Thailand: Six months on, emboldened Red Shirts raise new slogans; Interview with Sombat Boonngamanong
By Lee Yu Kyung, Bangkok
November 26, 2010 -- Another WORD is Possible -- Sombat Boonngamanong (42) is a man with a sunny smile, wearing a "red shirt". After the April-May crackdown on the pro-democracy Red Shirts at Ratchprasong in central Bangkok, which killed more than 90 – mostly civilians – the Red Shirts briefly "disappeared" from the public eye while developing their outrage further but silently. It didn’t take long for the Red Shirts to renew their campaign in public, to which Sombat has contributed significantly by encouraging that their silent anger be expressed in fun and festive street performances.
“I went to Ratchaprasong to tie red ribbons [at] Ratchaprasong a month after the crackdown. I suggested other Red Shirts to do the same thing”, said Sombat. “Police arrested and detained me for two weeks. So the renewing activities have become news”, he added. The long-time NGO activist, after being released, has been organising more activities such as "red aerobics" and dead bodies performances [die-ins] at symbolic venues.
His audacious initiatives have attracted increased numbers of protesters and media attention, which has been led to two mass demonstrations at Ratchaprasong in the last six months.
On November 19, 2010, tens of thousands Red Shirts turned out in central Bangkok again to mark six months since the crackdown. Two months earlier, on September 19, thousands marked four months since the crackdown, as well as fourth anniversary of the 2006 military coup.
Defying the emergency decree, which human rights group are calling on the Thai government to lift, Red Shirts have shown off their return to the streets en mass. Candlelight vigils to remember their fallen fellows on one hand, singing, dancing and chanting for hours, such as “Ti Ni Mi Khon Tai”, which means “People died here”, were heard on the other.
However, there was a new slogan chanted by surprise, as the rally was closing: “Ai-Hia Sung Kha, E-Ha Sung Ying”, which means, “Bastard ordered the killing, bastard ordered to fire”. Similar slogans were heard on September 19 as well, according to a Nation report.
“We chant this, because”, one Red Shirt told me, “we want to show that we know who ordered to kill and fire.” But she didn’t specify who they meant.
There have been reports about graffiti which can be interpreted as violating the country’s harsh lese majeste law. This phenomenon could not be imagined six months ago.
The Red Shirts are now pushing the limits of Thai politics.
The resurgent Red Shirts are said to be organising in smaller and different groups without centralised leadership, which is, according to an activist who doesn’t want to be named, “a better way to continue” their movement. “When there were core leaders at centre, the authorities could easily target leaders to weaken our movement”, he argued.
It remains to be seen where the returned Red Shirts are heading for without a core leadership-structure. But so far the Red Shirts look resilient.
“People have been empowering themselves more and more”, said the activist Sombat. “Our goal is to change a mind set of Thai society, where you have ‘owners’ or ‘superiors’ of this country, while grassroots are treated as like ‘visitors’ or ‘inferior’ citizens”, he explained.
Meanwhile, there was an order from the army chief General Prayut Chan-O-Cha, ahead of the demonstration on November 19, who warned that emergency laws prohibited carrying items like clothes, sandals or photographs deemed to "incite disunity". Colonel Sansern Kaewkumnerd, the spokesperson for Center for the Resolution of Emergency Situation (or CRES) has reportedly said, “It is police who will decide what might be inciting disunity”, indicating that the spokesperson himself had little idea about criteria. Nontheless, severe penalties of up to two years in jail or a maximum fine of 40,000 baht – or both – were set for violators of the ban. A few flip-flop [rubber sandal] vendors have reportedly been arrested for selling shoes bearing prime minister’s face in recent months.
One of the reactions to this measure was from the establishment-friendly Bangkok Post. The Post wrote an editorial entitled, “Democracies don’t ban items of free expression” on November 21:
By what authority does the military, in this case through the CRES, have the power to arbitrarily decide what is lawful and what is not and set penalties?
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajiva has reportedly expressed his displeasure at this order as well.
Thailand is been largely controlled by the military-dominated CRES, which can be above the administration led by the Oxford-educated prime minister. Interestingly, on November 22, deputy prime minister Suthep Taungsuban reportedly said: “The CRES is not trying to take power or staging a coup when it imposes special laws. It only wants to keep the situation orderly.”
Such measures to maintain "order", however, may brew many more new slogans by Red Shirts, who have now recovered, returned and radicalised. The April-May crackdown and developments since have proved it.
Update: According to the Nation’s latest breaking news on November 26:
The Center for Resolution of Emergency Situation (CRES) Friday agreed to lift ban of political sarcastic items created by protesters to insult elite as the spokesman Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd said the centre found nobody violated the regulation.
