Bangkok shutdown: Pro-government 'red shirts' await call to action

Residents in pro-government enclaves are glued to their TVs, waiting for their leaders to call for counterprotests against the shutdown movement.

Flora Bagenal
Rassamel Pimnisai, left, is a volunteer community organizer for red shirt supporters living in Bangkok's Khlong Toei slum. The red shirts are supporters of the Pheu Thai Party, currently in government.

The last time there were prolonged antigovernment protests in Bangkok, Rassamel Pimnisai sold food to demonstrators to show her support.

That was back in 2010 when her color-coded movement – the "red shirts" – were the ones on the street. This time, as Bangkok enters a fourth day of mass action, blockaded roads, and rallies, Ms. Rassamel’s political camp is clinging to power and all she can do is sit at home and wait.

“We will be ready when our leaders tell us to gather,” she says, sitting at a small wooden table in the cluttered back streets of Khlong Toei, a slum near Bangkok's main port that is a red shirt stronghold. 

Rassamel is a grandmother and a volunteer leader in her area for the National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), the largest red shirt organization. She is responsible for organizing people to join rallies and protests when the party's leaders put out the call. So far, she says, no one has ordered them to rise up in response to the ongoing shutdown of Bangkok led by opposition politician Suthep Thaugsuban. 

Instead Rassamel and her neighbors sit glued to television news waiting for a politician or red shirt leader to announce a call to action and praying that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra can resist the pressure. More than anything, they want both sides to keep the peace long enough for elections to take place on Feb. 2 since they're confident of winning at the ballot box. 

“We’ve heard there are some [red shirts] stashing weapons so they can fight the protesters on the street but not in our neighborhood,” Rassamel says. Not all her neighbors share her opinions: some are "yellow shirts" who oppose Ms. Yingluck. However, she says the community does its best to avoid bringing politics to the boiling point. 

“We can’t take things too seriously here, we have to be creative and try to live together otherwise it could get really bad,” she said.

The pro-government red shirts have repeatedly warned they will respond with their own demonstrations if the protesters in Bangkok provoke violence, or there is a coup against the government. 

“It is the UDD's job to bring together en masse the red shirts and those who love democracy and don't agree with Suthep's methods,” red shirt leader Jatuporn Promphan said earlier this month.

Citing anonymous red shirt sources, the Bangkok Post reported that militant cells were stockpiling weapons and ammunition and were “ready to act” if the polls are delayed.

"This is not to hit the protesters but to retaliate against a coup and anyone who forces the public and government agencies such as the Election Commission [EC] and the judiciary to postpone the election," one source told the paper.

So far Yingluck's government have been praised for a restrained response to a political crisis that has been percolating for several months. Police have put up no resistance to protesters blockading major intersections in Bangkok and government ministries have quietly relocated to temporary offices in response to threatened occupations.  

At least eight people have been killed and hundreds injured since the latest unrest broke out. However, none of the incidents have directly involved Thailand's influential and coup-prone army, which has called for restraint from both sides.

Risk of violence 

Concern is mounting however, that the window for a peaceful solution to the crisis is narrowing. On Tuesday the global risk analysis group Maplecroft said in a report the risk of violence between the two political sides in Thailand was rising. 

“[The red shirts] have vowed to counter any attempts by the [protesters] to interfere with the February elections. With the [protesters] vowing to do everything in [their] power to prevent the elections from taking place, the risk of violence between the two sides is very high,” the report said, adding that the longer demonstrations go on, the harder it will be for the government to dispel them peacefully.

Many fear a repeat of May 2010 when peaceful demonstrations descended into chaos and violence after negotiations broke down. Over 90 people, mainly civilians, died in clashes between demonstrators and soldiers. 

“This time around the atmosphere is more frightening,” said Boonsang Khisaiya, a red shirt supporter living in Khlong Toei. He says he’s afraid for the safety of his family as they have nowhere to go if fighting erupts in the slum.

“Suthep is trying to create violence so the police clash with them. They are being provocative and they have explosives and guns. I believe they are capable of anything,” he said.

A candlelight vigil was held at dusk in Bangkok today by about 400 residents from both sides of the political divide who gathered to pray for a peaceful end to the political deadlock. 

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