Thailand’s red shirts

Issue: 141

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Claudio Sopranzetti, Red Journeys (Silkworm Books, 2012), £11.99

In September 2006 the Thai military staged a coup d’etat and overthrew the democratically elected and popular government of Taksin Shinawat. By winning successive elections on the basis of modernising and pro-poor policies, rich businessman Taksin was unwittingly challenging the old order which had held power based on entrenched privileges and the power of the army. Taksin’s government introduced the first ever universal healthcare scheme and supported middle-level farmers. Yet his human rights record towards petty drug dealers and southern Muslim Malays was appalling. The challenge to the old order upset other sections of the elite, especially the military, who felt their influence was waning. It also upset the middle class which had enjoyed life while the poor suffered in poverty. The coup was possible because middle class protesters, wearing yellow “royalist” shirts, called for the overthrow of Taksin’s government. The NGOs also supported the coup because Taksin’s government was making serious attempts to solve poverty in state-led programmes which might make the NGOs redundant.

The military, big business and Taksin have always used the weak and unprincipled king to give them legitimacy. In Thailand the military tells the king what to do via the privy council. Yet it pretends to take orders from the monarch. Anyone who criticised the elites, and even the 2006 coup d’etat, was charged with lèse majesté. Today some activists have been in prison for 20 years under this law.

Two years after the coup a mass movement for democracy arose to challenge the military and the military installed “Democrat Party” government. The movement, now called the Red Shirts, was started by three former MPs from Taksin’s party, but it soon grew to become the biggest grass-roots social movement in Thai history. In April and May 2010 the Red Shirts staged mass protests in Bangkok to demand democratic elections. The Democrat Party government and its military masters crushed this protest with tanks, armed troops and snipers.

Red Journeys is a book about these bloody events. Sopranzetti, an anthropology student from Harvard who speaks Thai, has written this book as many “personalised accounts”. Red Shirts speak in their own words about their feelings and motivations.

This has both benefits and disadvantages.The obvious benefits of getting the Red Shirts to speak for themselves is that they are shown respect and not treated like poorly educated peasants who are blindly following Taksin. The latter is a trend among middle class commentators. By using this technique, Sopranzetti manages to paint a detailed and accurate picture of the solidarity, determination, love, sadness, rumours and drunkenness in the lives of ordinary activists. Sopranzetti is clearly on the side of these Red Shirts. He dismisses the accusation that there were shadowy armed “Black Shirts” operating on the side of the Red Shirts. The only weapons that the Red Shirts had were fireworks (some of which were very loud and sounded like bombs), catapults and sharpened sticks. He talks to the travelling self-employed left wing booksellers who join the protests, at least one of whom I know well. Before I was charged with lèse majesté for criticising the coup, he frequently visited my office at Chulalongkorn University. Strangely, given the anthropological “personal account” approach of his work, Sopranzetti fails to mention that, in addition to speeches, protest leaders in Thailand all have to sing to the crowd. I can only imagine this happening in southern Africa, but certainly not Europe!

The disadvantage of Sopranzetti’s approach, is that it fails to explain. I get the impression that this might be some kind of romantic, semi-postmodernist attitude to political events, where explanations are not required and people can wallow in “tragedy”, while being non-judgmental. At times the much too detailed accounts of the author’s travels through the back streets of Bangkok seem self-indulgent and, together with a lack of historical background, will baffle readers who are unfamiliar with the city and Thai politics. There is no real explanation of the root causes of the crisis, why millions supported Taksin and why the middle class supported the military. In fact, the key and brutal role of the military as a political institution, and its appointment of the Democrat government, is totally missing. One hint at “powers above” implies that the king is powerful, which no doubt Sopranzetti wrongly believes. Because the book is published by Silkworm in Thailand, the power relationship between the monarchy and the army is missing. There is also no explanation of why Red Shirts liked the police. The police were close to Taksin and are the underdog rivals of the army.

The book was published in 2012 and the narrative ends in May 2010. Readers will be unaware that in July 2011 elections were eventually held and won decisively by Taksin’s party, now headed by his sister Yingluck. The Yingluck government went on to do a dirty deal with the military. In November 2013 Yingluck’s government created its own crisis by trying to push through a blanket amnesty bill which would have let all military and Democrat Party killers off the hook. It would also have allowed Taksin to return from exile. The amnesty for Taksin enraged the Yellow Shirts, but the bill was also a slap in the face for the Red Shirts who had fought the dictatorship and died. In addition, the amnesty did not cover political prisoners in jail under the draconian lèse majesté law. Thousands of reactionary middle class royalists then occupied government buildings in Bangkok in an attempt to get rid of the government and install a dictatorship. However, at the time of writing they seem to have failed because the military would not play ball.