What the Red Shirts achieved

May 12, 2010

According to press reports, leaders of the pro-democracy demonstrations in Thailand's capital of Bangkok were close to a compromise with the government that would lead to elections being held several months earlier. But whether the deal would hold was in doubt on Tuesday, with reports of demonstrators--known as Red Shirts because of their clothing--refusing to leave their encampment in the center of Bangkok.

The latest stage of the protests began two months ago, with the Red Shirts mobilizing against the right-wing government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, which came to power with the backing of the military. On April 10, soldiers opened fire on the demonstrators, sparking clashes that left close to two dozen people dead and hundreds injured. But the regime failed to drive the Red Shirts out of Bangkok.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a Thai academic and dissident who was accused by Abhisit of the supposed crime of "lese majesty"--basically, not being loyal to Thailand's head of state, King Bhumibol. Facing a possible prison sentence of 15 years, he fled the country a year ago. Here, he analyzes the terms of the agreement made between the Red Shirts and the government.

THE RED Shirt protests in Bangkok, which started in mid-March, are about to be wound up. The leaders have accepted a compromise with the military-backed Abhisit government. Elections will not be held immediately, but on November 14. Earlier, Abihist had indicated that an election in February 2011 was the earliest.

It is unclear whether the blanket censorship will be lifted. One clear demand that the Red Shirt leaders are expecting is that the Red Shirt TV channel (People Channel TV) will be allowed back on the air. It is unclear whether Websites like Prachatai.com will be unblocked.

Another demand is that the law be applied equally to all. The government claims that the prime minister and deputy prime minister will "surrender" to police and face charges of murdering citizens back on April 10. But it is unclear whether any real charges will be filed against them.

Nothing has been said about the political prisoners, both those in jail for lese majesty and those in jail for blocking roads during the recent protest.

A Red Shirt protester in the streets of Bangkok during the mass marches in April
A Red Shirt protester in the streets of Bangkok during the mass marches in April

What have the Red Shirts achieved?

1. The Red Shirts have shown that they are a genuine mass movement for democracy, made up of ordinary working people in rural and urban areas. They have shown that the crisis is about class. They have shown that the Red Shirts are a grassroots movement, which will not disappear easily.

2. The Red Shirts have exposed the real and bloody nature of the military-backed government, which can only stay in power through repression and blanket censorship.

3. The struggle of the Red Shirts has turned ordinary people into leaders, and into Internet and media experts who can get around censorship in order to spread their message. In the process of struggle, they have thrown off the myths and mind fetters about the monarchy. As a result, the monarchy appears to be in terminal crisis. If this is really so, it will seriously weaken the power of the army.

4. They have stood up to the army and shown that it is not a simple matter of just shooting down pro-democracy demonstrators. In the process, they have caused splits in the police force and lower ranks of the army.

5. They have forced the government to speed up elections.

But this is a compromise. It is not the end of the shady dictatorship of the army and the elites that stand behind the present government. The Red Shirt leaders' decision will disappoint many.

However, it is difficult to see how the Red Shirts could have fought on at this present stage without new strategies.

The important question is how they will organize and fight in the future. If the Red Shirts are to strengthen themselves, they have to organize among the trade unions in order to win strike action. They have to make serious efforts to build networks among army recruits, and they have to develop a clear political platform for the People's Power Party in order to win the hearts and minds of ordinary workers and farmers.

They should advocate a welfare state, improved benefits for workers, a real peace process for the South, genuine reform of the media and the justice system. They must stand against censorship and repressive laws.

No one can just leave these matters in the hands of the leadership. Red Shirt local groups need to elect representatives who can be part of a progressive grassroots leadership to lead the struggle forward. Women should make up a significant proportion of this leadership.

Only these things would make a difference between a shoddy compromise and a real step forward to freedom, democracy and social justice.

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