For more than a week now, ‘red shirt’ demonstrators seeking to topple the Thai government have been stirring a mixture of curiosity, revulsion and some support among the people of Bangkok as they seek to use a show of numbers to pressure the government into calling fresh elections.
On Saturday, the demonstrators, also known as the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), paraded around the capital in a 10 kilometre-long convoy in what was portrayed as a public relations exercise aimed at securing support from residents of a city assumed to be indifferent–or even outright hostile–to their cause and their putative leader, the fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
Last week saw some gruesome rituals, with protestors pouring their own blood outside Government House and the ruling Democrat Party office before, in a more sinister turn of events, spilling their blood at Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajiva’s house.
According to Thai politics analyst Paul Chambers, the red shirts have at the very least managed to call greater domestic and global attention to their agenda. Yet he says that he doesn’t think they’ll be able to achieve their stated ambition of toppling the government, ‘with the military…courts, ruling coalition, and most business interests aligned against them.’
Such scepticism hasn’t stopped them from trying. The protesters have worked to ensure a politically clean image, with leaders seemingly distancing themselves from firebrand allies in the military and the ‘Red Siam’ faction; they also managed to get lawmakers from the pro-Thaksin Peua Thai political party to address the rally (although the lingering blood ritual images could serve to undercut such efforts at moderation).
In response, and despite the gruesomeness of the blood spilling, the government has made less of an issue over the personalised nature of this protest than it has over what it’s spinning as ‘red disunity’. Going on the offensive over the weekend, Abhisit remained firm in his refusal to dissolve the government and call fresh elections. He said he’d talk to the red shirt leadership, but not Thaksin, and sought to amplify divisions within the red shirts by slamming Thaksin’s ostentation and wealth, a move aimed at pulling the rug from under the red shirt leaders’ efforts to contrast the alleged opulence of the premier’s house and neighbourhood with the rural and agrarian origins of many of the demonstrators.