The demise of the Red Shirts?

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The arrest and imprisonment of 14 pro-democracy student activists has exposed the state of the “democracy movement” in Thailand.

In a previous post on this site I explained that the student activists had “thrown down a challenge” to all of us. That challenge was whether or not people were prepared to rebuild a mass movement to overthrow the dictatorship. Make no mistake, the Prayut dictatorship is planning to cast its ugly shadow on Thai politics well beyond the day that the murderous military gang formally step down from office and allow so-called elections under their deformed rules.

The junta are now jack-booting their way into peoples’ houses or offices and threatening anyone associated or related to the students. They are telling other activists to stop criticising the junta on social media and they are putting pressure on the media to stop reporting anti-junta activities.

Therefore the question of how to get rid of the dictatorship is extremely important.

Up until now the response from concerned pro-democratic citizens has been to visit the students in prison, hold candle-light vigils and to stage “symbolic” solidarity via the internet. This is all very laudable, but it will not build the necessary mass movement to fight for democracy. Much more can and needs to be done.

So what about the Red Shirts? The response has been a deathly silence.

The Red Shirt movement was the largest pro-democracy social movement in Thailand’s history. Millions of ordinary people took part in protests to expand the democratic space. They were not merely “ignorant pawns of Taksin”, as the reactionaries claimed. They were fighting for their rights and their dignity. But they were led by a leadership which was close to Taksin and which has now decided to capitulate to the military. The tragedy of the Red Shirts is that most of the left-wing progressive Red Shirts, who had rejected Taksin and the UDD leaders, refused to organise a coherent alternative political organisation to challenge the UDD leaders.

In a previous post on this site I also explained that according to Marxists like myself, various pro-democracy movements from below should be seen as one big social movement with many arms and legs, constantly changing through time. The Red Shirts were a continuum of past pro-democracy movements such as the People’s Party that overthrew the absolute monarchy in 1932, the pro-democracy uprisings against the military in 1973 and 1992 and the communist inspired civil war in the late 1970s.

The key point is that the various forms of the social movement are not permanent. They rise up, peak and then disappear. This is what has happened to the Red Shirts as a movement. As I mentioned above, a key reason is the decision by the UDD leaders to “turn off” the movement. Once a movement is de-mobilised it is very difficult to re-mobilise it in its original state. Another reason for the demise of the Red Shirts is the bloody crack-down against them by Prayut and his military friends in 2010.

However, just because the Red Shirt movement is dead, that does not mean that individual Red Shirts cannot be reinvigorated in a new movement for democracy. It is to be hoped that this will happen along with drawing in new forces to build the new movement under a more progressive grass-roots leadership.

One view about the relationship between Red Shirts and the student activists, which needs to be vigorously opposed, is that the students are somehow a “pure force”, unlike the Red Shirts who are “tainted by Taksin”. Many students may wear white shirts, which form part of their university uniforms, but they are hardly a “sterile generation, uninfected by politics”. Those that fear that the middle-classes will be “put off” from supporting the students if Red Shirts join the solidarity movement are proposing a self-limiting movement which is doomed to failure. The middle-classes can only be wooed by advocating limitations on democracy.

The people who talk about students as a “pure force” naïvely hope that some yellow shirts and members of Sutep’s anti-democratic mob will rally round the students. This is an example of banal politics. It fails to grasp the fact that Thai society is deeply divided between the elites and their middle class allies, who are violently opposed to freedom and democracy, and ordinary working people in the towns and in rural areas, who struggle for freedom and social justice. The new student activists are part of this pro-democracy side of the divide. The divide cannot be bridged without one side or the other being subdued. There is no democratic compromise between authoritarianism and freedom. Fifty percent democracy is no democracy.

It is vital to rebuild the democracy mass movement by uniting the ordinary working people in the towns and in rural areas, who were Red Shirts, with the new student activists and others who have previously not been actively involved in any movement.