Update from Thailand: New Year, New Strategy from Red Shirt Protesters
From Flickr user Ratchaprasong 2
On Sunday, the same day that Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva announced a number of new welfare spending projects to aid the poorest Thais, supporters of the red shirt movement (also known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship) regrouped and staged their largest rally in the past six months. (Review what happened last spring here.) News reports vary, but estimates put the number of people who converged on downtown Bangkok between 10,000 to 40,000.
After the violent end to the red shirts' standoff last May, supporters continued to hold smaller rallies (despite the emergency law being in place that banned such gatherings). Sunday's rally, however, was the largest show of force since the state of emergency in Bangkok and surrounding provinces was lifted at the end of December. The primary goals of the gathering were to commemorate those who died last spring and to pressure the government to release of the movement’s leaders who have been detained since last spring on terrorism charges. By all indications, actions being taken by the red shirts appear to be more deliberate and peaceful that what we've seen in the past.
Video from the Ratchaprasong intersection in Bangkok shows red shirts and police on the streets:
Although the emergency law was lifted a few weeks ago, the Internal Security Act (ISA) remains in place, which allows the government to ban large gatherings and set curfews if it deems appropriate. Unlike the emergency law, however, it does not allow the detention of citizens without court approval.
According to news reports, the red shirts are hoping to hold "frequent and symbolic gatherings" twice a month, rather than a large and sustained sit-in like the one last spring. Jatuporn Prompan, a red shirt leader, said, "We have learned a lesson that big gatherings will not lead to the result we want." That being said, this latest gathering did - in fact - turn out to be a big gathering. Perhaps he meant that future gatherings will be short-term, rather than prolonged occupations. The scene on the ground was described as relatively peaceful, but the fear remains that as red shirts grow more desperate for change, things could grow violent again.
I reached out to a handful of Thai bloggers to learn more about the tactics being used to organize supporters, and, more specifically, about how social media tools are being use. It’s evident from speaking to them that there is no certainty about how particular tools are being used. These bloggers emphasized that the particular details about Sunday’s event were widely publicized by the mainstream media in the weeks prior and that text messages were also being used to communicate plans. Since the government has blocked many of the media outlets run by red shirts, supporters have become more dependent on in-person meetings, word of mouth, and SMS. It’s also believed that more red shirts are turning to Facebook as well. Two popular pages include UDD Thai and UDD International News.
The next gathering is planned for January 23. In addition to rallies, the leaders of the red shirts plan to file a complaint with the International Criminal Court "urging that the Thai government be indicted for crimes against humanity in connection with last spring’s deadly demonstrations." Moving forward, will red shirts have the discipline to demonstrate without violence? Will the government resort to implementing a harsher security law in light of the most recent protest?