I recently returned from ten days in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand. While there, I discovered that I knew very little about Thai politics, certainly not enough to know who the Red Shirts were or why they were demonstrating in Bangkok. Being present in a country when something out of the ordinary is happening tends to focus one’s attention on that country not only during the visit but also subsequent to it. For me, I seem to gain a vested interest in a place if I was there during an important event. For this reason, my knowledge of Thai politics began changing during my visit there. Now back home, I remain interested in following the news of the anti-government protests of the Red Shirts in Bangkok.
In January 2010, I started planning a month-long trip to India. At the same time I managed to convince a good friend living in Sydney to meet me in Bangkok after my travels in India. We agreed to meet in Bangkok the second week of March. Our plans consisted of staying for four nights in Bangkok before travelling down to a beach resort south of Pattaya for a further four nights. Our last two days would be spent in Bangkok before flying home. Not surprisingly, our plans didn’t always follow the line we expected them to due to the political unrest in Bangkok.
My friend was already aware from the Australian media that the Thai government expected protests and possible clashes with a group called the Red Shirts around the time we were meeting in Bangkok. Coming from London, I don’t remember reading or hearing anything about the politics in Thailand that would have alerted me to any future trouble. My friend wrote me a worried email about three weeks before we were to meet in Bangkok. She read of the mounting uneasiness of the Thai government and other Asian states regarding the proposed anti-government demonstrations. I, again, brushed off her concerns. It wasn’t until we were in Bangkok that I realised things were more serious than I thought and that she was right in being concerned!
I arrived in Bangkok from Delhi on Tuesday morning, 9 March 2010, with my friend arriving several hours later from Sydney. We were staying at the Davis Hotel in the eastern part of Bangkok for four nights. I heard nothing about any demonstrations at the international airport, from the taxi driver or from the hotel staff when I arrived. The two of us started our sightseeing of Bangkok on Wednesday and Thursday, travelling by river boat and skytrain to the various sights. It was only late Thursday that we started to get the news that the ‘Red Shirts’ hoped to have a million demonstrators for their weekend protests. Our hotel staff recommended that we stay around the hotel on Friday as they didn’t know what to expect. We took their advice and listened closely to the news to see if we would have trouble leaving the city the next morning for the seaside. There were already reports of people massing in Bangkok for the weekend demonstrations. At the same time, the reports indicated that the numbers arriving to protest were much smaller than expected.
The next day we left for Jomtien Beach just south of Pattaya Beach. Again we saw no indication of trouble. There were no obstacles or police-blocks on the road as we left the city nor as we drove on the motorway down to Pattaya. During the weekend, we began hearing more about demonstrations, the size of the crowds and the rhetoric of the leaders of the Red Shirts. It was reported that instead of a million demonstrators only about 100,000 Red Shirt demonstrators had turned up in Bangkok by Sunday. We learned that the low numbers were due, in part, to the government blockades of all access roads to Bangkok from the northern rural areas.
It may be that you are now wondering, “What are these coloured shirts in Thailand? Who are the Red Shirts? Are they different from the Yellow Shirts?” Let me explain:
As a generality, the Red-shirts are supported by the rural populace and the urban poor. The Red Shirts are also known as the ‘United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship’ (UDD). They supported the former prime minister of Thailand from 2001 to 2006, Thaksin Shinawatra, because they believed he cared what happened to them and listened to their problems. Despite PM Thaksin’s billions of dollars in wealth, he is considered a hero to the downtrodden Thais. Not surprisingly, the Red Shirts supported the next two prime ministers chosen by the same government: Samak Sundaravej and Somchai Wongsawat. There are also pro-democracy activists participating in the current demonstrations who disagree with the legal foundation of the 2006 military coup which ousted PM Thaksin.
The Red Shirts fundamental belief is that the present government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is illegitimate because it came to power after disputed court rulings dissolved two elected pro-Thaksin governments, following the 2006 military coup. They want the current parliament dissolved and new elections held.
