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Red democracy, yellow democracy: political conflict in Thailand: Jim Ockey backgrounds the recent crisis in Thailand and warns that the current calm may not persist.

In the past, popular demonstrations were aimed at bringing about democracy. This time it is about the nature of democracy.

(A Yellow Shirt leader) (1)

Over the last five years, there have been frequent political struggles in Thailand, led, on the one side, by Yellow Shirt demonstrators and, on the other, by Red Shirt demonstrators. Most of the analyses of the recent political conflict in have focused on social divides, with many Yellow Shirts coming from urban areas and Red Shirts from rural areas. Others have focused on class differences, noting that many Yellow Shirts are middle class, while many Red Shirts are poor. While these characterisations are certainly accurate, to think of the conflict in only these terms is to overlook one of the most troubling aspects of the conflict: it has also divided many communities, and even many families. These types of divides are more personal, and thus in some ways more worrying, and yet cannot be explained by class or geography. To explain this aspect of the conflict, we have to examine the concerns each side has with the political process.

We can trace the origins of the current political crisis back at least as far as the Asian Financial Crisis, which began in Thailand in 1997. The financial crisis hit when the Bank of Thailand was unable to defend a weakening baht, and its value was halved overnight. Having used up most of its foreign reserves in its failed defence of the baht, the Thai government then turned to the IMF for help. Although Thailand was facing recession, the IMF insisted on austerity policies as a condition of the loan--the opposite of the stimulus packages generally used during recessions--and the recession deepened as rich, middle-class, and poor Thais all suffered heavily. Only a few who had substantial investments and assets denominated in foreign currencies prospered.

The Asian Financial Crisis had a profound impact on Thai politics. Many among the rich had previously supported several political parties, to ensure they would have a voice in government. As wealth eroded, they began to limit support to one party, leading to a consolidation of the party system, and a division of the wealthy according to political party. Many of the poor struggled to get by, highlighting the need for a safety net in times of crisis, and setting the stage for populist policies. It was the largely new middle classes, however, that felt most vulnerable, as they struggled to hold on to their hard-earned status. They fixed blame on the political system, and particularly on vote-buying and corruption. This deepened the divide between the middle classes and the poor, who, the middle classes believed, undermined democracy by selling their votes, and between the middle classes and the rich, who bought the votes, and then gained the investment back through corruption in office. Thus the Asian Financial Crisis set in place the social divisions that would be evident in the later political crisis.


In 1997, middle-class concerns were addressed in a new constitution, ratified shortly after the financial crisis. The new constitution established a series of commissions and courts (made up of middle-class technocrats) with the ability to investigate corruption and disqualify candidates for election, or remove politicians from office, up to and including the prime minister, in some cases on limited evidence. The constitution also required a university education for election to the parliament, effectively excluding the lower classes from the parliament.

Thaksin's rise

The first election under the 1997 constitution took place in 2001. Among the parties contesting this election was a new one, Thai Rak Thai, led by telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra. He put together a party made up of many former MPs, offering to help finance their campaigns in return for joining his party, so that his new party had more former MPs than any other party. He made a series of election promises that would privilege domestic business over foreign business, would revive the economy, and put in place elements of a safety net for the poor, including universal health care and a village development fund. In this way, he appealed to all social classes, from rich to poor, and stitched his coalition together with anti-IMF and nationalistic rhetoric. He was rewarded with the largest percentage of seats won by a single party in the modern era, leaving him just short of a majority. He set up a coalition government, with himself as prime minister.

Once in office, Thaksin set about consolidating power. He worked to merge political parties with Thai Rak Thai, with considerable success, so that by the end of his first term, his party had grown to dominate the parliament. To consolidate support among the rich, he initiated policies to buy up debt, so that the rich were able to shift non-performing assets to the government. For the poor, he implemented the promised village development fund and universal health care, followed by support for primary and secondary education, all immensely popular programmes. The needs of the middle classes were more complex, but the revival of the economy through the economic stimulus provided by his packages to the rich and poor proved popular. He also soon began a series of political campaigns, designed to win middle-class support by producing results quickly. Perhaps the best example of such a campaign was his war on drugs. Amidst rising middleclass concern over their children's use of party drugs, Thaksin announced a campaign to eliminate all drug dealing within six months. He then had police draw up black lists of drug dealers and made it clear to police that only results counted, that all methods of eliminating the drug dealers were acceptable. Over the next six months, somewhere between 1173 and 2500 alleged drug dealers were killed. (2)

