Thailand: What the September 19 mass Red Shirt rallies mean for Thai politics
[For more on the Thai people's struggle for democracy, click HERE.]
By Giles Ji Ungpakorn
September 21, 2010 -- In the afternoon of Sunday, September 19, 2010, tens of thousands of Red Shirts returned to the Ratchaprasong intersection in Bangkok to remember the coup four years previously, and the deliberate murder in April and May this year of around 90 unarmed demonstrators, many of whom were gunned down by army snipers near Ratchaprasong.
Since the brutal killings by the military-backed Abhisit Vejjajiva junta, there has been a climate of fear, with hundreds of political prisoners locked up and evidence of extrajudicial killings of some Red Shirt activists. Censorship has remained tight. Thai mainstream TV failed to report the extent of the demonstration, playing down the numbers, as usual.
Bangkok is still under the Emergency Decree and Red Shirts were given dire warnings by junta politicians and the generals. They were “ordered” not to block the road. Yet tens of thousands of Red Shirts gathered in Bangkok. There were so many that the road was soon blocked and the size of the demonstration resembled the size of the protests four months ago. Thousands also gathered in the northern city of Chiangmai, and there were modest protests in many towns and cities throughout the country. At the same time coordinated protests also took place around the world. In Thailand, two days before September 19, thousands laid red roses outside 17 prisons holding political prisoners.
While some jaded hacks and conservative journalists will write about the weakness of the Red Shirts, how they are the “rural poor” and simple folk “dependent on Thaksin Shinawatra”, what the mass protests at Ratchaprasong show most of all is that the Red Shirt movement is an incredibly resilient grassroots movement. This is not surprising because Thailand has a long tradition of struggle for democracy.
What is amazing is that only four months after the bloody crackdown, Red Shirts dared to return to the site in very large numbers. Most of those at Ratchaprasong on September 19 were from Bangkok, showing that there is mass support in the capital city, not just in the provinces. What is even more encouraging is that people came out to protest in Bangkok because a general call was put out by Sombat Boonngamanong, the organiser of Red Sunday events. Sombat and his colleagues were overwhelmed with emotion at the unexpected response and the size of the protest. Sombat is not an opposition Peua Thai politician but a grassroots pro-democracy activist. He organised the first symbolic protest against the 2006 coup, which I attended. The significance of this is that, while most Red Shirt leaders are either in jail or on the run, and while Thaksin and top Peua Thai Party officials are calling for reconciliation and compromise with the junta, the Red Shirts are capable of grassroots self-activity.
Many eyewitnesses report that the Red Shirts at Ratchaprasong were chanting Hia Sung Ka, which means “the iguana ordered the killing”. "Iguana" is a strong term of abuse in Thai. Now this can be interpreted in many ways. It could refer to the unelected PM Abhisit, or General Anupong, the ex-head of the army, or Prem. But it might well refer to the king. It may be that people were referring to different figures as they chanted. But my guess is that most meant the king. While this writer does not believe that the king has enough leadership qualities to order anything, this phenomenon does indicate a growing republican movement among millions of Red Shirts following the April/May bloodbath.
October 6, 1976, was the last time in Thai history that the elites gunned down and murdered the democracy movement, in order to stay in power. It took years for the movement to recover, but even then, the growth of the Communist Party forced the ruling class to eventually come to a compromise. This time round, the early shoots of recovery have already started to sprout, only four months after the bloodbath. What is more, the elites are faced with an open, above ground, mass social movement, made up of millions, and this movement is showing self-leadership and radicalisation.
[Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a political commentator and dissident. In February 2009 he had to leave Thailand for exile in Britain because he was charged with lèse majesté for writing a book criticising the 2006 military coup. He is a member of Left Turn Thailand, a socialist organisation. His latest book, Thailand’s Crisis and the Fight for Democracy, will be of interest to activists, academics and journalists who have an interest in Thai politics, democratisation and NGOs.]
UDON THANI, 30 September 2010 (IRIN) - More than four months after clashes between anti-government demonstrators and troops in central Bangkok left 91 dead, the Red Shirts remain embittered and determined in their struggle against a government doing too little to reconcile their differences.
“They say they want national reconciliation, but they haven’t reached out to us, the people,” 30-year-old Chotirot Jaihan said under a tent in a large field that serves as the headquarters of the pro-Red Shirt Chumchon Khon Rak Udon - the Society of People who Love Udon, a province in northeast Thailand, which is the heartland of the Red Shirt movement.
“The government doesn’t care about what happened to us [in the clashes]. They are just hunting down the Red Shirts and arresting us. It’s like now it has ended, it’s just over.”
However, though many of its leaders have been detained, the Red movement is, in fact, far from over, as community grassroots groups like the Udon society continue to collect money for the cause and as Reds convene more rallies - including one with some 4,000 people in central Bangkok on 19 September.
The Red Shirt movement, born after Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a coup in 2006, began as a push to restore Thaksin to power, but matured into a socio-economic and political struggle of the rural poor against the aristocratic establishment that have long ruled the country.
Red-backed parties won the 2007 post-coup election, but political manoeuvrings - including the dissolution of their party and the court-ordered resignation of their new prime minister, Samak Sundaravej, in 2008 for illegally receiving money for hosting a TV cooking show - quashed their victory.
After the ruling party was banned and some Thaksin loyalists changed sides, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was elected to office in December 2008 in a parliamentary vote. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court found Thaksin guilty of corruption and sentenced him in absentia to two years imprisonment.