The Yellow Shirts are mainly middle-class and urban elites who support the current government of PM Abhisit. The Yellow Shirts are one of Thailand’s active political groups, the ‘People’s Alliance for Democracy’ (PAD). They are sometimes joined by an anti-Red Shirt group which attracts office employees, middle-class families, academics and some low-wage workers. In previous demonstrations by the Yellow Shirts’, there has generally been more violence and confrontation.
What is behind the current Red Shirts’ demonstration?
In a quick and somewhat superficial history lesson of Thai politics, I set out the following
dates and facts in an attempt to make this very complicated tale of corruption and short-lived governments in Thailand slightly more comprehensible:
- In 2006, the Yellow Shirts led protests against the then prime minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, because of alleged corruption. Mr. Thaksin became prime minister of Thailand in 2001. Prior to becoming prime minister, Mr. Thaksin earned billions of dollars in telecom ventures. PM Thaksin was supported by the Red Shirts.
- In September 2006, PM Thaksin was ousted by a military coup amidst various charges of corruption. He moved to Britain shortly after where he remained until October 2008. It was not until after more than a year of military control that new elections were held in Thailand in December 2007.
- February 2008, an ally of Mr. Thaksin’s, Samak Sundaravej, was sworn in as the new prime minister. The Red Shirts supported this government, too.
- In August 2008 there were protests by the anti-government cat shirts Texas Yellow Shirts culminating in a three-month occupation of certain government buildings by the protestors. This occupation continued through the November occupation of the Bangkok airports.
- September 2008, Prime Minister Samak was dismissed under a Constitutional Court ruling due to a conflict of interest in accepting payments for his appearances on a popular Thai cooking show. Following PM Samak’s dismissal, Somchai Wongsawat (the brother-in-law of Mr. Thaksin, prime minister until 2006) was sworn in as the new prime minister.
- In October 2008 the Supreme Court of Thailand found Mr. Thaksin guilty in absentia and was sentenced to two years in jail for a corrupt land deal. Following his conviction, Mr. Thaksin left his residence in Britain for Hong Kong. Somewhat surprisingly, Mr. Thaksin also owned the Manchester City football club for slightly more than a year beginning in mid-2007 during his short stay in Britain.
- Beginning on 25 November 2008, the anti-government Yellow Shirts invaded and occupied Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport before also occupying the Don Murng airport down the road. As part of the Yellow Shirts’ plan to force PM Somchai to resign, their occupation was to prevent Somchai from returning to Thailand from the APEC Summit in Peru. The Yellow Shirts refused to leave the airports unless a change of government took place.
- On 2 December 2008, Thailand’s Constitutional Court met the demands of the Yellow Shirts by finding the country’s government guilty of election fraud. The court ruled that PM Somchai was banned from politics and demanded that his party be dissolved.
- On 3 December 2008, the Yellow Shirts’ occupation of the airports ended.
- 17 December 2008, Abhisit Vejjajiva, a rival of Mr. Thaksin and his two successors, formed a new government and became prime minister.
- In April 2009, the Red Shirts staged a brief move to oust the government of PM Abhisit. There were brief riots following the Red Shirts’ attempts to storm the Asean summit.
- February 2010 Thailand’s Supreme Court ruled that US$1.4 billion of Mr. Thaksin’s frozen assets in Thailand (more than half of these assets) be seized by the court based on unanimously finding Mr. Thaksin guilty on five counts of corruption.
- On 12 March 2010 the Red Shirts began assembling for weekend protests on 13 & 14 March in Bangkok. The leaders stated that they would stay in Bangkok for five days in a move designed to pressure the current government to call new elections. Reports stated that Mr. Thaksin was behind these protests and he was footing the bill for the Red Shirts participation.