Yellow shirts

While the majority of the middle classes supported the war on drugs, many political activists began to question the human rights violations that resulted. When Thaksin took the same approach to insurgency in southern Thailand, without success, more in the middle classes began to object. Thaksin reacted by seeking greater control over mass media; he and his wealthy supporters began to cut advertising expenditures on outlets that were critical of his government, and in a few cases sought to buy out opposing newspapers. At the same time, Thaksin's family and closest supporters were experiencing large financial windfalls from some government policies. This combination of events would lead to many of the splits in communities and families. For some opinion leaders (such as academics and activists), human rights violations, corruption, and the stifling of the media were eroding democracy; they became outspoken critics of Thaksin. For other opinion leaders (a different group of academics and activists, along with many community leaders), Thaksin's willingness to assist development efforts and his policies to benefit the poor more generally outweighed the negative aspects of his campaigns. Moreover, previous governments had largely ignored the needs of the poor, so that Thaksin's willingness to help them stood in stark contrast to other Thai political parties and political elites. This division among opinion leaders did not follow class or geographical lines. It was a matter of weighing up positives and negatives and making a judgment. In many cases different opinion leaders in the same community came to different decisions regarding the merits of Thaksin's actions.

Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party won re-election in 2005, securing about three-quarters of the seats in the parliament, the largest margin of victory any party had ever won in Thailand. Thaksin remained hugely popular, even with the middle classes, despite the rising concerns of some political activists. Shortly thereafter, the anti-Thaksin forces found a voice, in the person of former Thaksin ally Sondhi Limthongkul, a media tycoon who had been rescued from the Asian Financial Crisis by the government bailout. Sondhi broke with Thaksin in 2004, and the following year he began to speak out on the corruption in the Thaksin government, initially on a television show he hosted; then when his show was canceled, he took his speeches to the streets. Sondhi's anti-corruption movement soon gathered the support of all the anti-Thaksin forces; when he accused Thaksin of undermining the monarchy, his followers began to wear yellow, a colour representing the King, and thus the Yellow Shirt movement was born, its aim to oppose the alleged corruption, anti-royalism, and anti-democratic acts of Thaksin. During the latter part of 2005 and early 2006, rallies would grow into the tens of thousands, so that Thaksin, despite winning a huge election victory, struggled to govern effectively.

Red shirts

Early in 2006, Thaksin, confident that he retained widespread support in the countryside despite the demonstrations in Bangkok and some other urban centres, called an early election. He hoped to prove to his detractors that he retained legitimacy for the vast majority of Thai voters. The opposition was also convinced that he would win easily, and chose to boycott the election rather than allow him to demonstrate his legitimacy. Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party was left to contest the election against a few small parties. Under Thai electoral law at the time, a candidate who ran uncontested had to win 20 per cent of the vote, and in a few constituencies Thai Rak Thai candidates failed to meet that standard. When repeated by-elections still left some candidates below the threshold, parliament could not sit, forcing a constitutional crisis. After meeting with the King, Thaksin stepped down in May 2006, appointing an interim prime minister; subsequently, the constitutional court annulled the election. Thailand was thus left with no parliament and an interim government, the remnants of a Thai Rak Thai cabinet that would have been replaced, if not for the annulled election. The ensuing four months proved very unstable, as the Yellow Shirts continued to demonstrate, calling openly for a military coup, Thaksin manoeuvred to return, and military commanders, both active and retired, began to seek support from soldiers for the opposing sides. The Red Shirts first emerged during this period, in support of the government and in opposition to the Yellow Shirt demonstrators.

On 19 September, shortly before the military promotion list was announced, the Yellow Shirts got the coup they demanded. The promotion list was recalled and revamped to reward those who carried out the coup, and many of Thaksin's supporters in the military were sidelined. The coup leaders promised a civilian prime minister, and after some debate retired army commander General Surayud Chulanont stepped down from his position on the privy council to head up the new government. An election was promised within a year.

