Thailand's Red Shirts Struggle to Survive

To prevent protesters unleashing another urban insurrection, new CCTV cameras will eyeball the Bangkok streets where 90 people died, most of them civilians, and 1,400 were injured when the military battled Red Shirts and crushed their bamboo barricades in May.

Thailand's army-backed government is now wielding overwhelming surveillance, imprisonment, censorship and other "state of emergency" powers across much of this Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian nation. The United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, commonly known as the Red Shirts, acknowledge that they have been strangled and are struggling to stay alive. Thousands of cameras are to be installed all over Bangkok, making it probably the most heavily surveilled city in Asia.

There appears to be little sign of the government's so-called five-point national reconciliation road map announced by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on June 20 and designed to tackle the economic, social and political issues that have played havoc with the country since the ouster of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a royalist-backed military coup in 2006.

"Basically, we as an organization, we do not exist," Sean Boonpracong, the Red Shirts' international spokesman, told Asia Sentinel.

"What we are trying to do is trying to survive. There are 820 warrants for arrest for Red leaders nationwide. I think just slightly over one-third have been arrested," Boonpracong, 60, said in an interview. The military also hauled him in personally for six hours of interrogation at the army's headquarters in Bangkok, he added.

"They wanted to find out how I came to join the movement, and what was my relationship. They asked what the military wanted to know about the UDD." The army does not want the Reds to create a domestic or international tribunal to investigate the government and military for its use of armored personnel carriers, U.S. and Israeli assault rifles, and other weapons to crush the insurrection, which ultimately ended on May 19, he said.

"I think the army is trying to intimidate us, to not form what we call 'this hearing', for the deaths and the wounded."

Asa result of the crackdown, the Reds' UDD is now in limbo. "We have not met, and we have not been doing anything as an organization. We are all on our own, without an organization. Our office has closed down," Boonpracong said. "All top 10 [Red] leaders are on the run, or are arrested. Several of them are in jail. We don't coordinate. Essentially we don't exist. We don't exist."

During their nine-week protest, which began peacefully on March 12, the Red Shirts demanded that Parliament be immediately dissolved and elections be held. They hoped to elect candidates who would help pardon the fugitive Thaksin, who was convicted on corruption and has been on the run outside the country. He has since been named a “terrorist” by government leaders over allegations he was funding the Red Shirt rebellion.

Abhisit, who took office in December 2008, survived in power by obliterating the Reds' blockade, but the government and military now fear another uprising by frustrated Red Shirts. Thailand on July 6 extended its harsh state of emergency on about 25 percent of the country, including Bangkok, and continues to seize Red leaders and other suspects, for alleged "terrorism" and other crimes.

"The government's use of terrorism charges to go after Red Shirt leaders, as well as Thaksin, is inappropriate for what was mostly a peaceful political movement that did not target civilians," said the Belgium-based International Crisis Group on July 5.

The emergency decree, described by the ICG as “draconian,” conveniently also"grants officials immunity from prosecution," the ICG said.

The military's recently created Center for Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES) said Thailand was "unstable" on July 5, because a "distortion of facts and information continues, and missing weapons have not been returned to security agencies" after some Reds seized guns and ammunition during street clashes.

The government said most Red Shirt protesters were peaceful, but a mysterious, unidentified group used weapons against the military and staged arson attacks during the siege, possibly duping naive Red Shirts and using them as a front during an attempted violent power grab.

Meanwhile, here the middle of Bangkok, inside a small secretive room, Thai police monitor a slew of closed-circuit TV (CCTV) cameras which expose the upscale streets where thousands of Red Shirts lived for weeks behind barricades made of bamboo poles and tires, until military gunfire forced them out on May 19. The police cameras now show the Ratchaprasong area filled with passive shoppers, tourists and vehicles, after cleaners removed bloodstains, burnt rubble, graffiti and bullet holes.

"We have 68 cameras in the Ratchaprasong area, and there will be more cameras installed," said the Ratchaprasong Square Trade Association's president, Chai Srivikorn, in an interview. During their blockade, Red Shirts tied plastic bags over many of the earlier installed CCTV cameras, blinding police monitors, Chai said. To thwart such civil disobedience in future, technicians are installing better cameras high atop Ratchaprasong's tall buildings and "other places where they cannot reach," and using wireless cameras with "a very high zoom power" to observe everyone alongthe two-kilometer commercial zone where the Red Shirts were encamped behind barricades, he said.

"If it is an organized movement, they [protesters] will identify any camera that they can reach. "So to defend them, and make that more secure, it has to be high up where they cannotaccess. So that's why we have to put more cameras there." Ratchaprasong's cameras and operating costs are paid for privately by building owners, but stream digital video only to police, he said. The government "plans for 10,000 cameras" to be installed elsewhere across Bangkok, including where other deadly clashes occurred.

"But that is a different [system], it is more like at intersections" to monitor large crowds and traffic, Chai said.

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist who has reported news from Asia since 1978. His web page is http://www.asia-correspondent.110mb.com