Six years after – No closure for Red Shirt families in the Northeast
Finishing up the dishes in the kitchen behind the house, a middle-aged woman dries her hands before walking back inside to pick up a golden picture frame. Cradled in her arms, the photo inside the frame shows the face of a man, his swollen eyelids completely shut, his forehead bearing the mark of a bullet— the final snapshot of the woman’s brother who was killed in the streets of Bangkok on the night of April 10, 2010.
Six years ago, a military crackdown on Red Shirt protesters in the capital killed 94 people and left about 2,000 injured. But these numbers don’t include the victims’ family members, relatives, lovers, neighbors, and friends, many of who have been struggling to cope with ensuing losses and personal tragedies.
In several interviews, relatives of northeastern Red Shirt protesters tell stories of grief, loss and defiance. While some have become politically apathetic in their quest for closure, others vow to continue the movement’s struggle for the sake of their lost family members.
“When I heard the news that my brother was joining the protest, I remember telling him: if you want to go, go! If you end up dead, we will get a lot of money,” says the woman who asked to be identified as Pornpan. “At 7 p.m. someone called telling me that he was shot and killed. I wish I could take back what I said; I was only joking.”
When Pornpan hung up the phone on that evening, and turned on her television, the news on every channel listed the name of her brother as one of the people killed.
At dusk of that day, military forces moved to disperse Red Shirt protesters who had been calling on the Abhisit Vejjajiva government to step down, dissolve parliament, and hold election. The military operation named “Demanding Back the Area” left about 20 people dead.
As the evening news was flickering over the TV, Pornpan’s mother fainted and slumped to the ground. Soon, dozens of neighbors stopped by Pornpan’s house to give support and help making arrangements for the return of the body.
“My brother wanted to come home for the Songkran Festival and bring his kids so I could take care of them, play, laugh and eat with them like every year,” Pornpan said. “He also wanted to pay off our debt with the BAAC [Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives]. But now he won’t return, because he has been shot and killed. This is our family’s worst nightmares come true.”
In early 2012, the newly elected Pheu Thai government implemented a compensation policy that paid up to 7.5 million baht (about US$209,000) for each family affected by the political violence of 2010. In the Northeast, at least 27 of a total of 94 families benefitted from the policy.
Drawing heavy public criticism, the compensation policy was called not only a waste of taxpayers’ money, but also a display of government cronyism. Poet and National Artist and Paiwarin Khao-Ngam from Roi Et province published the widely read poem “Seven Point Seven Million,” which includes the line “Fighting for profits, die and get rich,” suggesting that the policy was squandering tax money on mercenary protesters.
But for Pornpan, the compensation payment only brought more misery to her family. One extended family member took off with most of the money leaving little for her, her sister and her mother. They were able to pay off their debts, but when the mother was diagnosed with blood cancer, the frequent trips to the hospital in Ubon Ratchathani city put another financial burden on the family.
For Pornpan, the one-time payment to her family could not make up for her loss. “Nothing could ever replace my brother. Even if we received a huge amount of money, it wouldn’t be able compensate for this loss,” she said.
In late 2013, Pornpan decided to carry on her brother’s legacy. For the first time in her life she joined a political protest with the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) at the Rajamangala National Stadium in Bangkok.
The UDD gathered to oppose the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) that was calling for Prime Minister Yingluck to step down.
“I was very angry, livid,” she says with tears welling up in her eyes. “My brother is dead and nothing can bring him back. I wasn’t afraid to die so I took my kids and we went with others in the village [to the protest]. I went because I was angry about my brother I wanted to seek justice for him.”
Pornpan dusts off the glass of the picture frame that holds the photograph of her brother. She is afraid that the military might use the photograph as evidence to prove she is a Red-Shirt supporter. For this reason she has been hiding the photo since the coup d’ètat in 2014.
On May 19, 2010, fires were set on many provincial halls and other government buildings, allegedly in a public outburst of anger as the military was following an order from the Abhisit government to crackdown on the Red Shirt protest camp in the Ratchaprasong area in Central Bangkok.
In the Northeast flames went up in the provinces of Khon Kaen, Maha Sarakham, Mukdahan,Ubon Ratchathani, and Udon Thani.
Ms. Somrot’s brother was one the protesters arrested and prosecuted for arson in Khon Kaen. She does not believe he is guilty and has tried everything to get bail for him.
“I was frantically looking for land deeds. After finding out the title deed of my land was not ready, I asked other people if I could use their title deeds to help get my brother out on bail instead,” she says, “I did everything I could to get him out of jail. But in the end, the court did not let him out. I was crestfallen. I was afraid he would be behind bars for a long time. I was overcome with pity for him, and I also feared that they were going to execute him.”
The Supreme Court sentenced her brother to ten years behind bars after finding him guilty of vandalizing government property. Ms. Somrot believes he was falsely accused of burning down the provincial hall in Khon Kaen as the photographic evidence showed that he was merely a bystander.
