Thai Red Shirts focus on local politics

As Thailand's divisive election draws near, the Red Shirts protest movement is going back to its rural grassroots.

    The Thai Red Shirts, after venting their anger in Bangkok last summer, have taken their movement into rural villages in order to achieve their political aims [GALLO/GETTY]

    The shimmering green paddy fields across the vast terrain here remain a vivid marker of rural identity. But now, another colour – red – is steadily taking root in the villages dotting this plateau in north-east Thailand that are home to poor farmers.

    On Sunday, this village of small wooden houses joined the "Red Shirt Village for Democracy" movement with a ceremony in front of the Baan Pulu's Buddhist temple. Five saffron-robed monks led nearly 300 people gathered under the blistering sun in a prayer, after which a procession of 100 men and women, most dressed in their signature red shirts, headed for the village’s entrance.

    There, amid cheers and the blare of local folk music, a large rectangular board nailed to two wooden poles asserted the political identity of Baan Pulu’s 300 or so families, declaring the community a "Red Village." The only other image on the board was the smiling picture of the fugitive former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

    "We already have relationships with Red Shirts, we know, but this kind of activity is a way of showing unity and harmony in struggling for democracy," says Praiwan Konjanthet, a 54-year-old mother of two from a rice-farming family. "It is the first time this village has shown a commitment to an idea like this."

    An ongoing people's movement

    The shift to such forms of political activity arose after the bloody military crackdown in Bangkok in April and May last year that left 91 people dead and hundreds of Red Shirt activists injured. The tens of thousands of Red Shirts, many from the rural heartland, who had gathered in the Thai capital were pushing for government to dissolve parliament and call for an early election.

    This year, the Red Shirts are throwing their support behind opposition party Pheu Thai which is loyal to Thaksin who was driven out of power in a military coup in 2006. Pheu Thai is challenging the ruling Democrat Party headed by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in the general elections on July 3.

    Thaksin's youngest sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is heading Phue Thai's campaign, promising to implement the policies that won the hearts of the rural poor when Thaksin was in power.

    According to Petsak Kitidusadeckul, who has spearheaded the spread of the Red Village movement in the province of Udon Thani, some 450 kms north-east of Bangkok where Baan Pulu is located, this new rural network offers more. "After we were dispersed from Bangkok it may have seemed that our campaign was temporary. But we want to show that our people’s movement is ongoing," he said.

    "We want to make this our base, strengthen it, make our demands from here for now," added the 59- year-old, sporting a red T-shirt on which was printed a grey image of a typical village scene, two wooden houses on stilts. "We want to make our voices heard here first – do it openly – rather than spend time and energy losing jobs and getting killed by going to protest in Bangkok."

    Petsak launched his initiative in Udon Thani in October last year, and it appears to have resonated across a wide swath of farming communities, this South-east Asian kingdom’s largest constituency. "Nearly 200 villages have declared they are Red Villages with ceremonies like this," he said after the event in Baan Pulu. Nine other villages are seeking similar recognition.

    Petsak confirmed that he has little say in the manner in which villages in other north-eastern provinces are professing political allegiance. Neither in such places as Kalasin, Mukdahan and Maha Sarakham, nor in neighbouring Khon Kaen, where an estimated 100 Red Villages have sprouted, has he had any control over how the three-year-old Red Shirt movement is evolving.

    Political coffee shops

    Some communities have opted for alternatives, considering that joining the Red Village movement can be dangerous. At least 10 communities in Udon Thani have warmed up to setting up "political" coffee shops, where those sympathetic to the Red Shirt cause stop by for discussions on politics while sipping cups of coffee, served free.

    "It has become a place for people to gather and share ideas," said Banchop Rinayom, a social studies teacher at a local junior high school, at one such shop where close to 20 people had gathered around a white Formica-topped table on Sunday afternoon. "Our village has a community centre, but that is for the government. Coffee shops like this are an alternative place, for people like us who are Red Shirts, to talk openly."

    "We felt this was necessary after last year’s crackdown," says Sunnan Angkaew, who started this trend in Udon Thani. "People are free to come any time, any day, and there are many who do: farmers, poets, teachers, and some policemen."

    The current developments in rural Thailand are an "assertion for a level of greater political participation that has been denied by the urban-based politics that have ruled Thailand for decades,"said  David Streckfuss, a US academic who has specialised in Thai political culture. "We have seen the (Red Shirts) protests in 2009 and 2010, and although the form keeps changing, the message remains the same."

    The spread of Red Shirts Schools and Red Shirt community radio stations was among these developments as the Red Shirt protest movement emerged to assert their political rights following the 2006 coup and the controversial dissolution of a pro-Thaksin political party in December 2008.

    "After last year’s crackdown, Red Shirt radio stations have been closed or carefully monitored, so the programmes cannot be free and open with their political views," says a 75-year-old villager. "But people need to share information to strengthen our movement, and they will find ways to do so, like the Red Villages."

    A version of this article first appeared on the Inter Press Service News Agency.




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