If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em

As if the traffic in Bangkok weren’t bad enough, protests routinely bring traffic to a halt completely as red shirts flood the streets.  On one such occassion thinkCHUA and I had been sitting on a public bus at a stand still for nearly twenty minutes when we decided to get off the bus and see what the protest was about.  We were welcomed into the blockaded protest area and found cheap food vendors, peaceful protesters and lots of clapping hands.

The semi-permanent protest camp for the red shirts in Bangkok.

Thailand has been dealing with unrest on an almost daily basis since Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted from office in a military coup in September 2006 after being accused of corruption and disrespect for the country’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej. When Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva was chosen as prime minister in December 2008, some Thais hoped the protests had finally come to an end.  Unfortunately, even today the political schism is far from over. The world community became more aware of the Thai people’s struggle when the red shirts opposition, the yellow shirts took over the Government House for three months and engineered a week-long siege of Bangkok’s main airports in December 2008, crippling the country’s vital tourism industry.  In March 2010 the pro-Thaksin red shirts launched new protests aimed at bringing the government down.  Then in May 2010 the red shirt protesters were evicted by the army from their encampment in Bangkok’s city centre.  A week of clashes between the miliary and red-shirts left at least 50 people dead, most of them protesters.  This also hurt tourism to Thailand, which is their main economic driver, and fueled the red shirts anger.

Analysts and protesters say the problem goes far beyond Mr Thaksin, and is about how much say ordinary people are allowed to have in the formation of their government.  We met an older Thai women in the red shirt protest area and she talked passionately about how Thai people are peaceful people, but right now they don’t have a say in their government.  “It’s not even a democracy in Thailand anymore,” she said.  We both agreed with her about how peaceful the protests were, chairs were distributed free of charge so that people could sit and listen to the speakers and no one screamed out or interrupted, but instead would politely “clap” in agreement with the featured speaker.  Each person at the protest had a plastic clapping hand that they used rather than clapping their hands together.  It was such an orderly protest with the crowd intently listening to each speaker and then raising their clapping hands it was almost comical.

The plastic clapping hands used by all protesters to show their support for red shirt speakers.

The red shirts are both rural residents from the North and urban intellectuals who are in support of the policies that Thaksin had outlined in his five years in power.  Two of the main issues he supported were health care and education, beyond that red shirts also want to see more democracy and less military influence in politics.  Their rallies have highlighted a divide between Thailand’s rich, ruling, urban elite and the poor who had long silently complained of being overlooked by society.  The rift between these two groups seems to be growing as the red-shirts believe Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva came to power illegitimately and is a puppet of the military. They want Mr Abhisit to resign and call fresh elections.  In addition, a couple weeks ago seven red shirt leaders were freed and are calling for the release of more than 180 of their colleagues who remain jailed since a violent military crackdown last year.  It seems that as the list of demands presented by the red shirts, who call themselves the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), grows so do the numbers at their rallies.

A red shirt supporter carrying their daughter through the mass of people gathered at the Democracy Monument.

While the red shirts seem to be much more active, protesting in the streets of Bangkok bringing public transport to a halt, their anti-Thaksin opponents the yellow shirts have their list of demands as well.  The opponents of Mr. Thaksin call themselves the Peoples’ Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and wear yellow shirts.  They are a loose grouping of businessmen and the urban middle class, led by media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul and Chamlong Srimuang, a former general. The yellow shirts were instrumental in setting the scene for the military coup which removed then Prime Minister Thaksin from office in 2006.  The yellow shirts are credited with bringing down allies of Mr. Thaksin and once the Democrats came into power, the yellow-shirts went quiet.  However, they are now demanding that Mr. Abhisit resign after his handling of a Cambodian border dispute or they will protest, but the promised demonstrations have not materialized.

With the red shirts and yellow shirts still at odds even with the common goal of Mr. Abhisit’s resignation it seems that the whole crisis is ripe for a civil war over the central issue of where Thai politics should go from here.  The impression given of the red-shirts in pro-government media is of a pro-Thaksin group, prone to violence.  But red-shirt leaders say their movement is about much more than one man; they claim the movement is about more profound social change.  They want an election where every vote will count, and for Thailand to break out of a pattern of military intervention.  Whereas the yellow shirts call for Mr. Asbhisit to resign has been fuelled by the arrest in Cambodia in December 2010 of seven Thais accused of illegal entry.  They would also like free elections in Thailand, but hope for different results than the red shirts.  Elections may not be an easy answer if they were to come to fruition.

Me with a red shirt protester holding a canon, glad I was wearing a red shirt too.

We witnessed the protesters on more than one occasion during our stay in Bangkok and it is clear that the divisions in Thailand run very deep.  At the moment neither the red shirt or yellow shirt protesters nor the government appear in the mood to compromise – and the red shirts have vowed to stage another large rally on March 12, 2011 the anniversary of the start of last year’s mass protests.  I wouldn’t discourage travel to Thailand, but as always when traveling stay abreast of the current situation wherever you plan to visit.

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» Donna :
Mar 10, 2011

Uffda! Do be careful please! At least stay out of the middle of the fray. Although I’m sure the energy is something to behold, eh? I’m heading for more peaceful parts of the world … the flight is booked and I’m off to Germany, Austria and Switzerland, March 24-April 11. I won’t be putting up such classy reports back home to my friends, but with a little luck might send a photo or two home! Travel safe!! Donna

» Mom A :
Mar 10, 2011

This looks like the Madison, WI capitol for several weeks now, except the demonstrators were staying overnight inside the capitol until recently. It seems every country has a hard time listening to all sides and coming to the middle, although we are supposed to have more practice. Hmmm

» dad :
Mar 13, 2011

nick called Wednesday night and it sounded like he was attending a huge party….living a block from Madison capitol he received a tweet that the republicans had found a loophole and voted to abolish public union negotiating rights…he saw history in a small way being made…..everyone has an opinion on this one, but it is becoming more clear daily, that decisiveness reigns…..nick chose to leave as emotions were running high…long round about way for me to say,,,,,be smart. be safe……love dad

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About the Author

LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.

About the Author
LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.


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