Who are the red shirts? Details on the thai commoner (phrai) movement


“This is in essence a suffragist movement that struggles to accomplish the civil and political rights that unelected institutions in Thailand have long made a big deal of guaranteeing on paper but have otherwise systematically subverted. It’s a movement of people who no longer want to be second class citizens, who want the law to apply equally to them as to their more privileged countrymen,” says Federico Ferrara, political scientist and author of the book Thailand Unhinged. “It’s a movement of people who want elections to have consequences. It’s a movement of people who want the governments they elect to not have to constantly bump into ‘reserve domains’ and be removed through coups (military or judicial) whenever such domains are encroached.”

2. From the earth to the sky, from a speech by red shirt leader Natthawut Saikua in December 2008:

“..We’re denied many things. We’re denied justice; respect in the way governmental bodies treat us; accurate and direct reporting about us in the media. We’re denied the chance to openly declare our fight – to openly and directly declare, with our clarity and sincerity, what it is that we are fighting for.

What’s most important for us all to remember, brothers and sisters, is that we are the salt of the earth. We are the people with no privileges.

We were born on the land. We grew up on the land. Each step that we take is on this same land. We stand, with our two feet planted here, so far away from the sky.

Tilting our heads fully upwards, we gaze at the sky, and we realise how far away that sky is.

Standing on this land, we only have to look down to realise that we are worth no more than a handful of earth.

But I believe in the power of the redshirts. I believe our number is growing day-by-day, minute-by-minute. Even though we stand on this land, and we speak out from our place among the earth, our voice will rise to the sky. Of this I have no doubt.

The voice we’re making now – our cries and shouts – is the voice of people who are worth only a handful of earth. But it is the voice of the people who were born and grew up on this land, and it will rise to the level of the sky.

We, the redshirts, want to say to the land and sky that we too have heart and soul. We, the redshirts, want to remind the land and sky that we too are the Thai people. We, the redshirts, want to ask the land and sky whether we have been condemned to seek, by ourselves, a rightful place to plant our feet here..”

3. Interview with scholar Federico Ferrara

Via Sunit Shestra:

Below is an interview with researcher Federico Ferrara,an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the National University of Singapore, on the nature of the red shirt movement and what it means for the future of thailand. He is the author of Thailand Unhinged: Unraveling the Myth of a Thai-Style Democracy.

For more in-depth (but not newsy) coverage, see the delicious tag here. Towards Freedom, the source of the article, also has another analysis here.


1. In your opinion, how unified is the ‘red shirt’ movement (are they ‘diverse’ or just ‘fragmented’), and could you say that the movement is motivated by any ideology? And if so, what is that ideology?

I wouldn’t say “fragmented” in the sense that their organization appears to be excellent. Like all movements of this size, this is a diverse movement representing somewhat of an amalgam of motivations, interests, and ideologies. There is no unifying “ideology,” but there is a common vision of Thailand as a democratic, dare I say “normal” country. This is in essence a suffragist movement that struggles to accomplish the civil and political rights that unelected institutions in Thailand have long made a big deal of guaranteeing on paper but have otherwise systematically subverted. It’s a movement of people who no longer want to be second class citizens, who want the law to apply equally to them as to their more privileged countrymen. It’s a movement of people who want elections to have consequences. It’s a movement of people who want the governments they elect to not have to constantly bump into “reserve domains” and be removed through coups (military or judicial) whenever such domains are encroached.

2. Who, in your opinion, makes up the majority of the red shirt followers – protesters and normal supporters?

Undoubtedly, for the majority of the supporters this is a struggle that’s mostly about identity. That is, it’s about asserting their equal worth to those who have long considered them at the level of farm animals whose only right is to be content with mere subsistence. The resurrection and endless repetition of the word “phrai” reflects this newfound pride in their status as “commoners.”

3. Why do you think the red shirts are so vilified by many of Bangkok’s middle (and aspiring) middle classes who, in the eyes of the red shirts, are turning a blind eye to clear injustices and double standards that have undermined the rule of law and democracy (and their vote)?

The people in the streets today have never been acknowledged as rightful participants in their country’s government. They are only viewed as fully “Thai” so long as they accept to live within the parameters of the state’s official ideology, which requires passive acquiescence of the vast majority of the population. The failure to accept their traditional role is deeply unsettling for well-to-do Thais, whose smug sense of superiority is so entrenched. Much like many Europeans of the same status did during the interwar period, the well-to-do have reverted back to quasi-fascist ideas/movements (like PAD) that justify their continued dominance of Thai society and their continued resistance against the masses’ full inclusion.

The urban middle class (intended as middle-income) has been largely on the fence in the past couple of years. On the one hand, many of them identify with some of the reds’ demands — democracy, equal opportunity, no double standards, etc. On the other hand, much like their European counterparts in the interwar period, they have been told repeatedly that the equal participation of “the great unwashed” in the country’s government will largely take place at their expense. Hence their hesitation.

