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Thailand: Six months on, emboldened Red Shirts raise new slogans

by Yu-Kyung Lee, Bangkok (Thailand), 01 December 2010
photo: Yu-Kyung Lee

Sombat Boonngamanong (42) is a man with a sunny smile, wearing a "red shirt". After the April-May crackdown on the pro-democracy Red Shirts at Ratchprasong in central Bangkok, which killed more than 90 – mostly civilians – the Red Shirts briefly "disappeared" from the public eye while developing their outrage further but silently. It didn’t take long for the Red Shirts to renew their campaign in public, to which Sombat has contributed significantly by encouraging that their silent anger be expressed in fun and festive street performances.

“I went to Ratchaprasong to tie red ribbons [at] Ratchaprasong a month after the crackdown. I suggested other Red Shirts to do the same thing”, said Sombat. “Police arrested and detained me for two weeks. So the renewing activities have become news”, he added. The long-time NGO activist, after being released, has been organising more activities such as "red aerobics" and dead bodies performances [die-ins] at symbolic venues.

His audacious initiatives have attracted increased numbers of protesters and media attention, which has been led to two mass demonstrations at Ratchaprasong in the last six months.

On November 19, 2010, tens of thousands Red Shirts turned out in central Bangkok again to mark six months since the crackdown. Two months earlier, on September 19, thousands marked four months since the crackdown, as well as fourth anniversary of the 2006 military coup.

Defying the emergency decree, which human rights group are calling on the Thai government to lift, Red Shirts have shown off their return to the streets en mass. Candlelight vigils to remember their fallen fellows on one hand, singing, dancing and chanting for hours, such as “Ti Ni Mi Khon Tai”, which means “People died here”, were heard on the other.

photo: ADH/Joerg Loeffke

However, there was a new slogan chanted by surprise, as the rally was closing: “Ai-Hia Sung Kha, E-Ha Sung Ying”, which means, “Bastard ordered the killing, bastard ordered to fire”. Similar slogans were heard on September 19 as well, according to a Nation report.

“We chant this, because…” said one red shirt “…we want to show that we know who ordered to kill and fire.”  But she didn’t specify who they meant.

There have been reports about graffiti which can be interpreted as violating the country’s harsh lese majeste law. This phenomenon could not be imagined six months ago.
The Red Shirts are now pushing the limits of Thai politics.

The resurgent Red Shirts are said to be organising in smaller and different groups without centralised leadership, which is, according to an activist who doesn’t want to be named, “a better way to continue” their movement. “When there were core leaders at centre, the authorities could easily target leaders to weaken our movement”, he argued.

It remains to be seen where the returned Red Shirts are heading for without a core leadership-structure. But so far the Red Shirts look resilient.

“People have been empowering themselves more and more”, said the activist Sombat. “Our goal is to change a mind set of Thai society, where you have ‘owners’ or ‘superiors’ of this country, while grassroots are treated as like ‘visitors’ or ‘inferior’ citizens”, he explained.

Meanwhile, there was an order from the army chief General Prayut Chan-O-Cha, ahead of the demonstration on November 19, who warned that emergency laws prohibited carrying items like clothes, sandals or photographs deemed to "incite disunity". Colonel Sansern Kaewkumnerd, the spokesperson for Center for the Resolution of Emergency Situation (or CRES) has reportedly said, “It is police who will decide what might be inciting disunity”, indicating that the spokesperson himself had little idea about criteria. Nontheless, severe penalties of up to two years in jail or a maximum fine of 40,000 baht – or both – were set for violators of the ban. A few flip-flop [rubber sandal] vendors have reportedly been arrested for selling shoes bearing prime minister’s face in recent months.

photo: Yu-Kyung Lee

One of the reactions to this measure was from the establishment-friendly Bangkok Post. The Post wrote an editorial entitled, “Democracies don’t ban items of free expression” on November 21:

By what authority does the military, in this case through the CRES, have the power to arbitrarily decide what is lawful and what is not and set penalties?

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajiva has reportedly expressed his displeasure at this order as well.

Thailand is been largely controlled by the military-dominated CRES, which can be above the administration led by the Oxford-educ

ated prime minister. Interestingly, on November 22, deputy prime minister Suthep Taungsuban reportedly said: “The CRES is not trying to take power or staging a coup when it imposes special laws. It only wants to keep the situation orderly.”

Such measures to maintain "order", however, may brew many more new slogans by Red Shirts, who have now recovered, returned and radicalised. The April-May crackdown and developments since have proved it.

Update: According to the Nation’s latest breaking news on November 26:

The Center for Resolution of Emergency Situation (CRES) Friday agreed to lift ban of political sarcastic items created by protesters to insult elite as the spokesman Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd said the centre found nobody violated the regulation.

I wonder if there was any particular regulation or article – in writing – for banning these items in the first place? It seems that the CRES has become a lawmaker "by announcing", and judge "by announcing". The CRES has violated fundamental rights of those who were already arrested – even if released afterwards – for selling things for their livelihood. If the regulation refers to any article of any other law – not the decree – then it should be the courts, not the colonels, who judge whether it has been violated or not.

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