To better understand the Redshirt Protest movement and how Thailand’s youth are discovering and connecting to the now elderly movement leaders, I spoke to the brave and brilliant academic Saowanee T. Alexander.
Saowanee is a singularly brilliant mind. For more of her insights on Thai politics please check out her articles in both The Isaan Record & New Mandala.
Asia Art Tours: I’d like to begin with your wonderful article on a 2020 rally held by youth protesters in Ubon Ratchathani, where an older Redshirt Member spoke:
When invited to give a speech at the City Pillar Shrine protest, with tears in his eyes and referring to himself as khun ta [grandfather], a Redshirt in his late 60s, said, “Today khun ta is very happy. If you luk lan [children and grandchildren] feel something when seeing things happening in our country, if you felt anything when hearing the verdict of the Redbull case and wanted to grind your teeth with anger, that’s how the Redshirts felt. If you saw the case of the invasion of a 1700-rai forest that ended with no arrests of anyone and then trembled with anger, that also was how we Redshirts felt…”
Who were the ‘grandfathers and grandmothers’ who made up the Redshirts? Where did they come from? And how does this compare or contrast with the demographics of the current democracy protests in Thailand?
Saowanee T. Alexander: They were Redshirts who were involved in the 2010 protests or earlier. There has been no large-scale survey on the exact number or a close estimate of the Redshirts, but we know roughly who they are. These grandfathers and grandmothers are mostly above 50s, which put them in their 40s when joining the Redshirt protests in 2010 or a few years earlier. Many of them are just ordinary people from what you might call blue-collar backgrounds, but ones who are very active in provinces tend to be retired government officials or have close family members with some good connection, politics wise. This is because the suppression after the 2014 coup has been very hard. You need to be very independent or confident to remain politically active.In large-scale protests, you will see them from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, but in small protests, only “die-hard” ones would show up, who overcome their fear of repercussions.
Back in 2010 and now, I believe most of them are from the Northeast. In terms of demographics, I think they are different from the rank and file of the 2020 youth-led protests in many ways but I want to focus on two points. First, they are from much older generations. Second, as I mentioned elsewhere, many of them are voters-turned activists, who simply had enough seeing repeated instances of injustice done to them via the elite establishment’s persecution of the parties they voted for (those associated with Thaksin Shinawatra). With the support largely from Thaksin political allies they were able to mobilize in masses and went to Bangkok to join protests. This shows that at least in their heyday a large number of them were associated with pro-Thaksin parties and still are nowadays because they still think Thaksin and his associates are casualties of injustice like they are.
You need to be very independent or confident to remain politically active.In large-scale protests, you will see them from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, but in small protests, only “die-hard” ones would show up, who overcome their fear of repercussions.
The 2020 anti-monarchy protests in Thailand are still ongoing. They are being joined more and more by elder protesters from earlier movements like the Redshirts. Photo Credit: WIKIPEDIA
Also, I appreciate the policies under his premiership, which address their needs. Some of them now support pro-democracy Move Forward, the party associated with Future Forward, which was dissolved in a politically questionable manner. The current, younger protesters tend to favor Move Forward for its bold stance against the establishment, which offers hope to a political deadlock that these young protests (in their teens or university ages) have seen growing up and “fed up” with.
Asia Art Tours: Speaking to the anger of the elderly Redshirt protester, could you discuss in broad terms what ‘systems’ within Thailand so angered the Redshirts? And do Thailand’s protesters today share the Redshirts’ anger at these systems?
Saowanee T. Alexander: Being Thai and living in Thailand I admit I am a coward who cannot fully express everything I think. But I am going to say this. I think what angered the Redshirts most is the blatant rejection of their citizen rights on many occasions. Such rejection is based on anti-democracy attitudes that people in powers in Thailand have held. Such rejection has taken place repeatedly because a systemic problem of inequality allows the culture of impunity to exist in Thailand for many years (other scholars discuss this extensively), and therefore whatever ones in power do is not subject to any form of political liability. They are angry and frustrated because they they are stakeholders in politics.
I believe younger protesters see and share those frustrations. They see inequalities and want to address them but with a more confrontational, and of course, bold way.
Being Thai and living in Thailand I admit I am a coward who cannot fully express everything I think. But I am going to say this. I think what angered the Redshirts most is the blatant rejection of their citizen rights on many occasions.
Photo of Redshirts amassed in Thailand circa 2010. Photo Credit: WIKIPEDIA
Asia Art Tours: Lastly for this grandfather and other Redshirts, do they see the current protests as a ‘passing of the torch’ with the next generation continuing their struggle? Or do they still see themselves as active political subjects, who if called upon, would participate in solidarity with Thailand’s Democracy protests and the youth leading these protests?
Saowanee T. Alexander: I think they have passed the torch—the torch being leadership— to younger generations. They are active but play a supportive role in showing solidarity to younger protesters. Because the Redshirts who are active now are ordinary, independent ones. I don’t think they will give up easily. Otherwise, they would not have struggled this long despite threats and intimidations.
Asia Art Tours: Then for Redshirt protesters, did Thaksin Shinawatra gain their support by articulating new grievances? Or was he simply one of the first politicians who spoke of long-standing grievances and critiques that rural Thai citizens (who later became ‘Redshirts’) had long felt about Thailand?
