Sunday, May 23, 2010


by philip j cunningham

In retrospect, red shirt calls for free speech and unfettered television access were as deceptive as the big red banner behind their stage at Ratchaprasong, which proclaimed in English for all the world to see:


That unforgettable banner, background to a vitriolic karaoke show and some unforgettable hate-laden banter held in the middle of a barricaded intersection, points to an image problem that was never really resolved. Were the reds peaceful and democratic at heart, betrayed by a militant fringe, or was violence and intimidation part of the overall red program from the start?

Not entirely surprising for a movement that enjoyed funding and policy guidance from a media-savvy-Machiavellian-ex-prime minister in exile, the reds used modern communications and advertising technique to create a compelling but ultimately deceptive brand image.

Having a banner proclaim peace in English, while spewing out militant thoughts in Thai is just one example, a kind of niche marketing. Having your touts, front men and impresarios wearing shirts with subtle, if not subliminal, non-verbal messaging is another. Ditto for singing songs with harsh words and haunting, uplifting melodies, such as "nak su thuli din," which was the high point of a memorial service to the slain militant Seh Daeng. The mood was always shifting, almost dizzyingly so, and song selection could jump from bouncy paeans to Thaksin to time-honored ballads commemorating past democracy struggles in rapid succession.

The Mahatma Gandhi shirt worn by rebel leader Jatuporn Promphan raised a few eyebrows, but what about other days, and other leaders? There was radical chic (Che T-shirt) at a defiant moment but also mellow image mending on the day when UDD strategy switched to seeking foreign intervention (jacket with American flag) and so on. Some of the clothing choices were no doubt random, but there also appears to have been a coordinated, if at times contradictory, effort to control word and wardrobe for the select few allowed to face the camera’s eye.

Red shirt speakers at one point stopped to explain to their listeners that peaceful protests played better in the foreign press than violence, so the crowd was urged to remain peaceful, admirably enough. But by now who in the "core" could have failed to notice the militant boasts of Seh Daeng and the taciturn black-shirted guards guarding the perimeter?

If the rank and file protesters were fooled about the allegedly peaceful nature of the movement when violent thoughts were openly expressed on stage, (taunts ranged from suggesting the Prime Minister should be strung up to inviting the army to bring it on and fight to the death) it is because they weren't listening carefully or had started to tune out the high decibel announcements. And if the rank and file failed to observe the black-shirted guards who enjoyed freedom of movement on the perimeter of the red zone, it was in part because they didn't want to see, one eye open, the other eye closed.

A red shirt spokesman tellingly denied knowledge of who the black shirts were but indicated that the reds were appreciative of their support. While he later claimed that the red shirts at Ratchaprasong had no weapons but the bamboo used for defense, he then qualified it with a semi-truth, saying there were “no visible weapons.” The weapons only became visible towards the end, hidden along the periphery in places like Lumpini Park among other places.

Other reports, detailing the forceful confiscation of ID cards and rude behavior of roughneck guards, suggest the peaceful wing of the movement was somewhat less than appreciative, and rather more in awe of, if not afraid of, their mysterious protectors.

While there’s room to debate whether the rank and file reds, said to be mostly middle-aged women, were rural innocents, callously placed on the streets of Bangkok to dignify a basically indecent political campaign aimed at restoring Thaksin to his wealth and power, or willing participants in the same, the result was the same. They were a captive, if not captivated, audience for the stage show of a sham democracy movement crafted to bring a corrupt, lying autocrat back to power.

Cloaking the largely clandestine militant wing of an openly hateful and resentment-fueled movement under incessant bromides and platitudes about democracy, Gandhian non-violence and equality might have served to fool some observers. It also helped to reduce cognitive dissonance on the part of wavering supporters, who at times appeared as drugged out and lacking in individual agency as members of a malevolent cult, but it is surprising to see how many in the foreign media and halls of academe also fell for the same sleight of hand. But then again, there were academics who cheered for the Cultural Revolution, and even the Khmer Rouge, not to mention the legions of Stalinists in an earlier era.

Still, the prevalence of red shirt fever in the academy is disconcerting. What is it about audacious hate and violence hitched to the fortune of a billionaire that certain Doctors of Philosophy find so find attractive?

A detailed media analysis of foreign coverage is a topic for another day, but it is not too soon to make a few preliminary observations.

Most foreign reporters cannot read or speak Thai which meant that the often charming non-verbal aspects of the rally at Ratchaprasong got better coverage than the acidic vitriol that was spoken from the stage in rapid-fire Thai.

Not surprisingly, the TV coverage was generally more superficial and misleading than print coverage. Al Jazeera was much better than CNN however, while the New York Times and the American wire service AP proved wiser and more sober in their coverage than the more sensationalist reports from newspapers based in the UK and Australia.

Suffice to say, a handful of reporters, Thai and foreign, and a number of extraordinary photographers were on the front line covering the story in a truly heroic manner. They showed us the human side of pro-government and anti-government forces alike, unflinching when either side engaged in violence. Their hard-earned record, --a Japanese photographer and an Italian photographer tragically paid with their lives-- not only recorded history in the making but contribute to the exposure of hidden hands and deeper appreciation of the complexity of the conflict.

