The stamina of Thailand’s protesters is a lesson to us all…
Under the drastic and cavalier cuts made by the ConDems, Britain has witnessed a new age of dissent. Almost every week demonstrators have gathered to protest and occupy buildings. I have been an active member of this and I couldn’t help relate it to my time in Bangkok during the early summer of 2010. I witnessed some tactics I think British protesters could really learn from.
Thailand’s capital recently received another influx of anti-government protesters as they arrived in a motorcade of buses, trucks and pick-ups. They came as a show of defiance against the current government and to mark the four-year anniversary since their leader was ousted in a bloodless coup. It was also exactly four months after they generated international interest with their lengthy two-month siege of a wealthy district in Bangkok.
It was during this time that I was there and the situation was of obvious interest. I took a river taxi to the area and spent a few hours walking around. It was hard at that time to work out what was going on so here is a quick low down:
The complicated and lengthy civil unrest started in 2005-2006. The populist billionaire prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was accused of corruption and the Yellow Shirts (the royal colour of King Bhumibol Adhulyadej)—supporters of the centre right party PAD (People’s Alliance for Democracy)—started a wave of protests. Hundreds of thousands opposed to Thaksin occupied government buildings and eventually he was ousted. In 2008, PAD supporters took the streets again to oppose governments led by the PPP (People’s Power Party) and in support of sentencing Thaksin of corruption. Eventually in late 2008 the Constitutional Court of Thailand dissolved the PPP’s government after drawn out opposition-led protests.
In 2009, PAD gained control under the premiership of Mr Abhisit Vejjajiva and in opposition, the UDD (The Untied Front for Democracy against Dictatorship) start their pushes for change. The UDD is also joined by those who have always supported Thaksin; mostly from the Thai countryside who benefited from Thaksin’s land reforms. Together they are known as the Red Shirts. The alliance of leaders of the UDD and the Thaksin support quickly created a powerful leadership able to motivate hundreds of thousands of mostly rural people to down tools and enter the major cities of Thailand. After a few big demonstrations around the country the siege of Bangkok was planned.
In early April 2010, Red Shirts swarmed the city; many followers were from the rural North East, where Thaksin was popular. They took control of a main crossroad intersection. They turned this into a fortified encampment that blocked off a commercial district in Bangkok with upmarket hotels and shopping malls. This lasted for two to three months before the Army were called in and the camp was overrun and dissolved.
I spent time behind their barricades. I was struck by how well organised it was with public toilets and a huge stage from which emotional and riling speeches were made. The fortifications were tyres stacked on top of each other with bamboo spears sticking out of them on which some red flags fluttered.
The prolonged political protest included some striking methods that included pouring the blood of thousands of Red Shirts at the gates of government offices. In total 12, 5 litre bottles, two buckets and fifty syringes were spilt. The blood showed the movements commitment in calling for democracy. Other demonstration tactics included burning coffins and throwing plastic bags full of rotten fish.
It had to be asked, how long could they keep going? Day after day Red Shirt leaders were able to get large crowds at specific spots at appointed hours to carry out a symbolic protest. However, it was inevitable that soon good natured, boisterous affairs would turn into something more provocative and the army reacted with more violent measures.
Under a tough security law (Internal Security Act) passed by the former military junta, the police and army enjoys sweeping powers to break up the protests, should it see fit. The demonstrators were led to running street battles in which both sides used live ammunition.
It took more than two weeks of increasing military force to break up the camp site and convince the Red Shirts to back down and return to their homes. Because of their agrarian nature, adverse media depicted the protestors as water buffalo, a derogatory comparison implying rural ignorance.
But the protest has made Thailand’s ‘water buffalo’ distinctly political animals and more in tune with their urban working- and middle-class comrades. I was struck by the variety of people the siege attracted, not just those who had travelled into the capital but ordinary city workers who would carry a red t-shirt in their bags and go, after work, to show their support.
This massive show of popular anger was even more impressive in the face of an army controlled by generals unwilling to loosen their grip on Thailand, and therefore willing to use force. Jatuporn Prompan, a UDD leader, said, “although the road is rough and full of obstacles, it’s our duty to honour the dead by bringing democracy to this country.”
The bitter battle between the forces of the established status quo and a movement for social reform is not over. Even though many of the UDD leaders are imprisoned, their movement has not disintegrated. Red Shirts stopped movements of troops to Bangkok ahead of last month’s anniversary demonstrations by blocking trains and buses carrying soldiers.
Hundreds of thousands of Red Shirts flooded the city and took to the streets demanding democracy, showing strength and support despite a national state of emergency being affected. This has led to a political stalemate over the last two months in which the remaining UDD leaders are calling for the release of those rounded up. Nineteen of the group’s leaders and dozens of supporters still remain in detention. However, the movement is still gaining in popularity and since the Emergency Decree was lifted in mid-December there have been two more major rallies in the Thai capital.
In total 90 have died and 2000 have been injured. So when we see pictures in the media of our own people bloodied from bludgeons, or we spend a few hours on a cold night arbitrarily detained by the police, think of the stamina of Thailand’s ‘water buffalo’. These people set up camps and refused to go home and still they are fighting for change. They have incorporated innovative tactics like the blood protest that carried a huge symbolic weight, organised a visual centre for the protest by erecting a permanent stage in the middle of their camp on which riling speeches were held and above all their solidarity and stamina is exemplary. In the UK too, political unrest won’t stop at the student fees hikes and at each subsequent student protest I’ve been on, I’ve witnessed more organisation and more comradeship: we just need to persevere.
A new wave of political interest has been awakened in Britain after two quiet decades of relative apathy. The application of committed passion and revolutionary zeal may yet bring about the changes that are sought; until then it seems reasonable to expect further police aggression: more busted heads. And if we end up too scared to act on our beliefs for fear of being violently dispersed we can always follow the Red Shirts one step further and appeal to the UN to send in the peace-keepers…