foreign writers known to be injured in Wednesday’s clashes. The other two, a Dutchman and an American, were reported less seriously hurt.
In Ottawa, Foreign Affairs said it is providing consular assistance to the injured Canadian, and warned against all travel to Bangkok, citing the danger of “significant violence, death, and injury.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon called on both sides to end the violence. “Canada also calls on the Thai government and protest groups to work together constructively to bring about peace and stability and reinvest in Thailand’s democratic institutions and processes.”
Bruce Saunders, another Canadian living in Bangkok, said he has no plans to leave.
“The last week, especially, it’s been very tense for everybody,” said Saunders, a 49-year-old corporate language consultant who lives less than two kilometres from the main protest site.
“I work in the language industry here so I know several of our teachers, our language trainers are basically in live-fire zones and either had to get out of their apartments early or got stuck there and are basically hunkered down.”
Saunders said foreign tourists have stopped coming to the city and long-time residents have either evacuated or are planning to, but he won’t be joining them because he says he loves Thailand.
“Despite everything that’s happening, I think the Thai people are wonderful, I think that in the big picture this is part of democratic growing pains.”
At least six people were killed in clashes that followed the army’s crackdown Wednesday.
The Thai army has now declared an end to its operation against anti-government protesters and the Red Shirt protest leadership surrendered to authorities.
But the violence raged on.
Bangkok’s skyline was blotted by black smoke from more than two dozen buildings set ablaze — including Thailand’s stock exchange, main power company, banks, a movie theatre and one of Asia’s largest shopping malls.