The 74-day long mobilisation for democracy that shut down the centre of Bangkok ended when the leaders of the Red Shirts movement surrendered on May 20. The surrender came after the Thai army launched an armoured assault on the capital.
The military used bulldozers and tanks to destroy the Red Shirts’ four-metre high bamboo and tyre barricades.
More than 75 protesters and two soldiers have been killed since the protests began in March. At least one of the soldiers was shot accidentally by another soldier.
The Red Shirts, a mass movement of millions of peasants, workers and urban poor, have been demanding the resignation of the unelected regime of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the holding of fresh elections.
The May 20 violent clearing of pro-democracy protesters from central Bangkok followed a week of attacks on the Red Shirts’ protest site.
Soldiers used live rounds and snipers deliberately gunned down unarmed civilians in the government-declared “free fire zone”, while the government and media slandered the Red Shirts as “terrorists”.
On May 13, former general and Red Shirt leader Sae Deng was giving an interview to an International Herald Tribune journalist when he was assassinated by an army sniper. In the final assault, the army broke an agreement not to attack a Buddhist temple that had been designated a safe refuge.
On May 20, SBS News reported claims snipers had targeted health workers treating injured protesters in the temple. Sydney Morning Herald journalist Ben Doherty, in Bangkok, wrote on May 19 that he “saw a man shot as he crouched behind a phone box ... Fellow protesters ran out, under a hail of bullets, to drag him to safety.”
Doherty said another protester was not so lucky: “Another man shot in Ratchadamri Road lay stricken, alone and unmoving. An ambulance that drove to him was fired upon and, ultimately, forced to abandon him.”
The army assault was met with fierce resistance by the protesters, who used anything at their disposal to repel the attack. A favoured weapon was fireworks launched from slingshots.
As Red Shirt supporters fled the protest site, resistance flared across Bangkok. Bangkok residents, particularly the urban poor, joined fleeing Red Shirts in burning down symbols of authority and privilege — government buildings, banks, the stock exchange and shopping malls, including the iconic Central World mall.
Protesters also vented anger at commercial media who had pushed anti-Red Shirt propaganda. A TV station and two English-language newspapers were targeted.
Mass protests also broke out in the countryside. Many of the protesters who had occupied central Bangkok were from the rural poor, representing thousands more in their home communities. Support for the Red Shirts is strongest in the north-east, where there is a long history of struggle, including a communist insurgency in the 1970s and ’80s.
In at least four separate towns in the north-east, government offices were torched. The military imposed a curfew across a third of the country.
The Red Shirts, or United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), formed as a reaction to the September 2006 military coup against the government of billionaire tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra. Forces aligned with Thaskin won elections again in 2007, before again being overthrown through semi-fascist Yellow Shirt protests and court rulings.
Thaksin, despite being part of the same elite that overthrew his government, won support from the poor for reforms such as the provision of health care for the poor for the first time.
The UDD is a coalition involving a diverse range of opinions and political positions united in demanding democracy.
Thaksin has financed some Red Shirt activity, especially in the early stage of the movement. However, the movement has moved well beyond being just Thaksin supporters.
The Red Shirt movement has taken on a clear class character. Its actions across Thailand are a direct assertion of the poor’s right to be able to engage in politics and have some determination over the future of the country.
Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party enjoyed support for its introduction of the Universal Health Care Scheme and local village funds to develop rural areas. Although TRT governments featured the high levels of corruption and human rights abuses common to all recent Thai regimes, such policies gained Thaksin mass support.
His policies followed a populist tradition of satisfying some demands of the poor to win himself an electoral base and the country the stability necessary for business to prosper.
More conservative elements of the Thai elite saw this limited empowerment and politicisation of the poor as a threat to the established system of privilege.
Thailand’s elites have long held complete contempt for the poor, believing that they are too stupid to make democratic decisions and do not deserve state assistance to improve their lives.
Vote buying, election rigging and military coups have been common throughout Thailand's recent history. Thailand has had more than 20 coups since 1932.
Hiding behind Thai’s monarchy, the more conservative wing of the elite is made up of local political mafias, the army, conservative judges and Abhisit’s Democrat Party.
The king wields little real power, usually backing whoever is in power at the time. However, the royal family is immensely wealthy and interested in keeping the status quo. The queen, Sirikit, has been a vocal supporter of the overthrow of democratic governments.
Ruling parties and the military have used the pretence of protecting the monarchy to stifle dissent under lese majeste (insulting the monarch) laws.
Unable to undermine Thaksin’s popularity by democratic means, royalist supporters — calling themselves the People’s Alliance for Democracy (the Yellow Shirts) — carried out a series of riots in 2006, creating chaos across the country.
Mainly from middle-class backgrounds, the Yellow Shirts campaigned for the resignation of the elected government and to decrease democratic rights of the poor.
The TRT called an election in an attempt to diffuse the crisis. Knowing the TRT would win, conservatives organised a military coup.
In its year in power, the military re-wrote the constitution, replacing a number of elected senate positions with military appointees. Thaksin was exiled and the TRT banned.
Mass pressure from the Red Shirts forced the military to hold elections in December 2007, which were won by the People's Power Party (PPP), which had been formed by TRT supporters.
Yellow Shirts mobilised to defend military control, rioting with impunity. They occupied key infrastructure such as the airport and Government House for weeks, unhindered by the military, which supported their actions.
In December 2008, court decisions annulled the election results and dissolved the PPP. Abhisit was installed as the new prime minister.
Despite its brutal repression of the Red Shirts, and the likelihood of increased repression, Abhisit’s government is extremely unpopular and is untenable in the long term.
While the main Red Shirt protest centre has been broken up and many of their leaders arrested, there remain millions of supporters whose anger at the government will only have intensified.
Captured protesters defiantly told foreign reporters that their defeat was only temporary and they would be back. SBS News on May 20 showed a women claiming victory, because for the first time in Thailand’s history the impoverished majority had made their voice heard.