After Abhisit became prime minister the so called “Red Shirts” became a major political force in Thai politics. On Thailand’s red, white and blue flag, the red stands for nation, blue is for the monarchy and white is for Buddhism.

Chang Noi wrote in The Nation: “The red movement has two main streams — hardcore Thaksin enthusiasts, and a broader audience that supports democracy and opposes military intervention in politics. Thaksin had won support in the Northeast and upper North among people who felt pandered to and empowered as never before. After the coup, they protested through community radio, and resisted military intimidation. [Source: Chang Noi, The Nation, May 4, 2009]

In parallel, anti-coup protests in the capital attracted a few thousand activists, mainly veterans of the democracy campaigns of 1973-6 and 1992. In February 2007, Thaksin loyalists tried to set up a cable TV network to rival ASTV (the network used by the Yellow Shirts) but were blocked. Following the Yellow Shirt's example, they then took their campaign onto the street. In June, they announced a "united front", combining the democracy activists and Thaksin loyalists under one umbrella.

Over the following months, the groups that became the Red Shirts campaigned for the rejection of the junta's constitution. After the 2007 election, the movement became dormant but was revived in the following May to counter the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) rallies. As governments were toppled, parties banned, ministers removed and more coups threatened, the movement attracted more support among people who felt democracy was under threat, including many who had earlier supported the PAD.

When the movement initiated mass rallies in October 2007, the audience included supporters bussed down by pro-Thaksin ex-MPs from the North and Northeast, along with growing numbers of walk-ins from the capital. In his early phone-ins, Thaksin talked mainly about himself, but soon switched his theme to reflect the changing make up of his audience. He began to speak about "full democracy" and railed against its enemies.

In January 2008, the movement founded D-Station on the model of ASTV. In March it launched a mass protest in Bangkok and provincial centres. The appearance of the Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts is the most dramatic change in Thai politics in three decades. At the core of both is the rebirth of the civil society activism of the 1990s. The big innovation of these movements was to break the state's grip on the electronic media and so gain the means to recruit mass support through political broadcasting.

Of course, in the background is Thaksin's money and ambition on one side, and military power and meddling on the other. But this should not be allowed to obscure what these movements stand for. Thai politics is often criticized for being dominated by small, self-serving cliques of businessmen and generals. Both these movements want to move beyond. Their main enemy is not each other, but the old, old politics desperate to resist this challenge.

Polarization of Thai Politics Between the Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts

Dr. Kantathi Suphamongkhon, the Foreign Minister under Thaksin, wrote in Global Viewpoint: The hate campaign in Thailand, which started in 2005 and intensified in 2008, has been successful and has polarized the Thai society to an unprecedented degree. The success of the hate campaign owed much to the round-the-clock live television, broadcasting and reaffirming hate messages. This was supplemented by demonstrations and rallies, including the occupation of Government House and the closure of international airports by demonstrators wearing Yellow Shirts, members of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), determined to bring down several elected governments. The PAD has called for a parliament to be dominated by appointed, rather than elected members. [Source: Dr. Kantathi Suphamongkhon, Global Viewpoint, April 21, 2009. Suphamongkhon served as Foreign Minister of Thailand during the administration of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from March 11, 2005, until the military coup d'etat on Sept. 19, 2006. He is currently Senior Fellow at the Burkle Center for International Relations at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) where he also teaches law and diplomacy]

In April 2009, following the examples set by the "Yellow Shirts", an opposing group of people, members of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), wearing Red Shirts, took to the streets to demand a return of full democracy to Thailand. A regional summit was abruptly cancelled as a result, and this time, the military reacted swiftly to enforce the law against the "Red Shirts". Opposing groups in Thailand now see the situation as a "zero sum game," in which if one side wins, the other side loses. With this attitude, there is no possibility of a settlement with mutual gains.

