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Outside the University Walls: Yukti Mukdawijitra on Wearing Red

In “Red Shirt Academic,” Yukti Mukdawijitra, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Sociology and Anthropology at Thammasat University, tells his own story of growing involved in struggling for accountability, freedom and human rights in the years since the 19 September 2006 coup.  Simultaneously, he tracks the discomfort this has caused among his colleagues and others in Thai society who would prefer that he and others were less active. They call him a “red shirt academic,” a title he comes to embrace. 

Yukti’s essay recalls poet and revolutionary Otto Rene Castillo’s poem, “Apolitical Intellectuals,” a critique of those intellectuals who did nothing when faced with injustice.

Castillo writes that the apolitical intellectuals will be asked: 
"What did you do when the poor
suffered, when tenderness
and life
burned out of them?"
His answer: 
“Apolitical intellectuals
of my sweet country,
you will not be able to answer.
A vulture of silence
will eat your gut.
Your own misery
will pick at your soul.
And you will be mute in your shame.” 
The poem can be read in the original Spanish here, in English translation here, and in Thai translation in Thanet Aphornsuvan’s book, สังคมและการเมืองไทย.
 
Otto Rene Castillo never had the chance to be apolitical during his short life. He was born in Guatemala in 1936, and went into exile at age 18, after the 1954 CIA-sponsored coup, which ousted the elected Arbenz government. During Castillo’s exile, he was first in El Salvador and then Germany, and returned to Guatamala in 1964. He was tortured and killed along with other dissidents in 1967. 
 
Yukti Mukdiwijitra’s essay and Otto Rene Castillo’s poem resonate with one another. The message is clear: political engagement by intellectuals inside and outside the university is a social and political necessity, not a luxury to be chosen when the mood strikes.
 
***
Red Shirt Academic
 
Yukti Mukdawijitra
 
“Red shirt academic.” This has become a category of academic position. The branding [of people] with this title reflects the indifferent, narrow-minded views held by Thai academics about the problems of human rights and justice.
 
Before the 2006 coup, I participated in the wave of criticism of Thaksin Shinawatra. This was particularly the case after military forces massacred citizens at Krue Se and Tak Bai in 2004. But I never commended the movement of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), especially when they used the institution of the monarchy for support and called for the use of Article 7.1  Then the coup occurred. I criticized the junta and various entities produced by the coup. I was one of those called "no to the two camps" [neither supporting the coup nor Thaksin--trans.] and “spineless.”
 
At that time, the red shirt movement, which had yet to adopt the red colour, had  started to  form. The People's Power Party [the party reconstituted from the Thai Rak Thai party after it was banned—trans.] wing of what became the red shirt leadership was not yet part of the movement. In 2007, the People's Power Party was elected to power. The PAD began to rise up again.
 
In 2008, when we saw a trend of using violence as part of political movement emerge, a group of academics, myself included, established the “Santi Prachatham Network.” We called for the Samak Sundaravej government, the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) and the PAD to be peaceful. But after Samak was deposed and Somchai Wongsawat became prime minister, the PAD  still continued until the dispersal of the protest, which was the background of “Nong Bow’s funeral.”2  Next, the PAD shut down the airport. 
 
At the end of 2008, the People’s Power Party was dissolved and there was a change of government. During 2009, the red shirt movement unquestionably matured. The UDD held a large protest in front of Government House during Songkran. The Abhisit Vejjajiva government used military force to disperse the protests.
 
I was not called a “red shirt academic” immediately when the movement came into its own. In fact, prior to the assassination of people in the streets on 10 April and mid-May 2010, I was called “centrist” by Thai Rat newspaper when I joined with academic friends to call on the Abhisit government to dissolve parliament in 2010. My activities after that, from 2010 until the present, were what caused me to more fully become a “red shirt academic.” Perhaps it came from my work with the People’s Information Center: April-May 2010 (PIC), my research about the emergence of the red shirts, and my work with the Campaign Committee to Amend Article 112 (CCAA 112). 
 
After the dispersal of protests at Ratchaprasong in May 2010, a group of academics and social activists came together and established the PIC. Activist colleagues were the primary force behind the center. They looked for information, conducted fieldwork, and met with those affected by the events. Academic colleagues and I were the backup, and aided in writing, identifying key points, and presenting the work to the public. We worked as volunteers and used time outside of work. No one profited from it, at all.
 
The PIC worked as a citizen’s organization that checked and supplemented the information that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Thailand (TRCT), which was set up by the Ahbisit government, was unable, or did not want to, access. Moreover, affected citizens did not trust the TRCT and therefore preferred to provide information to the PIC. The PIC ultimately presented a report of more than 1000 pages. During the past three years, those who comprised the PIC realized that, if the PIC had not worked on this, the stories of the victims of the dispersal of protests  would have disappeared without a trace.
 
Afterwards, I and some of the other Santi Prachatham academics wanted to present a new vision of understanding Thai society. This was because the available scholarly work, in terms of both information and theoretical framework, was incapable of providing an understanding of the rise of the red shirts. My view was that the explanation that the red shirts “were buffalos, radicals, only stupid, tricked, bought off by Thaksin” was incapable of accounting for the significant transformations in Thai society. So we began a research project, which has now been concluded.
 
