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    Southeast Asia
     May 13, 2010
Thai power grows from the barrel of a gun
By William Barnes

BANGKOK - The relative success of Thailand's red-garbed anti-government protest group in outmaneuvering the government and military owes much to Maoist revolutionary thought and guerilla tactics.

Therdpoum Chaidee, a former communist and colleague of key protest leaders, says that the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship's (UDD) strategy has necessarily required violence, or at least the threat of violence, to divide and immobilize Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government.

"The revolution walks on two legs. One political leg and one army leg. Violence is the essential ingredient in the mix. That is what we were taught," said Therdpoum.

The UDD has publicly portrayed itself as a non-violent, pro-democracy movement, a line many international media outlets

 

have perpetuated. It has occupied a large swathe of Bangkok's luxury shopping and hotel district for more than six weeks, paralyzing the symbolic heart of the country's capitalist economy.
Abhisit's government has threatened but failed to remove the thousands of protesters, apparently over fears that the use of force would result in multiple deaths and possible international censure. UDD leaders have threatened "civil war" if security forces crack down on their supporters, known locally as the "red shirts".

The protest group has rallied around its symbolic hero and presumed patron, former populist prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The businessman-cum-politician was ousted in a 2006 military coup and later fled into exile to avoid a two-year jail sentence related to a corruption conviction. Thaksin has since cajoled UDD supporters to rise up and topple the government through various video-linked phone-in addresses.

UDD leaders have demanded the dissolution of parliament, currently controlled by a coalition of political parties and backed by the Bangkok establishment, and new elections that they anticipate would be won by the Thaksin-aligned opposition Puea Thai party. They have recently accepted in concept a compromise reconciliation roadmap presented by Abhisit, which calls for new elections to be held on November 14, but not yet abandoned their protest sites.

Tensions spiked violently on April 10, when a routine crowd clearance operation - of the sort successfully deployed by the army against a similar UDD protest in April 2009 - turned into a nightmare of bloodshed. Mysterious commandos, clad in black and circulating freely through the red shirt protesters, used M79 grenades to attack tactical army commanders, killing a highly respected colonel and maiming others.

In the mayhem that followed, 25 protesters and solders were killed and over 800 injured after an operation that started with soldiers wielding batons and ended in deadly firefights. Coincident with the UDD's protest has been a string of anonymous M79 grenade attacks, with over 50 incidents in Bangkok and at least 30 more across the country since mid-March.

On April 22, five grenades were fired into Bangkok's main business district directly opposite a UDD erected bamboo and car-tire street barricade. One person was killed and 90 others injured or maimed, including members of a small pro-government protest group that has expressed opposition to the UDD's protests.

Fog of war
The government has said it aims to separate ''terrorists'' from the ordinary protesters, while some red shirts have thanked the anonymous black-clad assailants for coming to their defense against state security forces. Therdpoum, a former member of parliament under Thaksin's original Thai Rak Thai party, says there has been obfuscation and propaganda on both sides of the conflict.

"The people who are the real planners, not the people up on stage making protest speeches, these people probably keep a very low profile, but they must calculate that aggression is vital," he said. "Aggression paralyzes and divides opponents. This is what we were taught, this is how a smaller force can defeat overwhelming power. The message was: divide and conquer."

Whether the UDD's shadowy armed wing consists of mafia thugs, unemployed irregulars or disaffected regular soldiers, they must be capable of ruthless and focused violence, he said.

Therdpoum, born in humble circumstances in northeastern Thailand, was a hotel union organizer who fled to the communist underground in 1975 to oppose a brutal right wing government. Many hundreds of the country's most energetic students and intellectuals did the same. Most, like Therdpoum, later renounced the ideology.

His five-year odyssey with the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) included a three-month period in Hanoi in the heady period following the unification of Vietnam under communist rule. There, Therdpoum and a handful of hand-picked Thai activists, like prominent student leader Seksan Prasertkun, as well as current UDD leaders Weng Tochirakan and Jaran Dittapichai, were drilled in Maoist revolutionary theory.

The five tactics they learned for unseating a government included: divide your enemies; form a united front; use provocative violence; secure the loyalty of people inside the ruling regime; and, finally, win over the army.

