Painting the town

PostMag LOGOThe acting chairwoman of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) movement, better known as the ‘red shirts’, Thida smiles as she begins to address the anti-government protesters.She calls herself a ‘left leader’, one of the few senior red shirts left standing after many were jailed or fled Thailand following the military crackdown that crushed the red uprising in May last year. Jatuporn Prompan, a member of parliament and senior red shirt – free on bail because of his parliamentary immunity – is now widely acknowledged as the movement’s figurehead, but Thida is respected for having organised large political workshops before last year’s uprising.

‘I don’t want to be in this position [as chairwoman] but it’s very important,’ she says later. ‘The red shirts know me very well; in the academic area, in the political area; I have made speeches on red-shirt TV; in the schools they know me. I can understand them very well.’

redshirtRALLYjan23Last year’s military offensive ended some of the worst political violence Thailand has ever seen. When the armoured personnel carriers crashed through the flaming bamboo barricades blocking the entrance to the red shirts’ sprawling occupation zone in central Bangkok, armed troops moved rapidly to clear the site of red-shirt supporters. Within hours it was all over.

The anti-government protests had lasted for nine weeks. At least 91 people were killed and nearly 2,000 injured. Buildings were set ablaze and central Bangkok businesses were closed. Thailand was polarised by the conflict. It was the haves versus the have-nots; the elites of the military and big business and many from Thailand’s burgeoning middle class versus those who claimed all they wanted was a fairer society.

Now, finally, the emergency decree has been lifted and red shirts are again marching in their tens of thousands. An election is looming and many fear there will be more protracted clashes.

Thida monitors developments from UDD headquarters, in the Imperial Mall, in the centre of the city. Sitting in her office, which has been painted red, she insists the movement has always been largely peaceful, even during last year’s uprising, when soldiers and bystanders were killed.

‘There was no violence from the red shirts,’ she says, blaming the troublemaking on shadowy ‘black shirts’, a seemingly unsanctioned paramilitary wing of the movement. ‘Some people in black had one or two guns, that’s all. The journalists and photographers could walk around the mob. You could see everything: we could not hide. Yes, there were firecrackers. But it was non-violence only. The others, not UDD, maybe there is some group of people, a third hand, maybe they hate the government, maybe they want to help us, but they destroy us. There are a million red shirts. Maybe one or two resort to violence. It’s not our policy. It wasn’t under our control.’

Thida knows the months to come will be testing. Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is required by law to call an election before the end of the year and many pundits expect a poll sooner rather than later. Abhisit has suggested it is likely to be in June.

‘[Abhisit supporters] will use every kind of trick to win,’ Thida says. ‘Now, the military, the conservative elite groups, the conservative intellectuals, the media, they support Abhisit. But if Abhisit cannot win, maybe there will be another coup.’

She believes Abhisit will probably manage to retain power regardless of the election results, because he has the support of the military and the big business families of Thailand. And, she says, the red shirts’ priorities have changed.

‘To begin with, dissolving parliament was our No 1 priority,’ she says. ‘Then, after the deaths, justice for the killed and wounded was our No 1 priority. Right now, we’re not saying anything about dissolving parliament.’

She says this thirst for justice is why, in the end, red-shirt leaders rejected Abhisit’s offer of an election last year.

‘The people could not accept it. It was more important for Abhisit to take responsibility and try to find out about the deaths; whether it was red shirts or the other side, find out who killed people. Thai people should know about the deaths – that’s very important. We want justice.’

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist from Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, says the red shirts have been metamorphosing politically in the absence of their jailed leaders, all seven of whom were released last month. Thitinan believes the reds’ ‘common cause against the established order still binds them together’, regardless of the movement’s splintering into factions.

A visiting professor at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, in the United States, Thitinan keeps a close eye on developments in Thailand.

‘The reds are not a spent force,’ he says, ‘but are actually in the midst of a build-up towards a destination they and their progenitors could hardly have imagined when they began a few years ago.’

Thaksin Shinawatra

Thaksin Shinawatra

Exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a coup in 2006, is a hero of many in the red-shirt movement. They wear his likeness on T-shirts and flourish his name on banners. They greet his phone-in speeches with roars of approval.

By many accounts, he was an appallingly brutal, venal and power-hungry prime minister. Eventually convicted of corruption, he jumped bail in 2008 and has lived abroad, flitting between countries, ever since.

Widely criticised for his ‘war on drugs’ (which was said to include arbitrary executions of dealers), widespread human rights abuses, the failure to grapple with the Muslim insurgency in Thailand’s south and policies that addicted the rural poor to ‘handouts’, Thaksin was despised by many in the upper classes. But the billionaire tycoon nevertheless won the endur- ing support of millions of Thais, by listening to the economically desperate, the families who struggled with mounting debt, the farmers who couldn’t afford to educate their children, the factory workers and labourers who couldn’t pay for adequate health care. He introduced a slew of benefits, including 30 baht (HK$7.50) hospital visits, village-managed microcredit, low-interest agricultural loans and assistance for small and medium-sized businesses.

