As Thai armed forces call crisis meeting, Red Shirts insist they will not back down

 

At the Red Shirt rally an hour east of Bangkok, there was lots of music, an abundance of fried chicken and countless people insisting they would not back down from what they said was a fight for Thailand’s democracy.

“This is not just about Mr Thaksin. He is a factor but there are other issues as well,” said Krittapat Ratanasong, an English teacher from Bangkok. “We are fighting for truth and fairness.”

The thousands of people gathering under tents and makeshift shelters every day are part of a movement that has been victorious in Thailand’s last six elections. They would likely be successful again, if there were to be another.

Instead, the so-called Red Shirts, who have largely backed former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a 2006 coup, say that their opponents have given up on electoral democracy because they have been repeatedly beaten.

The anti-government protesters, known as the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) and whose relentless protests have debilitated the administration and helped create a situation that led the army to declare martial law, want to have a “neutral” prime minister appointed. They claim elections are pointless because they are rigged and have called for reform of the system before fresh elections are held.

The Red Shirts, meanwhile, insist the only constitutional and fair way of choosing Thailand’s leader is by having a vote.

“The anti-government protesters never demonstrate for democracy,” said Payom Phetwisate, the wife of a police officer, who has been visiting the rally site for the past 10 days. “We want democracy. We want everyone to be equal.”

 

The Red Shirts have intentionally held their rally – listening to songs and speeches and filling-up on freshly cooked meals - outside of Bangkok and away from the PDRC in order to avoid clashes. Almost 30 people have been killed and hundreds wounded since the anti-government protests took hold last November.

But from this location they have been watching the developments playing out in Bangkok and the declaration of martial law by the head of the armed forces, Gen Prayuth Chan-Ocha. The Red Shirts believe that for now, Gen Prayuth’s actions do not represent a coup, but were he to try and get rid of the caretaker civilian administration, he would be crossing a line into unconstitutionality.

“The only solution for the problem is to become a democratic country. And to do that we need a fair, equal election,” said Red Shirt leader Sonwang Asarasee.

The Red Shirt strongholds are generally considered to be in the north and north-east of Thailand and the Red Shirts themselves to mainly be be rural Thais. They are often mocked as “buffaloes” by the anti-government protesters.

But the rally site east of Bangkok underscored the fact that many in the capital city, some of them middle class professionals, also support the government. That support is not blind, however; they have criticised several recent decisions taken by both the government and Mr Thaksin, including an attempt to introduce an amnesty bill that would have allowed the former premier to return from exile in Dubai.

On Wednesday, the Red Shirts at Salaya were keenly following the news as Gen Prayuth summoned the rival factions in the nation’s stand-off for a meeting at a military sports club. He said the idea was to try and broker a compromise. It was the first face-to-face meeting of the various groups for six months and would have been all but impossible without the order coming from the army chief.

The different groups included representatives from the government, the Phua Thai party associated with former prime minister Mr Thaksin, the Red Shirts, headed by Jatuporn Prompan, the opposition Democrat party, headed by former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, the upper house of the parliament and the anti-government protesters, headed by Suthep Thaugsuban. Representatives of the country’s election commission were also invited.

Afterwards, the Thai military said the meeting had been held in a good atmosphere and that people had been smiling, although there had been no immediate breakthrough. The parties will reconvene on Thursday, having been given “homework” by Gen Prayuth – five separate issues to consider in consultation with their supporters. “They understand we have to work together,” said army spokesman Col Werachon Sukondhapatipak.

Asked by The Independent whether or not the military believed a solution to the stand-off could be found without an election, Mr Werachon said: “This country is a democracy and we respect the democratic process... But we need to sort out the problems before there can be an election.”

The brokering of the meeting by Gen Prayuth move appears to indicate the military’s intention to broaden its role in the crisis and not to satisfy itself simply overseeing law and order, as it initially said was its plan. Campaigners and some government supporters insist the army’s actions represent a de facto coup.

While continuing to insist its actions do not represent a coup, the army has shut down a number of media outlets and issued a series of orders, among them being that people should not negatively discuss the decision to impose martial law. It has also warned the media not broadcast any material that could be damaging to national security. On Wednesday evening, it was reported that anything on social media that incited violence or opposition would be censored.

After the meeting, it emerged the various groups had been asked by Gen Prayuth to consider five points –including whether or not there should be a referendum to decide if an election proceeds before or after reforms, the timing of such an election and the role of the caretaker government.

Deputy prime minister Phongthep Thepkanjana, who did not attend the meeting but who was briefed on the proceedings, said the government still wished to have an election on 3 August  though he admitted it might not be possible.

Asked as to whether he considered the imposition of martial law to be a coup, he said: “At this time, it does not amount to a coup because they are trying to apply the martial law act. When there is a coup, the coup leader considers himself sovereign. So far, they are trying to apply existing law.”

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