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In Bangkok Many Reds Look Beyond Thaksin Toward Revolution: A Photo Essay  [updated]

Andre Vltchek from Bangkok

Imagine that you are Thai and poor, as most people in this country still are. Imagine that you are aware of your social position, as most poor Thais are, and that you are educated and understand the complexities and hidden meanings of political life of your country, which most Thais do not. You have basically two alternatives if suicide or emigration is not the option: to support the outrageously elitist aristocracy and the army (many of whose members now paint themselves yellow) whose goal is to preserve society’s feudal arrangements, or support the business tycoon accused of tremendous corruption (his people are painted red). If you can’t chose between these two camps, you are out of luck – nothing else is on the menu.

Applying Marxist logic, the natural evolution of the society is from feudalism to early capitalism, from there to developed capitalism and then, somehow, to socialism.

In Thailand, as in most of Southeast Asia, however, the hybrid of feudalism, royalism and capitalism is now firmly in place.  For the elites, the critical goal is to retain their exclusive social and economic position in a society with an enormous divide between the rulers and the majority. It is not just money. Equally important is their exclusive status. For that they will fight, manipulate and even kill thousands.

No writer, above all one who is based in Southeast Asia, can publish a full and honest account of what is happening in Thailand – one free of self-censorship. There are some figures in this country that cannot even be mentioned in connection with anything negative, let alone be criticized. Those who dared to speak and write ended up in this nation’s notorious prisons, an outcome which guarantees broken health.

It is a well-designed system, which guarantees that no citizen and no journalist living or working here will dare to speak up. Thailand offers great rewards to those who choose silence – high quality of life, cheap food, cheap sex and glorious massages, luxurious and affordable serviced apartments and white sand (although increasingly polluted) beaches. No place in Europe or North America offers such bliss for so little cash.

Thailand as a service station for soldiers, business people, foreign press and foreign NGO’s – that was the design developed by the west with Thai collaborators since the beginning of the Vietnam War. The US helped design the present system of power (earlier, the throne was becoming virtually irrelevant).

Thailand became an important base for US forces fighting in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, with the Thai military dutifully serving its superpower patron. To serve US troops, tens of thousands of poor Thai women were moved to the brothels of Pattaya and elsewhere. Fierce repression of communists and other leftists followed.

One coup after another devastated the country, but Bangkok was hosting an increasing number of foreign international organizations, NGOs and press agencies. They came fully aware that no criticism of the monarchy would be tolerated, that Thailand as a staunch Cold War ally, would not allow fundamental dissent. The manufacturers of public opinion (the media) as well as NGOs operating in the region and based in Thailand embraced the political mood for their own purposes.

With Thailand playing a signature role in the US-Vietnam War, the nation was subject to an openly undemocratic system, repeated coups, gross violations of human rights of its minorities (some even denied Thai citizenship) and growing sacrifice of its – mostly rural – underclass.

Things began to change when business tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra became Prime Minister in 2001. His business-oriented pragmatism was progressive compared to the stale rule of former elites. He knew that for Thailand to compete with China, Europe or Japan, it needed healthy and educated workers and farmers. During his rule, the quality of education improved dramatically and Thailand introduced a 30 baht (lesser than US$1) per visit medical care system – one of the best in the developing world. Under his 4-year rule, rural poverty was reduced by half – a tremendous boost for the majority but an unforgivable crime in the eyes of the ‘chosen few’. Soon he was seen as a national hero by the poor and as  the archenemy by the elites.

It is not that Thaksin was a saint or even a determined defender of the poor. He didn’t hesitate to ‘clean’ the streets of Bangkok during the APEC meeting (October 2003), basically deporting the homeless from the capital to the military barracks. His war on drugs cost at least 2.000 lives, allegedly many of them innocent. During his reign, the conflict (or call it Civil War) in the predominantly Muslim South escalated.

But he was popular and winning against all odds in the confrontation with ‘traditional values’ (read: feudalism). And his country was becoming more egalitarian, scrutinizing its traditional rules.

On 19 September 2006 a military junta calling itself the Council for National Security overthrew Thaksin's government while he was abroad.

What followed is well-documented: military rule, ‘return to democracy’ in which the pro-Thaksin party won again, Thaksin’s brief return home and further exile, banning of his ruling party by the Supreme Court, and on 26 February 2010, seizure by the Supreme Court of 46 billion baht of his frozen assets. The former Prime Minister became a nomad, living in Dubai, returning to Southeast Asia via Phnom Penh, allegedly holding Montenegrin citizenship.

