Thailand: Red Shirts organise for democracy

Sombat Boonngamanong. Photo: Lee Yu Kyung

Sombat Boonngamanong is a long-time NGO activist in Thailand and has been of great help to renewing public Red Shirt activity following the bloody April-May military crackdown.

Lee Yu Kyung spoke to him about the prospects for the democracy movement in Thailand.

* * *

It seems Red Shirts are gradually recovering. There were tens of thousands of people gathered at Ratchprasong on November 19 to mark six months since the crackdown. What have been the developments in the Red Shirt movement in the past six months, after the bloody crackdown?

Let me explain an evolution that I’m involved in. Since the crackdown, I’ve started to use Facebook, on which I launched the Red Sunday campaign.

First, I have suggested red supporters use one logo, in which “I am a red” is written, for their profile picture of Facebook. Many changed their pictures on Sunday. So it worked out.

Second, I invited five friends to a cafe to have a political discussion, and encouraged them to organise the same meeting with five others wearing red shirts.

The campaign "Five Reds at Cafe" has spread to produce many gatherings for discussions with their fellows. One day, we went to BigC at Ladprao [the north-east district in Bangkok] to have 100 people meet.

Another activity was conducted one month after the crackdown. I went to Ratchaprasong to tie red ribbons at the Ratchaprasong street sign. I suggested to other Red Shirts to do the same thing ... police arrested me.

I was in police custody for two weeks.

But my story became public. My comrades in the NGO field published open letters in protest. Many people talked about me. So the renewal activities have become news. When I was released, I tried to do it again.

These are all public activities, simple, soft but creative. Not aggressive. Then people felt that it was possible to renew red activity.

To be honest, people were afraid seeing their fellows, friends and family gunned down. But they seemed to be encouraged when they saw my activity. “Ok, Khun Sombat is doing this, why shouldn’t I”, they thought.

Have you noticed a radicalisation among Red Shirts in the last six months?

I can’t comment on that. I don’t agree with every single measure or slogan. I only can say that I support the spirit of the Red Shirt movement.

What is the spirit?

First, they are conscientiously fighting against the oppressor. Second, it’s about democracy. Democratisation in Thailand is unstable but is in process. You see, the authority in a democratic country should have not used snipers and guns to control a mass rally.

Then what is your observation about democracy in Thailand at this current stage?

It’s not like we have no democracy at all, but we have no democracy (laughter).

The middle class, who has power and freedom, might have felt they are the owners of the country and that there is democracy. But the reality with which the poor face would be different.

This is why the middle class couldn’t understand why the Red Shirts from provinces came to Bangkok to rally. So they told Red Shirts "go home" or "go farming". There are two different faces of democracy in Thailand.

Where would you say is Thaksin Shinawatra’s status in the current and future Red Shirt movement?

Many Red Shirts love him. True. But Thaksin is not a goal. The goal is to achieve democracy.



Thaksin’s power has been decreasing among Red Shirts. Not only Thaksin, but also leadership is being beyond by Red Shirts now. People have been empowering themselves.

But problem is, in my opinion, while there are some activities and new leaders trying to build up in Bangkok, there’s not much activity in rural areas, which is a base of many Red Shirts. I try to encourage people [there].

Your group [Red Sunday] is one of many Red Shirt groups. How often do you correspond with other groups?

Not much, though we have. When we need to join forces for a certain activity, we exchange by email and phone. One example was the "Red around the World" rally on September 19, on the occasion of fourth anniversary of the 2006 coup and also to mark four months since the crackdown.

My idea is to promote small but many groups. And we keep our network between groups to finally build up the Red Shirts movement so it is huge once again. There is supposed to be a decentralised leadership, rather than a centralised one.

What about Khun Jatuporn Prompen, one of the core leaders, who has not been arrested? What sort of communication you have had with him?

I believe Jatuporn is also happy with our idea (of decentralised leadership). There is no dispute regarding this. We have known each other more than 20 years. Last week, for about one hour, I discussed with him the red campaign, but there is not that much communication in general.

What is next?

We plan a workshop named the “Democracy School” from next year.

What would say is a goal of your campaign?

Democracy.

Could you be more specific? Do you want a change of regime? A change in the system?

The goal of our group’s campaign is to change the mindset in Thai society, where you have "owners" or "superiors" of this country, while the grassroots are treated as like "visitors" or "inferior" citizens.

Every individual is equal. Again, we want to empower ourselves.