23 April 2013

Red Shirts: Hypocrisy and a Muddled Message

Wearing a red shirt in Thailand is more than just a fashion statement—it’s a political affiliation. The Red Shirts are a political group that rose to prominence in 2006 as a response to the military coup of then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin Shinawatra was accused by the military regime of corruption, lèse majesté (insulting the King), tax evasion, and selling Thai assets to foreign investors. Following the coup he underwent a self-imposed exile from Thailand in order to avoid his local charges of  imprisonment. To this day he remains in exile, even though his younger sister Yingluck Shinwatra was recently elected Prime Minister in 2011. Yingluck has been criticized (and hailed) as a puppet of Thaksin, who some claim is pulling strings from abroad.
The overthrow of Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006, following a democratic reelection, is one of many grievances the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorships (“Red Shirts”) has against the military junta. The Red Shirts also quietly criticize the role of the monarchy in Thaksin’s removal and are vocal advocates for a more democratic process in Thailand. Since the overthrow, Red Shirts have voiced their discontent through protest. Red Shirt protests began in 2009, gaining in momentum and popularity until April 2010, when the military cracked down on the protesters, killing 10 red shirts and one Japanese reporter. However, the Red Shirts continued to protest. They occupied Bangkok’s economic zone, pressuring the government for new elections, until on May 19th 2010, when the Thai military cracked down again, killing 70 to 80 protesters and injuring thousands. Media attention and international intervention heavily criticized then-Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, leading to his capitulation from office and the re-instantiation of democratic elections. 
In light of the historical background, the political turmoil, and the controversial nature of the Red Shirt group, it’s understandable that my peers and I were excited when we got the chance to interview representatives of the movement. However, the Red Shirts we met did not match our expectations.
The Red Shirt movement is portrayed as a people’s movement, headed by the poor disenfranchised people of Isaan, who are fighting for democracy. The reality was startlingly different. The Red Shirts we interviewed were from the Democratic Youth Alliance, and one of them, the leader, drove a brand new matte red Mercedes-Benz, and had a gold ring with an inlaid stone the size of a pistachio on his finger. Another had perfectly quaffed hair and wore his shoes inside (in Thai culture that is a big no-no), his face was carefully made-up, did he have on lipstick? It was hard to tell. But the glittering diamond ring on his finger was unmistakable. This may seem hypercritical and unnecessary to point out, but when these are the most vocal Thaksin supporters, and they claim that Thaksin is “of the people and for the people,” especially the poor, I start finding it hard to believe. We questioned them about this, asking how Thaksin can be a voice for the poor despite his fabulous wealth. The Red Shirt representative with the quaffed hair responded that “poor people are everywhere, so everyone is close to the poor.”
Admittedly, the Red Shirt representatives had some compelling points. They whole-heartedly support a democratic system, wish to take away some of the monarchy’s un-checked power, advocate for decentralization of the Thai government, and their three principles focus on educating the youth about constitutional rights. They claim that these are the central tenets of the Red Shirt movement and that Red Shirts are “over Thaksin.” If this were true, the Red Shirt movement would be very strong, garnering the support of the rural Thai people of Isaan, who reject the movement for its Thaksin-deification
But it’s not true. The Red Shirts we interviewed spent at least an hour building a beautiful image of Thaksin The Beneficent, ignoring the fact that many Thai are wary of this incredibly rich and controversial figure. I realize the power of a figurehead for a political movement—Che Guevara and Aung San Sui Kyi come to mind—but there are also limitations. It would be better for the Red Shirts to find, or create, a new figurehead, one that embodies their goals in reality, who isn’t clouded by charges of corruption[1]. Until then, there will not be enough popular support to bring about the social and political change the red shirts claim to want. 

Nelson Falkenburg
Whitman College

[1] Ironically, there is no word in the Thai language for “corruption.” It is said just like the English word with a Thai accent.


Kayla Murphy said...

I completely agree. I was dumbfounded when one of the Redshirt representatives pulled up in his new Mercedes and even more struck by the extravagant dress of the two men present. The group did spend a lot of time attempting to convince us that Thaksin is great, which seems a big counter productive. If you have to spend that much time convincing people that your purported figurehead is actually an okay guy then when does the actual message of your movement get across. I was also struck by the fact that there were so many women present at the meeting and they hardly got the chance to speak. They looked more like the image of the movement I had in mind, being actually dressed in red shirts and not overly made up. These women were overshadowed by the two extravagantly dressed men, who fielded nearly all of our questions, and I was sad to see that, I really would have liked to hear more from the women.

Astrid Quinones said...

You hit it right on the head. I think all of us were very perplexed by the image that the red shirts portrayed in front to us juxtapose what we had heard and learned about it previous discussions and lectures. I was also really turned off by their obsession with Thaksin. They did not convince me that they had a strong movement due to their fixation with him. I understand your point that there is power in having a leader figure that represents an idea like democracy; however, I don't think that the representatives we met with were through on what the Red Shirt movement is. They were very clear on Thaksin's strengths (and weaknesses but turned them into strengths). Overall I think it was eye opening to how social action movements can be misinterpreted. This exchange was definitely a learning experience.

Corinne Molz said...

I've thought about this exchange a lot too since they image of the red shirts on paper or that which we saw in villages was so different than what was we faced in person. And like Astrid was saying, their extreme obsession with Thaksin and all of his "great works" was a complete turn off for their cause. The way the presented themselves seemed like blind followers rather a people's movement working towards their rights. Though I think they believed their purpose was just and good, the disconnected air of what they were saying along with that ring on his finger convinced me that they had little connection with struggling poor local villagers and their wants for democracy. This was definitely a good example of a people's movement "doing good", which actually it is acting in its own self interest under the guise of social betterment. Their perspective definitely helped me to understand the struggle between political parties in Thailand, especially directly after Thaksin was in power.

Kaitlin Reed said...

I completely agree with Corinne. The Red Shirts we exchanged with seemed like mere puppets left of Thaksin’s image and poison. I was here when the protests began in 2009, and even then they weren’t bad yet. I was in Bangkok for one where they shut down Central Plaza to protest. They flooded the streets in trucks and busses and were yelling and screaming and blaring horns and sirens as they went through the shopping district. A few foreigners near me started cheering, unknowing of what was actually happening. They thought it was preparation of a parade of sorts. I, too thought it was weird how they were presented as rich citizens instead of the poor we usually hear about. It made me think back to what I had been told before, that Thaksin pays people to be his followers and to protest. It made me wonder if these men were some of the results of the corruption and supposed money bribes from Thaksin.

Eve Hansen said...

This was a very compelling post, being that I know next to nothing of the Thai government, it was also very informative. The first thought that came to mind after reading the descriptions of the flashy Redshirt representatives was, is Thaksin paying these guys to advocate for him and his work? Sadly corruption is everywhere and the fight against it continues. I have found it not uncommon that the voice of the poor is usually muted while those with money and power have made their presence known. I think it's not all bad that you had this encounter with the Redshirts because now you have a first hand experience that you can share with your peers and others about the reality of the situation.

April said...

This information is very interesting to someone who is unaware of Thai politics but also can reach across many different countries. I think that the question to ask is whether there is the presence of the poor that the Red Shirt movement claims. Are there actually poor supporters that have a leading role in the organization or are all the leaders represented in the two you met with? I believe that the imaging of the Red Shirts is an intriguing subject to think about. If it truly is headed by the rich, why do they want the image of being led by the poor? Is it to garner more support from the general population? Is it to make it seem like the rich are actually supporting the current government? Or is it some other motivation? As service-learning students we have to ask ourselves these types of questions, even when the solution is not obvious or seems impossible to find.