Monday, May 3, 2010


Red Shirts: The Audacity of Mendacity

(first published in the Bangkok Post, May 3, 2010)

I watch the unfolding of massive street protests in Bangkok from a geographic distance, but not without emotional identification as I work from a library, putting the finishing touches on a paperback version of a book about the Tiananmen student protests of 1989.

Flamboyant Maj-Gen Khattiya Sawasdipol has compared the red shirts to the students at Tiananmen, one of many careless comments that serves to obscure rather than illuminate what is really motivating the protesters.

Suffice to say the Beijing students, provocative though they were, relied entirely on peaceful expression and carried no weapons --not slingshots, not M79 grenades, not spears, not clubs-- and though agents provocateurs did appear as if from nowhere during the orgy of violence of the June 4 crackdown itself, there were no black-clad Ninja hiding behind civilian shields, aiming their guns and rifles at military targets.

It's a terrible challenge to understand what's happening on the streets of Bangkok, and there's scant comfort in noting that almost no observer, whether on the scene, in the academy, in the newsroom or barracks or halls of governance seems to have a clear grasp of what's going on either.

Impatience for a crackdown is palpable, though there is still a chance for patient, peaceful measures to work. A bloodbath cannot be entirely discounted, especially if the  military acts peremptorily in reaction to perceived divisions within its ranks or simply by being goaded into a merciless show of force.

The only on-the-scene observers who  profess to get the whole picture are the most prejudiced voices of all --the partisans who wear shirts of contrasting colour-- and while there may be some important truths in what each of the battling factions have to say, they deliberately leave gaps in their logic and holes in their reporting that are filled instead with hot air and hate speech.

One can spend all day and night looking at everything in English and Thai on the "red shirts" on the internet, and end up feeling one knows even less than before, and that may be by design.

The way the wayward reds daily douse the media with more than it can handle is reminiscent of the days when Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister kept the media off-balance by constantly changing the topic, saying outrageous things and taking the initiative with bold schemes.

Given that hardly a day passes without some shocking new street action on the part of the reds, one begins to sense a continuity of propaganda, if not personnel, as if some of Thaksin's would-be Rasputins were among the arthritic revolutionaries advising the rebel reds.

The seductive paraphernalia of the yellows and the reds --the colour schemes, the slogans, the anthems, the songs of Caravan and Jit Phumisak, the headbands, the daredevil esprit de corps, the appealing folkways of street food and elemental living in the open-- all serve to invoke the ghosts of protests past, especially Oct 14, 1973, Oct 6, 1976 and Black May 1992.

And comparison with those events is not as easy to dismiss as the awkward comparison to Tiananmen, because they are part of Thai social history and inform actions in the present, both in terms of living memory and a received knowledge of, and nostalgia for fighting the good fight.

Though "not learning'" from history has its perils, fighting the last war or "learning" the wrong lesson is also  fraught with risk.

The people on the wrong side of the barricades are not always on the right side of history, even if there is an appealing narrative that suggests it should be so.

This is especially true in fluid Thai society where individuals sometimes find themselves not only on opposite sides of the barricades from former classmates and comrades, but even on the opposite side from where they last stood themselves; and they may change sides yet again.

Such ironies abound.

We see men of "peace" calling for war and men of war reluctant to unleash  the terrible power that society has entrusted to them. Gen Anupong Paojinda, at the time of this writing, is under criticism for being too calm, too cautious and too circumspect. His reluctance to kill is willfully misinterpreted to mean he is either utterly ineffective, or, worse yet, one of "them".

The yellow shirts, themselves veterans of prolonged streets protests and a startling and disruptive airport takeover, show no tolerance, let alone the recognition of a kindred spirit, for rival protesters blocking a street full of hotels and high-end shops.

While Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is under pressure to act ruthlessly against his own better judgment, members of his party muddle the waters further and lower themselves to the level of the mob by making imprudent and insupportable accusations about the "loyalty'" of the reds.

It's a cheap shot, akin to the nasty red-baiting of US anti-communist demagogues in the 1950s, and not unlike the attitude that Arizona has more recently taken towards people who look like "immigrants''.

There is no place for a loyalty test, for who is to judge the mental state of others and by what impeccable criteria?

On the other hand there is a growing body of physical evidence for violent crimes committed, and violence should be prosecuted by law.

As someone who experienced the Tiananmen protests in Beijing in 1989, I can understand the power of defiance in the face of great odds, even the irrational desire to sacrifice comfort, common sense and safety in the name of a cause. There is a real, though transient and volatile, camaraderie on the street that creates a false sense of invulnerability.

But there are few causes worth sacrificing lives for, and none that come to mind in the current conflict. If there is a non-violent way out, every last effort should be made for a peaceful resolution.

Philip J Cunningham is a free-lance writer and political commentator.

About the author
Writer: Philip J Cunningham
Position: Writer