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Many predict return of Red Shirt movement

Leader promises: ‘It will spread’ further

BANGKOK – The guns are silent, the barricades demolished, the wounded hospitalized. The defeated Red Shirt protest leaders are in detention, their followers dispersed back to their homes in rural Thailand.

The Red Shirts’ once-peaceful street protests ended in violence and a military crackdown last week, but many believe their movement demanding a change of government is far from finished.

“I think this is a new beginning for the Red Shirts. It will be a darker and grimmer time of struggle and less focused activities. By no stretch of the imagination is the movement finished,” said Kevin Hewison, a Thailand scholar from the University of North Carolina.

“This is not the end,” vowed Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, a Red Shirt leader. “It will spread further and the situation will deteriorate.”

How bad can it get? The government itself has claimed that Red Shirt militants are well-funded and supplied with smuggled arms and explosives.

“Right now, they are just burning buildings, but later on, what if they picked up arms to fight the bureaucrats, security forces in other parts of Bangkok, and especially in the countryside?” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “The crackdown didn’t make them retreat fully. Things will get much worse still.”

The Red Shirts wanted Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to dissolve Parliament immediately and call new elections. They allege he came to power illegitimately because Abhisit’s Democrat Party was not the top vote-getter in the last election in 2007, but military pressure on lawmakers of other parties allowed him to form a coalition government in December 2008.

However, the fuses on the firebombs tossed last week at 30 targets, including banks, the stock exchange and the country’s biggest luxury mall, were lit in September 2006, when a military coup ousted elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin – resented by many for his autocratic ways and alleged corruption – had led his party to two overwhelming election victories. He was the first elected prime minister to serve out a full term, and was popular with the country’s rural and urban underclass for initiating social and economic welfare programs.

The established power structure – the palace, the military, the bureaucracy and their big business allies – saw his adept leveraging of his electoral majority as a threat to Thailand’s constitutional monarchy, and critics believe, their privileged positions in it.

“I think that Thaksin remains a factor in the movement, but that the movement is much larger than Thaksin,” said Michael Montesano, a visiting research fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

“What unifies the Red Shirts above all is the fact that a military coup in 2006 and a pair of judicial coups in 2008 negated the results of elections. These events are seen as confirmation that some Thais’ votes count and others do not,” he said. The obvious quick fix is an early election, but that offers precarious prospects for peace.

“In principle, there’s no reason why the government would not agree to an early election as long as we felt that it would benefit the country, and my personal view is that it would benefit the country,” Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij, who is close to Abhisit, said Friday.

“However, we need to make sure that emotions have cooled to the extent that candidates from all parties can feel safe in campaigning anywhere in the country. Frankly, we would not feel safe doing that today.”