The Red Shirts Today

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

A recent article at the end of last year in the web-newspaper “Prachatai” discusses the state of the red shirt movement under the military dictatorship in the north-east and north of the country. It is based on interviews with local activists. All the activists have been visited repeatedly by military officers. People have been taken to military camps for “attitude changing” sessions and some have been ordered to report to the military on a weekly basis. Naturally this has not been the general fate of most yellow shirt royalists or any supporters of Sutep’s mob.

While many red shirt activists still support Taksin, they stress that they are not his followers or servants and they can make political decisions for themselves. Many are very critical of the UDD leadership, stating that they seem to have no strategy for continuing the struggle. Some more independent-minded activists are also critical of Taksin and want to see a more militant approach.

When talking of past mobilisations, they paint a picture of self-activity and fund raising in order to travel to large protests, such as those which took place in Bangkok. Many red shirt groups originally coalesced around local community radio stations after the 2006 military coup. Some groups are also led by local “Hua Kanan”; people who negotiate with politicians in order to bring in the votes at grass-roots levels during elections.

One interesting development is that many activists see the need for local people to vote on who should stand as their Pua Thai MPs in the area, rather than having a candidate imposed on them from above.

After the brutal military crack-down in 2010, when Abhisit’s military backed government, together with Prayut’s gang, deliberately shot down unarmed demonstrators in the street, a number of red shirt activists are still suffering mental trauma. They fear loud explosions or similar noises. Local red shirt leaders see it as their job to help such people and also the families of those who were killed.

Given the military repression at present, open political activism is seen as risky. However, many red shirt activists meet at social gatherings such as temple ceremonies or weddings. In a way, this is what locals would have been doing anyway, irrespective of the political crisis. But these social gatherings are hard for the military to repress and provide opportunities for political discussions.

Many red shirt activists see this period as a “quiet interlude” for reflection, political discussion and study and perhaps for reorganisation of the movement in preparation for the next struggle. But the history of social movements teaches us that prolonged inactivity can lead to the withering away and disintegration of movements. Whatever happens in the future, the red shirt movement is now more fragmented and autonomous than before with many activists rejecting the centralised leadership of the UDD. This can be both a source of empowerment and a source of weakness, depending on whether activists manage to rebuild a united movement from below or allow the fragmentation to continue.