Red Shirt, Yellow Shirt, Black Shirt, No Shirt

It was an unlikely series of events that put me in the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand [FCCT] on Thursday: a randomly chosen and several times delayed trip to Bangkok, an endlessly helpful acquaintance of an acquaintance, a long walk culminating in lost shoes. The FCCT is located in the penthouse suite of a large skyscraper office building — I couldn’t tell you which one — and includes a classy bar and dining area with a projector and several large LCD screens arranged to be visible by everyone in the room. When my new friend Rob and I arrive, the TVs are mutedly showing English-language Al Jezeera and the walls have been newly hung with an exhibition of beautiful and haunting war photography documenting the recent clashes between government forces and the anti-government Red Shirt protesters. I’m honestly a little shocked to have found my way into such a hip event with Bangkok’s expat elite, and one so perfect for my purposes. Tonight is a special dinner and presentation for and by journalists who covered or were caught in the Red Shirt chaos and the violence of the government crackdown.

Briefly then, this May (little more than a week before I arrived) saw the apex of a political crisis that has gripped Thailand since 2005. This is a drama with many players, but let me generalise them into a) the monarchy-backed military and their political allies and b) billionaire telecom mogul and deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his political allies. Each side has given birth to a mass movement whose protests have troubled Bangkok periodically over the last several years: the more-or-less middle/upper class and pro-monarchy Yellow Shirts (yellow being the royal colour of the current king) and more recently the more-or-less rural, poor Red Shirts.

Depending on who you talk to Thaksin was ousted in the 2006 military coup either for being a corrupt, embezzling tyrant or for his highly popular rural development policies, which cut the country’s rural poverty in half in four yours. On the one hand, there is much legitimate evidence that as prime minister Thaksin cut many shady deals that filled his own pockets, and that he had had a dangerously authoritarian streak regarding his enemies’ human rights. On the other, it is hard to deny that Thaksin’s wild populist support from rural areas and landslide election victories caused great consternation amongst Thailand’s wealthy urban elite in Bangkok, who openly argued that the countries rural poor were too uneducated to be allowed to vote. Class struggle is too simple of an explanation, but class is definitely a part of it.

So the Yellow Shirts agitated for several years against Thaksin and then against the populist governments that won subsequent elections in his stead, most famously shutting down air travel across Asia by occupying Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok for several days. Their efforts resulted in first the military junta that removed and exiled Thaksin, and later the military-backed Constitutional Court order that dissolved the three allied parties of the Thaksin-supported government.

A new anti-government movement formed in early 2009, allegedly funded from exile by Thaksin and this time calling for the resignation of the new Yellow Shirt-supported government. This escalated in March 2010 into a two month continuous protest in Bangkok — the largest in Thailand’s history — which, though mostly peaceful, eventually occupied several blocks of downtown Bangkok from behind rubber tire barricades. There were clashes with police and pro-government protesters, but the Red Shirts stayed put until 19 May, when the Thai Army stormed the camp, killing over 80 and wounding thousands more. As they fled, some of the Red Shirts set fire to several buildings, destroying parts of Bangkok’s shopping district, including the huge Central World Plaza mall. Now, just weeks later, Bangkok keeps a simmering calm, and through the immediate crisis is over the long term political future remains darkly unclear.

This, my best but ultimately crude approximation, leaves out many details: assassinations, bombings, statements by this leader or that, accusations and counter-accusations, white shirt peace factions, factions within factions, not to mention Thailand’s long political history and its rarely criticised but quietly controversial monarchy. And the acute sense I had of my own ignorance on the matter only grew as a variety of impressive journalists (all professionally my betters) arrived to pack the Foreign Correspondents Club. They clumped together in animated groups, drawing maps of Bangkok intersections on napkins to cross-reference with each other about who had been shooting at whom from where. Some were sporting injuries from bullets both rubber and lead, and others were asking about those the condition of colleagues still too grievously wounded to attend. When things settled down and the presentation began, it was standing room only.

