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Red-shirt leader 'turned crisis into opportunity'

Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD) co-leader Weng Tojirakarn was recently released on bail after nine months in jail on charges of terrorism after the red-shirt uprising last year ended in a deadly crackdown on May 19. Here, Weng speaks to The Nation's Pravit Rojanaphruk about his time in prison, politics and internal divisions within the red-shirt movement.

How did your life change after May 19 and after nine months in prison?

I have been jailed before so I knew what to expect. Before May 19, I had two thoughts: if we won, we would have elections; if not, I would be jailed or killed. I turned crisis into opportunity while in jail.

I accepted my fate gladly, and considering our brothers and sisters were killed by snipers, it wasn't so bad. I did five things while in prison. First, I jogged 10 kilometres each day and practised table tennis. Second, I practised music, particularly guitar. This will be used in the future struggle. Third, I learned Chinese, which is useful. Fourth, I practised Buddhist meditation and mindfulness. And fifth, I talked with other jailed leaders about politics and the future course of the struggle, and read books.

It's been reported that you are going to run as an MP for the Pheu Thai Party in the upcoming election. Is this true, and if so why?

My emphasis is on the people's struggle. I'm not even sure if there's going to be an election. Prayuth [Chan-ocha, the army chief] seems upset about the findings that soldiers killed the demonstrators.

Some of the so-called progressive red shirts believe the granting of bail for you and six other red-shirt leaders were made in exchange of the arrest of Surachai Sae Dan, the vocal leader of Red Siam faction of red-shirt movement who is critical of the monarchy institution, and that your job is now like to dissolve the anti-royalist ideology among red shirts.

[Brief laughter]. I must reiterate that the overthrowing of the amataya [the old-bureaucratic elites] is our main mission. How could they conclude that Surachai arrest was made in exchange of us? The struggle for our release was made in steps. I understood that judges recognise that denying us bailing rights while giving it to yellow-shirt leaders raise more questions.

I don't know if people who think a deal has been made is intelligent or not or whether they are lacking in soul. Those who accused us of cracking a deal with the state are not likely to be red shirts. Even if they're reds their soul and spirit may not be red. Those who espouse such views are those with ill intention toward red shirts and wanted to destroy the red-shirt [movement].*
[Writer's Note: This particular question and answer was edited out by The Nation.

If you could go back in time to the days prior to the first violent clashes on April 10 last year, would you have done anything differently?

As far as I am personally concerned, I don't think I made any wrong decisions. I insisted upon non-violent struggle and recognised that victory would be achieved incrementally. But for the organisation, we were weak and some did not respect the rule of the majority.

Those who invaded Chulalongkorn Hospital did it without approval. They completely destroyed the honour and public support for red shirts. The arrow of popular approval dipped right afterwards. Even when snipers killed red shirts, people thought they deserved it.

Do you consider yourself a political prisoner?

In the eyes of the amataya we are bad people, but not in the eyes of the people. A long political struggle still lies ahead of us, however.

In Egypt and Tunisia, once the people became fed up, they rose up to overthrow the rulers. We're called terrorists while those in the deep South killing people on a daily basis are merely referred to by the government as people who cause "unrest". In fact, they're separatists.

Several red shirts have been arrested under lese majeste law in past months without any qualms being raised by red-shirt leaders. Last week, red-shirt leader and Pheu Thai MP Jatuporn Promphan attacked the Abhisit Vejjajiva government for not doing enough to protect the monarchy during a House debate. Is the red-shirt movement becoming a royalist movement?

First, I reiterate that we uphold the law and the rule of law. People have the right to hold views regarding lese majeste but we cannot cause trouble without considering the law. If there are people who are not satisfied with the law, they should petition MPs to have it debated. I have no problem if some people like or dislike lese majeste law.

Next, if the law is written as such, we must not violate it. We cannot simply act on whim if we disagree with it. Though we are in the right, the struggle should adhere to principles.

Many of the middle class continue to see red shirts as being essentially violent, anti-monarchist and responsible for the burning of Bangkok. Would you like to tell them anything?

It's becoming increasingly clear that soldiers committed the six killings at Wat Pathumwanaram. Regarding the fire at Central World, which Jatuporn will talk about next week during the censure debate, guards insisted soldiers held them at gunpoint and set the place on fire. The burning of city halls in the provinces and that of Central World was orchestrated by the military. As for the men in black, they appeared to be war veterans and the question is, who did these soldiers work for and why has the government failed to arrest any of them? The bullet wounds of [Reuters photographer] Hiroyuki Muramoto also don't match the claim that the gun used was an AK-47, as the wounds resemble those of an M-16.

The red-shirt movement is like a phoenix, if you know what I mean.