The Uphill Climb for Thailand's Red Shirts

Despite the appearance Sunday of thousands of pro-democracy Red Shirts in Bangkok to mark the fourth anniversary of Thailand's 2006 coup, the movement remains fragmented and harried by an army and government determined to keep a tight rein on protest.

Although the weekend rallies served to raise the Red Shirts' political profile after they were driven out of Bangkok in disarray in May, there appear to be no prospects for reconciliation. The Reds, who draw their strength from the impoverished rural northeastern region of the country, want political reform and political change.

The Bangkok-based elite are satisfied with the political status quo, especially after their resounding victory in May, and appear determined to preserve it with force. After the military used armored personnel carriers, assault rifles and other weapons to crush the Reds, the armed forces have enjoyed a powerful position, with Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva dependent upon their support for his political survival. The military budget has almost doubled since the 2006 coup, to Bt154 billion (US$5.1 billion).

Both sides, however, have suffered from a bad image stemming from the violence four months ago in which 91 protesters died in clashes when they occupied the same crossroads where Sunday's rally took place. As they were being driven from their Ratchaprasong redoubt – equivalent to New York's Times Square – the Red Shirts set fire to buildings, completely destroying Central World, one of Asia's biggest shopping malls, as well as to the Stock Exchange and several banks. Central World finally reopened earlier this month.

It is clear that neither side wants a repeat of the May violence, which blackened Thailand's reputation as a tourism magnet and drew attention to the image of King Bhumibol Adulyadej because of his inability, as he has in the past, to force a reconciliation.

"There are deaths here," the protesters chanted while others cheered, sang defiant songs, lit candles, released red balloons, strung the streets with long red ribbons, and wore symbolic red clothing. The shoulder-to-shoulder crowd defied harsh "state of emergency" laws banning political rallies in Bangkok, and boosted each other's morale after their nine-week insurrection in Bangkok was crushed.

Many Thais and foreigners in Bangkok expressed fear on Sunday that the rally would inspire the Reds to renege on their promise to leave in the evening, and could create in a fresh insurrection. But the 5,000-10,000 protesters, who ignored police who failed to keep the key intersection open, peacefully left the area after sunset, as promised.

Hundreds of other Red Shirts held simultaneous rallies in northern Thailand's cities of Chiang Mai, Nong Khai and elsewhere. There have been other rallies as well, including one that drew thousands of supporters to a concert in the seaside resort city of Pattaya on September 4.

Thailand's media, once among Southeast Asia's freest, are staunchly on the side of the government amid widespread suspicion that they have been intimidated by the military. Thailand's television stations ignored the protest and broadcast soap operas and other muted fare throughout the day. The English-language Bangkok Post backs the government almost without reservation.

The Reds remain angry over the destruction of this Southeast Asian nation's democracy, which resulted when Thailand's US-trained military staged a bloodless coup on September 19, 2006, ousting three-time election winner Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, but there appears to be little they can do. The junta leaders gave themselves amnesty from prosecution after ripping up a popular 1997 constitution and orchestrating their own 2007 charter. Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, who led the coup, retired from the military in 2007 and leads the small Matubhum Party with six seats in Parliament.

Meanwhile, Red Shirt spokesmen say at least 470 of their leaders and followers remain in prison although authorities put the figure much lower, at 241 arrested and another 372 still on the run.

Thaksin himself is a fugitive, based mostly in Dubai, dodging a two-year jail sentence for corruption during his five-year term when he pursued populist but authoritarian policies, including a nationwide "war on drugs" which killed more than 2,000 people in murky circumstances which were never fully investigated.

The Red Shirts have issued a four-point ultimatum to the government demanding the release of the prisoners, including those jailed earlier for lese majeste (insulting the monarchy); an immediate end to an emergency decree banning their activities, an end to censorship and the establishment of a public inquiry into the 2006 coup, and a fixed date for a general election.

But as Abhisit has continued to consolidate his power, it is clear that none of the demands will be met. The prime minister has failed to heal the rift between the two sides, but is becoming stronger simply because his opponents have been badly weakened. Abhisit, who took office in December 2008, is perceived by the Reds as benefiting from the coup because earlier attempts by pro-Thaksin politicians to form a government were undermined by a lack of support from the extremely politicized military.

There are also concerns that the military or other interests are targeting activists for extinction. Four Red Shirt leaders have been gunned down under mysterious circumstances, the latest "James" Krissada Klaharn, who was shot on Aug. 31 as he and his girlfriend were driving to their home at 1:15 am. Krissada was shot three times from a vehicle following them. He died on Sept.4 from the bullet wounds. Red Shirt leaders say bullets and cartridges found at the scene of Krissada's shooting were from a US-made M16A1 military assault rifle used by the Thai military. No arrests have been made in any of the shootings.

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