Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Thailand’s Blood Red Protest

The sometimes gruesome protests by the country’s red shirts have certainly grabbed international attention. But what now?

By Simon Roughneen for

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).

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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.

Indeed, over the weekend, Abhisit also rounded on Thaksin personally, scorning the billionaire’s self-proclaimed affinity with the ‘phrai’, or ordinary people. The red shirts have brandished the class card at every opportunity, saying that they want to force fresh elections in an attempt to take politics out of the hands of the ‘ammart’, or traditional elites in the army, bureaucracy and other political parties. But Oxford-educated Abhisit argues that Thaksin is far-closer to the ammart than the phrai.

Rent a protest?

Saturday’s parade along a 46-kilometre route took in some of the notoriously traffic-heavy city’s busiest streets, but there were still big crowds on the sidewalks and at intersections to greet and wave at the demonstrators handing out leaflets stating ‘We Love Bangkokians.’

This correspondent followed the early part of the rally along the Petchaburi and Ratchadaphisek Roads, where large crowds lined the streets. How many of these were city residents eager to express support for the red shirts, and how many were rally participants ensuring that the convoy was waved on, is hard to determine (some demonstrators, for example, rode ahead of the main rally on motorbikes before parking alongside the road and waiting for the cortege to catch up so they could wave them on).

I detoured back to Sukhumvit Soi 71 to try to meet the march head-on. Thirty minutes ahead of the scheduled arrival of the rally, the street was its usual busy Saturday afternoon self, albeit ‘a bit more quiet than usual’, according to the manager of a coffee shop halfway up the street. Waiting for the march to arrive, a few dozen red shirts had positioned themselves at various points along the street. When I asked one group where they were from, they said they lived nearby, and wanted to support the rally.

‘I went to Phan Fa Bridge last Sunday, but didn’t stay out overnight as I have work during the week’, said Gif, a 31 year-old bank employee, referring to the main rally on central Bangkok last week when an estimated 150,000 red shirts gathered. This number dwindled to around 50,000 midweek, but was back up to around 100,000 for Saturday’s parade, according to Bangkok’s police chief.

Many of the demonstrators camping out at the main rally site had travelled to the capital from the north and northeast of Thailand, the red shirt heartland and bastion of support for Thaksin and his successor parties since he fled the country over corruption charges.

By the time the rally reached Soi 71, traffic was backed up on both sides of the road, and walking the length of the street, there appeared to be about 3000 people lining the side of the road, with more peering out from apartment windows and shop fronts, and others looking disgruntled in the snarled traffic trying to move in the opposite direction. Alongside, some cheered, some took photos or recorded videos, and some of the younger observers seemed to get carried away by the party vibe.

Abhisit’s spokesman, Thepthai, scoffed at the apparent support for the red shirts, saying that each protester was given 2000 to 3000 Baht for their toil under the searing Bangkok sun, with sidewalk onlookers allegedly given 500Baht each. Earlier reports from the English-language newspapers in Thailand, which have taken a condescending line with the red shirts, suggested that rural demonstrators were paid to travel to Bangkok.

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But even if true, it would be nothing new in Thailand. Voters are regularly offered financial inducements by some or all electoral candidates, and when the anti-Thaksin ‘yellow shirts’, or PAD took to the streets of Bangkok in 2008 in their ultimately successful bid to oust the pro-Thaksin elected government, demonstrators were paid one way or another to stay out on the streets.

The question of the make-up of red shirt support is clearly not just an academic debate. If the red shirt protest is to have staying power, it will likely need to transcend its perceived regional north/northeast orientation and synonymy with Thaksin. Despite the almost-nightly video link addresses by the former premier, red shirt leaders in Bangkok have kept references to Thaksin to a minimum, apparently recognising that he remains a divisive figure for many in Thailand.

So, can the red shirt leaders slowly shift from being tied to their fugitive exiled leader? Chambers seems to think so. ‘The longer Thaksin stays abroad, the less Puea Thai (the latest successor party to Thaksin’s own Thai Rak Thai) and the UDD must depend upon him,’ he says.

Getting more of Bangkok’s middle classes onside and engaged could help the red shirts keep large numbers on the streets for a longer, and give the movement a broader support-base. All this said, the red shirts may already have some nascent middle class support, not least because the middle class is a more complicated entity than the homogenous, anti-red shirt entity it is sometimes portrayed as.

‘My research suggests that a large component of the “urban middle class” is actually comprised of rural migrants who…are working in lower-level, white collar occupations,’ says Sophorntavy Vorng of the Max-Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, who has studied Bangkok’s middle class. ‘[So] what’s clear is that class demarcations in Thailand…are a lot more porous than most characterisations of the so-called class divide actually capture.’