What’s the Deal With the Red Shirts in Thailand?

Hello All!

the color of the hour

the color of the hour

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?”, the blog that wonders what color shirt its supporters would wear.

In this week’s edition, we’ll:

  • examine a huge protest movement shaking the current government in Thailand. In a complex cycle of politics, a divided populace has become incensed over a new bill passed in the lower house of parliament and anger has turned against the ruling government.

As the violence in the Southeast Asian country escalates, we’ ll

  • take a look at why so many have people taken to the streets of Bangkok and
  • look at Thailand’s history to discover what politics may look like further down the road.

The Current: Barriers Were Meant to be Moved


pulling out all the stops for this protest

On November 1, the lower house of Thailand’s National Assembly or Rathasapha, held a midnight vote and passed a new amnesty law – one that was rejected in the Senate. The bill would have pardoned nearly everyone that took part in the political upheaval in Thailand between 2004 and 2010. The bill was the latest attempt of the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Pheu Thai Party to extend a safe passage home to the former Prime Minister: Thaksin Shinawatra, the current PM’s brother who is exiled abroad.

In self-imposed exile since 2008 after being ousted from power by a military coup in 2006, Thaksin has been using his influence through his sister remotely since she was elected in 2011. His policies while in power and his possible return to Thailand are extremely polarizing in Thai politics; some valiantly are in favor, others are vigorously opposed. Mr. Thaksin, a former policeman and communications mogul was elected in 2001 and again in 2005. He was officially convicted of corruption in 2010.

Since the bill was introduced and passed, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Bangkok led by the opposition Democratic Party leader Suthep Thausugban with an aim to take down the government. Protesters have also increasingly included former government supporters who say the Shinawatra government has taken the issue too far.

leading the black shirts

leading the black shirts

The amnesty bill, which was ruled unconstitutional by a federal court, included pardons for not just Mr. Thaksin, but also the many soldiers and corrupt police who abused human rights during the political turmoil. The main point of contention still remains Mr. Thaksin: he is opposed mainly by middle class and business leaders in Thailand (whom remember his strong handed and sometimes corrupt practices) while still evoking strong support among the rural classes (who remember the spread of education, health care, and political opportunities).

The anti-government masses now have begun attempting to take over government buildings and clashing with pro-government supporters wearing their iconic “red shirts”. This has led to increasing violence in the past week. Thaksin “red shirt” supporters have been the targets of violent attacks in public spaces and during protests. At first passive, the security forces around Bangkok have now met with angry protesters using tear gas and moving angry crowds away from government facilities. Many casualties have been recorded thus far in the ruckus.

but does it work in the field?

but does it work in the field?

Although Prime Minister Shinawatra has many critics and her policies are controversial, such as the rice subsidy plan, her election and generally stable government was considered a good step for Thailand following the tumultuous and violent protests from 2006 – 2010. With the extremely negative reaction and low public opinion, the government and especially Thaksin must realize what a mistake the amnesty bill was to continue to be pressed and for him to attempt a return.

If Thailand’s history is any precedent (and we’ll use it as such), the military and security forces at the behest of the King, may use the pretext of insecurity to suspend the civilian government and retake the reins.

Familiar Notes, Repeating as if a Chorus

On the same page

On the same page

The election of Yingluck Shinawatra’s government seemed from the outset to be a good symbol of democracy for Thailand. But as we can see from its current tumult, many forces lie in the waiting and true power for the country still does not lie in the hands of the civilian government. The coup that forced Thaksin Shinawatra from power came as a result of political turmoil that, the military decided, had stretched the forces of democracy too far.

Unlike its Southeast Asian neighbors, Thailand was never officially colonized by a Western power between the 16th and 20th Centuries. Thus it was spared much of the economic and labor extraction along with the disruption of independence conflicts. In tandem with some of their neighbors (such as Indonesia), however, Thailand jumped from coup de tat to coup de tat for several decades as military leaders remained the ultimate lynchpin in determining the impact of a new civilian government on Thai politics.

