What the Red Shirts want

April 14, 2009

Thai troops opened fire on demonstrators in Bangkok after a day of clashes and escalating protests demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

The anti-government protesters, known as "Red Shirts" because of their clothing, are supporters of the Thai Rak Thai Party, led by businessman Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister who was ousted in a military coup in 2006. Since then, the military has engineered the toppling of two governments led by Thaksin's allies through mobilizing demonstrations of "Yellow Shirt" protesters. Abhisit now leads a right-wing, pro-monarchy government, with the military operating as the real power.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a Thai academic and dissident who was targeted by the government for the supposed crime of "lese majesty"--essentially, "disloyalty" to Thailand's head of state, King Bhumibol. To avoid censorship and a possible prison sentence of 15 years, he fled to Britain earlier this year. Here, Giles analyzes the latest developments in Thailand.

FOR THE fourth time in 40 years, troops have opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators in Bangkok. Each time, the aim has been the same: to protect the interests of the conservative elites who have run Thailand for the past 70 years.

For those watching the cold-blooded murder by soldiers on the streets of Bangkok, it may be tempting to assume that the present chaos is merely about different-colored T-shirts and supporters of different political parties, as though they were mirror images of each other. This is not the case.

What we have been seeing in Thailand since late 2005 is a growing class war between the poor and the old elites. It is, of course, not a pure class war. Due to a vacuum on the left in the past, millionaire and populist politicians like Taksin Shinawat have managed to provide leadership to the poor.

The urban and rural poor, who form the majority of the electorate, are the Red Shirts. They want the right to choose their own democratically elected government. They started out as passive supporters of Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai government. But they have now formed a brand new citizens' movement for what they call "Real Democracy." For them, "Real Democracy" means an end to the long-accepted "quiet dictatorship" of the Army generals and the palace.

Red Shirt protesters outside the Government House in Bangkok
Red Shirt protesters outside the Government House in Bangkok

This situation allowed the generals, the King's advisors in the Privy Council and the conservative elites to act as though they were above the Constitution. Lese majeste laws and intermittent repression have been used to silence opposition. Ever since 2006, these elites have blatantly acted against election results by staging a military coup, using the courts to twice dissolve Thaksin's party, and backing Yellow Shirt mob violence in the streets. The present misnamed People's Alliance for Democracy government was maneuvered into place by the Army.

Most of those in the Red Shirt movement support Taksin for good reasons. His government put in place many modern pro-poor policies, including Thailand's first-ever universal health care system.

Yet the Red Shirts are not merely Taksin puppets. There is a dialectical relationship between Taksin and the Red Shirts. His leadership provides encouragement and confidence to fight. Yet the Red Shirts are self-organized in community groups, and some are showing frustration with Taksin's lack of progressive leadership, especially over his insistence that they continue to be "loyal" to the Crown.

What you can do

Visit Giles Ji Ungpakorn's Web site for updates about the case and information about Thai politics. At the Web site, you can find a pdf version of Ungpakorn's book A Coup for the Rich, which was the basis of the accusations of lese majesty made against him.

Ask that Amnesty International take up all lese majesty cases in Thailand. Write to Amnesty International, 5 Penn Plaza, 16th Floor, New York, NY 10001, or e-mail [email protected]

Over the past few days, the Red Shirts have shown signs of self-leadership to such an extent that the old Red Shirt politicians are running to keep up. A Republican movement is growing.

Many left-leaning Thais like myself are not Taksin supporters. We opposed his human rights abuses. But we are the left wing of the citizens' movement for Real Democracy.

THE YELLOW are conservative Royalists. Some have fascist tendencies. Their guards carry and use firearms. They supported the 2006 coup, wrecked Government House and blocked the international airports last year. Behind them was the Army. That is why troops never shot at the Yellow Shirts. That is why the present Oxford- and Eton-educated Thai prime minister has done nothing to punish the Yellow Shirts. After all, he appointed some to his cabinet.

The aims of the Yellow Shirts are to reduce the voting power of the electorate in order to protect the conservative elites and the "bad old ways" of running Thailand. They see increased citizen empowerment as a threat and propose a "New Order" dictatorship, where people are allowed to vote, but most MPs and public positions are not up for election.

They are supported by the mainstream Thai media, most middle-class academics and even NGO leaders. The NGOs have disgraced themselves over the last few years by siding with the Yellows or remaining silent in the face of the general attack on democracy. Despite being well-meaning, their lack of politics has let them down, and they have been increasingly drawn to the right.

When we talk about the "palace," we have to make a distinction between the King and all those who surround him.

The King has always been weak and lacking in any democratic principles. The Palace has been used to legitimize past and present dictatorships. As a "stabilizing force," the monarchy has only helped to stabilize the interests of the elite. The immensely wealthy King is also opposed to any wealth redistribution. The Queen is an extreme reactionary. However, the real people with power among the Thai elites are the Army and high-ranking state officials.

If one is to understand and judge the violent acts which have been taking place in Thailand, we need a sense of history and perspective. Perspective is needed to distinguish between damaging property and injuring or killing people. With this perspective, it is clear that the Yellow Shirts and the Army are the violent ones.

A sense of history helps to explain why Red Shirt citizens are now exploding in anger. They have had to endure the military jackboot, repeated theft of their democratic rights, continued acts of violence against them and general abuse from the mainstream media and academia. If they continue to resist, cracks may appear in the Army. During the past four years, Thai citizens have become highly politicized. Ordinary soldiers, recruited from poor families, support the Red Shirts.

The stakes are very high. Any compromise has the risk of instability because it will satisfy almost no one. The old elites might want to do a deal with Thaksin to stop the Red Shirts from becoming totally Republican.

But whatever happens, Thai society cannot go back to the old days. The Red Shirts represent millions of Thais who are sick and tired of military and palace intervention in politics. At the very least, they will want a non-political constitutional monarchy. It is hoped that the Red Shirts will continue to move to the left during this round of struggle.

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