The event features footage shot by several different journalists on both sides of the army siege. Some of it was too chaotic to follow, and much of it was of the kind of apolitical behaviour that one always finds in the midst of urban emergencies: people running haphazardly or walking around dazed, wounded people being bandaged on sidewalks or carried to safety, discussion about who was where and where was safe. The crowd chuckles at a shot of a man running with an arm full of Adidas shoes. Other parts, however, were extremely graphic. There was a clip of a fleeing journalist being shot, and several more of military snipers firing live rounds at the crowds. In another clip one such sniper was captured by Red Shirts and subsequently beaten, stripped and bound.

“I found a lot of the things going on so confusing that I don’t have a point of view,” journalist Brad Cox tells the crowd while introducing his clip. As it started to roll, he motions to the projectionist and says, “Can we turn the sound up? Sound was such a big part of the day.”

Occasionally the attendees quip and counter-quip about how biased or accurate so-and-so’s coverage was, but the main thrust of the discussion concerned the so-called “black shirts” or “men in black” — the armed protester paramilitaries whose presence and actions arguably escalated months of peaceful protest into urban warfare. This issue is confusing on a number of levels. For one, most of the black shirts didn’t wear black (and most Red Shirts didn’t where red after a certain point). Then there were the black shirted but unarmed sentries guarding the edge of the camp. Perhaps a better distinction is ‘men with guns’ versus ‘men without guns.’

The government claimed that there were 500 of these dangerous militia — “terrorists” — in the protest camp, and this was their justification for that final assault on the Red Shirts. This was disputed by many of the journalists there, including Kenneth Todd Ruiz and Olivier Sarbil, who were allowed to live among the black shirts for much of the protest on the deadly condition that they take no pictures. Mr. Ruiz and Mr. Sarbil claim to have counted only 30 members of the militia camp, only 12 of whom were armed. However, they also saw the black shirts with powerful rifles and grenades, using guerilla tactics to attack and harass the army and setting bombs around the perimeter of the camp.

Best evidence says that the black shirts were taking their orders from rogue army major general Khattiya Sawasdipol — until Khattiya was killed by a sniper’s bullet on 13 May. The “red general” often spoke fondly of his “Ronin” amongst the protesters, and several of the black shirts claimed to be active duty soldiers gone AWOL. The militia described themselves to Mr. Ruiz and Mr. Sarbil as “black angels” there to protect the protesters, but as so often happens when those fond of violent tactics get involved in a peaceful protest, their alleged actions ended up detracting from the credibility of the larger Red Shirt movement and helped precipitate the battle that kept Thailand in international headlines for several days.

The number of black shirts is obviously a sensitive issue. Were they a few bad apples in a barrel of thousands, or a large and significant contingent? Even here, amongst the theoretically unbiased reporters, the room is full of glaring agendas. The truth either calls into question the integrity of the Red Shirt protesters or damages the legitimacy of the military’s actions.

A Thai apartment building owner (and landlord of several other FCCT members) stands up and claimed his buildings in the protest camp were surrounded by armed militia members. “At least forty black shirts in my little street. They told me they were black shirts. They were wearing black shirts.”

But the landlord is quickly shouted down, and from the faces around me it seems few believe him. I catch the phrase “Yellow Shirt disinformation” amid the murmur. Tempers are starting to get short, and when Rob’s friend Linda tipsily grabs the microphone and badgers the crowd — “Have any of you ever actually participated in a protest?” — the MC quickly wraps up the event and directs us to the bar.

Now Bangkok again bustles about its business, but it is a wounded city. By the time I arrived the Central World shopping centre had been walled off from view, but I can still spot the sooty husks of several burnt out buildings, workers abjectly sweeping at floors strewn with charred consumer goods: hats, shoes, t-shirts. The Red Shirts have mostly gone home to their villages, and Thaksin, now wanted by Thailand on terrorism charges, has gone deeper into hiding. Things are calm, but there is no reason to think this political crisis is over, and in the meantime Thailand’s tourism industry and international reputation have both been damaged by the strife.

And the black shirts? Though the leaders of the Red Shirts surrendered to arrest, the “Ronin” were never caught. They likely remain in the city, underground and inconspicuous. The Red Shirt movement is dispersed, for now leaving these dangerous guerillas wearing no coloured shirt at all.

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