Ultimately, Thailand is still coming to grips about what kind of government it wants and how its citizens should participate. The protests are part of the struggle of transition between an elite class making all political decisions to a more equal distribution of polity.

(If you’d like to avoid a long blog post, here’s your chance to get out now. I’ll wait…. No? you want to hear more about how Thailand’s history reflects on today’s protests? Ok! Great, here ya go!)

How does history Thai in?

  1. The Monarchy

The main ethnic group of Thailand (the Tai people) derived from Southern China and moved to occupy their current location in Southeast Asia in the 13th Century. The Tai created two major kingdoms: Sukhothai and Ayutthaya that developed a strong tradition of monarchy. They created the name “Thai” for themselves, meaning free people – a term to describe “freeing” the peoples of southeast Asia from the Khmer and other kingdoms.

the modern pledge of allegiance to the King

the modern pledge of allegiance to the King

Several principalities declared allegiance to one King, but had to be controlled – sometimes through military force. For instance, the Malay peoples on the southern peninsula were never fully integrated into the kingdom. This disparity in Thailand continues today with the violence in the southern tip of Thailand with Malay separatist groups.

Allegiance to the monarchy is a part of the culture in Thailand. Kings derived their divine power from the cultural influence of Hinduism – the theological backbone behind the majority Buddhist population. The King, or devaraja was considered an earthly representation of the Hindu god Shiva (the lord of the universe) and so was given the distinction of being “lord of the land.”

King Rama 1, stately in his military garb

King Rama 1, stately in his military garb

The Thai principalities frequently fought with surrounding kingdoms as they sought to expand in the 14th and 15th centuries.  They ran into trouble with the Burmese in the 16th century, however, as their powerful western neighbor ran the Thai kingdom as a vassal state after briefly conquering Bangkok. Thai independence was restored when King Naresuan drove the Burmese back to Bagan in 1600. The kings from the Ayutthaya kingdom into the modern unified Thai state from Bangkok are thus held in the highest esteem as historical figures and cultural heroes for their divine rule and their military protection.

2. Society set up

Much of what ails Thailand politics and civilian leadership today stems from its societal makeup and history of a very rigid system of distribution, known as sakdi na. The sakdi na stemmed from the mid 14th Century and lasted well into the 19th. Similar to other peasant-lord land systems like the feudal system in medieval Europe, the Thai kingdom consisted of a large labor class (phrai) working for the landowning class and nobility (nai) well into the 19th century. Phrai did not have many rights or freedoms and often consisted of different ethnic groups that Thai principalities had conquered.

Nobility included the King (the largest landowner), governors, military commanders, and court officials. Basically, if you worked for the King, you had it made – wealth and status were directly correlated to how you helped the crown. The King gave allotments of rice fields to these officials and lords in payment for services to the crown and the amount of land and labor a nai accumulated, the higher the social status he had.

the feudal system displayed in one chart

the feudal system displayed in one chart

Here in early Thai history, we see three key components of Thai culture that begin to show through the facade of a true republic: an exclusion of most of society (the phrai) from the political process, an omnipotent monarch who is believed to be divine, and the sakdi na system of trading benefits for services given to the government – a system with corruption as part of the design.

Modern Thai History: Cultural Pride in Keeping Out Fraying Influences

While the Thai embraced the introduction of western technology and trade, they successfully prevented any European colonial power from conquering them or turning them into a vassal state. This has created great pride in Thailand as a nation that was truly independent in Southeast Asia.

King Mongkut (Rama IV 1851- 1868) was a well read Buddhist monk before becoming King, learning English and making connections with Protestant missionaries. Mongkut realized that in order for Thailand (or Siam, as it was known in the 19th century) to remain independent and avoid the embarrassing treatment at the hands of European powers that occurred in China and Burma, Siam would have to collaborate with them. Instead of following his council and protecting domestic monopolies and avoiding making significant concessions, Mongkut signed the Treaty of Friendship and Commerce (known as the Bowring Treaty) with Great Britain and later signed treaties with the U.S. and France.

