We need a Red Shirt movement in the USA, militant, uncompromising, and in the streets. –WG
By Marwaan Macan-Markar
BANGKOK, Sep 20, 2010 (IPS) – After a lapse of four months, Pukkie Mathika was finally able to break her silence, finding her way back to a busy intersection in the heart of an up-market shopping district here in Bangkok to rage against the Thai government.
She took part in the protest holding up a handmade banner in deep red, on which was scrawled a message in black text – the Thai government “kills people.”
“I do not fear this government,” said the 43-year-old insurance broker. “We will not give up.”
She was one of the thousands who filled up the Rajaprasong intersection on Sep. 19 to reclaim it as their political stomping ground as they had done from April through mid-May. Many held up banners calling for “justice” and the “return to democracy”, in addition to chanting slogans against the government of Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
That such a show of defiance was an illegal act hardly appeared to trouble the scores of men, women and children at the protest. After all, the draconian emergency law, still enforced in the city, states that a political gathering of more than five people could lead to arrests.
If anything, the mood of the protesters confirmed that Thailand was still deeply divided. The anti-government sentiments stood in contrast to the messages painted on nearby billboards, calling on people to “Reconcile, as we are one country, one family and one people.”
As night fell, these protesters, who sported the signature red shirts of their movement, converted the streets and sidewalks into impromptu shrines. They lit red candles to remember the 91 people, the majority of them protesters, who had been killed during two violent clashes when Thai troops advanced to wrest back the streets from the red shirts.
Sunday’s outpouring, which drew close to 10,000 people at its height, was not only to mark the four-month anniversary since the red shirt protest ended with a military crackown on May 19. Sep. 19 also marked the four-year anniversary of Thailand’s last military coup.
To many red shirts, the undercurrent of anger in this South-east Asian kingdom goes back to the moment the military turfed out then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2006. Thaksin, a widely popular and twice- elected leader, was viewed by pro-royalist, conservative elite as a threat to the entrenched order where they had, till his rise, enjoyed most of the political spoils.
Just how powerful the Thai military establishment has become four years after the coup is reflected the size of its budget since its return to calling the political shots after an interval of 14 years. The military budget has swollen from 85 billion baht (2.4 billion U.S. dollars) in 2006 to 154 billion baht (4.96 billion U.S. dollars) in 2010, reveals the ‘Bangkok Post’ in its Sunday edition.
The military’s role angers women like Wanfasuay Pattarachainant. “I have protested since the coup,” said the 61-year-old. “We need to demonstrate, to show the government and the military that we disagree with their every action.”
The red shirt movement emerged in the aftermath of the coup, drawing supporters of the ousted Thaksin who were angered that their electoral choice had been forced out of power. It drew wide support from the rural rice growing provinces in the north-east, a Thaksin stronghold.
In mid-March, tens of thousands of red shirts began demonstrating in two iconic areas of Bangkok to force the government to dissolve Parliament and call for an early election. But a crackdown, which saw shots fired by the military and a shadowy group of ‘black shirts’ from within red shirt ranks, brought to an end the largest public protests in nearly two decades.
But the leader of Sunday’s sudden burst of discontent sees the act of defiance as a reminder to the Abhisit administration that the red shirts will not remain quiet.
“We want to remember what happened and we want people not to be afraid of wearing their red shirts in public,” says Sombat Boonngamanong, a grassroots activist. “People have been scared of wearing our political symbol, the red shirts, since the May crackdown.”
“We need to stand up and show the public who we are,” he explained to IPS. “There is symbolism that we need to express.”
Sombat, in fact, has been spearheading similar, albeit smaller “innovative political activity” for red shirt supporters to rally around. One weekend saw him lead this protest movement on to the beaches near the resort town of Pattaya, south of Bangkok, for a party. Another Sunday had him lead red shirts through the capital on bicycles.
The 42-year-old has continued these efforts at the risk of getting arrested again. In June, he was detained by the police for two weeks for defying the emergency law after he tied red ribbons near Rajaprasong in memory of the protesters killed during the April and May crackdowns.
But the government appears to have eased its grip on Sombat and his red shirt protests for now. “The gathering on Sunday in Rajaprasong is a sign of increasing normalcy, although the situation is not totally normal,” Panitan Wattanayagorn, a government spokesman, told IPS. “The demonstrators were within their constitutional rights to protest.”
“The Prime Minister has acknowledged that there is a strong show of political differences from certain groups in society,” he added. “They could show it and do so as long as it is peaceful.”