Thailand: Reporting from the ‘Red Zones’

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Red Shirts' barricade prior to the bloody May 19, 2010, military crackdown. Photo by Lee Yu Kyung.

By Lee Yu Kyung

July 11, 2010 -- On July 6, the Thai government approved the extension of an emergency decree in 19 provinces, which includes many in the heartland of the pro-democracy Red Shirts in the country’s north-east. The extension came a day after the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) recommended the government immediately lift the decree and hold fresh elections.

But Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajiva, who came to power through the army’s intervention, crushed hopes for new elections weeks ago.

There have been tireless efforts to silence critical voices before and after the bloody crackdown on the Red Shirts in May. The International Crisis Group said in a July 5 report that more than 2200 websites have been shut down for alleged violations to the Computer Crime Act since the state of emergency was imposed on April 7.

In rural provinces, authorities have intensified royalist campaigning since the crackdown. Some village heads in the north-east (or Isan) have received two types of forms from the interior ministry. The first one is for the collection of signatures from the population for an oath of loyalty to Thailand’s monarchy. The oath reads: “This person wants to show their willingness to worship the monarchy… and to protect the monarchy with his or her life.”

A village head in Kalasin province said: “I was told to collect 300 signatures in my village. But I’m afraid I couldn’t because some of the 500 villagers actually reside in other areas.”

The second form is for “joining the ‘monarchy protection group’”. It instructs village heads to “organise” 20 people to “implement” the royalist oath. The idea appears to be to organise a type of royalist village militia.

Villagers, many of whom are Red Shirt supporters, are disturbed by the forms. To justify its murderous crackdown, in which more than 90 people were killed between March and May, the government accused the Red Shirts of being against the monarchy.

In fact, the Red Shirt movement did not oppose the monarchy, but simply demanded the unelected government resign and allow new elections. A 55-year-old villager, Chuan (name changed), told me: “We always respect our monarchy. I don’t know why we should sign this paper.”

Despite non-stop talk of “reconciliation” by Abhisit, his regime has continued to persecute his critics. Besides detaining central Red Shirt leaders and hundreds of protesters, arrest warrants have been issued for 819 activists, Matichon newspaper said on June 10. Of these, 787 were for people from the provinces.

Forty-two year-old Luen Sisupho, from Sakon Nakorn, is one of those on the run. He received a summons from police ordering him to turn himself in by May 25, after which an arrest warrant was to be issued. Luen is a local activist from the Assembly of the Poor. He has never voted for a party associated with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is supported by the Red Shirts.

Luen had distanced himself from the Red Shirt movement until March. “I could no longer disagree with what Red Shirts were demanding”, he said. “Dissolution of the parliament and new elections are very democratic demands, aren’t they? The government has lost the hearts and minds of people, whereas the Red Shirts have won more. There will be more people who join the next protests, I bet.”

There are signs the Red Shirt movement has been swelled by the government’s repression.

One example is 22-year-old Akkaradej Khankaew from Kalasin province, who was one of six protesters killed in the Pathuwanaram temple in May. His aunt, Intaracham Inphum, said he had started watching the pro-Red Shirt P-Channel last year after government repression. “My nephew became interested in what was going on in the country”, said a grieving Intaracham in her nephew’s room, which features a picture of the Thai king and queen. We joined the Bangkok protest together this year. I came home in early April, but my nephew stayed and finally got killed.”

Historically, Isan has been a centre of rebellion. It was here the Communist Party of Thailand guerrilla movement was launched in 1965 and was active until the 1980s. The communist insurgency, which occurred in various parts of the country, is now history. But the “Red Zones” from the communists' struggle appear to have be revived by the Red Shirts movement.

Fifty-eight-year-old Khitisak Posawant was once a communist and is now a Red Shirt in Pakchong village in Mukdahan province. He is proud to have been part of the Bangkok protests for democracy this year. Out of about 200 households of his village, nearly half joined the Bangkok protests. “My generation is well aware about brutality of Thai armed forces, because of the experience of communist struggle in the region.”

