1,849 words / 9-min read
Guest contribution by Donlawat Sunsuk
“If the army doesn’t stop shooting our brothers and sisters, we will gather at the provincial hall!” the host of a Red Shirt radio station in Udon Thani told listeners in the late morning of May 19, 2010.
Kittiphong Chaikang, aged 18 at the time, followed the call and drove his motorcycle to join the crowd outside of the Udon Thani provincial hall. In his pocket was a slingshot he had taken from his home.
“I couldn’t take it anymore. I wanted them to stop killing our Red Shirt brothers and sisters in Bangkok. So I went by myself,” Kittiphong remembers. “My life completely changed from that day onwards. I became a prisoner for the arson of the provincial hall.”
From Red Shirt to arsonist
Kittiphong grew up in a family of supporters of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was swept into office in 2001 on a platform of measures like cheap healthcare, debt relief, and easy access to loans. In 2006, after more than five years in power, he was ousted in a military coup, accused of corruption and abuse of power.
“Both my parents really admired Prime Minister Thaksin. But then they got rid of him with a coup. It was unfair,” Kittipong says. “When the Red Shirts came along, I went with my parents to all the protests in Bangkok.”
His father became the village chief for the first community to declare itself a “Red Shirt village” in December 2010.
Kittiphong, who is now 27, says he became a Red Shirt by listening to the speeches of the movement leaders on stage and by talking to other protesters. They all wanted Thaksin to return and they all wanted a genuine democracy with a prime minister chosen in free and fair elections. They did not want any more coups or governments formed in military camps.
In 2010, Kittiphong closely followed the events of the Red Shirt protests, and the military’s crackdown on May 19. On that day, when the government shut down PTV, a Red Shirt TV channel, community radio stations became the main source of information for supporters of the movement.
“I was listening to the radio by myself at home. My parents were at work. I heard about the crackdown at Ratchaprasong, how the body count kept going up and up, and the crackdown just kept going,” Kittiphong recalls. “That was when I decided to go to the provincial hall.”
When he arrived at the provincial hall in downtown Udon Thani, it was a scene of chaos with smoke everywhere.
“All I could then feel was anger, anger that they were killing Red Shirts. I got my hands on a molotov cocktail and threw it,” Kittiphong says. “When the building was ablaze, I went home.”
Shortly after the arson attack on the provincial hall, the army moved in to disperse the angry crowd. According to the People’s Information Center (PIC), two Red Shirts were shot and died in the clashes: Phoen Wongma, 40, and Aphichat Rachiwa, 36.
Once back at home, Kittiphong switched on the radio and listened to the news about the burning of the provincial hall. He went into hiding for a month before turning himself in to the police. They charged the 18-year-old with arson, citing photos of him holding a molotov cocktail and firing his slingshot as evidence.
Kittiphong was convicted of two counts of arson, one for the Udon Thani provincial hall fire and another for the burning of the Udon Thani municipality offices. Adding to his sentence was that he was violating the state of emergency that was in force at the time.
With Kittiphong, 22 others were prosecuted for the torching of the provincial hall. Of those, 13 were acquitted, Four were given lengthy prison sentences: one received 22 years and six months, two received 20 years and six months each. Kittiphong first got 22 years and six months as well, but the court noted that he was still a minor and halved his sentence to eleven years and three months.
Toll on the family
Kittiphong had at first confessed to the crime but on the recommendation of his lawyer who told him he could be sentenced to death, he decided to fight the case.
“I was full of fear and blame for myself, [saying, ‘You messed up. You really messed up.’ That’s all I could say to myself,” he says in describing how he felt at the time.
He was in and out of court for about three years during which he was released on bail twice. Once the Udon Thani provincial court delivered its ruling, Kittiphong decided not to take it to the Supreme Court as his family did not have enough money to pay the growing legal costs.
“We had to use so much money during that time. Some of the others, who had money, fought until they were acquitted,” Kittiphong says. “While I was inside, my mother had to put 1,000 baht in my prison account every week to buy food because the prison food [allotted] wasn’t enough.”
At first, the family received support from the Red Shirt leadership in Bangkok but once the payments stopped, the situation became even more difficult for the family, Khamsaen Chaithep, the mother of Kittiphong recalls.
