Thailand’s recent history is marred by a protracted political crisis that has at times erupted into chaos and violence. After two coups d’état, multiple rounds of debilitating street protests and a brutal military crackdown on unarmed protestors, the country is bitterly divided along intersecting lines of class, regional identity and ideology. The schism is often dubbed “Red versus Yellow” due to the colour of the t-shirts worn by the two rival movements.
The Red Shirts overwhelmingly come from the poorer, populous north and northeast: regions with distinct local languages and cultures that are often considered inferior by other Thais. They support the electoral process that has repeatedly given power to parties associated with the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a coup in 2006. The Yellow Shirts, who more recently rebranded themselves in the red, white and blue of the Thai flag, mostly come from the wealthier capital and upper south of the country. They are staunch royal-nationalists who despise Thaksin and dismiss the electoral system as corrupt. In 2014, they rejoiced when the army overthrew the elected government for the second time in a decade. Thailand is now in its third year of military rule.
While doing fieldwork in Bangkok recently I met a Red Shirt activist called Somsri*, who showed me photos of her impressive political t-shirt collection on her smartphone. She agreed to be interviewed at her home in a modest but well-kept Bangkok suburb, where I was able to see the collection in full.
Somsri is in her fifties and originally from the northeastern province of Udon Thani, although she has spent much of her life in Bangkok. She first came to the capital to study at the open access Ramkhamhaeng University, then worked as a secretary, market seller and is now semi-retired. Although she has spent nearly four decades in Bangkok, she retains a strong regional identity and is proud to call herself khon isan, or ‘north-easterner’.
Somsri first joined a Red Shirt rally in 2009 and became more active as the crisis deepened. Although she unashamedly identifies as ‘Red’, she has gradually drifted away from the mainstream of the movement, which she says “lacks a progressive vision.” Instead, she began supporting smaller splinter groups such as Red Sunday, led by charismatic NGO worker Sombat Boonngamanong. She considers herself a ‘free’ Red — aligned with the broader Red Shirt movement but with the agency to act independently.
A decisive majority of Thais have voted for political parties associated with Thaksin Shinawatra at general elections in 2001, 2005, 2007 and 2011, only to see them repeatedly ousted by royal-nationalist protests, judicial interference and military coups. In 2014, royal-nationalist protestors even physically blocked voters from going to the polls and assaulted those who tried to pass. The election was later nullified by the courts.
Many of the t-shirts in Somsri’s collection express a frustrated desire for democracy. One t-shirt, Figure 2.4 above, makes a statement about sovereignty by placing ’the people’ on top in the largest print. Next comes the government, parliament, judiciary and ‘other institutions’ in ever diminishing text size. The reality is inverted in Thailand, where the judiciary seems more powerful than the government, and unelected institutions — particularly the military and monarchy — play an undue role in politics.
To press for fresh elections, the Red Shirts held massive protests in Bangkok from March – May 2010, which descended into one of the darkest periods in Thai history. On April 10th, an attempt by the military to disperse the crowd at one protest site ended in violence and confusion, with around 19 civilians, 5 soldiers and a Japanese news cameraman killed. With tensions rising, the protestors barricaded themselves into their main occupation site until May, when another military operation to retake the streets was ordered. The army surrounded the area, designated large parts of the city centre ‘live fire zones’ and used sniper fire on unarmed protestors. In total, around 90 people were killed in the three-month period, the vast majority of them unarmed civilians.
The killings affected Somsri deeply and her level of activism increased. In the months and years that followed, the lack of justice for the victims of the crackdown was added to the Red Shirts’ already long list of grievances. Many Thais now saw the country’s judicial system as completely illegitimate.
For Somsri, the most troubling aspect of the Thai legal system is Section 112 of the Criminal Code, also known as the lèse-majesté law, which strictly punishes criticism of the monarchy with up to fifteen years in prison. “I would like to abolish this law,” she tells me. “But I don’t think it’s possible in the current political climate, so I hope it can be amended instead. Article 112 has become a political weapon to destroy the opposition and close down different opinions,” she continues. “If people were able to speak as freely as they are in other countries with monarchies, like in Europe or Japan, then it would damage the institution less in the long-term. Anyway, if the palace didn’t intervene in politics, then there would be no reason to criticise it in the first place”.
