Thailand: Protests defy emergency law

Die-in protest on Pattya beach, September 4. Pro-democracy Red Shirts have held a series of symbolic actions to bypass emergency

Up to 20,000 supporters of the pro-democracy Red Shirt movement rallied at a concert in the Thailand seaside resort city of Pattaya on September 4. It was one the biggest mobilisations since the military bloodily dispersed the Red Shirts’ mass protest camp in Bangkok in May, killing 91 and injuring thousands more.

Red Shirt leader and Puea Thai party MP Jatuporn Prompan called on people to place red roses outside prisons around the country on September 17. Hundreds of Red Shirt leaders and activists continue to be detained.

Over September 18-19, actions marking four months since the massacre will be held all over the country as well as overseas.

“Today is the beginning of our campaign to open the prison doors to let our Red Shirts brothers and sisters free”, Jatuporn told the concert.

Jatuporn disputed suggestions the Red Shirts were giving up their fight in the name of “reconciliation”. He said there would be no reconciliation without justice.

“We need to get justice for the dead and fairness for those still alive, but today the murderers still free”, Jutaporn said. “The killers got promoted while the victims were killed or were locked up.

“We cannot accept this kind of nation.”

Jutaporn said the government had accused him of refusing offers of reconciliation, of “putting out his feet” to its offers of a “handshake”. But how can the reconciliation happen, he asked, when the government was “offering its feet by giving bullets to us first”?

One of the participants in the Pattaya rally, “Gunn” (not his real name for security reasons) sent Green Left Weekly photographs of a “die-in” action the next day on the beach.

The action was organised by the “Red Sunday” group around outspoken activist Sombat Boonngamanong, who has defied the emergency laws prohibiting protests.

Sombat organised games, street theatre and a clean-up of the beach. About 1000 people took part.

On May 21, Sombat and others organised a gathering at a park on Lat Phrao Road in Bangkok to exhibit photos of dead protesters and stage a small performance. A large number of armed police arrived and dispersed them.

On June 26, Sombat was arrested when he tied a large red ribbon at the Ratchaprasong intersection to commemorate the people killed by the military in that area on May 19.

On July 11, just two days after he was released from detention, Sombat repeated his red ribbon protest on a signpost at Ratchaprasong intersection, together with hundreds of supporters.

Several of these protesters painted their arms red and lay on the ground next to posters reading: “People died here.”

On August 7, Sombat staged another symbolic protest by tying a red banner at the City Tower Clock of Chiang Rai province to denounce the authorities’ harassment of five students who earlier staged a protest against the emergency decree in the area. One of the students, aged 16, was forced by authorities to have a check up at a mental health hospital.

Since then, the Red Sunday group has organised many other symbolic actions, including mass exercise routines by red-shirted participants, dance competitions, die-ins and attempts to break through stifling internet censorship the Thai government has imposed.

Gunn proudly told GLW: “This is the eighth time I have protested with Khun Sombat. Some Red Shirts don't think it’s safe enough to come out and choose to ‘wait and see’. But our group is not waiting.

“There are no fixed tactics for fighting for democracy … Our group’s current tactic is to organise symbolic actions in the form of the ordinary things that people do, like doing exercise or going to the beach.

“This way, the government cannot accuse us of doing something illegal.

“Over the past two weeks, Khun Sombat has been in Chiang Mai to carry out many activities together with local Red Shirts. Most Red Shirts at first fought for democracy and because their popular vote for former deposed PM Thaksin Shinawatra was denied by the military [which installed the current government led by PM Abhisit Vejjajiva].

“But now they fight for more reasons. They fight the old power which has run Thailand for many, many years. They fight for those who died in the struggle for democracy.”

Gunn said the people in the Red Sunday group are not pawns of Thaksin. “We have a commitment between us to a bigger purpose, democracy, and this commitment telling us to keep fighting.”

The Abhisit regime is trying some of the Red Shirt leaders on charges of committing terrorist acts, inciting unrest and holding illegal gatherings. Others remain in detention and some are still denied access to lawyers.

Sombat has promised to gather other Red Shirts to visit lesser-known Red Shirt activists in detention. Sombat doubted the willingness of the Law Society of Thailand to help Red Shirts, saying the society has a history of bias against Red Shirts.

Emergency laws declared in May are still in force in Bangkok and six other provinces. They have been lifted in some of the most popular tourist areas.

[Peter Boyle is national convener of the Socialist Alliance in Australia. Thanks to several Red Shirt activists, who must remain anonymous, for their help in writing this article.]