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Thailand: What the September 19 mass Red Shirt rallies mean for Thai politics

Bangkok, September 19, 2010. Photo by Ooi Thai Delphi, CBNpress (published with permission).

[For more on the Thai people's struggle for democracy, click HERE.]

By Giles Ji Ungpakorn

September 21, 2010 -- In the afternoon of Sunday, September 19, 2010, tens of thousands of Red Shirts returned to the Ratchaprasong intersection in Bangkok to remember the coup four years previously, and the deliberate murder in April and May this year of around 90 unarmed demonstrators, many of whom were gunned down by army snipers near Ratchaprasong.

Since the brutal killings by the military-backed Abhisit Vejjajiva junta, there has been a climate of fear, with hundreds of political prisoners locked up and evidence of extrajudicial killings of some Red Shirt activists. Censorship has remained tight. Thai mainstream TV failed to report the extent of the demonstration, playing down the numbers, as usual.

Bangkok is still under the Emergency Decree and Red Shirts were given dire warnings by junta politicians and the generals. They were “ordered” not to block the road. Yet tens of thousands of Red Shirts gathered in Bangkok. There were so many that the road was soon blocked and the size of the demonstration resembled the size of the protests four months ago. Thousands also gathered in the northern city of Chiangmai, and there were modest protests in many towns and cities throughout the country. At the same time coordinated protests also took place around the world. In Thailand, two days before September 19, thousands laid red roses outside 17 prisons holding political prisoners.

While some jaded hacks and conservative journalists will write about the weakness of the Red Shirts, how they are the “rural poor” and simple folk “dependent on Thaksin Shinawatra”, what the mass protests at Ratchaprasong show most of all is that the Red Shirt movement is an incredibly resilient grassroots movement. This is not surprising because Thailand has a long tradition of struggle for democracy.

What is amazing is that only four months after the bloody crackdown, Red Shirts dared to return to the site in very large numbers. Most of those at Ratchaprasong on September 19 were from Bangkok, showing that there is mass support in the capital city, not just in the provinces. What is even more encouraging is that people came out to protest in Bangkok because a general call was put out by Sombat Boonngamanong, the organiser of Red Sunday events. Sombat and his colleagues were overwhelmed with emotion at the unexpected response and the size of the protest. Sombat is not an opposition Peua Thai politician but a grassroots pro-democracy activist. He organised the first symbolic protest against the 2006 coup, which I attended. The significance of this is that, while most Red Shirt leaders are either in jail or on the run, and while Thaksin and top Peua Thai Party officials are calling for reconciliation and compromise with the junta, the Red Shirts are capable of grassroots self-activity.

Many eyewitnesses report that the Red Shirts at Ratchaprasong were chanting Hia Sung Ka, which means “the iguana ordered the killing”. "Iguana" is a strong term of abuse in Thai. Now this can be interpreted in many ways. It could refer to the unelected PM Abhisit, or General Anupong, the ex-head of the army, or Prem. But it might well refer to the king. It may be that people were referring to different figures as they chanted. But my guess is that most meant the king. While this writer does not believe that the king has enough leadership qualities to order anything, this phenomenon does indicate a growing republican movement among millions of Red Shirts following the April/May bloodbath.

October 6, 1976, was the last time in Thai history that the elites gunned down and murdered the democracy movement, in order to stay in power. It took years for the movement to recover, but even then, the growth of the Communist Party forced the ruling class to eventually come to a compromise. This time round, the early shoots of recovery have already started to sprout, only four months after the bloodbath. What is more, the elites are faced with an open, above ground, mass social movement, made up of millions, and this movement is showing self-leadership and radicalisation.

[Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a political commentator and dissident. In February 2009 he had to leave Thailand for exile in Britain because he was charged with lèse majesté for writing a book criticising the 2006 military coup. He is a member of Left Turn Thailand, a socialist organisation. His latest book, Thailand’s Crisis and the Fight for Democracy, will be of interest to activists, academics and journalists who have an interest in Thai politics, democratisation and NGOs.]

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