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View from the red shore

Two photo books document the movement that swept away the coup-makers

Red vs Yellow

Volume 2: Thailand's Political Awakening

By Nick Nostitz

Published by White Lotus, 2011

Available at Asia Books, Bt1,295

19-19: Pictures of the Life and Struggle of Red Shirts from September 19, 2006, to May 19, 2010

By various photographers

Published by Fah Diew Kan, 2011

Available at leading bookstores, Bt450 hardback

Understanding of the red shirts and Thailand's political conflict can be gained from various vantage points. These two picture books come from a vantage that's sympathetic to the reds.

Both volumes are full of excellent photography, particularly the one by Nostitz, a veteran German photojournalist based in Bangkok.

The Thai-language "19-19" amalgamates the images of 20 photographers, many of whom are amateurs. It has the added appeal of being a fund-raiser for an NGO committee that's seeking the truth about the 2010 bloodshed and wants to heal the social wounds.

Both books offer thought-provoking text and captions to match the stirring images.

In his introduction to "19-19", Mahidol University politics and rights lecturer Sirote Klampaiboon makes several compelling observations.

"The political polarisation was so severe that one side killed the other without feeling morally wrong," he writes, making it amply clear that he's on the red shirts' side.

He admits, however, that it will take time to reach agreement about what happened between the September 2006 coup against Thaksin Shinawatra and the April-May 2010 military action against the reds, which resulted in 92 deaths.

Sirote points out that mainstream intellectuals did not initiate the "anti-coup movement".

There's an aerial photo of the first anti-coup protest at Siam Centre on September 22, 2006, but Sirote suggests "a picture as a language has no finite, deep meaning in itself".

Certainly photographs can be manipulated individually or in a series to convey a message, but people are capable of interpreting them in alternative ways.

Pictures in these two books that appear to depict a heroic struggle for democracy by the mostly poor red shirts can also elicit disgust, fear or contempt among those who oppose them.

Sirote goes out of his way to "name and shame" supporters of the People's Alliance for Democracy, the yellow shirts who many believe fostered the coup. They include the mainstream mass media, "fake" labour leaders, rights activists "who chose sides", NGO father figure Prawase Wasi and the Army.

Sirote is also critical enough of the red shirts to say they seemed preoccupied with the struggle against enemies rather than planning a more just economic and social order.

Nostitz's book is the second volume in what appears to be a long, continuing series on the political conflict. This one focuses on the formation of the red shirts in 2008 and 2009. He laments in the introduction that "the much-proclaimed 'unity' in Thai society is ever-more elusive".

The same could be said today - even after the Pheu Thai party's election victory.

One of the few foreign photojournalists keeping close track of Thai politics in recent years, Nostitz crucially points out the challenge in understanding what goes on behind the doors where the elite gather. Most of the time, he says, "we have little other than rumour and speculation on which to base our views on elite conflicts and alliances".

He also comments that there is little opportunity for open discussion about issues like royal succession, "but in private much is discussed that was unthinkable only a few years ago".

Nostitz's pictures get close to the hearts of the red shirts, as if taken by a participant, even though there are not a lot of images of rural Thailand, the home of most reds.

Whereas Sirote fails to explicitly explain why ultra-royalists hate and fear the reds, Nostitz has this to say: "Many ultra-royalists strongly believe that the King is a semi-divine figure on the last stage towards enlightenment. To these people the red-shirt position on the future of the institution, even though it is not illegal, is an unbearable insult."

Such keen observation aside, readers of any political persuasion will surely enjoy the little-seen photos in both books. This was definitely history



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