Siam, an island in a sea of colonization

Siam, an island in a sea of colonization

The treaties connected Siam to the world economy by providing free trade and significantly increased commerce with the West. Friendly relations with the West through business and politics kept Siam independent, but also had a profound influence on many aspects of Thai society. Influence from the West was seen in reforms in education, infrastructure development (like railroads), and replacing the semi-feudal system for centralized administration and Chinese immigrant labor. While the sakdi na system was technically abolished, it was still entrenched within the culture and a central administration still catered to corruption.

While Siam did lose territory it controlled in Cambodia from the French in the 1890s and lost Malay territory to the British in 1907, it still remained “master of its domain.” Reforms, independence, and good relations with the international community (Siam took the Allies side during WW1 and was part of the original League of Nations) made Siam a major player in world politics into the 20th century.

Hardly Coup-operative

The era of an absolute monarchy was ended by a bloodless coup in 1932; a transition of government which would manifest itself several times into the present day. Interestingly, although the coup members of military officers and politicians held Western ideas, none wanted to rid Thailand of the monarchy completely. The institution, therefore, remained in place as a constitutional monarchy and is still held in high esteem.

military garb? why not!

Decorated, but not elected

A militaristic nationalist government under a strongman named Phibun decided to shrewdly collaborate with Japan during WWII instead of possibly being occupied (he also changed the name of the country from Siam to Muang Thai, or Thailand). This was rewarded at first by the Japanese with the French controlled territory in Laos and Cambodia that Thailand had lost (a popular acquisition). Japan used Thailand as a base for soldiers and built a transport railroad as well. As the war dragged on, however, public opinion against Phibun’s government deteriorated as Allied forces began to bomb Bangkok and Japan used Thailand more as a conquered territory than an ally.

After Phibun was forced from office, the new government now was collaborating with the Allies and allowing them to use Thailand as a base. Phibun’s former co-conspirator, Pridi was elected and a new constitution was drafted in 1946 that planned a bicameral legislature with an elected lower house and a senate that was appointed by the lower house. The King though, did not have a part. Very young when selected for the monarch’s seat, the young King Bhumibol Adulyadej studied abroad and didn’t return until 1952.

Consecutive coups on 1947, 1952, 1957, and 1971 saw Phibun return to the helm of the government, 2 experiments with constitutional democracy, and a military dictatorship taking shape. Prominent military strongmen Sarit and Thanom and others justified their pseudo-martial law because of a lack of stability during the constitutional phase and the King backed their actions. This lack of stability stemmed from a continuous anti-communist stance by the Thai government – a stance that stepped on political freedoms of many in Thailand including separatist groups of Chinese and Malay ethnicity. Their government made a good partner for the U.S. in the Cold War and for stationing troops to combat communist combatants in Laos and Vietnam. In addition to the anti-communist stance, nationalist policies were made, such as a rice subsidy that benefited Thai rice farmers.

the New Left battles the military stronghold in Bangkok

the New Left battles the military stronghold in Bangkok

The mid 1970s was a microcosm of modern Thai history that started with a military dictatorship, transitioned to massive student led protest, a step down of military leaders and revising of the constitution and new political freedoms, and a breakdown of security and stability in the political process as political groups fought in the streets – a cyclical pattern.

A new constitution in 1978 included a bicameral legislature with an elected House of Representatives, but an appointed Senate. The Senate was filled with appointees who were chosen by the military could block the House on important issues such as the budget and national security. Through these coups, the King tended to back groups that were conservative in nature and that would maintain stability in order to retain the hold on a monarchy. Though King Bhumibol supported military leaders, he also supported tentative change to a parliamentary system where the military held a separate role. His support along with stronger political parties allowed the Prime Minister named Prem to hold onto office for several years and survive an attempted coup in 1981.

