Reds ready to rumble in Thailand
By Nelson Rand and Chandler Vandergrift
UDON THANI and BANGKOK - Thailand's United Front for Democracy against
Dictatorship (UDD) red-shirted protest movement is poised to launch a renewed
campaign to topple Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's wobbly coalition
government. The protests promise new rounds of instability after a period of
relative political calm and threaten to derail the country's still tentative
The new push will commence on Monday with a planned rally of 10,000 protesters
around a royal privy councilor's allegedly ill-gotten land in a provincial
forest reserve and eventuate in what UDD leaders contend will be a "decisive"
mass rally in Bangkok later in the month. The UDD's symbolic leader, exiled
premier Thaksin Shinawatra, wrote in a Twitter message to his supporters on
Friday that soothsayers he had consulted foresaw violence on the horizon in
Since last April, when the UDD stormed and disrupted an Asian summit meeting
with global leaders in attendance in Pattaya and later fought running street
battles with Thai security forces in the capital, Bangkok, the movement has
undergone what its proponents claim has been a major transformation. The
overhaul aims to establish a better-organized and more unified movement, in
part to avoid freelancers acting independently, as UDD leaders claim occurred
during April's mayhem in Bangkok, and also to bolster its support from the
general population after losing popularity in the wake of that meltdown.
The changes have entailed a more organized leadership structure, a formalized
membership system, a fundraising program, weekend training sessions in the
provinces on democratic participation and a growing media network that includes
30 community radio stations, 10 newspapers, numerous websites and a television
station that boasts 10 million regular viewers.
According to the UDD's international spokesman, Sean Boonpracong, the new
leadership and organizational structure have been designed as a "big tent" in
which regional red-shirted associate groups and others sympathetic to the
movement's call for social justice are all accommodated under one unified UDD
banner. While various groups' ideologies and strategies may differ, they are
now purportedly united in a common struggle to topple the Democrat Party-led
coalition, which many of them point out was not directly elected by the people.
The new structure, Boonpracong said, aimed to widen the UDD's support base
while distancing the movement from the actions of certain associate groups,
including the Rak Chiang Mai 51, a red-shirted group known for its thuggish
actions, including the violent disruption of a gay-rights parade and alleged
murder of a rival yellow-shirted People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD)
Although the UDD's main support base is drawn from the northeastern and
northern region's rural poor, who benefited under the populist policies of
Thaksin during his six-year premiership, certain factions are bidding to
disassociate the movement's professed wider democratic aims from Thaksin's
personal political agenda. Boonpracong, for one, claimed that the UDD was fast
becoming a more independent grassroots political and social movement.
Certain academics and analysts agree. "They have tapped the sentiments of tens
of millions of Thais, in both Bangkok and the provinces, and their message
captures those Thais' aspirations to see a very different Thailand emerge,"
said Michael Montesano, a visiting research fellow and Thailand specialist at
the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
The UDD's expanding media network now regularly spreads messages of democratic
disenfranchisement, economic inequality and judicial discrimination, ills it
believes a Thaksin-aligned government could resolve if allowed to govern.
Critics note such claims conveniently overlook Thaksin's less than democratic
record and his own alleged judicial interventions during his six controversial
years in power.
"Our main message is that there is no justice - that there are more than two
standards used," said Kwanchai Poipana, a UDD leader from Udon Thani who runs
the pro-Thaksin community radio station 97.5 FM. "When the red-shirts do
something we are always guilty, when the yellow-shirts do something they are
never guilty," he said.
UDD supporters frequently point to the PAD's seizure of Bangkok's two airports
in 2008 and the fact that the group's leaders have yet to be charged, while UDD
leaders were arrested and detained after the military put down their violent
April revolt. "Taking over an airport is a crime anywhere in the world,"
As the UDD flexes its new organizational muscles, the specter of a violent
rerun of April's mayhem looms. The UDD now has about 1,000 security guards,
including a group of Bangkok-based Ramkhamhaeng University students trained by
the UDD to maintain order and protect their protesters from outside attack,
according to Boonpracong. It is also clearly bidding to create splits in
War and peace
At previous UDD rallies, uniformed paramilitary rangers, or thahan phran,
have also acted as guards. Some of these soldiers are known to hail from Pak
Thong Chai in central Nakorn Ratchasima province and have ties to controversial
army specialist Major-General Khattiya Sawasdipol, known more commonly as Seh
During the PAD protests of 2008, Seh Daeng accurately predicted bomb attacks
against PAD security guards and trained dozens of youths in combat to counter
the PAD. After a grenade was launched at the PAD's most recent rally in
November, Seh Daeng said the attack was carried out by an "unidentified" armed
group and that it was only intended as a deterrent, not as an attempt to cause
He has consistently denied involvement in the various bomb attacks and no
evidence has linked him directly to the blasts other than his timely warnings.