But through it all, his supporters refused to give up, regrouping and rearranging their bases and strategies, finally uniting under what is now known as the Red Shirts.

The Standoff

Returning again to Thailand, including several days in Bangkok and long hours sharing space with the Red Shirts, my instinct, not hard evidence, dictates that I write these lines: the probably inevitable show-down that is now approaching, probably in a matter of days, perhaps even hours, is not about Thaksin Shinawatra. His name and his image are just among the rallying cries and they are diminishing rapidly.

The people of Thailand - men and women - who came to risk their lives, blocking major intersections in the commercial district, are here to demand justice. Their color is red and red stars now decorate their hats. There are more red stars on the streets controlled by them than images of the deposed Prime Minister. This is another fact widely ignored by foreign media.

Protesters may not know it themselves, but what brought them here are the same grievances and hopes that brought people to the streets of Santiago de Chile in 1970, celebrating the victory of Salvador Allende; the same hopes and grievances that brought Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales to power a few decades later.

They want free medical care and free quality education for their children. They want subsidized housing. And they don’t want to prostrate at the feet of superiors as they were long forced to do.

There is nothing more powerful than to see Thai peasants camping in front of Chloe, Dior, Gucci and other luxury stores, to claim their space and offer their lives for this badly defined but spontaneous revolution.

This rebellion may be crushed tomorrow, coloring Bangkok’s river and canals red with protesters’ blood, but it can also change the course of the history of all Southeast Asia, a region where neo-colonial interests combined with brutal and feudal inertia held entire nations in thrall – a state of affairs supremely comfortable for expatriates, representatives of foreign companies, sexual tourists and a servile press, but degrading for the majority of inhabitants.

When Franco’s fascists encircled Madrid, Czech troops that joined the Republicans used to say: “In Madrid we are fighting for Prague.” There is no doubt that any fight against fascism is international, it is global. Today, Red Shirts are standing guard at their makeshift barricades, built symbolically in front of the country’s major luxury malls. They are here, and some of them may die soon, for their country and social justice for their own people, but without realizing it they may also die for Manila and Jakarta.

What was triggered by a pragmatic, often cynical Prime Minister and business maverick accelerated and gained a momentum of its own. Today, many Red Shirts are ready to fight against feudalism, not for the return of a capitalist tycoon.

Several years ago, in Montevideo, the great Uruguayan writer and icon of the Latin American Left – Eduardo Galeano – told me: “The most terrible crime that could be committed against the poor is to steal their hope. It is even worse than murder. Because hope is often all that poor people have left.”

In the last years, hope was stolen from the Thai poor on several occasions. And the Day of Judgment for that crime is approaching.

 

Red Thailand: a Photo Essay

I The Red Shirts Defenses

Red Shirts control several key streets in commercial district. This is one of the entrances to their territory, near new Art Center.

Checkpoint erected by the Red shirts.

Makeshift barricade - bamboo and barbed wire. Visible are sharpened bamboo spears that could be used as weapons.

The barricade.

II Life on the Streets

At the entrance to the closed Siam Paragon – Thailand’s most luxurious mall.

Elites fume - this posh Sukumvit Street has long been their playground.

Red women and men bathe in the middle of the once luxury street.

Red Shirts squatting at night in front of Loewe’s.

Watching a film about state brutality.

III Media War and Propaganda

Crimes allegedly committed recently by the state .

The current Prime Minister as a vampire.

The current Prime Minister as Adolf Hitler.

Elephants join the fight for democracy too - Red Shirt poster attached to the tail of elephant statue on Siam Square.

Official program of the Red Shirts.

Thai cameraman ready for action.

The main rallying cry of Red Shirts - Peaceful Protesters Not Terrorists.

IV The Military

Hoping not to be ordered to shoot his own people.

Searching for enemies.

Soldiers at key intersections.

V The Red Shirts/The People

Buddhist monk shows allegiance in fashionable Siam Square.

 Natthawut Saikua, a leader of the Red Shirts on the night of 28 April.

Red star - not Thaksin - a portrait of a revolutionary.

Memories of times past - hat with Viet Nam worn by Red Shirt protester.

Thai helps Thai - Red Shirt medic treats a young girl.

2 May 2010

VI. Red Shirts

VII. The State

 

 

Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and journalist, presently residing in and working on Asia and Africa. His latest book, Oceania, was recently published by Expathos and can be reviewed and ordered here.  His website is here

He wrote and photographed this article for The Asia-Pacific Journal.

Recommended citation: Andre Vltchek, "In Bangkok Many Reds Look Beyond Thaksin Toward Revolution," The Asia-Pacific Journal, 18-1-10, May 3, 2010.

