Thursday, Dec. 09, 2010

Thailand's Red Shirts

For much of April and May, thousands of antigovernment protesters occupied a central commercial district in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand. Dubbed the Red Shirts for the color of their political movement (their rivals are Yellow Shirts), the activists sought to bring down a government they saw as elitist and undemocratic. Their political figurehead, former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, has lived in exile ever since he was deposed in a 2006 coup (in 2008 Thaksin was convicted of corruption and sentenced in absentia). Commentators saw the protests as emblematic of larger fissures in Thai society — between the big city and the countryside, the rich and the poor, royalists and populists. But on the streets of Bangkok, Thailand's complex, dysfunctional politics took a backseat to sheer spectacle. Red Shirt protesters spilled hundreds of liters of their own blood in a stomach-turning act of agitprop. Later, after Bangkok's continued paralysis proved unacceptable to the government, the scene turned violent, with running street battles between government forces and protesters, some of whom were armed with pistols and even a few rudimentary homemade rocket launchers. The brutal crackdown and dispersal of the Red Shirts led to 91 deaths and more than 1,800 injured, all captured by the cameras of the international press, which beamed 24-hour coverage from Bangkok's battle lines. While things have quieted down since, emotions are still raw. In November, thousands of Red Shirt supporters marched in Bangkok in memory of those slain six months earlier; future actions and protests remain possible.