- 22 April 2010, the Red Shirts continued to remain in the capital and worsening violence occurred when five M-79 grenades are shot from near the Red Shirts’ encampment. At least 86 people were wounded and one killed.
- 28 April 2010, one Thai soldier was shot dead in a clash north of Bangkok between government troops and Red Shirts. Two days before, PM Abhisit said his government was running out of patience.
- On 29 April 2010, the Yellow Shirts intend to submit demands to PM Abhisit to resolve the ‘situation’ with the Red Shirts if no solution has been reached by that date.
Back to My Story
During our stay at Jomtien Beach, we snapped up every mention of the Bangkok protests from newspaper stories, TV reports and also from the resort’s staff. While there wasn’t any apparent violence against others, the current prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, rejected any demands for dissolving his government. Several days after our arrival, the ante was upped by the Red Shirts. Nattawut Saikua, a leader of the Red Shirts, called for a blood curse against “the government, the aristocrats and the powerful people”. Protestors were encouraged to give blood to be thrown on different government buildings.
On Tuesday, 16 March, huge containers of collected blood were thrown on different government sites including the prime minister’s residence. There were also reports of the huge undertaking by the government to prevent any of this blood, some of which may have been contaminated, from reaching the water table beneath Bangkok. Hearing about this blood curse made this demonstration even more surreal and macabre. Our own plans for our last night in Bangkok were thrown in disarray. We began worrying whether the hotel we booked in the financial area of Bangkok would be caught up in the protests. We decided to cancel our booking at this hotel and made a new one at the Davis Hotel where we first stayed. The next day when we heard about the blood curse the owners of the resort suggested we cancel our reservation at the Davis hotel as the prime minister’s residence was nearby. We then chose a third hotel at the edge of the financial district, ing nearer to the river which we hoped was out of area of protests.
We drove back to Bangkok for our last two days in the capital. We saw no signs of any demonstrations and felt a bit foolish for changing hotels so many times. There seemed to other cars especially as we reached the streets of Bangkok. Transportation, including public buses and skytrains seemed to be operating as usual. We were untouched by any demonstrations. While we didn’t continue with our general sightseeing plans, we did explore our local community. It was only as we drove out to the Suvarnabhumi International Airport to leave that we saw military jeeps closing off several lanes of road leading up to the airport.
What we learned in Bangkok from speaking to Thais working in restaurants, shops, and taxis was that most of them supported the Red Shirt demonstrations. This rather surprised me as I thought they would be supportive of former PM Thaksin since he was found guilty of several counts of corruption. There seemed to be several reasons for this support. First, I heard several Thai people say their support for the Red Shirts’ protest was due to the lack of aggression and violence of its members. The Red Shirts were viewed as being peaceful and passive. This was in direct contrast to the protests by the Yellow Shirts one and two years prior when the demonstrations were violent and aggressive. A second reason for the support of the Red Shirts’ movement was that those in the lower levels of the economy, including shopworkers and taxis drivers and those living and working in the country, haven’t felt represented by the more urban elite in Bangkok, whose members included aristocrats. Another reason given by someone in education was that Thai politics had taken a dangerous turn since the 2006 military coup. This person believed that following the coup, the government had silenced the voices coming from the broad swathe of Thai society. The voices had been silenced using different laws to squash free speech and avoid a candid debate. There are indications that there are those in the military who are sympathetic to the Red Shirts’ cause. In very simplistic terms, the Red Shirts and the Yellow Shirts represent a class struggle.
Personally, I felt sorry for the Thai people who still remain friendly and warm towards the tourists that come to their country. Since my last visit to Bangkok 13 years ago, they also seemed to be more wary and even a bit weary. I thought this distancing was because they were disillusioned with tourists but now I think they were wondering what was happening with their government. They are hardworking and kind people who want to be heard and also have a stable government. Their recent governments have neither lasted nor generally been truthful. Time will tell whether the current government led by PM Abhisit follows its immediate predecessors or it finds its own, straighter path.