 

For another report from inside Thailand see Joshua Kurlantzick, It’s Not Just Red and Yellow.

We welcome your comments on this and all other articles. More are available on our homepage. Please consider subscribing to our email newsletter or RSS feed, or following us via Twitter or Facebook.

Comments
Mike
05/01/2010
If this was truly the case, that the Thai poor wants "free medical care and free quality education for their children. They want subsidized housing. And they don’t want to prostrate at the feet of superiors as they were long forced to do.", why do they not come forward with these requests. Why do they not offer to talk to the governments about what their concerns are regarding their quality of life. Instead of engaging in negotiations, they stick by their sole demand: "Dissolution of Parliament", a stance which is unlikely to benefit Thailand in the long term. Thailand has took a long time to develop, but she will develop in her own time. What is needed is a stable government, not one that changes every year. Do you not think that the Yellow Shirts will take to the streets once Thaksin returns to power? Do you think that dissolution of parliament would do anything to fix the problem in the long term? Instead of just demanding "DISSOLUTION OF PARLIAMENT! DISSOLUTION OF PARLIAMENT! THE GOVERNMENT IS ILLEGITIMATE", perhaps the Red Shirts might want to look at the concept of a representative government before citing that the current government is illegitimate. If the Red Shirts truly care for democracy and equality, as they are claiming now, perhaps they should focus more on providing suggestions as how the current government could provide for a better standard of living in the rural provinces: increase quality and quantity of education available, increase health care, business activities in these provinces. These things are what they should be doing, instead of just blindly following their neighbor by screaming "The elites look down on us! They're the ones responsible for us not being rich!", perhaps they want to look at themselves, and how they're wasting time which they can be enriching themselves right now. My father was born in a small village in Ayutthaya, and our family's heritage was not one that was particularly rich. Yet he has managed to become a successful banker for a foreign company. I admit, we are lucky. However, if the government is truly out to suppress all poor people, as the Red Shirts claim, such cases of success would not exist. Perhaps what the Red Shirts are doing is focusing on lobbying for better quality of education and human development opportunities. I am not making a blanket claim that Red Shirts are bad people. The majority of them, in my opinion, are innocent, good, simple people who are unfortunately naive to the language of money and the power of persuasion. Jealousy is a powerful thing, and the invisible 'aristocrats' make a perfect target. I acknowledge that a lot of this has gotten off topic, but in sum, if the Red Shirt movement really wants to improve the plight of the poor, they should be focusing their energies on demanding things that matter, such as education, health care, investments, infrastructure, etc. Not just blindly shouting for the dissolution of parliament.
Tony
05/01/2010
Each time I read it, I get more angry. Can anyone really be this ignorant or stupid? "For that they will fight, manipulate and even kill thousands." Andre writes in regards to what he refers to as the "elite." Usually if you're going to accuse people of mass murder, one cited example is expected. The only one that killed "thousands" was Thaksin Shinawatra in his fraudulent war on drugs, which killed 2,000+ people, extra-judicially, (without arrest or trial - execution in the street). The UN even stepped in to warn Thaksin to which our "people's hero" replied "The UN is not my father." Also, the US was behind the 1932 coup that ended absolute monarchy, and the US/UK and other western investors have long sought to rid Thailand of its monarchy, being nationalist and opposed to globalization. Thaksin "halved" poverty? Got any numbers to back that up? Could it have been economic success that did that instead? What did Thaksin actually do that helped poor people? Have you been in a Thai hospital, saw what the 30 baht health care plan "gave" the people? It was a farce that almost collapsed the entire health care system. Thanks to Andre for defending what is basically a globalist agenda by elitist corporate fascist bankers at the expense of these ignorant protesters who have no idea what they are doing or why. Most of them are paid to protest. Last numbers coming from the protest zone were 8,000, out of a total population of 65 million. Andre needs to wake up that most Marxist revolutions were bank rolled by the same bankersters backing right wing fascism. I guess its too complicated for him, a man who can't be bothered to even read Wikipedia to establish an accurate time line for his own article.
G. Bara
05/02/2010