The pattern of military takeover (1991, 2006) continued along with appointed Prime Ministers (usually military leaders) leading the country between elections. While each of the governments during the latter half of the 2oth century had their own set of circumstances, the result was the same: an inability to hold a democratically elected government.

The Shinawatra Years: Rejected Reform

a change for Thailand

a change for Thailand

The crux of the current crisis stemmed from the election of Thaksin Shinawatra in 2001 and his reelection in 2005. Thaksin was so controversial because he changed politics in Thailand. Instead of representing solely the upper and middle classes surrounding Bangkok, Thaksin catered his policies to the rural poor and getting them involved in politics. Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai party focused on developing rural education (which was well behind the wealthier urban populations) and overall economic growth. His populist policies along with an efficient and effective response during the devastating 2004 typhoon allowed him to be reelected in 2005.

But his populist government actions were never popular in Bangkok where the elite and middle class had been used to calling the shots for the Constitutional Monarchy. Those in power therefore used a scandal involving his telecommunications company to call for another coup to remove him in 2006. He has been in exile since 2008 as described above after being charged officially with corruption.

In 2010, massive protests by Thaksin supporters wearing their iconic “red shirts” violently clashed with security forces as the rural masses along with liberal student groups and others joined to protest the 2006 coup and corruption charges against Thaksin and rallied to bring him back into Thailand as their leader. While this goal wasn’t realized, Thaksin’s sister Yingluck was elected in 2011 to take over the helm.

Conclusion: recoup those coups

If you’ve made it this far in the blog post, pat yourself on the back! Nice job! It turns out, this is a subject I enjoy writing about – hopefully not too circumlocutively.

So, the current melee in Thailand is simply the latest in a long line of government replacements. Here’s a quick list to sum up the important things to take away from our lesson:

  • Thailand has a long history of excluding the poor and rural from the political process.
  • The Thai culture is deeply connected to the monarchy, its authority, and its decisions
  • A culture of corruption and exclusion through the sakdi na system
  • The Thai military and political figures have used their power and connection to the monarchy to disband any elected government many times in the 20th century.
  • The inclusion of the rural poor in the Thaksin era is part of the transition in Thai society that has been too fast and has brought out opposition protesters today.

So what will happen now? Will the military step in once again and replace Yingluck Shinawatra?

Yingluck, probably taking a call from her brother

What should I do with this one, Thaksin?

Ms. Yingluck seems to have recognized the ill that the amnesty bill has caused. She has offered to hold early elections, but has rejected the opposition calls to step down immediately or to create a “people’s council” to form a new government. The opposition has not backed down as of yet.

The birthday of King Bhumidol (who is revered by all) was December 5 and was supposed to be a day of peace and celebration for all Thais, but both sides seem to have dug in.

The opposition movement has had a valid beef; the amnesty bill was a rotten deal for both supporters of the Shinwatras and the opposition. Thaksin’s regime was tainted by heavy-handedness and corruption – his continued influence on the government is causing serious trouble. But the oppositions insistence on a complete change from the elected government is unnecessary and their increasingly violent actions are making the divide larger between the opposition and the red shirts.

To tread this precarious transition between a constitutional monarchy and full participation from all Thai will require slow and progressive change. This may mean more protests and difficulties, but bringing in all Thai for fair elections is something that the monarchy and military leaders should strive for.

Until the next rally in Bangkok (probably tomorrow),

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson

Sources and Further Reads:

Neher, Clark D. Politics in Southeast Asia. Schenkman Publishing Inc. 1979, pp. 27-41.











About eprileson

I am a historian and writer who wants to bring to light current events through a historical perspective. It is difficult to understand today's current events without having a grasp of what has occurred before. This is a running thread to help keep people informed about the present and remind everyone to not forget their past. Enjoy and please comment!
This entry was posted in Asia, International Affairs, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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