By Patawee Chot-anan
“The situation we’re facing now is a reflection of the political big picture in society. It reminds me of a speech of a leading activist from the strongest and the most chastised civil movement in this country. They were imprisoned. I’d like to give my applause to the redshirt brothers and sisters who’ve fought bravely for democracy.”
—Representative of the Spring Move group, Aug. 8, 2020
“We now have students on the frontline. We, the red shirts, will fully endorse and reinforce their movement.”
—20 leaders of Isaan red shirts, Oct. 4, 2020
From the moment when a Chulalongkorn student thanked and praised them, and read the 2008, “Voices from the ground to the sky” speech of their leader, Nattawut Saikua, the red shirts—a movement that had remarkably shaken Thailand’s political landscape and democratization process—came back to life in this latest struggle with student activists.
The red shirts were considered a powerful force in opposition to dictatorship and in support of democracy in Thailand. In political and social sciences studies, their role has been an extremely popular subject. Several studies have helped show who these people are and how they mobilized against authoritarianism and pushed for Thailand’s democratization.
A study carried out by the social science researcher Andrew Walker examines changes within farmer communities in Chiang Mai. It shows a drastic shift in rural farmers’ political participation following the emergence of Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai Party in 2001. These communities also greatly impacted Thai political climate after the 2006 coup.
Other noteworthy studies about the red shirts include Charles Keyes’ look at political development of the Isaan people through their participation in politics. Pinkaew Laungaramsri researched a stronghold of the northern red shirts in Chiang Mai’s Muang, Doi Saket, and Fang districts. Wiphawadi Phanyangnoi studied the origin of the red shirts in Na Yai village in Udon Thani province.
The results of these studies come to a common finding: the appearance of red shirts in the North and the Northeast were partly a result of Thai Rak Thai’s policies. More importantly, the red shirts were seen as those fighting to protect democracy because they’d realized that it was a system that recognized them as human beings and gave meaning to their voices.
After the 2006 coup, the People’s Power Party—built from remnants of Thaksin’s disbanded Thai Rak Thai—met that very same fate of court-ordered dissolution in 2008. During this political turmoil, the People’s Power government coalition partner Bhumjaithai Party joined forces with the then-opposition party, the Democrat Party.
Consequently, the Democrat Party led by Abhisit Vejjajiva became a ruling party. It was the key event that drove the red shirts, especially from the North and the Northeast, to join rallies in Bangkok, demanding Abhisit to resign and a new election to be held.
But the protesters were met with a deadly crackdown by the authorities at the Ratchaprasong Intersection on May 19 and 20, 2010. Several redshirt protesters were killed. A nurse tending those injured was shot dead. Some fled prosecution. Some leaders and protesters were arrested and jailed.
The red shirts were also blamed as perpetrators in the burning down of parts of Bangkok, although those accused were later cleared by a court.
Shortly after, the Pheu Thai government led by Yingluck Shinawatra—another reincarnation of the Thai Rak Thai and the People’s Power—was toppled with a coup staged by then-army commander Gen. Prayut Chan-ocha.
The status and reputation of red shirts, who were main supporters of the party, became even worse. Some who led anti-coup demonstrations had to flee the country to escape state persecution. Some were summoned to “attitude adjustment” sessions. Some went into hiding, concealing their identity as a red shirt.
Some were subject to police raids or visits at their home. Redshirt-related materials were seized, whether it was foot-clapping toys, Thaksin-Yingluck calendars, red bowls with Thaksin’s autograph, red shirts, or posters with anti-dictatorship photos or messages. Officers staked out their home. Signs of redshirt villages were taken down. Leaders were slapped with lawsuits, compelling them to change sides prior to the election. The redshirt radio stations switched to more neutral news but were still monitored and intimidated. These are just a few examples of how the red shirts were treated in the aftermath of the 2014 coup.
Although they’ve been harrassed, hunted after, imprisoned, forced into hiding, or their political activities were curtailed after the coup due to a ban on political assembly, the red shirts returned to the Thai political scene after the junta called for an election on March 24, 2019.
They gave their support to the Thai Raksa Chart Party which featured many former redshirt leaders as members. Some still stood with the Pheu Thai Party. As the election system was designed in favor of smaller parties, a faction of redshirt leaders in Pheu Thai strategically split up and founded Thai Raksa Chart, nominating their candidates in electorates where Pheu Thai did not run candidates. Some red shirts rooted for Thanathorn Juangroongruangkij who led the Future Forward Party because of his charismatic personality and strong anti-dictatorship stance.
The parties supported by the red shirts once again faced political suppression and were dissolved by the Constitutional Court.
The dissolution of Thai Raksa Chart turned some redshirt voters to supporting Future Forward candidates running in the same electorates. The newly formed party then rose up, partly due to redshirt votes meant for Thai Raksa Chart. The Future Forward was also later disbanded by the Constitutional Court. This time, however, it prompted a fierce reaction that now threatens to lead to a major change in Thai politics.