As events developed following the coup, many Thais became convinced that there is a double standard in Thailand in which members of one side can break the law with impunity while members of the other side are subjected to maximum punishment. Both sides used strong personal attacks on key personalities, resorting to emotional accusations. In this way, action leads to reaction, escalating into violence. The situation is grim, and there is real potential for things to get worse, leading Thais into the abyss together.

Reasons Behind the Polarization of Thai Politics

Mark Magnier and My-Thuan Tran wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Perhaps the most obvious lesson from Thailand, one heavily underlined by the anti-government protesters, is the growing gap between haves and have-nots: those who have benefitted from globalization's riches and those left behind.” "The government has to see what we are doing," said Walangkana Tina, 48, a Bangkok protester chopping papayas in the capital's protest zone. "We are not just sitting in air-conditioned rooms. We are sleeping in the middle of the sun and the rain." "We are trying to fight for democracy," said Weng Tojirakarn, a Red Shirt leader."We want equality in politics, in economics, in culture, in education and healthcare." [Source: Mark Magnier and My-Thuan Tran, Los Angeles Times, May 20, 2010]

“Poverty is hardly new to Southeast Asia. But the expectations of the poor have been raised by the media and opportunistic politicians, some argue, with limited policy follow-through, even as opportunities for those at the bottom have foundered, the rich have become more ostentatious and neighboring China powers ahead. An earlier generation of rising Asian economies — Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore —saw many poor farmers find well-paying factory jobs in the cities, as have millions recently in China, but most such people in Southeast Asia have never gotten that opportunity. Economies in Southeast Asia are smaller, and most governments failed to use a rush of foreign investment before the 1997 Asian financial crisis to jump-start education, upgrade skills and leapfrog beyond cheap-labor economies. [Ibid]

“Now, as China booms ahead with higher efficiency and plentiful investment capital, many Southeast Asian nations find themselves increasingly squeezed, leaving those at the bottom with low-paying jobs in tourism and related service sectors. All the while, the poor are watching a privileged nouveau riche class in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Manila driving flashy cars, traveling abroad and doing increasingly well. Fanning the flames of resentment are corruption, weak institutional reform, political intransigence and use of the courts to frustrate upward political mobility.

“This has led to the Red Shirts in Thailand, "people power" in the Philippines and, a little farther afield, the Maoists in Nepal. Feelings that the system is rigged can be sparked by one leader's ability to raise expectations, as seen in Thailand with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Whether Thaksin's administration fully delivered on his promise to help the poor is a matter of debate, but he changed the political conversation, giving many poor and disenfranchised Thais hope of a better life. His ouster in 2006 in a military coup amid corruption charges, followed by crushing court decisions against two subsequent pro-Thaksin governments, only fueled suspicion among Thaksin supporters of heavy-handed string-pulling by an elite clique. [Ibid]

"There is a stereotype that we are poor and uneducated," said Red Shirt spokesman Sean Boonpracong. "But we are made up of people who can think for themselves." Adding to the resentment is the role of the business elite, in a region that has long seen the biggest deals going to a few politicians, tycoons or military brass able to procure government contracts, with small businesses left struggling. "Since the current government came into power, my business has been very bad," said Viraj Sirikajornroj, 48, a Bangkok car parts seller. "I don't like double standards."

"People power" movements can spotlight issues long ignored, but they have the potential to spiral out of control, as has been happening in Bangkok, as well as bring about relatively peaceful change, as seen in the Philippines. "It's possible that protest movements can be used to alleviate some of the political pressure," said Paul Chambers, a senior research fellow at Germany's Heidelberg University. "But the Red Shirt leaders have wanted more and more. It's like a bull at a rodeo that starts to buck, and the leaders can't stay on top." [Ibid]

