The Red Shirts’ campaign to force the resignation of Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva got as bloody as it could last month—what could be bloodier than protesters donating 1000 litres of their own blood to splatter on government offices?
The protests, by the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship, established protest camps in the streets of Bangkok from March through May, with the protestors at one point gathering more than 100,000 people in the streets, paralyzing the tourist and business centres of the city.
The government eventually ordered a crackdown that resulted in the worst political violence in the country in about two decades, with more than 50 people dead and dozens of buildings set ablaze by fleeing protestors.
If the intention of the Red Shirts was to grab global attention, then they certainly succeeded—the world watched as the Abhisit government teetered on the verge of collapse as images of Bangkok ablaze were beamed around the globe. The defiance of the Red Shirts earned them the reputation of provocateurs.
But is this fair? After all, the Red Shirts aren’t the original Bangkok protesters—that title goes to the Yellow Shirts. To better understand the tactics of the Red Shirts, it’s essential to understand the Yellows. In fact doing so gives a glimpse of how much, in some ways, the two warring groups in this divided country actually have in common.
The ‘Yellow’ People’s Alliance for Democracy led anti-corruption protests in 2005 and 2006 that triggered a coup that resulted in the ousting of the government of Thaksin Shinawatra. Believing that the government that replaced Thaksin was still influenced by the deposed leader, the Yellow Shirts mounted an aggressive protest campaign in 2008, quietly stopping their protests when Abhisit was made prime minister.
How did the Yellow Shirts do it? In August 2008, thousands of Yellow Shirt protesters occupied Thailand’s Government House, remaining in the government complex until September. The group was also able to disrupt railway operations and three domestic airports including Phuket airport, a major tourist gateway.
The group upped the ante in November by pushing for a ‘final battle’ to remove the elected government and attacked several physical symbols of power, such as the parliament building and the homes of Cabinet ministers, before storming Bangkok’s two major airports. The Yellow Shirts controlled the airports for 8 days, disrupting the tourism that is the lifeline of the Thai economy and stranding more than 300,000 passengers in the process. They agreed to end their protests in December of that year when a court order disqualified allies of Thaksin from running for public office again.
They chose yellow in honour of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the most revered figure in Thailand. The Reds chose their colour not in defiance of the King, but just to be different, and evolved into the anti-government group that has demanded the resignation of a leader they argue is illegitimate and undemocratic.
So despite their professed differences, the Red Shirts succeeded in replicating the Yellow Shirts’ tactics, grabbing the attention of world leaders in the process last year when their protests forced the cancellation of a major regional summit in Pattaya in April.
The similarities don’t end there. Both the Red and Yellow Shirts have been criticized for using undemocratic tactics to achieve their goals, and despite their claim that they espouse non-violence, both have been accused of instigating deadly violence. By shutting down Bangkok’s two major airports, the Yellow Shirts inconvenienced hundreds of thousands of passengers in Thailand and nearby countries, while by occupying a busy commercial centre in Bangkok for two months this year, the Red Shirts destroyed the livelihoods of local entrepreneurs.
In addition, both Red and Yellow Shirts have confronted the violent machinery of the state, when their peaceful and unarmed protesters were attacked by armed military and police (is brute force colour-blind when applied to groups demanding change?).
And there’s another similarity—both Red and Yellow Shirts wanted an end to corruption and tyranny in the Thai government, though such noble intentions were in both cases also tainted by incestuous ties with factions of the ruling elite. This is particularly unfortunate since veterans of the student movement of the 1970s are active in both of these warring groups.
The Red Shirts may have lost the short-term battle, but their democracy project remains unfinished. If the Yellow Shirts are really determined to permanently prevent Thaksin or his ilk from reclaiming power again, then they must use their influence in the Abhisit government to demand immediate political, economic and social reforms.
Something has to give. Failure to initiate reform will exacerbate the tensions between the two groups and risk the deadly fires that engulfed the capital last month spreading across the country.