“In the beginning we got a lot of help. People would call and ask how things were going. Then it all dried up. I felt hurt,” Khamsaen says. “But I wasn’t angry at anyone, it was just hard, so hard. I was suffering so much inside because I had to deal with this instead of sending him to school so that he could learn things.”
Six years to freedom
At first, Kittiphong served his sentence at the Udon Thani provincial prison. When a special prison for political prisoners opened in Bangkok’s Laksi district during the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, he was moved there. Two years later in 2014, when the military ousted Yingluck in a coup, he was sent back to Udon Thani.
“Laksi prison was a little bit better. There were only other Red Shirt inmates in there, and it wasn’t as crowded,” he says.
Kittiphong, who continued to follow political news from prison, received several visits from Red Shirt supporters in the beginning but they stopped after a while.
“In the end, it was just my family who came to see me. I asked myself why they left me all alone like that, even when I had fought for them. I asked myself what I had been fighting for, why did I do it?” Kittphong says with visible disappointment.
Eventually, the day he had been waiting for came. He received a royal pardon in 2016. When he stepped out of prison, he vowed to never look back. It had been six years without freedom.
Instead of learning a vocation as most people at his age do, Kittiphong learned the ins and outs of police stations, court rooms, and prisons.
“I feel like it was such a waste. My future was gone. It was a time that I should have been making money and learning things,” Kittiphong says with resignation in his voice.
A lonely freedom
Kittiphong has been out of prison for three years now. He’s gotten married and has two children. He lives at his wife’s house, surrounded by the crops and fruit trees they grow, about 500 meters from the other houses in the village.
“When I got out, everything was quiet. Nobody from the Red Shirts got in touch,” he says. “I felt so alone, and I wondered why I had ever fought for them.”
Like many who are released from prison, Kittiphong struggled to find his footing again.
“I didn’t know how to begin. My school years were over, so I had to get to work. I did manual laboring for 300 baht a day because I was too scared to apply for jobs anywhere else. I was afraid that they would view me with suspicion as an ex-convict. I couldn’t even travel outside of Thailand; the immigration police said I had to get a letter of permission first to do that.”
Are the Red Shirts dead?
During the heydays of the Red Shirts, Udon Thani was one of the epicenters of the movement in the Northeast with supporters mobilizing in every corner of the province. Ten year after the crackdown, even the commemoration events have stopped.
Kwanchai Praipana, former leader of the movement’s largest group, the “Udon Lovers,” and outspoken radio DJ host, has become silent. Ever since his wife Aphorn Sarakham won a seat as an MP for the Pheu Thai Party in last year’s election, Khwanchai has shied away from the media. Only his right hand man, Jakkraphong Saenkham, or DJ Kong, agreed to a telephone interview.
“There won’t be any events this year,” he said. “The Red Shirt movement is gone. They dissolved the ‘colored shirts’.”
But Kittiphong’s mother, Khamsaen, a former local leader of the Red Shirts, begs to differ. Now a member of the Udon Thani provincial council, she says that if you go around and ask people whether they are Red Shirts, they are likely to deny it because of fear of the military-backed government. But she insists that nothing has changed about their ideology, especially among the leaders. It is just more prudent to remain quiet.
“If the soldiers ask me whether I’m a Red Shirt, I’d say yes. My ideology has not changed,” Khamsaen says. “The people of Udon Thani haven’t changed. Just look at the results of the previous election–the Pheu Thai Party won almost every constituency.”
Longing for true democracy
Although his first attempt of political action sent him to prison as a teeanger, souring the taste of politics for him forever, Kittiphong is not without some political hopes.
“I may not be a Red Shirt anymore but I still want to see real democracy. I accept the previous election, even if it was crooked. I just want them to listen to the people more than they have done,” Kittiphong says. “Why do I want democracy? Because everyone has a right to have their say. Even though I’m not involved in politics anymore, my heart is still in it. I still want to see full democracy.”
Despite all the pain his illegal act of political protest brought, and the six years of prison he paid for it, Kittiphon still feels like there is a voice in him that demands to be heard. The voice wants to say that he has a rightful say in this nation, and that he still believes in democracy, like the sign hanging at the front of his house that reads:
“The voice of the people is the voice of heaven.”