These days, the poor of Thailand know what they can legitimately have and they consider it worth the fight. Last year, Thaksin’s hospital scheme was often spoken about in red-shirt circles. Without it, they said, some of them would be dead. They pulled aside shirts to show scars from operations they said they could never have paid for and they spoke of village loans that rejuvenated their communities.

In a phone-in to a recent rally, Thaksin said he was in South Africa, but watching developments in Thailand.

‘There will be no fresh election soon because the government has never done as it has said,’ he said. ‘So the people must not forget this and help vote in support of [the red-aligned] Puea Thai Party in the next general election.’

Thaksin is thought to have financed last year’s red-shirt protests, a claim denied by senior red shirts. Thida says Thaksin is just another red shirt and she hasn’t ever spoken to him.

‘I’m not a Thaksin follower,’ she says, with indignation. ‘I was a lecturer at university; we fought for a long time, we fought because we didn’t like the coup. That’s all.’

She adds that the red movement is financed by grass-roots donations, not by Thaksin.

‘Many people love Thaksin, some hate him also,’ she says. ‘We are friends; we can understand that many people love him, because Thaksin has given benefits. One thing they cannot do is destroy the relationship between Thaksin and the grass-roots people. The people are loyal.’

Red-shirt rally in Bangkok. Photo by Sian Powell

Red-shirt rally in Bangkok. Photo by Sian Powell

Twelve months after the largest red-shirt protests yet seen started, on March 12 last year, the reds are bitterly angry about their failure to have won recognition or power. They see widespread official discrimination in Thailand. They note that bail for red shirts is routinely denied and an unknown number of their colleagues – perhaps as many as 150 – remain in prison.

Thida’s husband, Dr Weng Tojirakarn, was locked up in Bangkok’s notorious Klong Prem prison for more than nine months, and was among the seven red-shirt leaders granted bail last month. Many of the leaders have been charged with terrorism, which could carry the death penalty. Finally free to speak, some are now saying they will run in the elections.

Investigations into the 91 deaths that occurred during the uprising, mostly of red shirts shot by security forces, have moved at a snail’s pace and the military has yet to satisfactorily account for its operations. Red shirts say the red media have been gagged – with thousands of websites shut down, community radio stations and red newspapers closed, and television broadcasts curtailed.

Sean Boonpracong, the red shirts’ spokesman during the uprising, says the ‘blatant bias’ of officials, judges and police officers is fomenting rebellion among the rank and file. How many People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) ‘yellow-shirt’ activists, he asks, were denied bail when they were, at long last, arrested for their hundreds-strong, months-long occupation of Government House, in 2008, and their week-long occupation of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport later that year, which crippled the crucial tourism trade?

None that he can remember.

Back then, the well-financed PAD yellow shirts were intent on toppling red-aligned governments and they eventually succeeded – if only indirectly. Now, the yellow shirts – the PAD along with vari- ous splinter groups – have lost patience with their former allies in the government. They have mounted a small but noisy ongoing demonstration to denounce Thailand-Cambodia border negotiations and they loudly criticise the Abhisit government’s border policies. If a red-aligned government won power, it’s almost certain the yellow shirts would again flex their muscles and take to the streets en masse, another shot in the eternal ping-pong game of Thai politics.

Parnthep Puapongphand, a senior PAD yellow shirt, has been summonsed by police in response to the rally near Government House – deemed illegal under Thailand’s Internal Security Act, a legal net recently thrown around Government House and its surrounds. He says the police threats will not disperse the protest, which is intended to push the government into defending the ‘motherland’ against Cambodian incursions. But last week, following a police operation to retake the site, the yellow shirts vacated parts of Ratchadamnoen Road, which they had occupied for more than a month.

However, the yellow shirts’ hostility to the Abhisit government doesn’t mean they have common cause with the red shirts, Parnthep says.

‘It’s impossible. We have totally different objectives. They are totally different from us. They have weapons inside their rallies; we just stay there without weapons.’

He says red shirts have become insular, their primary aim having been to see their leaders released from prison – whereas yellow shirts are concerned about Thailand as a whole.

If, as they assert, their leaders did not encourage ‘terrorists’ to take part in their rallies, he says, then the red shirts have every right to demonstrate. ‘We cannot say they are our enemies.’

