Yingluck can't ignore power of 'red shirts'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 July, 2011, 12:00am


If you think the enemies of Thai election winner Yingluck Shinawatra appear difficult- coup-prone generals, litigious old-money elites and royalist 'yellow shirt' protesters- then just consider her 'friends'.

Yingluck's Puea Thai party owes its thumping victory, in part, to the so-called red-shirt movement linked to Yingluck's older brother, fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

But it was always a marriage of convenience- a strange courtship between an organised movement of rural poor and one of the richest families in Thailand, and one that has its roots in the aftermath of the coup that ended Thaksin's five-year rule in 2006.

The 'red shirts', big fans of Thaksin's policies favouring the rural poor, arrived in Bangkok from the provinces in their thousands to stage dozens of protests against the capital's royalist and establishment elite - a campaign that degenerated into bloodshed in May last year.

With the election over, Yingluck- a 44-year-old political novice - must not only pacify the establishment to keep the generals from her door but deal with allies who are prone to agitation and who, in the view of several Thai analysts, may not remain loyal to her party.

To get an idea of how difficult governing a divided country could be, you need only spend a little time with Tida Tawornseth, one of the leaders of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), as the 'red-shirt' movement is formally called. Tida is determined to make sure the leaders don't forget where Puea Thai got its votes from.

'We are planning a big party to celebrate this victory later this month,' she says. 'It will be a big party in Bangkok and big parties all over the country. We want to celebrate a victory for the people, not a victory for the Puea Thai party.

'Of course we want to give the new leaders a chance, but we will be observing. The people will be expecting a lot from this government and we will be prepared to criticise them. They will kill themselves if they ignore the will of the people... Thaksin can only live because of the people, not because of his money.'

When shown newspaper headlines suggesting that 'red shirt' MPs would not be welcome in Yingluck's first cabinet, Tida was unfazed. 'That will just make it easier for us to criticise,' she says.

Talking to Tida, it is clear that 'the people' is one of her favourite phrases. If it sounds a little revolutionary, that's because it is.

Tida and her husband, Dr Weng Tojirakarn, who won election as a Puea Thai MP, were communist activists in the 1970s. But that, she says, was a long time ago.

'We have analysed Thai society for a long time. We know the importance of doing everything according to the real situation. We need to use scientific thinking,' she says.

Those are not words you would expect to hear from slicker operatives in the Thaksin camp, yet the 'red shirts' and Puea Thai are in loose agreement on policies the new government should follow.

Thaksin, of course, courted the rural voters in Thailand's north and northeast- traditionally ignored by politicians in Bangkok. He gave them dirt-cheap health care, village loans and a bloody crackdown on the drug dealers who for years had targeted young workers in the countryside.

Once in power, the Democrats had no choice but to copy these policies. Yingluck has refined them further, promising to lift the minimum wage for workers and graduates, issue credit cards for farmers and provide a free tablet computer for every new schoolchild.

Already Thai economists are debating how difficult it might be to deliver on those pledges in an inflationary climate. The 'red shirts', of course, will be watching for any backtracking.

Of more immediate concern is the question of an amnesty for those involved in the violent culmination of last year's protests that left 91 people dead. Tida has been active in pushing for justice and the freeing of detained activists. The 'red shirts' occupied parts of central Bangkok for weeks and most of the victims died in the military crackdown that followed - although neither side has claimed responsibility for the deaths and the government has not released details of its investigations.

A detailed Human Rights Watch study says the large number of deaths and injuries resulted 'in part from excessive and unnecessary [use of] lethal force on the part of the security forces'. However, it also notes the presence of 'well-armed and organised' so-called black shirts linked to the UDD. It describes a fatal attack by the black shirts in April last year involving the use not just of M16 and AK-47 assault rifles but of M79 grenade launchers.

It is far from clear whether the 'red shirts' will get their wish as Yingluck prepares for power - and for the eventual return from exile of her brother.

The week since her landslide election victory has been calm in part because her camp and the military are still talking about how to protect key members of the armed forces and avoid any trouble over last year's violence, and because of a desire to smooth Yingluck's assumption of power. The establishment appears more ready for compromise than usual, fearful as they are about the prospects of the 'Arab spring' revolts spreading to Thailand.

Dr Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a respected political scientist at Thailand's Chulalongkorn University, said the Thaksin camp could find the 'red shirts' hard to manage if it was seen to be doing a deal with the establishment. 'It's a new Thailand now, and their voices have to be heard,' he said. 'Thaksin has always understood that, but at the same time, as things move forward, they must not be alienated in any deal to smooth the path ahead.'

Foreign diplomats are watching developments closely, too, aware that Puea Thai and the 'red shirts' could easily drift apart.

'As soon as their goals start to separate, it could get ugly... I'm not sure any single political figure could really control the 'red shirts', and that is maybe how the UDD likes it,' said one veteran Asian envoy. 'Could they become Frankenstein's monster for Thaksin? It is possible under a worst-case scenario. They are not simply the rabble they are sometimes portrayed as.'

The UDD runs its own educational and media arms encompassing television, radio, magazines and DVDs, as well as websites, tens of thousands of which have been shut down by government censors who fear their criticism of royalty. (Officially, the 'red shirts' insist they believe in the maintenance of a proper constitutional monarchy).

Its power to disseminate information- some of it, at least, undoubtedly propaganda- should not be underestimated. Ordinary Thais talk of the sense of empowerment they get from the 'red shirt' materials - information that has taught them about, and rekindled their interest in, their country's recent history.

'I knew there'd been a lot of coups and things and I knew some of the gossip about the monarchy,' said Bangkok machinist Somchai Wiryapong, 'but like of a lot my friends, I had forgotten about the past. For me, the 'red shirt' magazines have really reminded me and explained to me why we need to care. They've told me about all the coups and the way that some leaders have worked against the people'.

One of his friends, contract metal worker Somporn Srimaung, echoed that view. 'I feel that we have woken up... and I think about these things all the time now. Thailand is not what we thought it was. It is different now.'

For now at least, he's wearing a red Yingluck T-shirt, one of millions produced by the UDD.