Thailand: Red Shirt leader on new stage in fight

A huge crowd of Red Shirts mobilised at Bangkok’s Ratchaprasong intersection on September 19 to mark four months since the May

Sombat Boonngamanong, a cultural activist and NGO organiser, was not a central leader of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (popularly known as the Red Shirts) when their mass protest camp at the Ratchaprasong intersection in the heart of Bangkok was bloodily dispersed by the Thai military on May 19.

Thousands were injured and 91 killed in the crackdown. Hundreds remain political prisoners.

But Sombat has since emerged as a popular figure in the dramatic Red Shirts' resurgence over the last month.

A series of well-publicised and colourful activities held on Sundays since April, organised by Sombat’s “Red Sunday” group, has built-up incredible momentum. On September 19, an estimated 10,000-12,000 Red Shirts mobilised at Ratchaprasong intersection for a red balloon releasing ceremony organised by the Red Sunday group.

This mass, but peaceful, turnout surprised both organisers and authorities.

The Red Sunday group continues to organise symbolic actions on Sundays, such as the Red Shirt bike ride for freedom, attended by hundreds, in Ayutthaya on October 3.
Sombat gave an exclusive interview to Green Left Weekly’s Peter Boyle.

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What did the large marches on September 19 tell us about the state of the Red Shirt movement?

I believe there are millions of Red Shirts. They are all still there — just waiting to act again. But they are not sure if they should show themselves, or how, because the government is still hunting them down and threatening them. It seems like they are waiting for a new stage of the movement and waiting to see how that goes.

What were the tactics used by your Red Sunday group to build the September 19 mobilisation.

First, we chose a day that has meaning, and this has great power in itself: four months since the May 19 massacre and four years since the last elected government was removed by a military coup.

Second, we promoted the concept “red around the world” so that Red Shirts all around the world could think up and create their own activities and join with the main activity [in Thailand].

Third, we used social networking as our form of communication and used this constantly to expand this idea into a [popular] wave.

Fourth, we chose Ratchaprasong intersection as the site for our activity, a place that had great symbolic meaning.

And, fifth, we forced the government to join in our “games” [the red bicycle rides, red ribbon-tying ceremonies, group games/exercises and dance competitions organised by the Red Sunday group on several Sundays leading up to September 19].

As a result, we created a big public debate in media especially in the last two weeks before the anniversary. We were in all the media.

Did the movement have to overcome fear and isolation after the repression of May 19?

Yes, we organised a process to break down this fear. The build-up events were symbolic appearances that were not big enough to provoke the full force ofgovernment.

Have new layers of leadership emerged in the Red Shirts movement after many of its leaders were jailed since May 19?

That is happening, naturally. There are leaderships of small groups of Red Shirts developing everywhere. And the pattern tends to be from the bottom to the top.

So in the last period, we saw small groups creating their own activities all around the country, but not any big rallies or big protests.

Overseas, there are still people saying the Red Shirts are just paid by deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, or manipulated by him to protect his wealth. How would you answer this?

It’s not like that. The movement is made up of people with different intentions. Some supported Thaksin, but not to protect his wealth. Such accusations from opponents of the Red Shirts are just made to discredit our fight for democracy.

What are the top three objectives of the movement today?

First, to show the world that the Red Shirt movement still exists. Second, to show the government and society the Red Shirts are still strong and still fighting for equal rights and real democracy. And third, to introduce new forms of symbolic struggle.

What do you think will be the next steps after the success of September 19?

We are making a new culture of wearing Red Shirts every Sunday and producing a new generation of Red Shirt leaders within their own groups all around country, in the process.

Of course, the government will try to eliminate us and discredit any groups that gather some momentum.

The day after the mass September 19 rally in Ratchaprasong, Xinhua news agency reported that you said there would be no more rallies. Is this true?

On that day, so many people, many times more than I expected, turned out. I was worried that if we had these numbers again, we would not be ready to handle the situation. However, with good planning and cooperation, there might be another big rally like this again.

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