“King Bhumibol Adulyadej is deeply revered, but social mores have slowed reforms or open debate on the succession, a situation that some say has further strengthened the political and economic status quo. Another issue undercutting regional development has been military interference in politics, as witnessed in Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar and Thailand as armed forces resist the transition to civilian-led rule befitting a modern democracy. "The Thai military after the 2006 coup proved itself very ineffective in governing," said Bridget Welsh, an associate professor of political science at Singapore Management University. "Now it's proving itself to be a henchman rather than an institution.... How militaries are transforming themselves is crucial." [Ibid]

Red Shirt Protests in Thailand in 2009

In March and April 2009, Red Shirt demonstrators seized Government House (the prime minister’s office) in Bangkok and held it for three weeks. The protesters demanded that Abhisit resign and call new elections. The protest came to an end after the protesters burned buses and seized intersections in clashes with police, soldiers and residents in Bangkok, leaving two people dead and 123 injured. Arrest warrants were issued for Red Shirt leaders and Thaksin himself. Thaksin addressed the demonstrators using video links. At their height the demonstrations drew about 100,000 participants. A state of emergency was declared on April 12 and lifted on April 29.

Bill Tarrant of Reuters wrote: “In nightly phone-ins and video link-ups from his unknown place of exile, Thaksin has been exhorting his legions besieging Government House in central Bangkok to rise up and throw out the “illegitimate” government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. They responded by smashing into the venue of an Asia summit in the southern beach resort of Pattaya and battling troops after they blockaded a key junction in Bangkok. The aim, it appeared, was to provoke a bloody crackdown that would feed a groundswell of support for the populist Thaksin. After his loyalists began streaming out of the Government House, ending their three-week-long siege, some wondered whether this meant Thaksin’s star had finally fallen. [Source: Bill Tarrant, Reuters, April 14, 2009]

“Abhisit had been bending over backward to avoid bloodshed in containing the “Red Shirt” movement. Indeed, his orders to treat them gently backfired when they came smashing through a glass facade at the Asia summit venue, troops tumbling haplessly after them, forcing leaders to evacuate by helicopter. Although at least 113 people were injured in clashes between troops and protesters, the only two deaths were due to clashes between marauding Red Shirts and angry citizens in one neighbourhood of central Bangkok, authorities said.” [Ibid]

Red Shirts Violently Disrupt 2009 Asian Summit Meeting in Pattaya

Red Shirt protesters violently assaulted the building in Pattaya where a major Asian summit meeting was taking place. AFP reported: “Thai protesters smashed their way into a major Asian summit, forcing the country's embattled prime minister to cancel the meeting and evacuate foreign leaders by helicopters. Premier Abhisit Vejjajiva declared a state of emergency in the resort of Pattaya after thousands of demonstrators stormed the summit, which was supposed to focus on the financial crisis and North Korea's rocket launch. Choppers airlifted dignitaries from the roof of the luxury hotel venue after the red-shirted supporters of Thaksin breached police lines, broke down glass doors and streamed into the building unopposed. [Source: AFP, April, 2009]

“The meeting grouped the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. Protesters said they had run out of patience with Abhisit's refusal to bow to their demands for his resignation, and that they were angry at the wounding of three supporters in earlier clashes with pro-government rivals. [Ibid]

“Hooting horns and triumphantly chanting slogans, anti-government protesters decked out in red pushed past lines of troops who carried shields and batons but offered little resistance. They toppled metal detectors, smashed reception tables and left behind small pools of blood where some had been injured by glass. About 100 demonstrators reached the driveway of an adjacent building where the ASEAN leaders where having a luncheon. Staff were forced to bustle hotel guests — including a bikini-clad female tourist — away from restaurants and the poolside. [Ibid]

Several foreign leaders including Philippine President Gloria Arroyo and Abhisit himself were later airlifted to a nearby military airbase where emergency planes were on standby, AFP reporters said. The so-called Red Shirts had earlier clashed with pro-government rivals armed with sticks and bottles, forcing the morning's agenda to be scrapped, including ASEAN meetings with the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea. The three East Asian leaders remained in their hotels elsewhere in Pattaya.