And then there were the bobbleheads on CNN in studios in Hong Kong and Atlanta who took greater care to get their make-up, hair-gel and informal banter in good order rather than the facts; a triumph of snazzy media graphics, studio lighting and precisely-timed commercial breaks over the raw truth, on touchy topics such as political bloodshed and monarchical intervention.

Even though banned from England and banned from talking to the press in France, it is not hard to hear the tin-eared Thaksin proclaiming his innocence very, very loudly, either in his own shrill voice or through the nasal voice of his newly hired Canadian publicist. That he can keep himself in the news every day is a deft accomplishment. He is at once famous and infamous, outrageous and repentant, and highly contradictory, but it doesn't really matter if everlasting fame is the goal. His aggressive media strategy deliberately muddies the waters, effectively making the media outlets who swallow his rough, off-the-cuff comments and smoothly crafted corporate PR releases hook, line and sinker an extension of his red media machine.

Still, it is troubling the way some print media who ought to know better uncritically absorbed and repeated, often without attribution, the paper storm of professionally crafted PR, op-eds and press releases released by hired flacks, Canadian lawyer/publicist Robert Amsterdam being a case in point.

Melbourne’s Herald Sun ran a piece called “Thaksin calls for both sides to step back from abyss,” on May 17, 2010, making use of ghost-written quotes provided by Amsterdam's office, all the more devious because unattributed.

“Red Shirts had good reason to protest” was published in The Australian on May 20, 2010, when Bangkok was still choked with smoke. The timing was awful, but at least it was attributed to Thaksin’s hired alter-ego Amsterdam.

Arrested red shirt leader Veera Musikapong, who indicated displeasure with the armed wing of the reds and was keen on negotiating until negotiations were reportedly nixed by Thaksin, was correct in saying that anger does not produce democracy. Ditto for propaganda, advertising and crafty press releases disseminated by PR flacks.

As Veera and some of the more sensible red shirt leaders have acknowledged, a time-out is called for, but not at the expense of truth and transparency.

Vigilance is needed to guard against the audaciously mendacious.

It’s one thing to use TV, magazines and the internet to spread propaganda, quite another to incite violence. The red shirts have proven themselves eloquent, and almost touching in terms of crowd rapport at times, and a number of them sing reasonably well, though even the songs were lies in the sense that some good traditional melodies were hijacked and stuffed with pro-Thaksin lyrics.

But for every good entertainer or engaging speaker there was another speaker who spewed vile, ad hominem attacks, or racist jokes or hate speech as a matter of course. And then there were the snipers, arson specialists and bombers lurking murkily in the shadows.

Human rights groups and media freedom groups take note: UDD and other Red Shirt channels and websites do not uphold the responsibility inherent to freedom of the press if they purvey hate speech, use the medium to transmit coded militant commands or in plain speech tell people to go out and burn and kill.

No serious free speech advocate upholds the right to scream “fire” in a movie theatre.

Yet the red core leaders, including Arisman Pongruangrong and Nattawut Saikua, have been caught on tape saying things along the lines of, “If we don’t get our way, it’s burn, baby, burn.”

The red stage and its broadcast arm was a key nerve center for followers outside of the protest zone, some hundreds of miles away. In order not to alert listeners who were not supporters, some important communications were undoubtedly conveyed in code words, much as US fundamentalists do with right-wing talk radio and militant Islamists do on the internet.

But near the end, even the pretense of code was stripped away. When the self-styled DJ Om, who sounded like an overeager Red Guard on a bad day, took to the stage to face the UDD camera during the last hours of the Ratchaprasong protest, she spoke in terms that needed little decoding for followers around the country.

“Brothers and sisters! Get revenge! Do what you have to do!” she screamed in blood-curdling tones. “Go to the provincial government halls! Go now! Get revenge!”

Shortly after that, there was a “spontaneous” decision of red shirt sympathizers (downtrodden farmers?) in Ubol, Udon, Khonkaen, and Mukdahan to torch their own local government offices. A number of beautiful and historic buildings were burned and innocent rural folk intimidated, but fortunately the “sparks” didn’t light a “prairie fire.”

In fact, the key leaders of the so-called “core” including Nattawut and Jatuporn achieved a soft landing of sorts, just as tensions were building to a crescendo in the crowd, by turning themselves in to police as the army moved slowly north. The army may have hoped to lessen confrontation by moving at a snail's pace, but they also had to contend with M79 hand grenades intermittent sniper fire on the part of rebels, before closing in on Ratchaprasong intersection. Most of the brief, bloody skirmishes on May 19, 2010 were near or around Lumpini Park.

The red leaders got off light, spared both the anger of the army and the fury of the abandoned crowd, and not long after that, Bangkok was hit hard with a shockwave of concerted violence. Since talk of “burning the city” was a documented feature of red rhetoric in earlier rallies, the periodic volleys of incendiary rhetoric launched from the stage at Ratchaprasong raises troubling questions about the ethics of the UDD leadership and the sincerity of their followers.

The word terrorist is a problematic, over-used term in contemporary political discourse, and it is almost invariably used to describe what the other side does. It is a such a loaded term it is probably better not used, but oddly enough, the red shirts used "phu kor kan rai," the Thai term for terrorist, incessantly, often in mocking self-reference, which begs the question whether or not there was a kernel of contradictory truth in their loud, adamant denials. Where the peaceful protesters covering up, diverting attention from, or obscuring something less savory below?

Sort of like a banner that puts two irreconcilable ideas in uncomfortable proximity;