Most recently, beginning at the end of 2011, the Khana Nitirat invited writer and academic colleagues from the PIC and Santi Prachatham to come together to establish the Campaign Committee for the Amendment of Article 112 (CCAA 112). I was one of those who spoke during press releases, appeared in the media, and explained the social and cultural rationale for why Article 112 [of the Criminal Code or lese majeste law] needed to be amended to the public. Throughout this period, those against the amendment of Article 112 referred to me as a “monarchy-toppling academic.” Some referred to me as “one of those Nitirat [people]” even though I am not a legal expert, by any stretch.
 
The CCAA 112 proceeded within the confines of the law. We gathered names and copies of the house registration documents of those who supported the amendment of Article 112 in line with the proposal of the Khana Nitirat. We called for the amendment because we thought that Article 112 violated the rights and liberties of the people, had come to be used politically and detrimentally affected the institution of the monarchy by causing it to be associated with the filth of politics. Ultimately, the CCAA 112 obtained the number of signatures and evidence, complete and verified, stipulated by the law.  This was submitted to Parliament. But in the end, the Speaker of the House dismissed it and claimed that amending this law was not within the scope of the rights and liberties of the people. 
 
Becoming a “red shirt academic” took me a reasonably long time.  I slowly came to appear more fully red, I slowly came to appear more vile in Thai society. People close to me came to be viewed as red, and to have objections raised against them. But this is not important. My troubles are not comparable to the troubles of those who are accused of being red and have to be imprisoned for nothing. I am not as tormented as those who have to wither and die for nothing. I am not as distressed as those whose freedom has been constricted.
 
No less atrocious  is that those who call themselves academics, those with education in Thai society, including many academic colleagues,  do not want to associate with me. They do not want to work with me. They do not want to see my face. They do not trust me. This is due to my activities described above. 
 
Some think that I have had a role in creating the conflict in Thai society. But don’t they think how  sitting idly would help things improve? Some say that, “These days, Thai society is complicated. The people do not understand how complicated it is, at all. So they then become victims.” Oh! You once said that villagers have wisdom, villagers are clever. What has caused you to now think that villagers are stupid? Some say that, “These days, villagers are no longer naïve like before.” Oh! Since they have become proficient, is it that you no longer trust them anymore?
 
Some say that, “Going to support  any actions now is no good, or you will  play into the hand of  vile capital” Oh! How exactly is sitting idly, watching people die, watching people be detained, watching people be maligned, a better way to resist  vile capital? Some say that, “When ‘that time’ comes, it will change on its own. Why do you have to rush a reaction now?” Oh! After all, you agree with me, but you are incognito, waiting to steal a big piece of cake when the opportunity arises?
 
Some say that, “You have to look beyond this conflict, with a view to the bigger problem.” You have to look  at the danger of risks  society is now facing at the global level. You have to look  at the dangers of neoliberalism. You have to look  at the dangers of  vile capital. Sorry,  what about the capital of the Crown Property Bureau, which was immune from the Asian Financial Crisis due to  “special” measures,  protected by Article 112 that blocks out rights and freedom. How is that not a danger to Thai society? How, precisely, is that not a risk? How, exactly, are the problems of violating human rights with Article 112 and the dispersal of the protests in 2009 and 2010 not about neoliberalism? How are they not grand enough in terms of being theories  to provide a better understanding of Thai society? Unless you are indifferent to the acute fraud in Thai society, or else you willfully avoid it cowardly, if  not foolishly (ignorantly). 
 
And what of the people who died on the streets in April-May 2010, the Article 112 prisoners and the many other political prisoners? How are they any lesser than the people whose rights you struggled for and protected on 7 October 2008, May 1992, October 1976, October 1973 or in the cases of Krue Se and Tak Bai in 2004? Or is it simply because red shirts and those not red but hit by stray bullets died with the stain and residue of Thaksin upon them? So you do not want to understand them,  do not want to help them, you do not see them as human the same as you.
 
As for me, if you are going to call me a “red shirt academic ” for what I have done for my fellow humans, for what I have done to expand the power of the man in the streets, for what I have done for social justice, then I will go ahead and put on a red shirt. I will wear it until humanity, equality, justice cease to be the necessary principles of living life in these times. 
 
Note:
1. Article 7 of the 1997 Constitution, which states that, ‘Whenever no provision under this Constitution is applicable to any case, it shall be decided in accordance with the constitutional practice in the democratic regime of government with the King as Head of the State.'  
 
In 2006, at the height of its anti-Thaksin campaign before the coup on 19 September, the PAD called on the King to use his royal prerogative, as perceived by the PAD, under this article to remove Thaksin and appoint a new Prime Minister.   
 
2. “Nong Bow,” or Angkhana Radappanyawut, was a yellow shirt protestor killed during a clash between police and PAD demonstrators on 7 October 2008. Queen Sirikit presided during her funeral on 13 October 2008.
 

 

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