Thailand: Red Shirt democratic movement faces armed might of the ruling elites

[For the latest on developments in Thailand, please click HERE.]

By Giles Ji Ungpakorn, Turn Left Thailand

April 13, 2009 -- For the fourth time in forty years, troops have opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators in Bangkok. Each time, the aim has been the same: to protect the interests of the conservative elites who have run Thailand for the past 70 years.

For those watching the cold-blooded murder by soldiers on the streets of Bangkok, it may be tempting just to assume that the present chaos is merely about different coloured T-shirts and supporters of different political parties, as though they were mirror images of each other. This is not the case.

What we have been seeing in Thailand since late 2005 is a growing class war between the poor majority and the old elites. It is of course not a pure class war. Due to a vacuum on the left in the past, millionaire and populist politicians like Thaksin Shinawatra have managed to provide leadership to the poor. The urban and rural poor, who form the majority of the electorate, are the ``Red Shirts''. They want the right to choose their own democratically elected government. They started out as passive supporters of Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai government. But they have now formed a brand new citizens’ movement, for what they call “real democracy”. For them, “real democracy” means an end to the long-accepted “quiet dictatorship” of the army generals and the royal palace. This situation allowed the generals, the king's advisors in the Privy Council and the conservative elites to act as though they were above the constitution. Les majeste (which outlaw ``insulting'' -- criticism of -- the monarchy) laws and intermittent repression have been used to silence opposition. Ever since 2006, these elites have blatantly acted against election results by staging a military coup, using the courts to twice dissolve Taksin's party and by backing mob violence by the anti-democratic royalist  ``Yellow Shirts''. The present misnamed Democrat Party government led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was manoeuvred into place by the army.

Most of those in the Red Shirt movement support Taksin for good reasons. His government put in place many pro-poor policies, including Thailand's first ever universal health-care system. Yet the Red Shirts are not merely Taksin puppets. There is a dialectical relationship between Taksin and the Red Shirts. His leadership provides encouragement and confidence to fight. Yet the Red Shirts are self-organised in community groups and some are showing frustration with Taksin's lack of progressive leadership, especially over his insistence that they continue to be “loyal” to the crown.

Over the past few days, the Red Shirts have shown signs of self-leadership to such an extent that the old Red Shirt politicians are running to keep up. A republican movement is growing. Many left-leaning Thais like myself are not Taksin supporters. We opposed his human rights abuses. But we are the left wing of the citizens' movement for real democracy.

The Yellow Shirts are conservative royalists. Some have fascist tendencies. Their guards carry and use firearms. They supported the 2006 coup, wrecked Government House and blocked the international airport last year. Behind them were the Thai army. That is why troops never shot at the Yellow Shirts. That is why the present, Oxford- and Eton-educated Thai Prime Minister has done nothing to punish the Yellow Shirts. After all, he appointed some to his cabinet.

The aims of the Yellow Shirts are to reduce the voting power of the electorate in order to protect the conservative elites and the “bad old ways” of running Thailand. They see increased citizen empowerment as a threat and propose a “New Order” dictatorship, where people are allowed to vote, but most MPs and public positions are not up for election. They are supported by the mainstream Thai media, most middle-class academics and even NGO leaders. The NGOs have disgraced themselves over the last few years by siding with the Yellows or remaining silent in the face of the general attack on democracy. Despite being well meaning, their lack of politics has let them down and they have been increasingly drawn to the right.

When we talk about the “palace” we have to make a distinction between the king and all those who surround him. The king has always been weak and lacking in any democratic principles. The palace has been used to legitimise past and present dictatorships. As a “stabilising force”, the monarchy has only helped to stabilise the interests of the elite. The immensely wealthy king is also opposed to any wealth redistribution. The queen is an extreme reactionary. However the real people with power among the Thai elites are the army and high-ranking state officials.

If one is to understand and judge the violent acts which have been taking place in Thailand, we need a sense of history and perspective. Perspective is needed to distinguish between damaging property and injuring or killing people. With this perspective, it is clear that the Yellow Shirts and the army are the violent ones. A sense of history helps to explain why Red Shirt citizens are now exploding in anger. They have had to endure the military jackboot, the repeated theft of their democratic rights, continued acts of violence against them and general abuse from the mainstream media and academia. If they continue to resist, cracks may appear in the army. During the past four years Thai citizens have become highly politicised. Ordinary soldiers, recruited from poor families, support the Red Shirts.

