Thousands of anti-government Red Shirt protesters gathered in central Bangkok last Sunday, proving once more that they're still a major threat to the ruling party. The police estimated the crowd at 30,000, but rally organizers claimed they mobilized 60,000 in the streets.
It was the biggest Red Shirt rally since last year when the Red Shirts launched provocative rallies and street blockades in Bangkok over an about two-month period, paralyzing the country’s shopping and commercial centres. The protests, which at one point gathered more than 100,000 people, ended after government troops violently dispersed the rallies, resulting in almost 100 deaths. The government subsequently placed the country’s capital and other urban centres under a state of emergency, which included a ban on the holding of political assemblies and rallies.
The Red Shirts’ core members are supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, but the group has since then become a broad movement calling for substantial reforms in Thai government and society. In particular, they’re demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, who they accuse of being an illegitimate and undemocratic leader.
The Sunday rally overwhelmed police and even political experts, who didn’t expect the Red Shirts to still be capable of organizing a massive protest since many of their leaders are still in prison.
Despite the traffic jams it caused, the Red Shirts’ protest rally was welcomed by many Bangkok citizens, and even foreign tourists. The peaceful conduct of the rally could be one of the reasons why many pedestrians clapped during the protest march. Perhaps learning from their mistakes last year, which alienated them from the public, the Red Shirt protesters last Sunday didn’t resort to gangster-like tactics like burning cars, splattering blood on government buildings and destroying shopping malls.
The surprising success of the Red Shirt rally could also be indicative of rising public support for the group’s cause and growing disappointment with the Abhisit government. This is debatable, and the government would be the first to deny that the Red Shirts are gaining more adherents.
But what we can see is the appropriateness of the demands put forward by the Red Shirts last Sunday. Their popular cry was the immediate release of their comrades who are still in jail — reasonable sounding since it reminded the public that the leaders of the pro-government ‘Yellow Shirts’ who ordered the infamous takeover of the Bangkok International Airport in 2008 have yet to be arrested and charged in the courts.
The first month of the New Year isn't over yet, but the Red Shirts have already gathered tens of thousands of anti-government protesters in the streets. Abhisit’s advisers shouldn't use the spectre of the reborn Red Shirt movement as another excuse to implement more authoritarian measures. Instead, they should begin to study the prospect of granting the valid demands of the Red Shirts for the sake of political stability and reconciliation.