Thai 'Red Shirt' citizen movement for real democracy

April 18, 2009

For the fourth time in 40 years, troops have opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators in Bangkok. Each time, the aim has been the same: to protect the interests of the conservative elites who have run Thailand for the past 70 years.

For those watching the soldiers murder people in cold-blood on the streets of Bangkok, it may be tempting to assume the present chaos is merely about different coloured T-shirts and supporters of different political parties, as though they were mirror images of each other.

This is not the case.

What we have been seeing in Thailand since late 2005 is a growing class war between the poor majority and the old elites.

It is not a pure class war. Due to a vacuum on the left in the past, millionaire and populist politicians have managed to provide leadership to the poor. Former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was overthrown in a military coup in 2006, is an example. He is the main figure looked to by the "Red Shirt" street protesters,

The urban and rural poor, who form most of the electorate, are the Red Shirts. They want the right to choose their own democratically elected government. They started out as passive supporters of Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai government.

But they have now formed a brand new citizens' movement, for what they call "real democracy".

For them, "real democracy" means an end to the long-accepted "quiet dictatorship" of the army generals and the royal palace. This situation allowed the generals, the king's advisors in the Privy Council and the conservative elites to act as though they were above the constitution.

Lese majeste laws (which outlaw "insulting" — criticism of — the monarchy) and intermittent repression have been used to silence opposition.

Ever since 2006, these elites have blatantly acted against election results by staging a military coup, using the courts to twice dissolve Thaksin's party and by backing mob violence by the anti-democratic royalist "Yellow Shirts".

The present misnamed Democrat Party government, led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, was put in place by the army.

Most of those in the Red Shirt movement support Thaksin for good reasons. His government put in place many pro-poor policies, including Thailand's first ever universal health-care system.

Yet the Red Shirts are not merely Thaksin puppets. There is a complex relationship between Thaksin and the Red Shirts.

His leadership provides encouragement and confidence to fight. Yet the Red Shirts are self-organised in community groups and some are showing frustration with Thaksin's lack of progressive leadership, especially over his insistence that they continue to be "loyal" to the crown.

In the recent street protests, the Red Shirts have shown signs of self-leadership to such an extent that the old Red Shirt politicians are running to keep up. A republican movement is growing.

Many left-leaning Thais like myself are not Thaksin supporters. We opposed his human rights abuses. But we are the left-wing of the citizens' movement for real democracy.

The Yellow Shirts are conservative royalists. Some have fascist tendencies. Their guards carry and use firearms. They supported the 2006 coup, wrecked Government House and blocked the international airport last year to bring down the government.

Behind them were the Thai army. That is why troops never shot at the Yellow Shirts. That is why the present, Oxford- and Eton-educated Thai PM has done nothing to punish them.

After all, he appointed some to his cabinet.

The aims of the Yellow Shirts are to reduce the voting power of the electorate, to protect the conservative elites and the "bad old ways" of running Thailand. They see increased citizen empowerment as a threat, and propose a "New Order" dictatorship where people are allowed to vote, but most MPs and public positions are not up for election.

They are supported by the mainstream Thai media, most middle-class academics and even NGO leaders. The NGOs have disgraced themselves over the past few years by siding with the Yellows or remaining silent in the face of the general attack on democracy.

Despite being well-meaning, their lack of politics has let them down and they have been increasingly drawn to the right.

When we talk about the "palace", we have to make a distinction between the king and all those who surround him. The king has always been weak and lacking in any democratic principles. The palace has been used to legitimise past and present dictatorships.

As a "stabilising force", the monarchy has only helped to stabilise the interests of the elite. The immensely wealthy king is also opposed to any wealth redistribution. The queen is an extreme reactionary.

However, the real people with power among the Thai elites are the army and high-ranking state officials.

If one is to understand and judge the violent acts taking place in Thailand, we need a sense of history. Perspective is needed to distinguish between damaging property and injuring or killing people. With this perspective, it is clear that the Yellow Shirts and the army are the violent ones.

A sense of history helps to explain why Red Shirt citizens are now exploding in anger. They have had to endure the military jackboot, the repeated theft of their democratic rights, continued acts of violence against them and general abuse from the mainstream media and academia.

If they continue to resist, cracks may appear in the army. During the past four years Thai citizens have become highly politicised. Ordinary soldiers, recruited from poor families, support the Red Shirts.

The stakes are very high. Any compromise has the risk of instability because it will satisfy almost no one.

The old elites might want to do a deal with Thaksin to stop the Red Shirts from becoming totally republican. But whatever happens, Thai society cannot go back to the old days. The Red Shirts represent millions of Thais who are sick and tired of military and palace intervention in politics. At the very least they will want a non-political constitutional monarchy.

It is hoped the Red Shirts will continue to move to the left during this round of struggle.

[Reprinted from socialist e-journal Links. Giles Ji Ungpakorn is an activist with the socialist Turn Left Thailand group. He was forced to leave Thailand after being charged under the anti-democratic lese majeste laws. Visit and]

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