The stakes are very high. Any compromise has the risk of instability because it will satisfy almost no one. The old elites might want to do a deal with Taksin to stop the Red Shirts from becoming totally republican. But whatever happens, Thai society cannot go back to the old days. The Red Shirts represent millions of Thais who are sick and tired of military and palace intervention in politics. At the very least they will want a non-political constitutional monarchy. It is hoped that the Red Shirts will continue to move to the left during this round of struggle.

Looking at Thailand’s crisis: some basics

By Giles Ji Ungpakorn

April 13, 2008 -- When watching and commenting on the recent events in Thailand, observers need to hold on to some basic principles. These are:

1. No government anywhere in the world has the right to use troops to gun down protesters in the streets, especially when they are not carrying firearms. The Abhisit government's use of the army to kill people in cold blood is an outrage. It is not “restraint” nor “the application of the Rule of Law”. It puts the Thai government on the same level as the Burmese junta and its aims are the same too ... to hang on to illegitimate power and protect the interests of the privileged.

2. If observers want to pontificate about the “Rule of Law”, then they must first denounce the illegal military coup of 2006, the lack of partiality and accountability among the judiciary in dissolving the elected parties of government, the illegal seizure of Government House and the airports by the misnamed royalist Peoples' Alliance for Democracy (PAD), the use of firearms and bombs by the PAD, the illegal bribes and threats to manoeuvre the Democrat Party into power, the illegal government-backed Blue Shirt gangs, who carried firearms and the illegal and extra-constitutional role of the palace and the king's advisors in frustrating the functioning of democracy. None of the above cases have been punished.

3. There is a clear line between democracy and dictatorship. “Thai-style democracy” is an elite myth. The Yellow Shirts have repeatedly failed to respect the democratic wishes of the majority of the population. They want more appointed public positions and less power to the electorate. They want a “New Order”. They want censorship. They back the draconian lese majeste law which stifle the basic right to freedom of speech. The Red Shirts may not be angels, but they want a genuine democratic process without interference from the military, the king's advisors or the palace. They would prefer to use the more democratic constitution of 1997, rather than the present one drafted by the military.

4. The anger of the Red Shirts over the past few days did not come out of nowhere. Since 2006 the majority of Thais have continually been abused politically by the elite Yellow Shirts, the mainstream media and middle-class academics. When pictures of Red Shirts smashing the PM's car are shown, it is dishonest and bad journalism not to explain this.

5. The majority of Red Shirts support Taksin, not because they like to “hero worship”, but because his government brought in a universal health-care system and other pro-poor measures. The Democrat Party and the Yellow Shirts opposed these policies all along and knew that they couldn't win popular elections as a result. This is why they wanted a coup.

6. Most of the Thai elite are corrupt, especially army generals and politicians. Why single out just Taksin? We need to punish them all or none at all.

7. The entire Thai elite support the use of state violence, whether it be in the [mainly Muslim] south of Thailand, in the ``war on drugs'' or against unarmed protesters. Taksin has to take responsibility for gross human rights abuses while he was prime minister. So does the rest of the elite, including Abhisit and the generals. There is a long history of Thai state crimes and we need to challenge this. We can start with denouncing the cold-blooded murder by troops on the streets of Bangkok this April.

[Giles Ji Ungpakorn worked in the faculty of political science, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand. He was forced to leave Thailand after being charged under Thailand's anti-democratic les majeste laws. He is an activist with the socialist Turn Left Thailand group. Visit and]

Red Shirts shut down the ASEAN summit

April 10, 2009 -- In Pattaya, demonstrators -- members of the National United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), aka Red Shirts -- broke the police cordon around the hotel where the ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) summit was to be held, demanding the resignation of the illegitimate government. The Thai government responded by declaring a state of emergency in Pattaya. The summit was cancelled.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Tue, 04/14/2009 - 09:42


Thai Red U.K. Condemns the arrest of Redshirt Leaders

No to the State of Emergency! No to the Military Crack-down!

