Thailand: Interview with Red Sunday leader Sombat Boonngamanong
October 6, 2010 -- Sombat Boonngamanong, a cultural activist and NGO organiser, was not one of the central leaders of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (popularly known as the Red Shirts) when their mass protest camp (at the Ratchaprasong intersection in the heart of Bangkok) was bloodily dispersed by the Thai military on May 19, 2010. Thousands were injured, 91 killed and hundreds have become political prisoners in this crackdown. But Sombat has since emerged as a popular figure in the dramatic Red Shirts' resurgence over the last month.
A series of well-publicised and colourful activities held on Sundays since April, organised by Sombat’s “Red Sunday” group, built up incredible momentum. And on Sunday September 19, an estimated 10,000-12,000 Red Shirts mobilised at Ratchaprasong intersection for a red balloon releasing ceremony organised by the Red Sunday group. This mass, but peaceful, turnout surprised both organisers and authorities.
Since then, the Red Sunday group has continued to organise symbolic actions on Sundays, one of them (pictured above) was a Red Shirt bike ride for freedom, attended by hundreds, in the historic city of Ayutthaya on October 3.
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What did the large the mobilisations on September 19 tell us about the state of the Red Shirts movement?
Sombat: I believe there are millions of Red Shirts. They are all still there — just waiting to act again. But they are not sure if they should show themselves, or how, because the government is still hunting them down and threatening them. It seems like they are waiting for a new stage of the movement and waiting to see how that goes.
The Red Sunday group used special tactics to build to the September 19 action. Please explain your group’s tactics.
Sombat: First, we chose a day that has meaning, and this has great power in itself: four months [since the May 19 massacre] and four years [since the last elected government was removed by a military coup].
Second, we promoted the concept "red around the world" so that Red Shirts all around the world could think up and create their own activities and join with the main activity [in Thailand].
Third, we used social networking as our form of communication and used this constantly to expand this idea into a [popular] wave.
Fourth, we chose for the site for our activity Ratchaprasong [intersection, Bangkok, the site of the mass Red Shirts protest camp in April and May], a place that had great symbolic meaning.
And, fifth, we forced the government to join in our “games” [the red bicycle rides, red ribbon-tying ceremonies, group games/exercises and dance competitions organised by the Red Sunday group on several Sundays leading up to September 19]. As a result, we created a big public debate in media especially in the last two weeks before the anniversary. We were in all the media.
Did the movement have to overcome fear and isolation after the repression of May 19?
Sombat: Yes, what we organised was a process to break down this fear. The build-up events were symbolic appearances that were not big enough to provoke the full force for government.
Have new layers of leadership emerged in the Red Shirts movement after many of its leaders were jailed since May 19?
Sombat: That is happening, naturally. There are leaderships of small group of Red Shirts developing everywhere. And the pattern tends to be development [of leadership] from the bottom to the top.
So in the last period we saw small groups creating their own activities all around the country but not any big rallies or big protests.
Overseas there are still people saying that all the red shirts are just paid by deposed PM Thaksin Shinawatra or manipulated by him to protect his wealth. How would you answer this?
Sombat: It’s not like that. The movement is made up of people with different intention. Some supported the ex-prime minister Thaksin, but not to protect his wealth. Such accusations from the opponent of the Red Shirts are just made to discredit our fight for democracy.
What are the top three objectives of the movement today?
Sombat: First, to show the world that Red Shirts still exist. Second, to show the government and society that Red Shirts are still strong and are still fighting for equal rights and real democracy. And third, to introduce a new form of symbolic struggle.
What do you think will be the next steps after the success of September 19?
Sombat: We are making a new culture of wearing Red Shirts every Sunday and producing a new generation of Red Shirt leaders within their own groups all around country, in the process.
Of course, the government will try to eliminate us and discredit any groups that gather some momentum.
The day after the mass September 19 rally in Ratchaprasong, Xinhua news agency reported that you said there would be no more rallies. Is this report true?
Sombat: On that day, so many people, many times more than I expected, turned out. I was worried that if we had these numbers again we would not be ready to handle the situation. However, with good planning and cooporation, there might be another big rally like this again.
[Peter Boyle is national convenor of the Socialist Alliance of Australia, which is in solidarity with Thailand's democracy struggle.]