New Internationalist

Tragedy and loss

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Jim Taylor takes a look at the real face of Thailand today.

…we did not elect this government; the poor have been left out for four years; we have to put up with the power this government seized from the people. Today we must rise up and fight for our rights that have been taken away from us; this is to ask for democracy that can help people to be able to ‘open their eyes and their mouths’ and to know that their rights and their votes are important…1

Photo supplied by: Jim Taylor
The crowd is told to run. Photo supplied by: Jim Taylor

Thailand has been deeply divided since the last coup d’état on 19 September 2006, the 18th in Thailand since 1932, and there seems to be no middle ground remaining after the violence inflicted upon the masses earlier this year. After the coup, the junta needed to move quickly to destroy elements of the elected government, targeting former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who was then coming to the end of his term in office and had announced his intention to step down only the day before the coup. The coup-makers and the establishment civic élites cared little for legality, as in throwing out the democratic 1997 People’s Constitution of Thailand and manipulating the law to suit their motives and interests2. Henceforth, in alliance with the media, an intense nationalistic information campaign reached into the heart of society, in which no other voices were allowed to be heard.

In the view of the élites, the ‘uneducated’ culturally marginalized masses know nothing

However, the masses were not convinced, having experienced democracy under the earlier elected government in terms of what they call taa-sawang; literally ‘bright eyes’ or ‘awakening’ to the possibilities of full participation and enfranchisement, or one voice=one vote. To neo-traditionalists and bureaucratic élites at the centre, ‘democracy’ is to be directed by those who have the moral right to control all public benefits; to be dispensed by the wise, as those leading civil society must know what is best. In the view of the élites, the ‘uneducated’ culturally marginalized masses know nothing; and where wisdom emanates from the summit downwards, as it has for centuries, regardless of the new forces of modernity.

Ever since the coup, there have been continuing human rights abuses, double standards through the courts, massive corruption in public enterprises, state repression against opposition, violence, relentless censorship, organized media propaganda and the curtailment of freedoms. At the organized level of the protests are the ‘Red Shirts’, a new social movement which calls for reinstating the fundamental principles of democracy, equality and justice. The stage was set for a direct contest, even though it was always going to be unequal, given the military machine and its élite alliance working against the masses.

Calling for change: Thailand’s Red Shirts

The Red Shirts are properly known as ‘Red for the whole land’ (daeng thang-paendin); or, in English, the National United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, and are one of the most significant social movements to appear in modern Thailand. Aside from some intellectuals and business and political interests wanting to see the return of the democratic process, they are mainly constituted by rural and urban poor who had experienced social, economic and political reforms at the grassroots under Thaksin’s Thai-Rak-Thai government (2001-6).

The Red Shirts articulate a specific set of concerns in the context of a conflict situation which challenges the legitimacy of existing dominant relations of power

The Red Shirts articulate a specific set of concerns in the context of a conflict situation which challenges the legitimacy of existing dominant relations of power. They are engaged in a dispute which directly and indirectly affects the distribution of power within society. The movement is committed to the building of collective identities and in an organizational sense cannot simply be defined as a system of roles and network of exchanges. Moreover, the Red Shirts have to deal with the resistance and the repression under state apparatuses which maintain the ‘monopoly over the instruments of social control’, especially military forces3.

Although there is no unambiguous consciousness of class so much as a shared or common sense of suffering, class must rise from the collective struggle framed by historical social hierarchies. A poster displayed at a protest site stated the problem in a cultural framework: ‘class war/conflict’ (songkraam chonchan) under a picture of Bangkok’s landmark Democracy Monument with commoners (Phrai) as farmers fighting the lords (Nai). This depicts traditional binary social divisions. The Red Shirt protests in Bangkok starting on 12 March 2010 actually gave the masses a ‘theoretical consciousness’4 of being creators of new kinds of Siamese/Thai historical and institutional values based on freedom, equality and justice.

Red Shirt objectives

The aim of the movement, starting as a collective force in December 2007, is to remove the unelected governing regime in the mask of democracy under the military’s Puppet government, the elite-connected Democrat Party and its nominated PM Abhisit Vejjajiva, and call for transparent and fair elections. The Democrat Party strategically has military support and came to power through parliamentary wheeling and dealing. It also, importantly and mischievously, claims summit support for its legitimacy. The current alliance is a compact dominated by ruling bureaucratic interests, the ancien regime under 90-year-old Chief Privy Councillor General Prem Tinsulanond who controls civic, regal and military power.

Photo supplied by: Jim Taylor
Women prisoners tied up on 19 May 2010. Photo supplied by: Jim Taylor

The Red Shirts’ motto comes from its now banned media articulated in ‘Truth Today’ (khwaamjing-wannii), intended to show how social and political realities has been distorted in the past four years to serve socio-economic interests. Indeed, Red Shirt media has been banned, community radio stations closed down around the country that do not conform to the regime’s ‘truth’ statements ordered by the military’s ‘Centre for the Resolution of the Emergency Situation’ (CRES); broadcasting equipment destroyed, its leaders beaten and imprisoned without formal charges being laid. The movement is currently calling for the release of all political prisoners.