Return Thailand to Democracy Now !


Giles Ji Ungpakorn and Watana Ebbage, on behalf of Thai Red U.K.


Thai Red U.K., the association of Redshirts in Britain, condemns the declaration of a State of Emergency by the illegitimate government of Abhisit Vejjajiva. We condemn the Military’s use of tanks and live ammunition against protestors. We say no to another coup. We also condemn the arrest of Redshirt leaders and demand that all of them be released. We are concerned by the creation, by pro-government politicians, such as Newin Chitchorp, of armed Blueshirted thugs, who have attacked pro-democracy demonstrators. The government should resign immediately to allow genuine democratic elections to be held as a matter of urgency. This would be a first step in allowing for a peaceful resolution of the long-running crisis.


Why the Redshirts are not merely a mirror image of the Yellowshirt Royalists

It is tempting for those watching the Thai events to merely conclude that the Redshirt protests are merely a mirror image of the Yellowshirt Royalists who seized the international airports late last year. There can be nothing further from the truth.


The Yellowshirts

The Yellowshirt Royalists built the PAD, a movement with worrying fascist tendencies. Since 2006, they have demanded that Thai Democracy be scrapped in favour of a “New Order” dictatorship. They have consistently claimed that the majority of Thais, especially the poor, are too ignorant to be allowed the right to vote. They welcomed the 2006 military coup, seized Government House and blocked Parliament with armed gangs claiming to be “fighting for the King”. Late last year, with the collusion of the Army, they took control of Thailand’s international airports and nearly caused a war with Cambodia. They are an integral part of the present (mis-named) Democrat Party government. This government does not represent the democratic wishes of the majority of Thais. It only came to power after the courts were used as political tools of the Yellowshirts to twice dissolve the most popular political party. The Army then bribed and threatened shady politicians like Newin Chitchorp to change sides. (This politician was named after the Burmese military dictator Newin!)


The Yellowshirts represent an elite, reactionary, alliance between the Army, the Palace and Privy Council, the PAD and the Democrat Party. They are fearful that their privileges will be jeopardised by further empowering the poor, who make up most of the electorate. The Democrat Party has never succeeded in winning a majority of the popular vote. Unfortunately the majority of Middle-Class academics and many N.G.O. leaders also support the Yellowshirts and welcomed the 2006 coup which ripped up the democratic Constitution of 1997.


During the violent Yellow shirt protests of 2008, the entire Thai state apparatus and media supported them. The PAD wrecked the interior of Government House, staged violent attacks on the police and created much damage to the economy by blockading the airports. Yet no PAD leader has been punished for this use of violence and none have been condemned by the Thai mainstream media or by academics and N.G.O. leaders.  The Military have never been punished for their illegal coup or their rampant corruption. Talk now of “respecting the law” by Thai PM Abhisit, is therefore hypocritical nonsense.


The Redshirts

The Redshirts are a pro-democracy movement. Many support the policies of former PM Thaksin Shinawat because his government provided the first ever Universal Health Care system and other pro-poor measures. His party has repeatedly won elections, even after the coup. However, the Redshirts are not just supporters and puppets of Thaksin. They are ordinary citizens, most of whom believe passionately in freedom and democracy. There are many Redshirts who are not supporters of Thaksin. It is also a movement of the urban and rural poor, people who have had their democratic rights stolen from them by the Yellowshirts.


Today, in addition to fighting for democracy, the Redshirts are starting to question the “silent dictatorship” of the King’s advisors in the Privy Council. They have broken a decades old taboo about the Monarchy. Significant numbers are also becoming Republicans, while many still want a genuine Constitutional Monarchy which is not involved in politics.


The Redshirts do not have an armed guard like the Yellow or Blue shirts. They are not rich people who can protest for days on end without going to work. They have made great efforts to avoid violence, despite being attacked. The behaviour of Redshirts in surrounding the Prime Minister’s car or breaking into the hotel in Pattaya to close down the Asian Summit, did not result in serious injury or serious damage to property. This is in contrast to the actions of the Yellowshirts.


