Red shirts send strong signal

straitimes

 
 
February 01, 2009 Sunday, 12:02 PM
Nirmal Ghosh witnesses a pro-democracy rally in Bangkok.
 
 
Nirmal Ghosh
Thailand Correspondent

THAILAND’S pro-democracy ”red shirts” began gathering at Sanam Luang around midday on Saturday for their scheduled rally. I got there at around 5.30pm and found well over 10,000 people. By the time I left two hours later it had reached over 30,000. Organisers claimed it had reached 50,000.
 
I bumped into former National Human Rights Commissioner Jaran Ditta-apichai who supports the reds, behind the stage. In the course of our chat he said ”Even if Thaksin (Shinawatra) stops fighting, the red movement will go on. Reds are not fighting for any leader, they fight for an ideology.”
 
And as we parted he added cryptically : ”The ultimate ideology.”
 
Later professor Giles Ji Ungpakorn turned up as well, wearing a black T-shirt with a red baseball cap. He had joined the reds, he said.
 
I had a longish talk with him. He agreed that several issues including the lese majeste issue, were converging under the banner of the pro-democracy reds (see my report at http://www.straitstimes.com/News/World/Story/STIStory_332830.html?sunwMethod=GET)
 
In the course of talking about the composition of the red shirts, Giles who has always been critical of Thaksin for his human rights abuses, said ”Being pro-Thaksin doesn’t mean people are puppets of Thaksin, or are being paid by Thaksin. The movement is beyond Thaksin, it’s a movement for democracy and a better future.”
 
The royalist People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) had its mass base in the middle class ”led by ultra-royalists who believe in nation, religion and king. They represent the elite, and want to reduce the democratic space.”


Jakrapob Penkair (left) meets Giles Ji Ungpakorn (right)  
SOURCE: Nirmal Ghosh

I followed prof Giles up on to the stage and took a picture of him greeting Jakrapob Penkair. To me that moment was one of many symbolic ones of the last three years of political turmoil in Thailand : Jakrapob and Giles both face lese majeste charges. In that moment, the lese majeste issue converged with the issue of democracy.
 
I left soon thereafter to write up my report. When I was done I met a couple of friends for a quiet chat, but then the text messages started coming in, from photographer Nick Nostitz and Bloomberg’s Dan Ten Kate who were among the very few foreign journalists on the scene. The reds were on the march and nearing Makkawan bridge where the police had an elaborate barricade of barbed wire.
 
I left immediately, and on the way was told the reds had broken through the barricade. There had been some tense moments and a few scuffles, and someone had used pepper spray in the melee. Reuters photographer Adrees Latif got a face full of it, but he wasn’t sure who had discharged it.


Supporters were in a mood of calm defiance  
SOURCE: Nick Nostitz

I arrived in the middle of a column of red shirts marching towards Government House, and joined them. A truck with red activists speaking from it through a sound system, slowly rumbled up the road surrounded by a sea of red, many of them women, and with quite a few children as well. The mood was one of calm defiance. There were no weapons in sight. Many were holding hands. It was around 1130pm.
 
They fetched up against a second police cordon on the bridge right next to Government House. In a few minutes the cordon opened up and the reds started filtering through. I followed them through and saw many of the police officers there smiling and laughing (the police were demoralized by their enforced impotence vis a vis the PAD, and many are sympathetic to the reds).


Soldiers in riot gear formed up to meet the protestors  
SOURCE: Nick Nostitz


Red shirts broke through the barricades around Government House  
SOURCE: Nick Nostitz

Then Veera disappeared, and former government spokesman Nattawit Saikuar, flanked by Jakrapob wearing a red T-shirt with the word Dictator on it crossed out in black, began haranguing the general and other police officers from the top of the lead truck.
 
The excitement seemed to mount then, and at the stroke of midnight Nattawut let out a roar and the truck he was on – and the crowd – surged forward and toppled the fence just a few feet in front of us. We turned and ran helter skelter to avoid being caught in the surge. For the first time since a motorcycle accident on Jan 12, 2008 that broke my leg, I found myself running!
 
We trotted into Government House, where the lawns have been newly restored after the PAD’s months-long occupation last year. The grass has yet to grow back though.


Pro-democracy supporters face off with soldiers
SOURCE: Nick Nostitz

There were hundreds of soldiers in the compound, with riot control gear. Soldiers relaxing on the ground stood and formed up, in a solid phalanx on the inside of the ornate fence. The red shirts filled up the road outside, and leaders began reading out their demands.
 
Then, with no attempt to get into Government House, they simply started dispersing. The trucks started up and rolled off, four of them in an ocean of red.
 
At no point was there the threat that things would go out of control, partly because none of the reds was armed in the manner that the PAD ”guards” were last year. So there was little provocation. And the reds retained the moral high ground by not invading Government House as the PAD had done – a factor crucial to their public image.

Advertisements