In 2008, he was relegated to a military position promoting public fitness at
marketplaces and is currently embroiled in numerous court battles for
disciplinary violations, including an unauthorized trip to Cambodia in November
to meet with Thaksin.
That trip was especially sensitive in light of unconfirmed reports of
arms-smuggling from Cambodia to UDD supporters in bordering northeastern
provinces - reports UDD leaders have denied. Nonetheless, they have fueled
speculation that the UDD may be preparing for an armed struggle in the
provinces if their next round of protests in Bangkok is violently suppressed by
the armed forces. A high-ranking Thai military official, speaking on condition
of anonymity, would neither deny nor confirm the accuracy of such reports,
saying, "It's a very porous border, it's easy to get things across."
While core UDD leaders deny they are planning armed struggle, international
spokesman Boonpracong admits that radical elements may be emerging which "may
not agree with the UDD's peaceful measures". After April's failed uprising, UDD
co-leader Jakrapob Penkair, who has since fled into exile, told news agencies
that the UDD was willing to launch an "armed struggle" to achieve its goals.
While the UDD prepares to ramp up its protests, Abhisit's government is holding
firm, despite perceptions that his Democrat party-led coalition would - despite
signs of economic recovery - still come up short in new elections against the
Thaksin-aligned Puea Thai party. His government is expected to vigorously
resist the protests, as it did last year through frequent invocations of the
Internal Security Act, which gives authorities the power to deploy troops, ban
gatherings and impose curfews in the name of law and order.
The military effectively suppressed April's UDD protest, but questions are
emerging about possible cracks in the chain of command. While Thailand's
military has long been factionalized along graduating class lines, it is now
also believed to be divided among competing units, according to experts. The
21st Infantry Regiment of the Royal Armament, more commonly known as the
Queen's Guard, is now perceived as the dominant unit and is led by its former
commander, army commander in chief General Anupong Paochinda.
"The cause of the current fracture derives from an upset in the promotion line
- denying certain senior military deemed to be close to Thaksin their right to
be promoted," said Paul Chambers, a senior research fellow specializing in Thai
military affairs at Heidelberg University. "The new phenomenon with regard to
[Thai] military factions is that unit, rather than class, dominates the
military," he added.
Anupong and his Queen's Guard clique, including Defense Minister Prawit
Wongsawan and the deputy army chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, are expected to
maintain their backing for Abhisit and steer clear of another coup, according
to analysts. This is in part to ensure a smooth succession at the army's top
from Anupong to Prayuth when the former faces mandatory retirement in September
At the same time, the UDD is playing up the prospect that factions inside the
military could break the chain of command if the UDD's rally is forcibly
dispersed. "If the army starts to suppress us, there are factions of the
military that will fight back," claimed one UDD leader who spoke on condition
of anonymity. "If there is another coup, it will be violent."
As an indication of those fissures, the UDD points to the dozens of retired
military officials, including more than 50 Thaksin classmates from the Armed
Forces Academies Preparatory School and special forces soldiers, who recently
joined the Puea Thai party. "The moves by soldiers into Puea Thai [and other
parties] can only further destabilize Thailand," said Chambers. Other analysts
note that Anupong has strategically placed known loyalists in top command
positions, including those who were instrumental in past coups.
While UDD leaders insist their campaign will be peaceful, they also indicate
that their protest movement is near a breaking point over what they perceive as
a series of non-democratic power grabs and partisan judicial decisions. "We
fight through peaceful means," explained pro-UDD radio broadcaster Kwanchai,
while suggestively placing a pistol on a nearby table. "But if the government
uses force, we will fight back."
Nelson Rand is a Bangkok-based journalist with a master's degree in
Asia-Pacific policy studies. He can be reached at[email protected]Chandler Vandergrift is a consultant specializing in conflict analysis
and management in Southeast Asia and is based in Bangkok. He can be reached at[email protected]