Thailand: The end of the Red Shirts?

By Justin Alick, Bangkok

May 27, 2010 -- On March 3, 2010, the red-shirted leaders of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) held a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand to outline the details of the coming mass rally to be held in Bangkok. The purpose of the rally, they said, was to force an army-backed government to make a choice: to embrace democracy and hold general elections, or to embrace authoritarianism and kill its own citizens. When asked by one journalist how the UDD would respond in the case of the government choosing the latter, the answer from Red Shirt leader Jaran Ditthapichai sent a palpable chill across the room: “We may see Thailand descend into civil war.”

A former student activist and a once a leading member of the now outlawed and disbanded Communist Party of Thailand, Jaran is not a man of hyperbole -- he was one of the thousands of demonstrators who were attacked by the Royal Thai Army and right-wing militias in the October 6, 1976, massacre at Thammasat University, and was forced to flee into the jungles of the outer provinces.

Thailand is no stranger to pro-democracy rallies or the military crackdowns that usually end them. The Red Shirts knew from the beginning what they were up against, and just what the network of political, business and military elites -- known as the Ammartayathippatai, which they believe were responsible for bringing the current government to power via “extra-democratic means” -- would be willing to do to prevent elections from taking place. Yet from the beginning they resolved to fight this establishment using non-violent means, going as far as to eject a more radical faction known as Red Siam for suggesting otherwise (not to mention their anti-monarchist sentiments).

After occupying a sizeable chunk of Bangkok’s Old City, including several major intersections and the Democracy Monument (which has become synonymous with both military rule and resistance to it), the Red Shirts went on a mobile rally to the gates of Parliament House and the residence of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. There, they splashed litres of their own blood on the gates, in a symbolic act of protest that would turn out to be tragically prophetic.

The violence begins

On April 10, the Royal Thai Army launched a massive assault against the Red Shirts’ position that, while killing many unarmed protesters, failed to disperse their rally and in fact only seemed to make them more determined to continue. Additionally, several soldiers were killed in what was believed to have been a counterattack by the UDD’s shadowy “militant wing”, although no independent investigation has since been made into the deaths.

The Red Shirts were now both aware of the government’s willingness to shoot civilian dissidents, and emboldened by the failure of its attempt to disperse them -- and so they made the strategic decision to shift their protest to the more easily defended (and more damaging for the government) Rajprasong Intersection at the heart of Bangkok’s shopping district. And there they would remain. After a brief glimmer of mutual de-escalation, which almost resulted in a peace deal that would have seen the protesters disperse in exchange for an election within four months, a series of mysterious (and still unexplained) bombings raised the tension again.

State-owned and pro-government media intensified their rhetoric, branding the Red Shirts “terrorists” who were “holding the country to ransom”, and demanded that the government “do something about them”. Anti-election protesters, including the Yellow Shirts who had helped the present government come to power in 2008 through mass demonstrations ending in the seizure of the nation’s major airports (for which they have still not been brought to account), threatened to return to the streets if the government failed to crack down on the UDD protest, with violent force if need be.

Security forces began to encircle the rally site, and made several unsuccessful attempts at arresting key members of the UDD leadership. In response, the Red Shirts erected barricades of bamboo and rubber tyres to defend themselves, and halted troop trains in the provinces to prevent reinforcements from being sent to the capital. Sensing impending bloodshed, various international groups and individuals made frantic attempts to encourage further negotiations, but were blasted by the Thai foreign minister for “interfering in a domestic issue” and “associating with terrorists”. The authorities then made a “final offer” of a conditional election within five months in exchange for the unconditional surrender of the Red Shirts.

The final crackdown

When the UDD leadership attempted to provide a counteroffer, the Abhisit government ruled out any further negotiations. On May 13, “Operation Rajprasong” began with the assassination of Red Shirt icon and renegade Major General Khattiya Sawasdipol, who was said to have commanded the UDD’s black-shirted guards. The reaction from the protesters was furious, who struck back against the advancing troops using slingshots, fireworks and other improvised weapons to break through the military blockade of the rally site and establish strongholds in other parts of the city. But after their disastrous efforts on April 10, the army had changed its tactics. This time, the foot soldiers were kept at a safe distance while snipers positioned in the surrounding skyscrapers turned entire residential districts into shooting galleries (known as “live fire zones”). Finally, at 5 am on May 20, armoured vehicles smashed through the barricades and advanced upon the main rally site, and, despite calls from the defiant crowd to fight on, the UDD’s core leadership decided to end the two-month protest and surrender themselves to the authorities to prevent any further loss of life.

Unfortunately, many more protesters would die before the day’s ending. Under a hail of gunfire from forward elements in the military raiding party, including special forces positioned on the Sky Train line above, despairing Red Shirts retreated into the safety of a nearby Buddhist temple, where several would die from their injuries, being unable to cross the street to the Police Hospital without being shot at.

Some enraged protesters proceeded to break into the nearby shopping malls and light fires, resulting in some of the most potent symbols of Bangkok’s extravagant elite being burned to the ground. And in the UDD power bases in the north and northeast, riots erupted which saw the destruction of provincial halls and other buildings. It would be a fiery end to a bloody crackdown, which together with the April 10 attempt, had resulted in the deaths of almost 100 people, and nearly 2000 injured. This makes the crackdown on the UDD the largest state-sponsored massacre in modern Thai history, at least according to official figures.

Civil war?

It seems that the Abhisit government has well and truly made its choice. In the aftermath of the crackdown, it has pursued a “reconciliation plan” that has to date consisted of an enhanced propaganda war demonising the Red Shirts and downplaying the government’s role in the violence, thousands of arrests of UDD protesters and sympathisers, a curfew that is now into its second week, and the noticeable absence of any date at which the emergency decree is to be lifted, let alone elections be held.

Will there, as the UDD leaders predicted, be a civil war? It seems without a doubt that the Red Shirt movement in Thailand, at least in its present form, has come to an end. Its leaders have either been arrested or gone into hiding. Its financial backers have had their assets seized under draconian internal security measures. Its media outlets and sympathy groups continue to be censored by the authorities and hounded by frenzied pro-government groups at every turn. Yet now that the political consciousnesses of the supporters of the UDD have been awakened, it is highly unlikely they will go back to sleep.

Even if the current structure of the movement is smashed, it will reform again as long as the grievances which forged it in the first place still exist. Other pro-democracy groups are already emerging to take its place, including the more radical Red Siam group, which has hinted that it will begin mass rallies of its own once the emergency decree has been lifted. They are likely to be joined by embittered Red Shirts who wish to carry on the fight against what they see as a brutal military dictatorship in Bangkok.

In the north and northeastern provinces, angry demonstrations rage on -- and although the local soldiers are not about to throw down their weapons and put on red shirts, they are doing very little to put an end to the rioting.

Above all else, with the leaders of the mainstream democracy movement now in custody, the authorities have no one left within the Red Shirts to negotiate with. These are signs that the Abhisit government, in treating pro-democracy activists (who represent the majority of Thailand’s voters) as rogues and terrorists from the outset, may have just succeeded in creating the largest insurgency that Thailand has ever seen.

Or maybe its reconciliation plan will work after all.

[Justin Alick is a freelance journalist and politics student in Bangkok.]