There was confusion over which side the injured demonstrators came from and who attacked them. Protest leader Arismun Pongreungrong said his Red Shirts had been fired on by the rival demonstrators, whom he accused of being security forces in disguise. "We found 500 blue shirts behind army checkpoints with used bullet casings, handmade bombs and sticks," Arismun, a former pop singer, said at a press conference in the hotel lobby. Later it was revealed that Abhisit’s car was surrounded by an angry Red Shirt mob in Pattaya. He managed to escape with no harm done. A similar thing happened in Bangkok when an red shirt mob surrounded his car outside the Interior Ministry.

The ASEAN summit was originally set to be held in Bangkok in December 2008 was was moved first to the northern city of Chiang Mai, then delayed and moved to the coast and scheduled to take place in February but was postponed until April.

Violence at the End of Red Shirt Protests in Thailand in 2009

Describing the violence at the Red Shirt protest, Reuters reported: “Thai troops fired repeatedly in the air in central Bangkok forcing anti-government protesters to abandon a blockade of a key traffic junction in a first show of strength since an emergency was declared. The red-shirted protesters had torched a bus and thrown scores of molotv cocktails at security forces faced off at Din Daeng junction before the army finally retaliated, witnesses said. [Source: Reuters, April 14, 2009]

“Bangkok Medical Centre director Peeraphong Saicheau said 77 people were injured in clashes at the junction, which began just before dawn. Two civilians and two soldiers had gunshot wounds. The junction is a crucial part of Bangkok’s traffic system. Troops moved in with water cannon after protesters loyal to Thaksin poured some kind of fuel on the road, threatening to set it ablaze if soldiers acted. They eventually pushed the protesters out of the junction, detaining several and stripping them of their trademark Red Shirts. [Ibid]

The street violence erupted after Abhisit declared a state of emergency in Bangkok after the “Red Shirts” forced the cancellation of an Asian summit. Several thousand “Red Shirts” were still encamped at Government House, about four kilometers from Din Daeng junction, where they have been demonstrating for nearly three weeks. Their numbers have shrunk considerably from around 40,000 the day before and busloads were seen leaving to reinforce the Din Daeng blockade, Reuters reporters at the scene said. The demonstration ended when the protesters left the prime minister’s house. After that Red Shirt leader Jatuporn Prompan said, “We have to stop because we have to look after the lives of our supporters.” [Ibid]

After the Red Shirt Protests in Thailand in 2009

A poll after the 2009 protest by Abac University, the most respected pollster in Thailand, found that 55 per cent of 2,178 respondents in 18 provinces from throughout the country wanted the Red Shirts to end their protest and let Abhisit continue to run the country. Only 11 per cent wanted Abhisit to resign. An Abac poll a month before showed Abhisit with a popularity rating of 51 per cent against only 24 per cent for Thaksin.

In June 2009, Thaksin supporters in the Peua Thai party did well in elections in northern Thailand, the stronghold of Thaksin’s support, and staged a rally that drew 30,000 people in Bangkok despite heavy rain. In July, the Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromys was one 36 Yellow Shirt leaders charged for their involvement in the 2008 protests that shut Bangkok’s airports. In August a pro-Thaksin Red Shirt rally in Bangkok drew 25,000 people. Thaksin addressed the crowd by telephome, exhorting them not to leave him “dying in the desert” (a reference to his exile in Dubai). The demonstrators called for Abhisit to step down and announce new elections. The 14-hour rally ended peacefully. A red short rally in Bangkok in September drew 25,000 while Yellow Shirt protesters clashed with police near the temple on land disputed Thailand and Cambodia.

In August 2009, gunmen sprayed bullets into the office of Abhisit’s political party. No injuries were reported. Police assumed the pre-dawn attack was carried out by men on motorcycles. In December 2009 a frail King Bhumibol emerged from the hospital to tell Thais during his annual birthday address to “put the common interest before their own interests.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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