Remembrances of Red Trauma (24) – Rebuilding shattered dreams of democracy

The bloody crackdown on Red Shirt protesters under the scorching sun of summer 2010 is seared into the country’s collective memory. Shaping the political views of a generation, many have been struggling to come to terms with the state’s violent reprisal and the killings of at least 94 people.

For Thanat Thammakaew, the traumatic events became both a political awakening and a source of pain that has yet to dry up ten years later. Better known by his pen name Phu Kradat, the prolific writer from Sisaket has put much of this pain into his work that earned him two S.E.A. Write Award nominations.

“It was a lesson that our politics hadn’t gone anywhere,” Thanat says. “The powers that be were not asleep at their post. They weren’t about to let anyone push them out of power. They were ready, as always, to deal with us.”

Thanat Thamkaew or Phu Kradat, 45, is a contemporary Isaan writer and author of two collections of short stories, a volume of poems, and the novel Nerathet (“Exile”). Photo by Adithep Chanthep

A literary memorial

In March 2010 when the Red Shirts took their opposition to the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva and their calls for new elections into the streets of Bangkok, Thanat was working in the East of the country. Excited by the protests of a magnitude the country had not seen in decades, he went to observe the gatherings several times.

“I went to the protest sites in Bangkok often. My younger brother and some other relatives were among the protesters,” Thanat recalls.

When the military surrounded the protesters and the crackdown commenced in earnest on May 19, his brother was at the protest grounds of the Din Daeng intersection.

“My little brother almost died. On the day of the crackdown, I was in constant telephone contact with home. I told him to find a hotel to stay in, away from the danger, but none were open,” Thanat recounts. “So I told him to find a way out of there, or else he would be dead.”

Eventually, his brother escaped the area with the aid of a change of clothes and a 2,500 baht motorcycle-taxi fare.

The climax of the crackdown was an important turning point for his younger brother, who refused to ever return to Bangkok. As for Thanat, he took to his writing to vent his pains even if it sometimes felt like torture to him.

“There’s no way we will ever bring those people to justice,” the 45-year-old writer says. “Sometimes I wonder if I should just forget the whole thing. Talking about it brings me nothing but heartache.”

In an effort to build a literary memorial for those killed in 2010, Thanat and his friends established Chai Kha Rueang San, a short story magazine that has been publishing the works of Isaan writers for ten years.

Fighting for a better life

Thanat had high hopes for the Red Shirt movement which he took as a sign that Thailand was rapidly moving towards a democratic revolution. He brushes off the common criticism that the movement’s struggle was carried out on behalf of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his political network.

“You have to admit that after the 1997 constitution was enacted, Thaksin did very well at keeping the poor fed,” he says. “It was like a whole new world for rural people whose quality of life improved dramatically by getting access to state services.”

Thanat is convinced that the Red Shirts, most of whom hailed from rural areas in the North and Northeast of the country, were protesting for a better future. Thaksin had given them a glimpse of what it meant to have a responsive state system and a government that took their social and economic desires seriously.

But Thanat also has no illusions about the former prime minister’s democratic credentials and his human rights record.

“He did infringe on people’s human rights with his policy allowing extra-judicial killings in the war on the drugs,” Thanat says. “A lot of people were murdered on his watch, which was a huge problem.”

Nevertheless, the writer believes that the military coup against the Thaksin government in 2006 interrupted a process towards more social equality. For this reason, he felt excited when the Red Shirts and their anti-coup ideology appeared on the scene. He hoped that Thailand’s democracy would circle back, strengthened and more robust.

Thanat Thammakaew: “The ordinary villager had hope during Thaksin’s time. But the middle-class supported the coup, halting the progress of the opportunities to get ahead which had only just appeared for the poor.” Photo by Adithep Chanthep

A decade of pain

But Thanat’s hopes were crushed the day soldiers opened fire on the Red Shirts protesters in Bangkok, resulting in a bloodbath.

“We were too romantic,” Thanat says. “We forgot that we were living in Thailand where everything is paid for with our taxes, and where we might have become the owners of the country, but when we stake our claim, we have to contend with bullets.”

The tremors of the 2010 crackdown and defeat of the Red Shirts can still be felt today, Thanat notes–ranging from unaccounted killings, the prosecution of innocent people to the state’s unfulfilled promises of reconciliation.

“The consequences were huge. Even the smallest players were touched in some way, all the way up to the leaders,” Thanat says. “The villagers who joined the protests returned home with nothing but anger and vengeance to show for it.”

In the ten years since the crackdown, Thanat has spent much time reflecting on the failures of the Red Shirts and the lessons that ought to be drawn from their struggle.

“We have to think beyond taking to the streets or activism within the confines of the rules. And we can’t let there be loss of life,” he says. “We have to decide whether we’ll settle for ‘good enough’ or go the whole way.”

In the run-up to the 2019 election, he became interested in the intersection between community-level politics and structural issues. He got involved with a progressive party, whose name he declined to give, by providing insights and advice.

“I have to say, I’m not very hopeful,” Thanat admits. “Whatever we do, they just sweep us out of the way. But I also don’t think we can retreat. We can’t give up. The burden belongs to everyone who refuses to keep living with the injustice that happens in our politics and in our lives. What are we going to do about it?”

The interview was conducted by Adithep Chanthep.