Both in terms of “Means” and “Ends” the Red and Yellow shirts are opposites. We call on all freedom-loving people throughout the world to support the fight for Democracy in Thailand. We support the recent comments by Redshirt Jakrapop Penkair, when he says that the Thai people have the right to mount a Peoples’ Struggle for Democracy.

12th April 2009



Thai Red UK plans a peaceful protest outside the Thai Embassy in London on Tuesday 14th April. For more details contact Khun Wattana +44(0)121243619, +44(0)7780801763.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Tue, 04/14/2009 - 09:57


Analysis by Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Apr 12 (IPS) - The dramatic scenes that unfolded at a regional summit forcing its cancellation Apr. 11 point to a disturbing possibility that this kingdom is heading for a long period of turmoil - pitting the conservative political establishment against the rage of the urban and provincial poor.

The four-month-old coalition government, headed by the Democrat Party, was forced to call off the two-day, 16-nation summit after thousands of anti-government protesters broke through a wall of police and army personnel guarding the venue and swarmed into the conference halls.

In this loss to the country, anyone or any group of people that announces a victory should be regarded as the true enemies of Thailand, the visibly shaken Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said at a press conference in the aftermath of the ruined summit. "Whatever status I have, I will never allow these people to become influential."

The summit had brought together leaders of countries who belong to a 10- member regional bloc, the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN), and leaders from its economic and dialogue partners.

ASEAN’s members include Brunei, Burma (or Myanmar), Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam and the summit’s host, Thailand. The bloc’s partners range from China, Japan and South Korea to Australia and India.

The scene of anarchy that was played out in Pattaya, a resort town south of Bangkok where the leaders were to talk, was, in a sense, the final act of a regional meeting that had struggled to get underway due to the political tug- of-war that has gripped this country since the September 2006 coup.

The 14th ASEAN summit had to be postponed twice late last year after the coalition government of the day, led by the People Power Party (PPP), was crippled due to a protest movement that drew thousands of yellow-shirt wearing followers from the urban elites who openly advocated pro-royalist, conservative and right-wing views.

The "yellow-shirts" took to the streets in late March 2008 and then stormed the prime minister’s office, Government House, in August and occupied it for over three months. In late November, they gave the PPP government its bloodiest nose by forcefully taking over Bangkok’s largest international airport, bringing all airline traffic to a halt.

The Democrat Party, the opposition in 2008, got its chance to govern and host the summit in 2009 due to fortunate circumstances. In December, the PPP-led coalition, which had won convincingly at a late 2007 general election, was disbanded in a controversial ruling by a superior court. The Democrats filled the void thanks to backroom deals involving the country’s powerful military and large sums of money reportedly paid to parliamentarians to join the new coalition.

This shift of power hardly impressed supporters of the United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), who stormed the ASEAN summit and forced its cancellation over the weekend. Supporters of this protest movement are recognised by the trademark red shirts that they wear and their slogans against the Democrat Party-led coalition, declaring that it "lacks legitimacy."

The "red shirts" also stand out for their open support of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by the military in the 2006 putsch and is on the run in exile to avoid arrest for breaking conflict-of-interest laws and corruption charges.

Thaksin led a government that won successive parliamentary elections in 2001 and 2005 with unprecedented majorities. He still has deep support among the urban and provincial underclass due to a raft of pro-poor policies he implemented during his five-and-a-half-year term in office.

The PPP drew similar support due to its strong ties with the deposed Thaksin. Its electoral triumph in the late 2007 poll saw Thailand making a tentative return to democracy after being under the rule of a junta for 16 months.

But, for the second time in less than two years the electoral choice of the country’s largest constituency - the urban and provincial poor - was under attack by the political conservative forces that revile Thaksin and his associates. While it was the army that played its part through the country’s 18th coup in 2006, in 2008 it was the courts, issuing controversial and, at times, farcical judgements.

The ruling Democrat-led administration is being buffeted by the rage that has burst to the surface from this disenfranchised constituency. The "red shirts" have taken to the streets since late March and have begun to repeat some tactics of the "yellow shirts" - holding round-the-clock protests outside Government House.

