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Reds are a force to reckon with

By the admission of the acting government spokesman, the anti-government red shirts under the banner of United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) are now prevalent in no fewer than 38 of Thailand's 76 provinces, predominantly in the populous Northeast and North.


But the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, its backers in the army and elsewhere, and the yellow-shirted People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) still do not acknowledge the claims and grievances of the red shirts.

On the one hand, they are portrayed by the current officialdom as mere financial lackeys of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. On the other, they are sometimes depicted as ignorant and gullible peasants, who cannot see beyond Thaksin's manipulative populism.

The catalyst for the latest round of Thailand 's brinkmanship between the reds and their opponents centres on the upcoming verdict on Thaksin's assets trial involving 76 billion baht.

Thaksin is mobilising all resources within his power to whip up red-shirted sentiment. The ringleaders of the reds have visited him time and again near and far, in Dubai and Cambodia, to receive instructions. His media offensive through Twitter and phone-ins are on full throttle.

His opponents, who hold the levers of power in Bangkok, are equally in full swing. Hardly a day goes by without official demonisation and intimidation of Thaksin and the red shirts. That the rhetoric and ominous posturing have been ratcheted up by both sides is not surprising. The reds see the verdict as the culmination of a long offensive of injustice since the Sept 19, 2006 coup. Thaksin merely symbolises their quest for social justice and their struggle for democratic rights. The opposing yellows and their allied army, government and swathes of intelligentsia see it as the final act of political decapitation short of physical demise for a usurper and a crook. But the many who believe the reds will simply sputter out and disappear when Thaksin's money supply runs dry, are gravely mistaken at the expense of all. The reds have become much more organic and spontaneous than Thaksin himself could ever have imagined when he was ousted from power.

Even a short visit to the reds' Northeast heartland, such as Ubon Ratchathani province, can provide glimpses of a full-blooded social movement with attendant small-scale fund-raising, symbols, assorted paraphernalia like caps and T-shirts, and pent-up anger and frustration. The reds of Ubon are split into seven groups, all with different approaches and methods but with the same arguments and objectives. Their verbiage entwines Thaksin, democracy and justice.

For some reds in that province, it is all about Thaksin, his populist policies, attention to the poor and downtrodden, and leadership that took Thailand competitively into the 21st century. For others, the top priority is not Thaksin but "democracy," which was subverted when post-election winning parties that should have governed were dissolved repeatedly while losing parties and turncoat factions were given the green light to rule by the men in green. For all the reds in Ubon, injustice and "double standards" are ubiquitous in officialdom. When all parties have bought votes, dissolving fewer than all for vote fraud reeks of unfairness. To them, Thaksin was corrupt just like those who came before him and who will come hereafter. They see his pro-poor policy legacy and Thailand 's modernisation for the 21st century as the difference.

Alarmingly, the reds in Ubon have set up UDD schools for education about justice. Some are militant and intransigent. But most still want a just and fair Thailand to be able to move forward in the world. As long as the reds are dismissed and denied, the fear-mongering of a "people's army" will find resonance and germination that are dangerous for Thailand's medium-term horizon. Similar stories can be recounted from Udon Thani, Si Sa Ket and a host of other rural provinces in the Northeast and North. They do not include the silent fence-sitters in the other 38 provinces who know that something does not add up about justice in Thailand but are not prepared to act.

The pro-Abhisit coalition has been effective at dissembling and marginalising opposing views. The PAD, in particular, are expert assassins of character, cowing and intimidating those who want to activate and broaden the middle ground for a way forward, into silence. If they cannot see the reds beyond Thaksin and his assets, Thailand will see much more pain and grief in store. What the government spokesman should be telling his bosses and backers is not how to suppress the reds in a three-pronged strategy from local authorities to the draconian Internal Security Act and military-run Emergency Decree, but how to listen to these reds and wean them off Thaksin.

The challenge for the government now, as it has been for Thailand's powers-that-be since coup days, is to eliminate Thaksin for his corruption and abuses of power while accommodating his red columns for their grievances, demands and expectations.


Thitinan Pongsudhirak is Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.