The yellow shirts are vocally royalist; indeed, their chosen colour was probably inspired by that most closely associated with King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and they repeatedly declare their political campaigns are primarily to defend the monarchy. Official spokespersons will always say the Thai royal family is above politics but, in late 2008, Queen Sirikit (and her daughter, Princess Chulabhorn) attended the funeral of a young yellow-shirt protester who was killed when a demonstration erupted into violence. Many Thais considered the queen’s presence at the funeral extremely significant.

Suwan Kansanoh, a retired government official who teaches English part-time at a Bangkok university, is a PAD stalwart. He protested in 2008 and he often joins the yellow-shirt rally camped out near Government House. He says the yellows have not turned out in force so far because the ‘situation’ is not yet in crisis.

‘If the government plans a crackdown, more people, passive-power groups, will come out,’ Suwan predicts. The yellows, he adds, are now disenchanted with the Abhisit government because the prime minister has shown himself to be a ‘puppet’ whose policies are swayed by business interests. Even though the yellow shirts’ criticism is the same as that first voiced by the UDD, Suwan has little time for those who dress in red.

‘They protest for money,’ he says of the reds. ‘They’re nothing much.’

Economic disparity in Thailand is stark, the country having one of the most pronounced wealth gaps in Asia. The rich are colossally wealthy, the poor back-breakingly deprived. Economist Pasuk Phongpaichit has noted that the richest 20 per cent of Thais own 69 per cent of the nation’s assets while the poorest 20 per cent own 1 per cent. She has written that this gap is worse only in African countries ravaged by civil war, and some Latin American nations. Furthermore, the gap appears to be widening.

Sitting in the breakfast room of a downtown Bangkok hotel, Sean looks weary; he says he is tired of doing battle in an arena where the rules change to suit the opponent. He points out that when the reds march, many carry banners demanding an end to Thailand’s double standards, and there is widespread belief the nation’s elites will never allow them to win back power.

‘Reds may reject the parliamentary system, because it doesn’t work,’ he says. ‘The other side doesn’t play by the rules; so the reds are losing belief in the system.’

The red movement tried to claw back power after Thaksin’s exile, only to see two red-aligned prime ministers drummed out of office on what they say are dubious legal pretexts (one accepted a fee for hosting a cooking show, the party of the other was found guilty of electoral fraud). Reds feel Abhisit is in power only because a clutch of red MPs caved in and switched sides in late 2008, giving him enough support to form a governing coalition.

Chaturon Chaisang, Thaksin’s deputy prime minister and another elected politician who was ousted in the 2006 coup, says the Puea Thai Party will have an uphill battle to win power this year, mostly because it will have to win by a landslide to form a government. The Democrat Party has cobbled together a workable coalition, he adds, and it will probably be able to do the same after the poll, even if it wins fewer seats overall than Puea Thai.

The Thai people are fed up with the strife of the past few years, Chaturon says, and the election may go to the party whose followers cause the least trouble. Mobilised red shirts could bring large stretches of Bangkok, already beset by monster traffic jams, to a standstill.

‘If they’re too aggressive,’ he says, ‘if they decide to hold a rally in the middle of Bangkok and stay there for several days, that will hurt the population in Bangkok and have a negative effect on the elections.’

Many reds do not expect to win anyway.

‘The election was rigged by the military last time,’ says Sean, referring to the 2007 election, the first after the coup. ‘In Bangkok, at 3pm on election day, the reds were leading in 20 districts, but then they lost. They were cheated. Ballots were marked with an ‘X’ to make them illegal. There was a lot of that.’

A red-aligned government won the election, nonetheless, but, Sean says, he expects worse at the next election.

Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn rejects such accusations, saying Thailand has a robust press corps and many international journalists live in Bangkok. These reporters have been free to observe elections and, he says, any tampering would have been noted and reported.

‘We have an independent Election Commission,’ he says. ‘It’s the task of the EC to make sure elections are free and fair.’

Adverse comments, he believes, are natural in what is now a ‘campaign period’ in Thailand.

Whatever the result, though, Thitinan thinks the red cause is electorally doomed.

‘Even if Puea Thai comes out as the largest winning party, it is unlikely to be able to form a government,’ he says. ‘The risks of that are too high for the establishment.’

He notes the last red-aligned government’s fate; it is widely assumed the military stepped in to broker a deal and see the reds out of office.

‘The army would take the midwife role, as we saw in December 2008,’ Thitinan says.

If the reds can’t win politically, many fear the hot-heads among them will turn to other means. Already the movement has broken into factions – Red Saturday; June 24; Red Siam; and others, all of which are still aligned with the UDD but prefer different tactics and strategies.

A string of low-grade home-made bomb and hand-grenade attacks has rattled Thailand since last year’s uprising was crushed. Occasionally lethal, they’ve almost always been blamed on the red shirts.

Some fear they are an ominous portent of things to come.