Taking to the barricades in April and again finally in May 2010 was a last resort for people frustrated by a system that had no interest in listening to their calls for ending injustices, disbanding the illegitimately established government and calling for free and fair elections. They made it clear that they were no longer going to accept piecemeal efforts at addressing their long-standing grievances.

Violent awakenings

It was the killing of protesters on the streets under PM Abhisit’s authority on 10 April and 18-19 May 2010 which started to awaken the outside world to something underhand happening. Inside the barricades and in the streets around the protest sites in Bangkok some 92 unarmed women, men and even children were killed and more than 2,000 seriously injured; many, including Buddhist monks, were injured or beaten as they tried to flee armed soldiers. Since then, majority peoples in Thailand have been trying to make sense of the continuing chaos, fear and uncertainty imposed under the harsh and repressive conditions of the current regime.

Most of the protesters seeing the oncoming incursion resorted to Molotov cocktails, catapults, burning rubber tyres, stones and bamboo pikes to use against the deadly might of sophisticated war weapons. The state’s despicable use of agents provocateurs among the protesters was a means of relaying a media image of Red Shirt armed violence against the regime; though unfortunate for the state, international correspondents started to document realities on the ground even at the cost to the lives of two foreign photojournalists, Italian Fabio Polenghi and Japanese Hiro Muramoto. This level of state violence was brutal and unexpected, as the masses start to now question basic notions of morality, summit rule and social justice. Protesters, volunteer medics and anyone unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity were randomly targeted by military snipers; even people who had fled to the sanctity of a nearby royal Buddhist temple.

Taking to the barricades in April and again finally in May 2010 was a last resort for people frustrated by a system that had no interest in listening to their calls for ending injustices, disbanding the illegitimately established government and calling for free and fair elections

The state continues to attempt to fudge over this event, despite evidence coming to light showing state consent and planning of the violence; even worse, to try and lay blame among the people themselves for killing their own friends, compatriots and relatives. The regime’s complicit National Human Rights Commission blamed the mainly rural masses for disrupting the rights of middleclass shoppers around the Bangkok demonstration sites! People are asking how the élite regime could so easily, and without conscience, kill their own citizens.

Why no public outcry?

The witch hunt continues for Red Shirt leaders, especially in the provinces. I had to sometimes have discussion with informants in secret locations. It is uncertain how many people (aside from core leaders and intellectuals) are currently in prison. Lists back in May indicated at least 417 people, though this figure would be considerably higher now because of various tenuous charges under which people are held and many hundreds of people are still held without charge.

People are asking how the élite regime could so easily, and without conscience, kill their own citizens

There was no outcry because most protesters are the subaltern – mainly from ethnic Northern Thai and Lao-speaking provinces rendered valueless in the élite-middleclass discourse on directed democracy. They were referred to in the media as mindless ‘buffalo’ and, as in one high class women’s magazine, as a group of dirty ‘foot cleaning-rags’, implying that the subaltern should stay down under the élite’s feet. In the persisting sentiments of traditional Thai society, the categories of person based on class/social position are more clearly divided post crackdown, as élites gather the moral high ground and the Red Shirts are further deprecated by urban bourgeoisie.

How can the abuse of human rights (and the rights to information) in Thailand since 2006 have been overlooked by outsiders? Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Thailand is a signatory, states: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’ . National security and stability has been framed as an excuse simply for maintaining the status quo. But the state has to justify itself in the eyes of citizens by claiming, as it has post-coup, to be acting in a moral, loyal (to the monarch) and just cause.

The ruling élites need to establish a mask in which to rule. But first, they need to clear away all popular resistance. Hegemonic dominance relies ultimately on modalities of coercion, and in a ‘crisis of authority’ when the pretention of social consent slips away, there remains the fist of force, the army, which is ever ready to take control.

Dr Jim Taylor works at the University of Adelaide, South Australia, Discipline of Anthropology in the School of Social Sciences.

  1. (Author translation): Informant ‘Ae’ (real name withheld), rural Red Shirt male, Roi Et Province, Northeast Thailand, June 2010. This article was written during ongoing research into the Red Shirt social movement in Thailand. Names of informants and places for security purposes have been omitted; my thanks to so many people for sharing their stories and experiences with me. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
  2. See Robert Amsterdam and Dean Peroff, 2010, ‘the Bangkok massacres: a call for accountability: A White Paper’, 77 pp
  3. Albert Melucci 1996, Challenging Codes: Collective Action in the Information Age, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp 314-5.
  4. Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebook 1 (1929-1930), p.431

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