"That is what we have seen. The government people have been quarrelling about what to do. Some senior figures have a divided loyalty. The army and the police cannot move. Provocative violence has been very successful," said Therdpoum, referring to the UDD's campaign to topple Abhisit's government.

"The tactic is to keep saying that you are a peace-loving people. The many factions folded into the united front [UDD] organization are not told what the real strategy is because they might not agree and they might not act their part convincingly," he added.

A generation ago, the eager young communists in Thailand's underground movement, many of whom now play major roles on Thailand's political stage, were told that propaganda should be blunt, simple and repeated incessantly to be effective. The UDD has similarly shunned hard policy debates in favor of simple credos of justice denied and the hypocrisy of elites.

"The red shirt people have been told over and over that greedy people in authority have denied them justice and their fair share. They have been pumped full of toy-town leftism and told to hate every institution that has held this country together. I worry that the bitterness and hatred produced by this propaganda now runs so deep it will cause tension and problems for a long time," Therdpoum said.

"Many of them are now absolutely convinced that Thaksin was the best leader in Thai history, that he was a kind and generous man who holds the solution to all their problems. They don't need a program - they just need a new Thai state with Thaksin in charge. It has become very emotional - as it was designed to be," he added.

Ignorance over knowledge
Other observers believe that the anti-Thaksin, yellow-garbed People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protest group that occupied Government House for several weeks and closed down Bangkok's airports for 10 days in 2008 helped to show the UDD how effective determined and prolonged protests could be. To be sure, there were violent moments during the PAD's many protests, launched first to remove Thaksin and later his proxy governments, but not to the extent of the current shadowy campaign of bombings and shootings.

The red shirts consist of many passive supporters, many active ones and, now, a hand-picked core of "professional revolutionaries" chosen for their loyalty and street smarts, according to Therdpoum. Behind them are many "deep secrets and hidden messages" that are revealed to only a privileged few in the movement, while an even smaller number know the entire strategy, he claimed.

"Old communists know that when it comes to revolution, ignorance is much more powerful than knowledge," Therdpoum said.

It is thus ironic that more former communists are currently on side with the royalist PAD than the supposedly pro-poor UDD, which is simultaneously striving to restore the billionaire Thaksin's wealth and power. So, too, is the fact that while the UDD has called with revolutionary zeal for a new political order, the Thaksin-aligned Puea Thai party that will contest the next elections is packed with old-style and corruption-tainted patronage politicians.

Therdpoum believes that the UDD's sincere left-wing members are using Thaksin and anticipate the opportunity to eventually dump his personal agenda in favor of the establishment of a more socialist society. Some of the former communists who took up arms and fled into the jungle in the 1970s and 1980s and were once in Thaksin's inner circle include Prommin Lertsuridej, Phumtham Wechayachai, Sutham Saengprathum, Phinit Jarusombat, Adisorn Piangket and Kriangkamon Laohapairot.

Its unclear how many of those former communists are now active from behind-the-scenes in the UDD's planning and strategy. Some media have recently published photographs of the UDD's three main stage leaders, Veera Musigapong, Natthawut Saikua and Jatuporn Prompan, with the exiled Thaksin in what appear to be planning sessions leading up to the current protests. It is debatable, however, how much real power they wield over broad strategy and tactics; Therdpoum, for one, discounts them as "showmen".

UDD organizer Jaran Dittapichai told this correspondent that the protest group had adopted "Mao Zedong's method of thinking" and some of his techniques, including the establishment of a united front. "I was a communist and several leaders were former communists ... but the red shirt people don't like communism or socialism. We use his principles to build up our front and to work with people who are not red shirts, but who are fighting for democracy like us."

He, like other UDD leaders, has consistently denied that the group is behind the mysterious bombing campaign that has coincided with its protest activities. "There is no third hand. There is only the first hand and the second hand ... the government side and our people," Jaran said.

"Before we started we discussed the [potential] problem of the third hand and who they might be. We were worried that someone might throw a bomb at us or shoot at us. We still have good luck - no one comes to throw a bomb [at us]."

William Barnes is a Bangkok-based journalist.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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