Thai army takes the wind out of red shirts' sails

Thai army takes the wind out of red shirts' sails
Red shirt leader Kritsanapong Phrombuengram standing in front of the doors of a Chiang Mai hotel raided by soldiers after the coup. The doors are carved with an image of Thaksin, with the words "Thaksin fight" in Thai.

Tight surveillance and pre-emptive detentions have snuffed out mass resistance to the May 22 coup by the Thai military.

It has also left regional leaders of the country's anti-coup red shirt network reflecting on their inability to sustain their movement.

Under the weight of martial law, the uprising vowed by red shirt leaders up-country - where the movement draws most of its support - has melted away. Some leaders partly blame themselves for this.

Mr Pichit Tamool, a red shirt leader in Chiang Mai province, a stronghold of the ousted government, told The Straits Times: "It was a mistake to let our supporters rely too much on their leaders for direction. They couldn't do anything by themselves."

The United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), a red shirt umbrella group, relied on key figures to mobilise their supporters, he said. It was neutered when troops rounded up regional leaders countrywide within hours of the coup.

While flash mobs of protesters have been playing cat and mouse games with soldiers in Bangkok, north and north-eastern Thailand have seen mere squeaks of anti- coup activity.

The junta has warned against criticising the coup, and stationed troops at important rallying points to head off demonstrations. Political gatherings of five or more people have been declared illegal.

On the day of the coup, Mr Pichit remembered receiving dozens of phone calls from supporters, after he was detained by the military in Chiang Mai. "They asked me what to do," he said. "I told them to decide for themselves."

In the end, just under 100 people in Chiang Mai turned up for a protest on the first two days after the coup, a stark contrast to the thousands Mr Pichit could regularly mobilise for rallies.

"The people were so afraid they didn't come out," he said. "We had top leaders, regional leaders, and then provincial leaders. But when the leader in every layer was taken, it collapsed."

In Phayao, a northern province that has its own "red shirt district", fear has also taken root. Local red shirt leader Siriwat Japamata has asked his compatriots to lie low until martial law is lifted. "We have to stay safe," he said. "There's no way for us to resist now."

The red shirt movement grew out of the 2006 military coup that ousted then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The controversial billionaire turned politician endeared himself to the rural masses with signature policies like universal health care but alarmed the royalist elite by upsetting the old patronage-based political order.

Not all the red shirts support Thaksin, who lives abroad to evade a jail sentence for a graft-related conviction. But they close ranks to protect electoral democracy in a country where governments have been regularly overthrown by the military. The kingdom has witnessed no fewer than 19 attempted coups - and 12 successful ones - since 1932.

In 2010, the red shirts rallied in Bangkok for months to pressure the then Democrat-led government to hold elections. This led to a bloody military crackdown that killed more than 90 people.

More recently, the UDD massed thousands of supporters at the western edge of Bangkok, to oppose any attempt to topple the Thaksin-linked Puea Thai government. This raised fears of a possible confrontation between them and thousands of anti-government protesters who had occupied the inner reaches of the capital for months.

In hindsight, it was probably a wrong move, said Mr Kritsanapong Phrombuengram, a red shirt leader from the Rak Chiang Mai 51 faction.

"If not for the rally, the military would not have had the pretext to stage a coup," he said.

Residents of red shirt districts, where banners and flags bearing their political affiliation have been dismantled by the junta, said their political ideals remain alive.

Phayao resident Sangwoon Moolchue, 69, said: "I still think the same with or without these flags."

In the meantime, red shirt leaders said it will take some time to rebuild momentum, having now been caught off guard by the depth of military intelligence on their strategies.

"It's time for a rest," said Mr Kritsanapong.

The movement will not die, the leaders said, but its structure may need to change.

"I will tell people, you don't need to wear red shirts anymore," said Mr Pichit. "You don't need to come together to listen to your leaders anymore. Do it your way."

This article was first published on June 7, 2014.
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