Saowanee T. Alexander: I think it was the latter. I think he brought to the fore problems that ordinary Thais had been struggling with under government after government before him—mainly about the economy and welfare. Several people I have interviewed said at first they did not believe that he could solve those problems. But he did, which helped him to gain strong support from voters. However, the 2006 coup and political moves by his political enemies helped these voters-turned activists see serious underlying political problems which many had never realized before. So, as things progressed, it was not what he said, but it was what was done to him and by who that helped the Redshirts see the magnitude of their struggles.
I think because one of the key conservative values in Thai society is the view that people are not equal. A former colleague of mine once had an exchange with me showing her fingers while saying, “Do you see that these fingers are not of the same length?”. We human are not equal.” She did not seem to think that they were equally fingers, no less no more.
Redshirt Protesters marching circa 2010. Photo Credit: WIKIPEDIA
Asia Art Tours: To a lay outsider, it seems like so much of the Redshirt movement was simply about wanting their voice to be heard. Why did Thailand’s ruling class (capitalists/monarchists/the military) refuse to dialogue with the Redshirts? And what similarities or differences are there to this same power elites refusal to dialogue with democracy protesters?
Saowanee T. Alexander: I think because one of the key conservative values in Thai society is the view that people are not equal. A former colleague of mine once had an exchange with me showing her fingers while saying, “Do you see that these fingers are not of the same length?”. We human are not equal.” She did not seem to think that they were equally fingers, no less no more. I doesn’t surprise me then that inequality has manifested itself in many beliefs, i.e., people should know their place; the younger should obey the older; the inferior too must follow orders from the superior, and so forth. Those doing well in a society like this, which tend to be those occupying the space higher in the hierarchy would not want change and thus would not want to listen to voices from the lower stratum.
Asia Art Tours: You wrote on Redshirt Protesters in 2019 after Thailand’s elections:
“But being khon suea daeng [redshirt activists] has become an identity for many, especially uncles and aunties who otherwise would be busy trying to get by each day, whether they be farmers, street hawkers, market venders, laborers, or a combination of these. Despite no overt political movements, many redshirts continue to stay tuned to political news and current events.”
What is it about the politics, vision or sense of community that the Redshirts offered that led people to identify with them despite such intense repression and violence from the state?
Saowanee Alexander: I think they are so used to being stigmatized that they don’t really care whether anybody would care to join them. But I think it’s their strong commitment to stay engaged is the key despite being looked down upon. Younger protesters’s public recognition during the 2020 protests also really helped to draw the public’s attention in learning more about the Redshirts. Another thing is that their involvement in politics is now very bottom-up—with no leading organization. Remember that as a formal movement the Redshirt is defunct. Redshirts that we see how are just ordinary individuals who have attended many political gatherings, be they large or small, since the 2014 coup. Most of them were older women. Plus, their continued presence to support pro-democracy events, with the support from progressive media and academics, who continue to share their plights since 2010.
I think all these things help both those who were not interested in politics or holding anti-redshirt sentiments start to slowly open their mind to learn about the Redshirt struggles.
I think they are so used to being stigmatized that they don’t really care whether anybody would care to join them. But I think it’s their strong commitment to stay engaged is the key despite being looked down upon. Younger protesters’s public recognition during the 2020 protests also really helped to draw the public’s attention in learning more about the Redshirts.
Redshirt Protesters waiting to march. Photo Credit: FLICKR- Ratchaprasong
Asia Art Tours: I’d like to end with your interview in The Isaan Record. When asked about why you chose to help fund-raise for Redshirts targeted by the state, you said:
“At some point, you have to get off the fence, and choose a side to land on. After thinking carefully, I no longer cared what people would think of me. I didn’t do that as an academic, but did it as a human being, as a member of society. This is not some far-away thing. It surrounds and concerns all of us.”
Could you discuss how you arrived at this position? And having gone through this experience, what advice do you give young scholars or other academics on voicing support for protests movements, and ‘dissent’ in Thailand or globally?
Saowanee T. Alexander: I was traumatized by the fatal crackdowns on the Redshirts in 2010. I camped out at their Ratchaprasong site (which became their sole protest site since the crackdown in April 10) for much of that month. I was just an observer watching their live broadcasts of protests on TV before that. But after their satellite signal was blocked, I decided to travel to Bangkok to see them with my own eyes and be there to learn about what they want—their grievances. They only wanted to be accepted as legitimate citizens and instead got bullets and dead bodies to take home to their families in provinces. Many of them were also arrested and jailed without bail. Some had to flee the country. All these from wanting to exercise their rights while the other camp enjoyed political privileges. Again it’s about inequality inherent in this society. When I came home to my province, I knew I only had to stop being indifferent. That was the only choice I had and I never regretted it.
What advice should I give? I don’t have any. I know that many people are taking more risks than me every single day trying tirelessly to make a difference in places around the world. But I want to say this: I became who I am politically because I can look at my reflection in the mirror and be proud that I am on the side of those who are trying to save the meaning of the word “humanity”. This should be one of the main reasons we human exist.
A colorful Reshirt Protester waiting for what to do next. Photo Credit: WIKIPEDIA