4. Is the following argument justified in any way: “the red shirt protesters are being manipulated by the movement’s leaders, who, rather than seeking ‘justice and equality’ for all, are simply seeking ‘justice and equality’ for themselves, i.e. their share of power and the money that comes with it”

Sounds like a rationalization for the point above. It reflects the refusal to believe that people would dare to ACTUALLY fight for their rights, but rather have to be bribed and manipulated into rebelling against their idyllic serfdom. Make no mistake: the crime of these people is not that they are “manipulated” or “brainwashed;” it’s that they no longer submit to their old masters’ brainwashing and manipulation.

Besides, it isn’t really news that politicians tend to be ambitious and self-interested, in Thailand or anywhere else in the world. As in all social movements and election campaigns, leaders mobilize followers by over-promising, by overestimating the probabilities of success, and by overblowing the impact of individuals contributions to the movement’s eventual triumph. So what?

5. Is it true to say that whatever the motivations of the red shirt leaders and Thaksin, many of the poor (previously seen by many as passive/almost subservient), both rural and urban, have been ‘politically awakened’ so to speak, therefore altering the Thai socio-political landscape? How do you see this ‘new political landscape’ playing out in the short and long term?

Yes, there has definitely been an awakening. Thaksin provided the spark (no doubt for his own purposes, as he is no Spartacus), but the basis for this awakening were laid by decades of irreversible social/economic transformation.

As for prospects, in the short term all bets are off because this is a stalemate that’s likely to be resolved by events that are very difficult to predict at this stage. To say nothing of the fact that Abhisit’s rathole at the 11th Regiment is rife with the intrigue and conspiracy, only a fraction of which we actually know about. In the long run, this represents merely the first ripple in what is likely a tsunami headed in the direction of the Thai establishment. The question at this point is whether the Thai ruling class will want to eventually cut a deal or is determined to fight to the death.

6. Is it possible to view the ‘red shirt’ movement in isolation from Thaksin Shinawatra?

Yes and no. No in the sense that he remains a charismatic figure to whom many red shirt supporters feel a rather deep connection (see n. 5 above). Yes in the sense that this fight has long transcended Thaksin’s restoration (see n. 2 above).

7. Can democracy really work under these circumstances – with groups so opposed to each other and becoming increasingly entrenched – whoever wins political control (by elections or other means), the other side come out and protest. Certain factions clearly will not entertain any possibility of Thaksin’s return and will seemingly do anything to prevent that from happening. It seems that the institutions of the state and the rule of law have been so undermined over the past few years (including during Thaksin’s rule). How can the rule of law and faith in democracy be regained? Could you even go so far as to call Thailand a ‘failed state’?

Thailand is not a democracy. So recent events do not mark the failure of democracy, but rather the failure of an authoritarian regime adorned with some of democracy’s shallowest trappings. As for “state failure,” the fact that beyond a busy intersection and a few shopping malls frequented by the super-rich life largely continues as usual is pretty good indication that the country is nowhere near a “failed state.” It’s not the Thai state that’s imploding; it’s a particular form of government that’s now as good as dead.

As for the rule of law, Thailand has never had a particularly stellar record on this count. But the biggest reason why the rule of law is in such a tenuous state is the fact that when the process spelled out by “the law” produces results that unelected institutions don’t like, the law itself is either scrapped (military coup), ignored (airport occupations met with impunity), or selectively enforced (court-mandated party dissolutions). In turn, those on the receiving end of these abuses and prevarications justifiably feel no particular reason to play by rules that are only supposed to apply to them.

8. New elections could possibly ease tensions in the short-term, but would they solve any of the extremely complex, more deep-rooted issues that underlie the political impasse? How can these larger issues best be addressed? Clearly some intense and far-reaching political and constitutional reform needs to take place no? But under what circumstances can these reforms take place and be accepted as a legitimate framework for political progress to most (if not all).

You are quite right that an election, whether or not it is preceded by constitutional reforms, would not solve the conflict’s more structural causes. The problem is not the constitution; it is rather that constitutions in Thailand are so readily disposable whatever their content. In the long run, the only real solution to this crisis consists of four steps:

a) Feudal and capitalist elites accept to live in a democracy, which rather prominently comports being governed by representatives chosen by a majority of the population;

b) The majority agrees not to use its power to trample on the rights of minorities;

c) The military is aggressively downsized or restructured, such as to render it inoffensive and place it firmly under civilian control;

d) Politicians lose the habit of relying on the military to either consolidate their power or regain it when they lose elections.

In sum, what’s required here is a sort of “grand bargain” that results in a new social contract. They’ll get there eventually, though nobody quite knows when, how, and at the expense of how many more lives.

A good citation from the same author:

“Perhaps the most revealing development in this regard is the resurrection and endless repetition of the word “phrai,” a word that strips its complement — “amartaya” — of all its remaining ambiguity. Phrai does not mean “slave,” “proletarian,” or “pauper.” It means commoner. And though attempts to spin and muddle the meaning of this phrasing are legion, everyone knows what a “commoner” is not.

Whatever the Prime Minister might say, this is not a “class war” in the sense that it pits poor against rich. This fight is about restoring the aristocracy to the ceremonial role it formally accepted, at the barrel of a gun, on June 24, 1932. Most importantly, this fight is about subjecting the amartaya — the mandarins and praetorian guards, most themselves phrai by birth, who have long exploited the pretense of defending the monarchy to hoard power and riches for themselves — to the will of the people.”

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