Red Shirts Rally on Fourth Anniversary of Coup

Red Shirts protect themselves with a bamboo barricade during their protests in May in Bangkok, Thailand.

I feel fear, we don't know what this is," said Zhao Fei, who had just arrived in Bangkok from Shenzhen in China. She and her two friends looked lost, wheeling their pink, silver and navy cases among Red Shirt protesters at the same intersection where, four months ago to the day, the Thai army launched a final assault on the group's mass anti-government protest that occupied this luxury shopping district in Bangkok.

"We were scared coming through the crowd in the traffic," she said, admitting that her group did not realize that a political rally was scheduled for the center of Bangkok, where they hoped to stay until Wednesday—"to do some shopping"—before flying south to the beach resort city of Phuket.

An estimated 7,000 Red Shirts were flying red balloons and weaving a street-wide web of red ribbon, the end of a day-long commemoration of the September 19, 2006 army coup that deposed then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

For many, yesterday's protest revived memories of the March-to-May rally that degenerated into violence that left over 90 people dead and almost 2,000 injured. Thailand's important tourist sector, accounting for 6 percent of the country's economy, was badly hit during the protests, with hotel occupancy in Bangkok down 20 percent on average.

Sunday's demonstration saw traffic diverted from the Rajaprasong intersection, where some of the city's largest shopping centers and high-end hotels are located, along with the famous Erawan Buddhist shrine. Despite the current State of Emergency in Bangkok, which outlaws public gatherings of more than five people, the police allowed the rally to take place, while the Centre for the Resolution of Emergency Situation, the government body formed during the mass protest earlier this year, set up a weekend "war room" to keep tabs on the Red Shirt protests taking place in Bangkok and Chiang Mai.

According to Red Shirt leaders, the violence-strewn mass protest from March to May was about "democracy," but protesters I spoke with today said this one-day event was more about "justice." While the atmosphere was festive for the most part, the Red Shirts carried some fiery political messages. Draped across the overpass traversing the intersection read a banner saying, "Who is the Killer?"

Oy, a 51-year-old housewife living in Bangkok, spent her afternoon carrying a placard listing Red Shirt grievances with the current government. Her placard claimed, controversially, that 700 Red Shirts were killed during the protests. "We feel we have to do something to remember the people who died, or there will be no hope," Oy said. "We are innocent, we are peaceful, and we are not armed."

On April 1, still-unidentified "men in black" were deemed responsible for the death of a former royal bodyguard during the first military attempt to disperse the Red Shirt protest. On May 19, after Red Shirt leaders told the remaining protestors to leave the protest site, black-clad militants fought the Thai army as it advanced on the main rally stage, firing grenades and seriously wounding a Canadian journalist.

Listed as the 23rd-wealthiest Thai in a recent Forbes survey, Thaksin is regarded as the funder-in-chief of the Red Shirt movement. He has been on the run since fleeing Thailand—and corruption charges—in 2008. Last night he tweeted a message saying that he hoped for "reconciliation" in Thailand, adding that he is currently in Lebanon.

Red Shirts say their movement is animated by perceived injustice and double standards, with Thaksin and successor parties finding themselves out of power after a 2008 anti-Thaksin Yellow Shirt protest and ensuing coalition party defections that resulted in the current Democrat Party, Abhisit Vejajjiva-led government coming to power.

While the change of government was legal, Red Shirts believe that it happened due to political and legal machinations. On Sunday morning, Red Shirt leader Jaran Dittapichai published a statement titled "Four Years After the Coup," claiming that "the Courtiers disqualified two prime ministers and the People Power Party" (a party set up after Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai—Thais Love Thais—Party was itself disbanded).

"The Courtiers" is apparently a reference to the "elite groups" that Red Shirts see as the puppet-masters behind the various moves to oust their allies from government. Yellow Shirts and pro-government allies regard Thaksin as the driving force behind the Red Shirts, and based their protests against the rule of his administrations and successor governments on what they viewed as his anti-royalist leanings.

One of the previously disqualified lawmakers was Pongthep Thepkanchana, the former deputy leader of Thai Rak Thai. I met him on a walkabout at the Red Shirt rally on Sunday, where he posed for photos and pressed the flesh. "He is a good man, a future prime minister," said one of the ladies who beamed beside him as friends and family snapped away.

Peua Thai—the current incarnation of Thai Rak Thai—would be favored to top the polls in any election, and will be heartened by the turnout in central Bangkok on Sunday. However, all may not be well inside party ranks. A recent leadership overhaul resulted in the outgoing party head Yongyuth Wichaidit resuming his leadership post after an apparent disagreement over a successor.

Laughing off the various glowing endorsements from Red Shirt supporters, Pongthep turned somber as the cameras stopped clicking. "Our democracy is damaged, and the coup of 2006 caused so much trouble for Thailand, which is not over yet," he said.

This article was originally published by The Irrawaddy:

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