Future Forward voters, especially university students who were first-time voters, were outraged by the court ruling. That dissatisfaction was fueled further by the administration’s poor policy-making, the recession, and the COVID-19 pandemic that kneecapped the kingdom’s economy.
Rallies in universities and schools nationwide then began. Several groups of students were on the frontline of the new wave of demonstrations, such as the Free Youth, Bad Students, including unions from Thammasat, Chulalongkorn, and Kasetsart universities, and LGBT groups.
Finally, these groups united under the name “The People’s Party” founded on Oct. 8 of last year. It has transformed into a leaderless movement. Pro-democracy protesters with or without affiliations joined the People’s Party movement as they shared these same goals—to oust the Prayut government and rewrite the constitution. The demand of monarchy reform however remains controversial and is still being debated among the protesters on how to proceed.
The question now is where do the red shirts—once a major force rallying against dictatorship—belong in this movement demanding a removal of Prayut’s government. This is what I found from my observations and surveys of redshirt people in Isaan, including those who have joined protests in Bangkok.
In the beginning of the student demonstrations, the red shirts were reluctant to participate as they were unsure about the direction of this movement. It wasn’t until students in Bangkok and other provinces thanked and lauded the red shirts that they realized that they had not been forgotten as part of Thailand’s history of political struggle. They learned that these students were not looking down upon them for coming from rural areas or accusing them of being manipulated. Therefore, they became confident enough to join forces with the students. Members of the Isaan red shirts even took the stage to announce their alliance at student rallies such as in Maha Sarakham and Ubon Ratchathani.
Some red shirts adjusted their previous roles in political movements, from being a leader in their anti-coup demonstrations in 2006 to a supporter of the student movement. They have donated money, given the students moral support during rallies, helped deliver speeches, or performed on the stage, providing a source of entertainment through some iconic songs from the time of their movement.
Some of them took part in student rallies as followers rather than as protest organizers. Several believe that they should let the students be the leaders in order to retain the authenticity of the movement, as they’re worried that too much redshirt involvement would lead to accusations from the opposite side that the students are being manipulated by them.
Redshirt vendors have been setting up stalls at anti-Prayut protests more than in the beginning, especially in Bangkok and major Isaan cities. The increasing presence of redshirt items in these rallies, such as foot-clapping toys, redshirt flags, or Truth Today shirts, shows that the symbols of redshirt people are still wanted and embraced by anti-dictatorship movements. Noticeably more protesters nowadays are holding a foot- clapping toy or wearing a red shirt.
Those who used to show their symbolic support, like wearing stickers with pro-redshirt messages, also began to put these symbols back up on display to proudly announce themselves as red shirts, after having had to hide their political identity following the 2014 coup.
This is the journey of redshirt people who had previously fought against dictatorship. Many have lost their loved ones from violent crackdowns. Many were, or still are, jailed. Many fled overseas to escape injustice. Many went into hiding from the authoritarian witch hunt. Today, the red shirts have come back into the battlefield, and they are ready to stand with student and other pro-democracy protesters in their fight against tyranny. They will continue to fight until the country achieves true democracy, just like the message in the song, “The Dust Warriors,” dedicated to red shirts.
To salute all the red shirts, the democracy lovers who have fought and are still fighting today, I’d like to end this article with this memorable speech of Nattawut Saikua:
“We were born on the ground. We were raised on the ground. We walk on the ground. When we stand on the ground, we are so far apart from the sky. When we stand on the ground, we lift our heads, gazing up, and realize the sky is so far away. When we are on the ground, we lower our heads, gazing down, and realize we are worth as much as a speck of dust… But I’m confident that the power of the people will continue to increase day by day, to expand minute by minute. Although we are standing on the ground, speaking from the ground, our voices will definitely be raised until they reach the sky!”
Read Thai version here
1. Andrew Walker. (2012). Thailand’s Political Presents: Power in the modern Rural Economy. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
2. Charles F. Keyes. (2014). Finding Their Voices: Northeastern Villagers and the Thai State. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.
3. ปิ่นแก้ว เหลืองอร่ามศรี Becoming Red: กำเนิดและพัฒนาการเสื้อแดงในเชียงใหม่ [บรรณาธิการ]. (2556). เชียงใหม่: ศูนย์วิจัยและบริการวิชาการ คณะสังคมศาสตร์ มหาวิทยาลัยเชียงใหม่
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5. Thanet Charoenmuang. (2016). THE RED SHIRTS AND THEIR DEMOCRATIC STRUGGLE IN NORTHERN THAILAND, APRIL 2010 TO MAY 2015. Singapore: ISEAS Publishing.
6. Saowanee T. Alexander. (2019). Cooptation doesn’t work: How redshirts voted in Isan. Retrieved 21 October 2020 from https://www.newmandala.org/cooptation-doesnt-work-how-redshirts-voted-in-isan/