Thailand’s Red Shirt movement unlikely to quit struggle despite suppression of Bangkok protest

By Grant Peck, AP
Sunday, May 23, 2010

Bangkok defeat won’t be end of Red Shirt struggle

BANGKOK — The guns are silent, the barricades demolished, the wounded hospitalized. The defeated Red Shirt protest leaders are in detention, their followers dispersed back to their homes in rural Thailand.

The Red Shirts’ once-peaceful street protests ended in violence and a military crackdown last week, but many believe their movement demanding a change of government is far from finished.

“I think this is a new beginning for the Red Shirts. It will be a darker and grimmer time of struggle and less focused activities. By no stretch of the imagination is the movement finished,” said Kevin Hewison, a Thailand scholar from the University of North Carolina.

“This is not the end,” vowed Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, a Red Shirt leader. “It will spread further and the situation will deteriorate.”

How bad can it get? The government itself has claimed that Red Shirt militants are well funded and supplied with smuggled arms and explosives.

“Right now, they are just burning buildings, but later on, what if they picked up arms to fight the bureaucrats, security forces in other parts of Bangkok, and especially in the countryside?” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “The crackdown didn’t make them retreat fully. Things will get much worse still.”

The Red Shirts wanted Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to dissolve Parliament immediately and call new elections. They allege he came to power illegitimately because Abhisit’s Democrat Party was not the top vote-getter in the last election in 2007, but military pressure on lawmakers of other parties allowed him to form a coalition government in December 2008.

However, the fuses on the firebombs tossed last week at 30 targets, including banks, the stock exchange and the country’s biggest luxury mall, were lit in September 2006, when a military coup ousted elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin — resented by many for his autocratic ways and alleged corruption — had led his party to two overwhelming election victories. He was the first elected prime minister to serve out a full term, and was popular with the country’s rural and urban underclass for initiating social and economic welfare programs.

The established power structure — the palace, the military, the bureaucracy and their big business allies — saw his adept leveraging of his electoral majority as a threat to Thailand’s constitutional monarchy, and critics believe, their privileged positions in it.

The coupmakers enacted laws to destroy Thaksin’s political machine and promulgated a new constitution intended to thwart his comeback. When Thaksin’s allies came to power in a December 2007 election, the courts — regarded as pillars of the royalist establishment — forced two successive pro-Thaksin prime ministers out of office on grounds their supporters found flimsy.

Many people believe that Thaksin — still a billionaire although a big part of his wealth was seized after the coup — is the puppet-master behind the Red Shirts, funding a selfish, cynical bid to regain his money, power and pride.

“I think that Thaksin remains a factor in the movement, but that the movement is much larger than Thaksin,” said Michael Montesano, a visiting research fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

“What unifies the Red Shirts above all is the fact that a military coup in 2006 and a pair of judicial coups in 2008 negated the results of elections. These events are seen as confirmation that some Thais’ votes count, and others do not,” he said. “As it happens, many of the people whose electoral will has been overridden also benefited from Thaksin’s ‘populist’ policies and had come to admire him for those policies and for his apparent interest in their lot.”

“No justice, no peace,” was a popular slogan of the Red Shirts.

With their own martyrs — friends and comrades shot by the security forces — the Red Shirts have little reason to care about the gutted buildings of institutions in Bangkok which have little connections to their lives.

“While they are seen as disgraced by most Bangkokians, the redshirts will increasingly transcend Bangkok-centric Thailand without caring. They no longer accept the Thai state and the political system it upholds, because the system is seen as rigged, the odds stacked against them,” Prof. Thitinan wrote in a commentary for Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

The obvious quick fix is an early election, but that offers precarious prospects for peace.

“In principle, there’s no reason why the government would not agree to an early election as long as we felt that it would benefit the country, and my personal view is that it would benefit the country,” Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij, who is close to Abhisit, said Friday.

“However, we need to make sure that emotions have cooled to the extent that candidates from all parties can feel safe in campaigning anywhere in the country. Frankly, we would not feel safe doing that today.”

The prospect of Thaksin’s side prevailing at the polls — as it has in every election since 2001, and which many experts believe would do again — also holds the possibility that his opponents will again try to overturn the results.

Presaging the Red Shirts’ confrontational tactics, their ideological rivals, the Yellow Shirts, occupied the prime minister’s offices for three months and Bangkok’s two airports for a week in 2008 in an effort to force out two pro-Thaksin governments. The fear is that they would mobilize again. starting a new cycle of strife.

“The way out of this will require a return to parliamentary and constitutional processes, with revised rules and eligible political players acceptable to all sides,” Thitinan proposed. “This difficult way forward, towards reconciliation, will require mutual recognition and accommodation between the two main sides.”

Abhisit is pushing a reconciliation that calls for reforms to solve economic injustice, independent investigations of violence connected with the Red Shirt protests and amendment of the post-coup constitution to make it fairer to all political parties.

Charnvit Kasetsiri, one of Thailand’s most distinguished historians, said he believes an end to the violence is not in sight.

“It’s not an easy job to find institutions or individuals to solve the crisis, since it has reached the point where people in Thai society no longer trust each other,” said Charnvit. “Society is divided and nobody will listen to one another.”

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