Story by Pravit Rojanaphruk and Teeranai Charuvastra
BANGKOK — Members of a movement behind some of Thailand’s previous cycles of protests are left wondering if it should keep its distance or hitch a ride on the growing student-led resistance against the government.
For a Redshirt campaigner like Anurak Jeantawanich, he believes the movement supporters should refrain from having an overt presence at rallies led by student activists lest the authorities connect the two factions together – though others disagree with his reclusive view.
“We have to ensure that the image of the students is that of white piece of cloth and as clean as possible,” Anurak said in an interview. “If they merely join the protests as Redshirts and offer food, donate money, look out for security and quietly offer advice, that’s acceptable.”
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Anti-government activist Ekachai Hongkangwan shares the same view. Writing online, Ekachai said there is an unspoken resentment between Redshirts and the student leaders, and urged fellow Redshirts to keep a respectful distance from the youth movement.
“Don’t let the children feel like we interfere with them too much,” Ekachai wrote. “Some Redshirts want to be on the students’ stage. I’ve seen some all pumped up to go onstage, it’s too obvious. But I don’t recommend that at all.”
The activist went on, “If the Redshirts want to express themselves, we should make a separate stage … so that the children wouldn’t see the Redshirts as trying to [hijack] their movement.”
The Redshirt movement, which consisted mostly of ex-PM Thaksin Shinawatra supporters and opponents of the military, was effectively dismantled by the junta after it seized power in 2014. Most of its leaders were either jailed or told not to engage in politics, and some were bought outright into the pro-military faction.
Despite the decimated leadership, Redshirt members continued to support anti-government protests, and many were seen at the ongoing student-led rallies.
Thida Thavornseth, the former chairwoman of the Redshirt umbrella organization, said she and other leaders made it a point not to participate in the student demonstrations, citing fears that the government may accuse them of using the students as their proxies.
But she said ordinary Redshirts should feel free to join the protests.
“There may be a generation and class differences, but we shared the same goal,” Thida said. “The youth should lead the way now.”
The debate owes in part to a common perception in Thai society of the student movement as a “pure” political force, unlike other protest movements “tainted” by politician agendas.
Anurak the Redshirt also said the negative stigma against Redshirts is real, and Redshirts should be mindful not to inadvertently corrupt the students-led struggle into their own will.
“I do not support that,” Anurak, aka Ford Red Path, said.
But other Redshirts say they have the rights to participate in the student protest movement as much as anyone else. Suwanna Tallek, a self-identified Redshirt, recently staged a rally in solidarity with the students without any backlash.
“It doesn’t matter what shirt color we wear as long as we have the right to express ourselves,” Suwanna said on the phone, adding that most of the people who showed up at police stations to support student activists when they’re arrested are Redshirts themselves.
Nuttaa “Bow” Mahattana, a prominent anti-junta activist, agreed and said Redshirts should not be too paranoid.
“Whether one gets invited on stage or not is up to the organizers,” Nuttaa said. “Our side is more paranoid than the other side. This is because we are not familiar with democratic culture. Some are even control freaks.”
She continued, “The organizers will have to depend on Redshirts as well.”
One of the student movement leaders also said he doesn’t mind if Redshirt uncles and aunties want to participate in their activities.
“It’s their right to join the protests and express their identity by wearing Redshirts, just like LGBT expressed their identities,” Free People group leader Tattep Ruangprapaikitseree said in an interview.
“As to whether any reds would be invited to speak on stage or not, it will depend on the topics, content, and time limits,” he added. “They will not be discriminated against just because they are Redshirts. We will not reproduce the fears of Redshirts.”
The next “major” anti-government rally is scheduled for Sep. 19 – the anniversary of the Sep. 19, 2006, coup – though organizers have yet to say what topics will be discussed.