Fifty-seven-year-old Yon Ngonsuk, another Red Shirt supporter from the same village, wasn’t shy about talking about his past role in the anti-communist counter-insurgency. Yon served in the Volunteer Defence Corps, the biggest paramilitary forces during the anti-communist campaign. He said soldiers were willing to shoot people then, as they did in the May 19 bloody crackdown.

“We didn’t know who was a communist or not”, Yon said. “But in an operation, we had to think everyone was a communists. It’s similar to the way Abhisit accused Red Shirts of being terrorists without clarification.” Yon said he didn’t choose to join the paramilitaries. At 18, he was arrested by armed forces while helping communist guerrillas and forced to enter military training.

The slogan Yon heard from his captors almost four decades ago was the same as that broadcast by army speakers to the Red Shirt camp in Bangkok during the crackdown — that all Thais should love each other and not fight. “Initially, they didn’t say communists were bad. Instead they said we were all Thai.”

Such patriotic love disappeared, however, once soldiers got orders to shoot. Yon was instructed to shoot-to-kill anyone he came across on sight. He was discharged from the unit in the early 1990s and returned to normal life. “Even though I was with the military for 20 years, I really hate the army seeing what they’ve done against protesters who ask for democracy. I want to fight. Whenever there’s repression, we want to fight more.”

Isan, the poorest region in Thailand, has produced many conscripts, whose education was often terminated before grade nine. Such a fault line raises the possibility of a family tragedy — with conscript soldiers set against poor protesters from the same region.

Fifty-eight-year-old Pravit (name changed) is a Red Shirt supporter from Kalasin. He spent uneasy days and nights while taking part in the months-long protests in Bangkok. It was not his fear of repression that disturbed him, but the chance of a violent confrontation with his youngest son, 22-year-old Thongchai.

Like many young men in Thailand’s impoverished north, Thongchai has been on military service as a conscript since November. Pravit was constantly contacting his son, whose normal duty was securing Suvarnaphumi airport, to find out if his unit would be dispatched anywhere near the protest site. In the end, Pravit returned home from Bangkok on April 7, before the bloody crackdown. He had planned to return to Bangkok, but didn’t dare to after deadly clashes on April 10, in which his son took part.

Sitting next to his father, Thongchai, on leave from service, said: “It was just terrible to face off with people who might be my friends, neighbours or relatives. We were told to disperse protesters, but I never expected such deadly consequence.” He said he rarely discussed the events of the bloody day with his father. “I will join Red Shirt protests if there is another round after I discharge from military service. My friend became a Red Shirt guard after leaving the army.”

Isan, the revived Red Zone, is expected to be a centre for what happens next. Red Shirts feel a mix of extreme anger, confusion, hope and despair while discussing the next steps.

Wearing red shirts at the Sunday markets is one idea, as is refusing to sell anything to soldiers.

Some people, such as 51-year-old teacher Panee Tamma from Khon Ken province, await elections — but, at the same time, doubt the prospects of a vote being free and fair.

Some observers cautiously predict an armed insurgency. The ICG has warned civil war could break out if a political resolution is not found.

Dr Paul Chambers, a long-time observer of Thai politics and military affairs from the Politics Institute of Heidelberg University, said: “There could be a low-intensity undeclared civil war. This could happen as Red Shirts in the countryside rise up, following the crackdown on the Red Shirts at Ratchaprasong. “Thaksin might even create a government in exile.”

One Red Shirts supporter in Khon Ken province, who doesn’t wish to be named, said: “There are many people here who would join an underground movement or even armed insurgency if somebody would initiate it.”

Another supporter in Mukdahan pondered the question of armed insurgency. She said. “I’m not sure if it could be similar to the communist insurgency era. But yes, I could provide food and shelter for them.”

No matter what type of movement appears, Red Shirts in rural provinces look forward to the next moves in continuing their struggle for democracy.

[This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly, Australia's leading socialist newspaper. Visit Lee Yu Kyung's blog at]