Among them are people like Pricha Jaibanpad, a taxi driver from the northern city of Chiang Mai. This 48-year-old was involved in a form of civil disobedience on Thursday that demonstrated the muscle of the marginalised: nearly 100 taxi drivers parked their vehicles across the streets of a busy intersection, clogging traffic and bring parts of Bangkok to a standstill.

"Many taxi drivers have come. They feel it is their responsibility because of the love for democracy," said Pricha, standing by his car that had a coat of canary yellow and green paint and carried a banner in Thai, which read: "Elite, aristocrat policy exploits human dignity."

The show of force by the "red shirts" in the recent weeks to shake up the conservative political establishment that the Democrat-led administration presides over is already being viewed as a watershed moment in Thai politics.

"The country has had political mobilisations against governments going back to 1973. But what is new is that it is not the Bangkok middle class trying to force a government out of power; for the first time, it is the up-country people trying to push the government in Bangkok out," says Michael Nelson, a German academic who has written extensively on Thai politics.

The emerging "red shirt" movement goes against a view that the urban elite has long held, that they determine the country’s national agenda, Nelson explained in an interview. "There is a Thai saying that the up-country people vote governments in and the Bangkok people topple the governments."

He views this sea change as a "sign of enormous political progress" of a constituency that was often sneered at by the elites as being passive, uneducated and not interested in politics. "They want to have more share to determine the national agenda."


Submitted by Terry Townsend on Fri, 04/17/2009 - 09:36


Erklärung Thailänder in Deutschland für echte Demokratie in Thailand

[English version below]

Wir sind Tausende von Thailändern, aus Dortmund, Frankfurt am Main, Mainz, Alzey, München, Weimar , Berlin und viele anderen Städten. Wir setzen uns für die wahre Demokratie in Thailand ein.

Nach der politischen Wende 1932 von der absoluten Monarchie zur konstitutionellen Demokratie kann Thailand und das Thai Volk keine echte Demokratie genießen. Das Wahlrecht des Volks wurde niemals respektiert. Die Armee hat zwölf Mal erfolgreich Putsche verübt. Jedes Mal hat die Armee die selben Gründe für die Putsche angeführt : Korruption und Majestätsbeleidigung. Der wahre Grund des Konflikts ist aber der Versuch der alten Machthaber (Armee, Aristokraten etc.), das aristokratische und adlige Machtgefüge gegenüber einer immer stärker werdenden demokratische Entwicklung im Land weiter aufrecht zu erhalten.

Die  demokratische  Verfassung von 1997 hatte seiner Zeit das politische demokratische System und die zivile Regierung im Land gut nach demokratischen Regeln stabilisiert. Leider haben die alten Machthaber diese demokratische Entwicklung in unserem Land blockiert, um ihre Macht und ihren Reichtum zu erhalten und nicht mit dem thailändischen Volk zu teilen. Deswegen kam es zu einem militärischen Putsch am 19. September 2006.

Jetzt will das Volk keinen Putsch mehr und möchte, dass ihr demokratisches Recht gewahrt wird. Thaksin ist heute nur noch Historie und spielt keine wichtige Rolle mehr bei der jetzigen demokratischen Bewegung in Thailand. Entscheidend ist, dass eine Verfassung vereinbart wird, in der die Menschenrechte verankert sind und eine demokratische Grundordnung hergestellt wird.

Wir wissen alle, dass Demokratie nicht immer eine ideale Staatsform darstellt, wir wissen aber auch, dass auf der Welt bisher keine bessere existiert.

Leider ist am 12. und 13. Apr. 2009 wieder die demokratische Bewegung des größten Teils der thailändischen Bevölkerung vom Militär gnadenlos niedergeschlagen worden. Das eigene Volk wird wiederum von einer Gruppe der Machthaber geknechtet. Wir möchten den Premierminister Apisit Vejjajiva, seine Regierung, die Armee und die Aristokraten anklagen wegen ihrer Gewalttätigkeit gegen das eigene Volk.

Wir fordern die Thailänder, die in Deutschland leben, auf, zusammen zu halten und für unser Land und für die Demokratie zu kämpfen, damit Wohlstand für alle und gerechte Chancen für unsere Kinder in Zukunft in unserem Land entstehen können.