Against this backdrop, Red Shirt disenchantment with the government ballooned, and the Yellow Shirt opposition, generally wealthier and better educated, became increasingly dismayed about the growing audacity of the once docile masses and the threat they believed the Red Shirts posed towards the nation and the monarchy.
Demanding a fresh election, the Red Shirts in March 2010 took over the busy Ratchaprasong intersection in Bangkok’s main shopping district, their numbers swelling to as many as 150,000. After clashes against troops in April and May, the 10-week rally ended on 19 May with scores dead.
Since then, there has not been enough effort to close the widening social and political chasm between the Reds and Yellow Shirt-backed ruling elites, analysts say.
“The four committees set up by the government as part of the prime minister's ‘roadmap’ to national reconciliation have done nothing to address this gap between the government and the Red Shirts,” said Jim Della-Giacoma, South East Asia project director for the International Crisis Group (ICG).
“Genuine reconciliation can only happen when the government stops suppressing the Red Shirts and allows them to voice their aspirations and grievances through peaceful political channels.”
That means restoring electoral democracy and respecting the vote, even if those in power lose. The government will call an election before the sitting parliament’s term expires in December 2011.
“When the life of this parliament runs out, people need to be allowed to go to the polls, and the results need to be honoured,” said Michael Montesano, a long-time Thailand observer and visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “There can’t be funny business like chasing people out of office because of cooking shows.”
Red Shirt heartland
The northeastern region, known as Isaan, is home to a predominantly poorer, agrarian population, and is the heartland of the Red Shirt movement
Photo: Alisa Tang/IRIN
A sign of protest in Udon Thani Province.
After taking office in 2001, Thaksin had tapped into the support of the rural masses here by reaching out to them during his mobile ministerial cabinet meetings in the provinces and through populist policies such as the universal healthcare scheme that offers treatment for any illness for less than US$1.
Since the coup, Thaksin has been living in exile, though many Red Shirts revere him as a hero who visited their rural homes and addressed their needs.
“It cost me only 30 baht to have my baby,” Red Shirt supporter Chotirot said.
Sitting across from her, Udom Khongwandee, 57, added: “Before Thaksin, when we went to get anything done in government offices, we had to pay under the table bribes. If you didn’t pay, then even by the end of the day, whatever you needed wouldn’t be done. When Thaksin came in, service improved. Whoever didn’t do their job well was fired.”
Many Reds describe a utopia completely void of corruption during the Thaksin years, even as he amassed a fortune for his business empire. In January 2006, his family sold their telecommunications company, Shin Corp., for 73 billion baht ($1.88 billion) - spurring increasingly strident accusations of corruption.
However, while many still back Thaksin, the focus of the Red Shirts has shifted to a wider call for democracy and social and economic equality.
“The Red Shirts have increasingly gone beyond Thaksin,” said Della-Giacoma. “The violent crackdown has hardened their resolve to fight against what they call `ammart’ or the aristocrats who control the country's key political institutions.”
As their leaders are arrested or go into hiding, Red Shirts complain of a “double standard” of facing prosecution when the Yellow protesters who shut down the country’s international airport in late 2008 did so with impunity - an inequality that is deeply rooted in Thai society.
“The uneven application of the law on the Red Shirts and the Yellow Shirts has been perceived as another manifestation of injustice,” said the ICG’s Della-Giacoma. “The government needs to address this problem of ‘double standards’ if it is serious about reconciliation. It has to demonstrate that all Thais are treated equally under the law.”
While the government has set up several committees to address national reconciliation, to bridge the socio-economic and political gap, and to address the grievances of the Red Shirts, it has refused to negotiate with the leaders of the movement who stand accused of “terrorism”.
The government has also set up a fact-finding commission to look into the bloody clashes at Ratchaprasong, but there has been no progress.
Analysts say there is little awareness on the part of the ruling elites as to how deep-seated change needs to be.
“There are people who get it and are virulently opposed to change, and there are even more people who don’t get it,” said Singapore-based research fellow Montesano. “I don’t think there’s an understanding in the top rungs of the government that the old tricks just won’t work any more.”
With a long history of bloody political uprisings, Thailand has a tendency to sweep bygones under the rug - but this time, the Red Shirts are refusing to be forgotten.
“Before, the people were stupid, but now, we have caught up with the times,” said Aphorn Sarakham, a 48-year-old cashier who works for the Udon society.
“Before, we didn’t follow the news and politics, so we didn’t know any better. Our only responsibility was to farm, and they let us live our lives,” she said. “Now that we have TVs, radios, phones and the Internet, we have opinions about what’s right and what’s wrong. Our eyes have been opened, and we can see when we have been taken advantage of and have been wronged.”
Red Sundays ahead
On Sunday 19 September - exactly six years after Thaksin’s ouster and four months after the Ratchaprasong protests - thousands of Red Shirts convened for the biggest rally since May, showing that they will not disappear as easily as the government might have originally expected.
What started off for activist Sombat Boonngamanong as a Sunday coffee date with a handful of friends who wore Red Shirts in memory of Ratchaprasong, has grown into “Red Sundays” - the latest show of force by the movement. On 26 September they gathered in Udon Thani, and on 3 October they will convene in the central province of Ayutthaya.
“The government can now see that the Red Shirts will not be defeated,” Sombat said.
“The Reds are still angry. We came out to call for elections, and we were fired upon and killed… Even though nearly 100 people died, the prime minister, who claims to have been democratically elected, has not even said he is sorry. If he starts at sorry, then I think we’ll move forward.”
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]