More than 30 Red Shirt protesters have been prosecuted for vandalizing government property in five Isaan provinces. Most recently, in December 2015, Pichet Thabudda, known as DJ Toi, a leader of the Battle-Flag Group in Ubon Ratchathani, was sentenced to life in prison. In passing the life sentence, the Supreme Court overturned previous ruling by the Court of First Instance and the Court of Appeals, both of which had sentenced him to only one year in prison.
Ms. Somrot said her brother is a rather simple-minded guy who has always been easily influenced by others. She believes that he was just tagging along with his friends who wanted to see what was happening on the day that the provincial hall was burned down.
“I once asked him,” Ms. Somrot recalls, “What ideological reasons made you decide to join the protests? He said to me: No ideology at all! I just wanted to see what was going on at the protest. My friends wanted me to come along so I went with them to have a look. You see, my brother was quite gullible. He would go along with his friends to wherever they went.”
Since Ms. Somrot’s brother was arrested, her family has been struggling to make a living. As income from rice farming did not cover all the family’s expenses, Ms. Somrot had opened a village grocery store. Every morning she also sells pre-cooked meals. Without her brother’s help, Ms. Somrot had to borrow money from friends to hire employees to keep the store running.
For almost two years Ms. Somrot has been taking care of her family by herself while at the same time finding time to keep her brother’s spirit alive. Since the military government took power in 2014, new visiting rules were introduced at the prison limiting the number of visitors to ten people chosen by the inmate.
This newly imposed limit has put a halt to the outpouring support from Red Shirt supporters who had regularly visited Ms. Somrot’s brother. Now, only his family and relatives can see him in prison.
“I will try to visit him in jail two or three times a month. I will fetch for him whatever he wants. I want him to keep his spirits high, to know that siblings don’t abandon one another, and that we will always take care of each other. I am convinced that he is innocent,” Ms. Somrot says.
For most of her life, 50-year-old Samai has been making a decent living working in textile factories around the Northeast, but her career came to an abrupt ending on the morning of May 19, 2010.
Like many other in the Northeast, Ms. Samai’s quality of living improved during the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who came to power in 2001. When the military overthrew Mr. Thaksin in coup in 2006, she thought it was not fair. Two years later, this feeling of injustice drove Samai to join the Red Shirt movement’s protest.
“When I joined the protest against [Abhisit Vejjajiva’s] government, I had no doubt in my mind that we were going to win so that justice would prevail in this society, and all people would be equal,” says Ms. Samai recalling an event that was to become a personal tragedy for her. But what happened instead was a government massacre of the Red Shirts. It is a horrific memory.”
When the military moved against the Red Shirt protesters on that day, Ms. Samai inhaled tear gas as she rushed to help her friends get away from the soldiers and out of the danger zone.
“My first impression of the violence was soldiers, terrifying soldiers,” Ms. Samai says. “They looked like they wanted to shoot us. They rounded us up into a corner. It was very chaotic. When some people fell down, they were trampled. The soldiers used tear gas against the protesters. It was especially heartbreaking to see what happen to elderly people.”
On the same day, Ms. Samai took a bus back home but before reaching her destination, she showed symptoms of high fever, and had problems breathing. As her condition worsened, she began to slip into unconsciousness.
By the time she arrived at her home in Ubon Ratchathani, both her face and her abdomen were swollen, and she was gasping for breath. At a clinic, she was informed that her lungs were severely infected, likely a consequence of inhaling tear gas.
It took Ms. Samai almost two years to recover. During this time, it was impossible for her to continue providing for her family. She could no longer work in a factory, because her body had become debilitated, her respiratory system remained dysfunctional, rendering her unusually fatigable.
For two years, Samai’s inability to work put a serious financial strain on her family, as they had to depend on the income of her sister. Now, Ms. Samai has been able to open a small shop at her house by taking out a loan form the community cooperative.
Waiting for the right time
Six years after the crackdown on the Red Shirt protesters in Bangkok between April and May 2010, the military government under the National Council on Peace and Order (NCPO) has been running the country. Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha has kept lid on dissent while prohibiting any form of political expression.
Ms. Somrot, whose brother is in prison for arson of the city hall in Khon Kaen, is afraid that any move against the government might spark another round of violent suppression. She told all her younger relatives to never engage in any political protest, having learned the lesson that even being a bystander might land you in prison. Her only hope for her brother, she says, is that he will be granted a royal pardon.
For Pornpan the opposite is true. After the death of her brother, she chose to follow his footsteps as a political activist. “I joined them, both to fight for my late brother and to fight for justice,” she says. “I want to have an election.”
Ms. Samai did not participate in any political activity during her recovery from the tear gas-induced injuries. But her faith in the Red Shirt movement remains strong. She says she is merely waiting for the right time to join the struggle for justice and equality again.
“Generations of people have demanded democracy, equality, and justice in society,” she declares.”I want to be part of it, as this makes me happy. How many people have died in this struggle? If we are scared to fight, what were all these lives sacrificed for?”
This article was first published in Thai on June 2, 2016. Translated and edited by The Isaan Record.