I wonder if there was any particular regulation or article – in writing – for banning these items in the first place? It seems that the CRES has become a lawmaker "by announcing", and judge "by announcing". The CRES has violated fundamental rights of those who were already arrested – even if released afterwards – for selling things for their livelihood. If the regulation refers to any article of any other law – not the decree – then it should be the courts, not the colonels, who judge whether it has been violated or not.
`To change the mind set of Thai society is our goal' --Sombat Boonngamanong
Lee Yu Kyung interviews Sombat Boonngamanong
Sombat (42), the long-time NGO activist, has been of great help to renewing Red Shirt activity in public following the bloody April-May crackdown. He has often travelled to Issarn – the country’s north east – where many Red Shirts originated from, to promote peaceful red activity. Recently I talked with him at the Red Sunday group office. Below are excerpts.
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It seems Red Shirts are gradually recovering. There were tens of thousands people gathered at Ratchprasong on November 19 to mark six month since the crackdown. What have been the developments in the Red Shirts movement in the past six months, after the bloody crackdown?
Let me explain an evolution that I’ve involved in. Since the crackdown, I’ve started to use Facebook, on which I launched the Red Sunday campaign. First, I have suggested red supporters use one logo, in which “I am a red” is written, for their profile picture of Facebook. Many changed their pictures on Sunday. So it worked out.
Second, I invited five friends to a caféto have political discussion, and encouraged them to organise the same meeting with five others wearing red shirts. The campaign "Five Reds at Café" has spread to produce many gatherings for discussions with their fellows. One day, we went to BigC at Ladprao [the north-east district in Bangkok] to have 100 people meet.
Another activity was conducted one month after the crackdown. I went to Ratchaprasong to tie red ribbons at the Ratchaprasong street sign. I suggested to other Red Shirts to do the same thing... Police arrested me. I was in police custody for two weeks.
But my story became public. My comrades in the NGO field published open letters in protest. Many people talked about me. So the renewal activities have become news. When I was released, I tried to do it again.
These are all public activities, simple, soft but creative. Not aggressive. Then people felt that it was possible to re-new red activity.
To be honest, people were afraid seeing their fellows, friends and family gunned down. But they seemed to be encouraged when they saw my activity. “Ok, Khun Sombat is doing this, why shouldn’t I”, they thought (laugh).
Have you noticed a radicalisation among Red Shirts in the last six months?
I can’t comment on that. I don’t agree with every single measure or slogan. I only can say that I support the spirit of the Red Shirt movement.
What is the spirit?
First, they are conscientiously fighting against the suppressor. Second, it’s about democracy. Democratisation in Thailand is unstable but is in process. You see, the authority in a democratic country should have not used snipers and guns to control a mass rally.
Then what is your observation about democracy in Thailand at this current stage?
It’s not like we have no democracy at all, but we have no democracy (laugh). The middle class, who have power and freedom, might have felt they are the owners of the country and there’s democracy. But the reality with which the poor face would be different. This is why the middle class couldn’t understand why the Red Shirts from provinces came to Bangkok to rally. So they told Red Shirts "go home" or "go farming". There are two different faces of democracy in Thailand.
Where would you say is Thaksin Shinawatra’s status in the current and future Red Shirt movement?
Many Red Shirts love him. True. But Thaksin is not a goal. The goal is to achieve democracy. Thaksin’s power has been decreasing among Red Shirts. Not only Thaksin, but also leadership is being beyond by Red Shirts now. People have been empowering themselves.
But problem is, in my opinion, while there are some activities and new leaders trying to build up in Bangkok, there’s not much activity in rural areas, which is a base of many Red Shirts. I try to encourage people [there].
Your group [Red Sunday] is one of many Red Shirt groups. How often do you correspond with other groups?
Not much, though we have. When we need to join forces for a certain activity, we exchange by email and phone. One example was the "Red around the World" rally on September 19, on the occasion of fourth anniversary of the 2006 coup and also to mark four months since the crackdown.
My idea is to promote small but many groups. And we keep our network between groups to finally build up the Red Shirts movement so it is huge once again. There is supposed to be a decentralised leadership, rather than a centralised one.
What about Khun Jatuporn Prompen, one of the core leaders, who has not been arrested? What sort of communication you have had with him?
I believe Jatuporn is also happy with our idea (of decentralised leadership). There is no dispute regarding this. We have known each other more than 20 years. Last week, for about one hour, I discussed with him the red campaign, but there is not that much communication in general.
What is next?
We plan a workshop named the “Democracy School” from next year.
What would say is a goal of your campaign?
Could you be more specific? Do you want a change of regime? A change in the system?
The goal of our group’s campaign is to change the mind set in Thai society, where you have "owners" or "superiors" of this country, while the grassroots are treated as like "visitors" or "inferior" citizens. Every individual is equal. Again, we want to empower ourselves.