For some, Thailand's red-shirt protests amplify calls for justice
Though Thailand’s red-shirt protests are dismissed by some as a political ploy by former Thaksin Shinawatra, they have also tapped into desires in the rural northeast for economic and social justice.
Nan Nong Thum, Thailand
Decades of land-rights activism taught Keow Wongkrai a thing or two about street demonstrations. So when he was invited last month to meet with antigovernment "red-shirt" protesters, he went to hear their pitch. But Mr. Keow, a sinewy farmer, declined to join their rally in Bangkok to urge the government to dissolve parliament.Skip to next paragraph
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“I don’t think this type of protest can solve our problems,” he says.
In northeast Thailand, where the red shirts draw much of their support, some community activists reject the movement as little more than a political vendetta by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
But others have linked arms with the red shirts to call for social and economic justice, which resonates deeply in this hardscrabble region. Tapping into this sentiment, the red shirts are adopting the strategies of earlier political movements, adding a dash of communist-style indoctrination by educating recruits at rural retreats and crafting strident pro-poor slogans.
The result is a hybrid of progressive, leftist, and patronage-driven politics that some observers believe has outgrown its veneration of Mr. Thaksin, who was ousted in 2006 in a military coup applauded by Bangkok’s conservative elites.
“I think it’s moved beyond taking Thaksin back to Thailand. It’s become very clear during the past three years,” says Buapun Promphakping, a sociologist at the University of Khon Kaen.
Thais grow politicized
Thaksin is an unlikely symbol of progressive politics. A telecoms billionaire and two-term prime minister, he championed capitalism and showered state benefits on the poor, while taking a hard line on dissent and ignoring human rights concerns.
But the ruptures in Thai politics, starting with yellow-shirt protests against Thaksin in 2006, have energized voters on all sides, a trend accelerated by cheap communications, alternative media, and growing awareness of international norms.
This politicization has included rural areas where community-based groups had already blazed a trail by promoting rights-based activism, often in opposition to Bangkok’s landed elite, says Decha Premrudeelert, a veteran NGO organizer in Khon Kaen.
“Many leaders from our movement have joined the red shirts. Many also joined the yellow shirts,” he says, adding that his sympathies are with the reds, though he opposed Thaksin’s rule.
“The red shirts are using every [protest] group’s experience. They learn from how they operate … and improve the formula,” he says.
Supporting a movement, or a politician?
Prawat Bunnag, a former colleague of Mr. Decha, is firmly in the yellow-shirt camp. He says Thaksin exploited the rural poor with populist schemes that left them dependent on capitalists. “Thai society has lost its capacity for self-reliance,” he says.