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Thailand’s ‘Red Shirt’ uprising echos bloody class wars of past PDF Print E-mail

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MARK MacKINNON

BANGKOK From Monday's Globe and Mail

Upon arriving in Bangkok, with the city gripped by massive anti-government demonstrations, my first thought was that I’d seen this before.

Not only because I was in Thailand last year when the Red Shirts last took to the streets calling for the ouster of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, but because it reminded me of other places I’d been where people had taken to the streets demanding – and often getting – a change in the way they are ruled.

The sprawling encampment of bedrolls, tents, and makeshift food stalls – and the upbeat but determined mood on the streets – reminds me of the days before the old order fell in Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004 and Lebanon a year after that. The stage set up on the main intersection of Ratchadamri and Ploenchit streets, and the speeches and the pop music that carry on long into the night, made me think in particular of the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, though sweltering Bangkok (the temperature has been close to 40C most afternoons) does little else to recall the snowy streets of Kiev.

Like in Ukraine, the Red Shirted Thai protesters, who are predominantly the rural poor, have shown their resolve by camping on the streets longer than anyone, particularly the government, thought they would. Like in Lebanon, where a series of bombs targeted leaders of the so-called Cedar Revolution that eventually ousted the pro-Syrian regime there, the Red Shirts have shown they won’t be dissuaded by violence.

If anything, the Red Shirts’ defiant reaction to the street battle with the Thai army on April 10 that left 23 people dead and hundreds more injured has some accusing them of courting more bloodshed in order to tilt public sympathies and advance their cause.

If that is indeed the case, it’s a tactic the Red Shirts might be considering because they are worried that simply extending their five-week sit-in won’t bring the change they seek.

Mr. Vejjajiva has repeatedly made clear that he won’t step down, and while army chief General Anupong Paochinda has said he’s reluctant to launch another crackdown, which would surely be even bloodier than the last, the army’s hand may soon be forced by the damage the Red Shirt protests are doing to Thailand’s economy, especially the crucial tourist industry.

Unlike the “colour revolutions” in Ukraine, Georgia and Lebanon that the Red Shirts are openly trying to copy, the masses on the streets aren’t winning over the other half of Thai society with their resilience. In fact, with each passing day anger is growing in non-Red Thailand – which broadly includes the urban middle and upper classes – over the inconvenience and economic damage caused by the non-stop protests. There are new calls every day, in increasingly hostile language, for the military to do something to restore order, whether it’s a coup or another crackdown.

The problem facing Thailand’s Red Shirts – beyond whether or not their cause is just – is the same one that brought tens of thousands of them into the streets since March 12: They are boxed out from the levers of power.

There is no national television station that will trumpet their cause, as Fifth Channel did for the Orange demonstrators in Ukraine or Rustavi2 did for the Rose Revolutionaries in Georgia. People's Television, the only station that was broadcasting the Red perspective, was shut down by the government earlier this month for inciting violence, as were several prominent Red websites, leaving the movement reliant on community radio stations that few among the urban elites the Red Shirts need win over are likely to tune into. Most of the remaining mainstream media is openly hostile to the Reds and their cause.

The Red Shirts are also deprived of their most charismatic leader, with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in exile after being convicted of abuse of power after he was ousted in a 2006 military coup. Revolutions are rarely led from abroad.

There’s also the superpower game. In Ukraine, Georgia and Lebanon, powers such as the United States and European Union lent overt political support and covert financial aid to those on the streets. But as Thailand’s turmoil goes on, no outside power seems keen on a Red takeover.

Most crucially, in the other colour revolutions, it was the middle class calling for change. They could stand on the streets and shut down the commercial heart of Tbilisi, Kiev or Beirut because they felt ownership of those streets, it was where they lived and worked. The stores stayed open, and some did a roaring trade. Only the government was greatly inconvenienced.

Thailand’s Red Shirts are the rural poor, and the streets they’ve taken over are those where the urban elites live and shop. The target of this uprising isn’t just an unpopular government, but entire classes of people – putting the Red Shirt uprising more in line with bloody class struggles of decades and centuries past than the peaceful colour revolutions of the early 21st century. The Reds don’t just want a new prime minister, they want a new political system, arguably a new republic.

It’s a people power movement by those with no power, pitted against an army, media, bureaucracy and business community, as well as a royal family, that don’t want to lose what they have. Failing a surprise intervention by the military or the ailing King Bhumibol – and nothing is ever out of the question in the unpredictable world of Thai politics – a peaceful change of government now seems unattainable.

That doesn’t mean the Reds are doomed to fail. But as we saw April 10, getting what they want may only come at a terrible cost to all sides.

Source: The Globe and Mail
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