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.
“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.
Mr. Prawat and other critics see the red shirts as an arm of the opposition Pua Thai party, which stands to gain most if elections are held in Thailand. Some of the red-shirt leaders, known as the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), are Pua Thai lawmakers and in close contact with Thaksin, who is a fugitive from Thai justice.
In this view, supporting the red shirts means helping Thaksin and his allies, many of them old-style party bosses in rural areas where vote-buying is common. Many Thais believe that protesters are also paid for their participation, sullying their cause.
A history of protest
But Mr. Buapun says that the movement, despite its evident flaws, has the potential to become a new force in Thai politics. “You’ve got to walk with two legs. One is you have to support some certain [politician]. The other is to have a mass movement, an independent movement,” he says.
In the 1990s, that description fitted the Assembly of the Poor, which emerged in the northeast from a campaign against an unpopular dam. It allied with disaffected urban workers and slum dwellers to stage prolonged protests similar to the red-shirt rallies that focused on specific government reforms, rather than parliamentary politics.
Landless farmers like Keow joined the movement. He has seen successive governments come and go, without a resolution of his village’s land dispute in this mountainous reserve, formerly a communist stronghold. The current administration led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has passed a community land-title law that, at least in theory, should strengthen their claim and that of millions of other landless villagers.
For this and other reasons, Keow has kept his distance from the red shirts, ignoring their slogans of economic justice. Indeed, he was happy to see the back of Thaksin in 2006. “We don’t like him. We helped to chase him away,” he says.
David Streckfuss, an independent American scholar in Khon Kaen, says the northeast, which borders Laos and Cambodia and boasts its own dialect and cuisine, has a history of political resistance, including a communist insurgency that peaked in the 1970s. He says Thai politics has long been a tussle between competing elites but may be moving into a new phase of grassroots participation.
If that happens, community-based networks in the northeast deserve at least some of the credit. “There’s quite a historical and social base to work from, and that provides a lot of the context for what we see today,” he says.