Red Shirt Leader’s Return Sparks Hope for Democratic Renewal in Thailand

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Red Shirt Leader’s Return Sparks Hope for Democratic Renewal in Thailand

Can the return of exiled politicians ignite hope for Thai democracy and reshape its political landscape?

Red Shirt Leader’s Return Sparks Hope for Democratic Renewal in Thailand
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“Exile” will be the word of the year for Thailand’s democracy in 2024.

In March, Jakrapob Penkair, former Thai minister and leader of the Red Shirt movement, returned to Thailand after a 15-year self-imposed exile. He was detained by authorities upon arrival following several charges against him, particularly allegations of storing an arsenal of firearms.

Analysts have dubbed this phenomenon as the “Thaksin Model,” after the return of ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra last August.  

The return of Jakrapob will define a new chapter in Thai politics, as it could pave the way for the return of hundreds of Thai political refugees who fled the country as a result of the 2014 military coup, staged by a Thai junta under Prayut Chan-o-cha.

A pivotal figure in the Red Siam movement, Jakrapob’s bold stances against Thailand’s entrenched power structures earned him both acclaim and peril. Despite facing relentless persecution and threats, his return signals a potential turning point in Thai politics.

However, for Jakrapob, the challenge is twofold: reconciling with the establishment that once forced him out and ensuring that the plight of those persecuted under policies such as Thailand’s lèse-majesté law (Article 112) is addressed.

Since Jakrapob was one of the most vocal advocates for reforming Article 112 during his time as a politician and Red Shirt leader, he must ensure that those affected by it will be included in any amnesty bill. Otherwise, his legacy as one of the few political leaders who went head-to-head with the “Ammart system” (a system that prioritizes aristocracy over ordinary people), will have all been in vain.

If he is somehow able to be reconciled successfully with the establishment that forced him out of his homeland, Jakrapob could play a key role in ensuring that not only will Thai political refugees be able to return home safely but that they could possibly be exempted from the draconian punishment of Article 112 and other laws.

However, as a leader of the Red Siam movement, Jakrapob still carries the responsibility of pushing forward a number of the faction’s stated missions, either directly or indirectly. 

As the political landscape evolves with movements like the Move Forward Party gaining momentum, Jakrapob’s role remains pivotal. While not the originator of reformist ideals, his past leadership pushed these issues into public realm. Now, he must navigate a changed landscape, where his role may differ, but his commitment to democratizing Thailand must remain resolute.

Jakrapob and other leaders of Red Siam brought reformist ideals to the forefront after the 2006 military coup. It’s crucial for movements like the Move Forward Party to acknowledge their contributions, emphasizing that the fight for democracy is ongoing. While honoring past sacrifices, it’s equally important for veteran politicians to reassess their roles if they diverge from the pursuit of reform.

The Move Forward Party stands for reforming powerful Thai institutions and economic monopolization in the country. This is not something new. At the same time, while the Move Forward Party and its supporters should recognize the sacrifices of previous generations, those veteran politicians and activists in the government should not hold onto power and relevance if they do not want to continue pursuing this course anymore.

Jakrapob faces a delicate balance. He must avoid becoming a mere echo of past glory or a tool for those who betray the very principles he fought for. His legacy, intertwined with the sacrifices of pro-democracy demonstrators, demands a steadfast dedication to true democracy, where justice, freedom and the rule of law reign supreme.

One thing is clear: Jakrapob won’t be playing the same role that placed him in the political limelight more than a decade ago. His latest attempts to organize an international movement against the Thai junta to form a government-in-exile fell short. 

As Thailand looks to the future, Jakrapob’s next moves will be scrutinized. Maybe he could rework the old plan, adjusting it to the contemporary context while still holding true to the original goals of democratizing Thailand and liberating it from its “state within the state.

Undeniably, given his political legacy, those from Thailand’s democratic camp have higher expectations of him than they do of other leaders in the incumbent cabinet.  

Jakrapob needs to consider his next move very carefully if he is to prevent himself from falling into the category of being a mouthpiece or a “useful lawyer” who justifies and defends a political party that went against its own principles, promises, and everything that its supporters stood for, from the past until the present.

The sacrifices made by the pro-democracy demonstrators from the Red Shirt era and various students’ movements are not meant to be used as just a political ladder for any party to get into power and form a government, or to help some politicians fulfil their personal dream of assuming a ministerial position. 

For all those sacrifices to have been worth it, a true democracy that includes the rule of law, justice for political refugees, and freedom of speech must be a foremost priority for any democratic government now and in the future. 

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.