Declaration Thais in Germany for real democracy in Thailand

We are thousands of Thais, from Dortmund, Frankfurt, Mainz, Alzey, Munich, Weimar, Berlin and many other cities. We are committed to true democracy in Thailand.

After the political upheaval in 1932 by an absolute monarchy to constitutional democracy can Thailand and the Thai people do not enjoy real democracy. The right to vote of the people was never respected. The army has twelve times successful coups perpetrated. Every time the army has the same reasons for the coups cited: Corruption and majesty insult. The real cause of the conflict, however, is the attempt by the former rulers (Army, aristocracy, etc.), the noble and aristocratic power structure towards increasingly strong democratic development in the country continue to maintain.

The democratic Constitution of 1997 had its time, the democratic political system and the civilian government in the country well stabilized according to democratic rules. Unfortunately, the old rulers of this democratic development in our country is blocked, to their power and wealth and not with the Thai people to share. Therefore, there was a military coup on 19 September 2006.

Now the people want no more coup, and would like their democratic right is respected. Thaksin is now only history, and plays no important role in the current democratic movement in Thailand. It is crucial that a constitution is agreed, in which human rights are enshrined and democratic basic order is made.

We all know that democracy is not always an ideal form of government, we also know that the world exists no more.

Unfortunately, on 12 and 13 Apr. again in 2009 the democratic movement of the majority of the Thai population down mercilessly by the army been beaten. Your own people will turn from a group of rulers geknechtet. We want the Prime Minister Apisit Vejjajiva, his government, the army and because of its aristocracy accuse violence against its own people.

We urge the Thais who live in Germany, to hold together and for our country and for democracy to fight, so that prosperity for all and fair opportunity for our children in the future in our country can emerge.

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Fri, 04/17/2009 - 11:32



CNN’s coverage of the recent mass protests in Thailand has been impressive in a dismal sort of way. Suspecting that its viewers are unable to cope with concepts more complex than vivid colours it constantly referred to clashes between “red shirts ” and the police. To be fair the article to which I’ve linked does give a helpful “colour code” but that was entirely absent from any of the TV coverage I saw over three of four days. The nadir was when Kent Brockman - or someone awfully like him - interviewed a representative of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship  (UFDD). His questioning was along the lines of “if you chaps in red shirts get your way then those chaps in yellow shirts will be jolly cross, so why kick up a fuss?” The UFDD person replied “what is happening in Thailand today is a class struggle. Some leaders of the movement want to give up but we will go underground and carry on the class struggle.”

By any reckoning there was enough in that answer to give the making of an interesting interview. Who wants to give up and why did they hand themselves into the police? Why do you say it’s a class struggle? That was not Brockman’s approach. His angle was that it was a lot of foreigners with unpronounceable names creating a hoohaa because that’s what they do in those places. I may be conflating some elements of the torrent of drivel that sounded like it had been written by the State Department’s press office but the only bits of the news that the average CNN  anchor gets genuinely interested in is the material about the Obama family’s new pet.

image There is much to be indignant about when you watch news reporting that is this shoddy. The first thing is just how little you learn about what’s happening in the world from watching CNN news. The excellent Australian journal Links which, and this is pure speculation, is run on a couple of quid less than CNN’s budget gives a lot more information about what is actually happening.

“Most of those in the Red Shirt movement support Taksin for good reasons. His government put in place many pro-poor policies, including Thailand’s first ever universal health-care system. Yet the Red Shirts are not merely Taksin puppets. There is a dialectical relationship between Taksin and the Red Shirts. His leadership provides encouragement and confidence to fight. Yet the Red Shirts are self-organised in community groups and some are showing frustration with Taksin’s lack of progressive leadership, especially over his insistence that they continue to be “loyal” to the crown.”

The second thing is the casual way in which a major protest movement is presented as a clash over colour preferences or as trivial as something like soccer. The more unusual the names involved to the American or European ear the less serious the analysis that is presented. It’s probably unfair to single out CNN but it was the channel that I had occasion to see over a few days while the protests were featuring in its bulletins. Nonetheless it was as good an example of the mainstream press downgrading mass political activity as you could wish to find with the added bonus of casual racism.