The number of people sentenced for lèse-majesté has skyrocketed since the crisis began. The t-shirt in Fig. 6.1 calls for the release of Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, a labour rights activist and former editor of a pro-Thaksin political magazine, who was jailed for publishing an article deemed critical of the monarchy. Fig. 6.2 and Fig. 6.3 are in remembrance of Ampon Tangnoppakul, or ‘Ah Kong’, an elderly man who was jailed after text messages considered offensive to the royal family were traced back to his mobile phone. He was sentenced on four counts of lèse-majesté for a total of twenty years, but died in the first year of his jail-term, eliciting much public sympathy. And Fig. 6.4 shows student activist Jatuphat ‘Pai’ Boonpattararaksa, the first person to be arrested for lèse-majesté since the passing of King Bhumipol. The young law student was detained after sharing a controversial BBC Thai online article about the new monarch, King Vajiralongkorn, who ascended the throne after the death of his father. Pai is currently awaiting his trial and has been refused bail several times.
One of the most vocal critics of the monarchy and lèse-majesté law is former Thammasat University historian, Somsak Jeamteerasakul, whose outspoken manner and active social media presence have earned him a large following. The academic now lives in France, where he has been granted refugee status after fleeing Thailand in the wake of the 2014 coup. Six people were recently arrested on royal defamation charges for simply sharing posts from his Facebook page. One of the detained, a human rights lawyer sympathetic to the Red Shirts, is being charged with several counts of lèse-majesté and sedition, which could add up to an astounding 150 year maximum sentence.
Overuse of the lèse-majesté law and a widespread belief among Red Shirts that the palace was involved in both the coup against Thaksin Shinawatra and the crackdown in 2010 have been damaging to the monarchy. The shirt in Fig. 8.1 plays on the standard view that the institution is ‘loved by all Thais’ by announcing that the wearer “used to love (the king)”. The Red Shirts refer to this change of heart as ta sawang, which can be roughly translated as ‘an awakening’. The back print shown in Fig. 8.3 reads “We are citizens who don’t have an owner”, satirising a popular t-shirt worn by royalists that proclaims “We are citizens who belong to the king”.
For Somsri, the current crisis is a continuation of Thailand’s turbulent history — a theme reflected in many of her t-shirts. “The political events of the past are so important to what is happening today,” she explains. “The older generation like me can see that clearly. We can look at the big picture and connect the dots. We first became a democracy in Pridi’s time, after the 1932 revolution, but it was destroyed. That’s why every year we gather to commemorate the anniversary of this event.”
“And when people rise up to try to take democracy back, they are killed,” she continues. “Whether it’s the massacre of students at Thammasat, or the communists, or the Red Shirts, it’s the same pattern of killing people again and again.”
Somsri is visibly upset, but might take solace in the words of the radical intellectual, Chit Phumisak (1930 –1966), an iconic figure for progressive Thais. He is pictured on her t-shirt in Fig. 9.7.
If the sky is dark, a new dawn will come; spreading golden sunshine over the land; I will resist until I can stand up straight and proclaim: I am not a slave, I am free. (Fig. 9. 8).
As our interview winds down, I make an offer to buy Somsri’s entire collection for preservation. She smiles but remains silent, which my years in Thailand tell me is a polite refusal.
“So what will you do with them all?” I ask her.
“I’ll keep them until we finally have democracy.”
“I’ll wear them of course,” she laughs, then a wistful smile. “And when I wear them, I’ll look back proudly on the part I played in our struggle.”
* Somsri’s name has been changed to protect her identity.
James Buchanan is a Senior Research Associate and PhD Candidate at the Department of Asian and International Studies, City University of Hong Kong. His forthcoming thesis is titled Seeing Red: Moral Outrage and the Making of a Red Shirt Identity in Thailand.