I recently returned from ten days in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand. While there, I discovered that I knew very little about Thai politics, certainly not enough to know who the Red Shirts were or why they were demonstrating in Bangkok. Being present in a country when something out of the ordinary is happening tends to focus one’s attention on that country not only during the visit but also subsequent to it. For me, I seem to gain a vested interest in a place if I was there during an important event. For this reason, my knowledge of Thai politics began changing during my visit there. Now back home, I remain interested in following the news of the anti-government protests of the Red Shirts in Bangkok.
In January 2010, I started planning a month-long trip to India. At the same time I managed to convince a good friend living in Sydney to meet me in Bangkok after my travels in India. We agreed to meet in Bangkok the second week of March. Our plans consisted of staying for four nights in Bangkok before travelling down to a beach resort south of Pattaya for a further four nights. Our last two days would be spent in Bangkok before flying home. Not surprisingly, our plans didn’t always follow the line we expected them to due to the political unrest in Bangkok.
My friend was already aware from the Australian media that the Thai government expected protests and possible clashes with a group called the Red Shirts around the time we were meeting in Bangkok. Coming from London, I don’t remember reading or hearing anything about the politics in Thailand that would have alerted me to any future trouble. My friend wrote me a worried email about three weeks before we were to meet in Bangkok. She read of the mounting uneasiness of the Thai government and other Asian states regarding the proposed anti-government demonstrations. I, again, brushed off her concerns. It wasn’t until we were in Bangkok that I realised things were more serious than I thought and that she was right in being concerned!
I arrived in Bangkok from Delhi on Tuesday morning, 9 March 2010, with my friend arriving several hours later from Sydney. We were staying at the Davis Hotel in the eastern part of Bangkok for four nights. I heard nothing about any demonstrations at the international airport, from the taxi driver or from the hotel staff when I arrived. The two of us started our sightseeing of Bangkok on Wednesday and Thursday, travelling by river boat and skytrain to the various sights. It was only late Thursday that we started to get the news that the ‘Red Shirts’ hoped to have a million demonstrators for their weekend protests. Our hotel staff recommended that we stay around the hotel on Friday as they didn’t know what to expect. We took their advice and listened closely to the news to see if we would have trouble leaving the city the next morning for the seaside. There were already reports of people massing in Bangkok for the weekend demonstrations. At the same time, the reports indicated that the numbers arriving to protest were much smaller than expected.
The next day we left for Jomtien Beach just south of Pattaya Beach. Again we saw no indication of trouble. There were no obstacles or police-blocks on the road as we left the city nor as we drove on the motorway down to Pattaya. During the weekend, we began hearing more about demonstrations, the size of the crowds and the rhetoric of the leaders of the Red Shirts. It was reported that instead of a million demonstrators only about 100,000 Red Shirt demonstrators had turned up in Bangkok by Sunday. We learned that the low numbers were due, in part, to the government blockades of all access roads to Bangkok from the northern rural areas.
It may be that you are now wondering, “What are these coloured shirts in Thailand? Who are the Red Shirts? Are they different from the Yellow Shirts?” Let me explain:
As a generality, the Red-shirts are supported by the rural populace and the urban poor. The Red Shirts are also known as the ‘United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship’ (UDD). They supported the former prime minister of Thailand from 2001 to 2006, Thaksin Shinawatra, because they believed he cared what happened to them and listened to their problems. Despite PM Thaksin’s billions of dollars in wealth, he is considered a hero to the downtrodden Thais.
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Not surprisingly, the Red Shirts supported the next two prime ministers chosen by the same government: Samak Sundaravej and Somchai Wongsawat. There are also pro-democracy activists participating in the current demonstrations who disagree with the legal foundation of the 2006 military coup which ousted PM Thaksin.