What so many of these pro-status quo commenters have conveniently neglected to mention is the crude hypocrisy of the Yellow faction. After Thaksin's government was undermined by protests and then removed by a military coup in 2006, fresh elections were held. This in itself was a "fascistic" contempt for democracy. Then after fresh elections again brought to power a pro-Thaksin coalition government, were the Yellows happy to let the government carry out its mandate? No. The coalition was attacked judicially, by concerted media attacks, and by Yellow protests that crippled the economy and seriously inconvenienced thousands of international travelers. Finally it was brought down. Were all these disruptive anti-democratic tactics condemned by the media? Did the military act to break up the debilitating protests that were inconveniencing so many ordinary Thais and foreigners? Were the protesters demonized as terrorists? Not much. Is it any wonder that the Reds feel aggrieved and humiliated. The system is crudely rigged against them. They are allowed to participate in the democracy, as long as they do not win. If they win, they can be legitimately ousted. Anyone who has spent much time in Thailand knows that the author's characterization of the country as feudal is true to a large extent. While I wouldn't dress up all this drama in Marxist theory it is certainly a class struggle. Injustice is fine up to a point, but the blatant hypocrisy of the Bangkok elites and their condescension to the poor rural masses whose cheap labour and low expectations has sustained them in their complacent luxury has been appalling to behold in these past several years. The disingenuousness of the Yellow sympathizers commenting here is staggering. Are their blinkered views the fruit of Bangkok's servile, controlled media?
Naomi
05/03/2010
I have been closely following what has been happening in Thailand. Andre's article and photos are extremely insightful and truthful. No mainstream media would dare say as much as Andre did and has done in his reporting from all around the world. Let us not buy into the yellow conspiracy anymore but support the real cause and salute all comrades who are fighting for social justice and equality in Bangkok and throughout the country, no matter where we are or do.
Tony Christini
05/03/2010
Great article. Andre Vltchek once again reports the facts and makes the analysis that matters most, cutting through the deceit.
Burin Kantabutra
05/04/2010
What a gross oversimplification this article is; I'm very surprised that a reputable journal would print it without verification. Many quality publications, such as the Asian Wall Street Journal and New York Times, make every effort to present both sides of the story direct from the source, not as interpreted by their correspondent. Thus, for example, if there's a dispute, the article will report what Mr. A said or did to Mr. B, and Mr. B's response, or that Mr. B did not respond to repeated calls, etc. I'm sorry that Japan Focus' editors did not see fit to do likewise. One of the most balanced, insightful articles on the current demonstrations that I've read is by Human Rights Watch; if they can do so, even though they're not mainly a media organization, why can't Japan Focus? To me, the article sees things in black and white, like the commandment in George Orwell's Animal Farm: "Four legs good, two legs bad". I suggest that the truth is more in shades of grey, w/ both the government and the reds being grey. The red shirts, like the pro-government yellow shirts before them, stridently say they're acting in the name of democracy, yet define democracy to include the right to force their own views upon the majority and to deny the rights they claim for themselves to others. Thus, the yellows closed Thailand's main airport to toss out the government of the day, irrespective of how the majority of the people, as expressed through Parliament, felt. Likewise, the reds seek to dissolve Parliament and force new elections, irrespective of how the majority of people, expressed through Parliament, feel. The reds claim freedom of speech, yet they marched successfully in northeast Thailand to prevent the leader of the "mixed colors" group, which wants the violent confrontation to stop, from giving a speech. The reds, like the yellows, claim the right to assemble and protest in whatever public space they wish -- and the right to prevent innocent passage of all others, and the right to protest so vehemently that others cannot live, work, or even receive medical treatment in the vicinity. Thus, last week, flouting the Geneva Convention, 200 reds stormed a major hospital, home of the Thai Red Cross, to search for soldiers (they found none, for there were none) -- and promised that they'd come back in a few days to search again. The reds have many legitimate grievances, which any government should quickly solve at their roots. For example, it is true that the rural poor do not have access to the same quality of education as in Bangkok, as shown by the Ministry of Education's own achievement exams. It is true that Thai society is permeated with corruption, and this must be cleansed from the system, much as, say, Singapore has done. I suggest that the reds (or the yellows/the government) should live their credos, and apply a single standard consistently to their efforts. For the seven years prior to Thaksin's conviction, either he himself, his self-proclaimed proxy, or his brother-in-law was prime minister; thus, it is highly unlikely that his conviction for corruption was politically motivated. To me, corruption, or stealing from the public purse, is stealing from the vast majority of Thais, who are poor. How ironic, then, that the reds' patron saint stands convicted of stealing hope from the poor -- and yet the reds love him for it. For Japan Focus, I would ask that they seek to present the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth -- and the current article doesn't begin to meet that standard. Signed, Burin Kantabutra Thai national, three decades in capital market research, mainly in Thailand. MBA Univ. of Chicago.
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Authors: For all articles by the author, click on author's name.   Andre Vltchek