Until 1932, Thailand was a semi-feudal society that was effectively governed by an absolute monarchy, until the army overthrew the regime and replaced it with a dual rule system, that of an elected government overseen by the monarch and army. Given the fragmented and highly corrupt nature of politics in Thailand, with malfeasance often reaching dizzying proportions, governments seldom lasted very long and were regularly removed by the army, normally with monarchy approval. In the 1960s and 70s there were effective progressive movements, but these were subsequently crushed by the army.
This was very much the situation until the 2001 election as Prime Minister of the charismatic ex-police officer and telecoms plutocrat Taksin Shinawat. Breaking with all previous traditions, his Thai Rak Thai (Thai’s Love Thai) party introduced policies that actually benefitted millions of poor in rural areas, in particular through cheap health insurance, and microfinance for farmers.
Taksin was their man in Bangkok, their champion. But he had a very dark side. In 2003, building on Thailand’s long tradition of extra-judicial killings, and echoing American policy, he led a 3 month ‘war on drugs’ that saw nearly 3,000 mainly innocent persons executed by police without trial, using black lists and bonuses. He also authorised army violence in the Muslim South, most noticeably the 2004 Tak Bai incident that saw 85 peaceful protesters suffocated in detention.
It was however his increasing malfeasance and corrupt business practices that caused his removal in a monarch-backed coup in 2006. The result was the unpopular army and monarch-approved government, led by UK-educated Abhisit Vejjijiva.
Red is the colour of Taksin and his party, but it soon became the colour for millions of other Thais fed up with yet another army-backed government. Despite being exiled due to a conviction for malfeasance, Taksin was able to use his vast wealth to underwrite the Red Shirt movement, enabling thousands of poor farmers and their families to come to Bangkok to protest.
After an initial show down in April 2010, tens of thousands of Red Shirts and supporters converged on the exclusive retail centre of Bangkok, Ratchaprasong, and with the assistance of the many police in Bangkok with Red Shirt sympathies, erected a 2km by 2km commune protected only by flimsy bamboo and tyre barricades.
Inside the commune it was a truly joyous and festive atmosphere. Families from the poor North East camped on cement, and in shelters, and in parks that were part of the occupied areas. All the shopping centres had now been abandoned, yet there was no indication of looting. There were hundreds of street stalls selling Red Shirt paraphernalia, food and clothing, but not alcohol, which was prohibited.
At the centre was an enormous custom built auditorium with huge monitors where political addresses and music were played continuously to an encamped crowd of thousands. Industrial strength generators provided the electricity, sanitation was provided by lines of portable toilets that were regularly cleaned, streets were cleaned daily, and good quality food and water was provided gratis from well provisioned on site kitchens.
This Red Zone was policed mainly by ex-army men who dressed in black and who protected entry points from the army and agent provocateurs. Despite the allegations of having firearms, the Men in Black were equipped with knives and sling shots, despite often coming under fire from army snipers at night from nearby buildings.
In mid-May, after some two months of standoff, the government - and behind them the army and monarch - said enough was enough: dismantle the commune and we will agree to elections by the end of year, which was one of the main Red Shirt demands. Or the tanks go in.
Instead of agreeing, and for reasons which may refer back to Taksin, who was financing the Red Shirts, and his control of the senior leadership, the commune increased its defences and security. Outside, roving bands of local Bangkok Red Shirts, mainly motorcycle boys, labourers and street hawkers, set up makeshift barricades in roads around the commune. These were made of tyres removed from second hand yards and shipped in by trucks.
They were under no central direction, and using mobile phones, were able to coordinate movements to block traffic along major thoroughfares, effectively shutting down much of business, tourist and retail Bangkok, causing a significant loss of revenue. The army could, of course, have sent tanks in to remove them, but careful to avoid a massacre in front of the foreign media, set up their own sand bag barricades some 200 metres from the various Red Shirt front lines.
The Red Shirts, armed only with sling shots, Molotovs and homemade fireworks, not firearms or grenades, set to work annoying the soldiers. There were mooning episodes, constant mocking and rudeness using megaphones, followed by wave after wave of Molotovs, ball bearings and rockets, the overwhelming number falling well short of the army.
From a few hundred metres back, thousands of Red Shirt supporters would assemble day and night under now deserted underpasses, and cheer to the sound of each rocket that exploded, despite the fact they did no damage. In order to encourage the commune to surrender, the army began using plastic bullets and then live ammunition against the Men in Black, and especially the Red Shirts manning the street barricades.
During the day, this was primarily over their protesters’ heads, though a few were killed or sustained injuries. But it was by night that the full horror of living under army rule was most evident. Hidden high in apartment blocks near the barricades, snipers shot at anyone who passed, including tourists, and some local people on their way to or from work were killed or injured. The mere sound of a car exhaust backfiring in the distance would see hundreds running in terror.
To combat this, tyre barricades were set alight after dark with petrol, causing dense smoke plumes to envelope large areas. In the morning, new barricades were erected.
A week after the ultimatum, with the Red Shirts still rejecting the government offer, the tanks went in, rolling over the barricades protecting the commune with comparative ease. There was some resistance, but the Red Shirt leaders at the auditorium decided to surrender, rather than see tanks injuring those who remained.
Some Red Shirts and their supporters, enraged by this defeat, this latest return to square one of yet another attempt to free Thailand of its hated army rule, went on a rampage. In the commune, an exclusive shopping centre was burnt to the ground, shops burnt and looted, all under army fire. Outside, by the barricades and amidst scenes of total chaos, stations of Bangkok’s famous Sky Train were torched, phone boxes uprooted, cars set alight, government buildings turned into infernos, and the Thai Stock Exchange broken into and fires started, until the army opened fire. During that week, some 60 people died and many hundreds wounded.
Thailand’s long road to freedom is, however, far from over. Despite this setback, the Red Shirt movement has evolved and developed its own momentum. Most Red Shirts and supporters are not in Taksin’s pay, but rather see him as the catalyst and benefactor of an ongoing fight for social justice, and freedom from army rule.
Despite anti-Red Shirt legislation, flash protests regularly occur in Bangkok and regional centres, as well as more formal large protests, sometimes watched by police whose sympathies are Red. Though many Red Shirt leaders have been arrested, or are in hiding, the movement is too diffuse for the army and its government to either control or defeat, with new levels of leaders arising in the wings.
The aged monarch, though still popular, is in very poor health, and without his support, it is unlikely the army would be able to rule as it has done since 1932. As to the killing of unarmed civilians by the army, there is continuing coverage and publication of leaks by responsible Bangkok media based on the ongoing secret investigation by the government Department of Special Investigations.
Beneath the facade of business as usual, the memory and spirit of the Rachaprasong commune and the Red Shirt uprising is alive and well, and the hope is that the Red Shirts will be back on the streets in greater numbers in the near future.
In the parks, halls and public spaces around Kings Cross
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