Fundamental change

The coup fundamentally changed the nature of the Red Shirt movement. While an expanded group of Thaksin supporters remained as the most powerful bloc, the Red Shirt movement became a magnet for opponents of the coup, and for opponents of the 'conservative elite,' comprising the military, the traditional aristocracy and their allies. Many former Thaksin detractors saw the coup as a far greater threat to democracy than the human rights violations and the interference in the media, and shifted support from Yellow to Red. The Red Shirt movement thus became much larger and more complex.

After a little more than a year of mostly ineffective rule, in December 2007 the military held the promised election. The military government had abolished the Thai Rak Thai party, and banned its leaders from politics. However, new leaders emerged to revive the party under another name, and despite military support for the anti-Thaksin parties the new pro-Thaksin party, under the leadership of former Bangkok mayor Samak Suntharawej, won an easy victory, coming close to an absolute majority. The Red Shirts returned to power and began to prepare the way for Thaksin to return from exile, while the Yellow Shirts soon resumed their protests.

Yellow protests

Thaksin returned to Thailand on 28 February 2008, to considerable fanfare from his supporters. This spurred the Yellow Shirts to greater efforts, as protests gained momentum. Shortly thereafter, the courts took a hand. Following the coup, Thaksin had been charged with corruption and his assets had been frozen; a series of cases were underway that could deprive him of both his wealth and freedom. As the case wound its way through the legal system, it became clear that the newly activist court was likely to again decide against Thaksin, and in August he again went into exile. Nevertheless, the Yellow Shirts continued their demonstrations, determined to remove what they saw as a proxy government loyal to Thaksin.



In early September, protestors, who had occupied the parliament, clashed with police, and several protestors were killed. One week later, the Constitutional Court again intervened, disqualifying Samak as prime minister, citing a conflict of interest as he had hosted a cooking show on television. This was widely seen as a pretext, as the courts again removed a pro-Thaksin government from power. This time, however, the military refused to stage the coup the Yellow Shirts sought, and a new government emerged, led by Thaksin's brother-in-law, Somchai Wongsawat.

The Yellow Shirts again took to the streets, surrounding the parliament on the day Somchai was to present his policy to the parliament. Violence broke out, as protestors clashed with police, and two protestors were killed. Subsequently, Somchai responded to protests with a new approach: he moved his office to the old airport on the outskirts of Bangkok and largely ignored the demonstrations. Despite considerable tension between Red and Yellow, protest numbers began to dwindle, and support for the Yellow Shirts declined, even in Bangkok where the middle classes are concentrated. By late November, Yellow Shirt leaders decided they had to force a conflict. They called on supporters to come out for 'the last battle,' and in early December they took over the Bangkok international airport, stranding hundreds of thousands of tourists, and cutting off air cargo. While support for the Yellow Shirts dropped to just 11 per cent, (3) neither the police nor the military would act against the demonstrators. The Constitutional Court again intervened on the side of the Yellow Shirt demonstrators to end the impasse; this time it chose to announce the dissolution of the government political party on vote-buying charges, without hearing any witnesses, instead leaping ahead to closing statements. The military subsequently pressured coalition MPs to join the opposition Democrat party in a new government that left a new Red Shirt party in opposition. Several Yellow Shirt leaders joined the new government.

Red protests

The Democrat-led coalition government took control with very limited legitimacy, and with Red Shirt demonstrators having learned lessons from the Yellow Shirts. The Red Shirt protests began immediately, initially at low levels. By late March 2009, they decided to organise large-scale protests in the lead-up to the Songkran festival, which coincided with an ASEAN summit meeting in Pattaya. The Red Shirts turned out over 100,000 protestors, about three times as many as the Yellow. When the protests expanded to Pattaya, clashes occurred with counter-protestors, and ASEAN leaders were flown out in helicopters as the meetings were suspended. This caused considerable embarrassment for the Thai government, and the Democrat party prime minister took a hard line stance, declaring a state of emergency. The military, which had scrupulously avoided any involvement against Yellow Shirt demonstrators, now chose to take action to disperse the Red Shirt protests, perhaps because of its role in creating the government.


In the pre-dawn hours of 13 April 2009, the military crackdown began. Soldiers moved first on protestors near Din Daeng intersection, then moved on toward the main body of protestors at Government House. Fighting broke out at Din Daeng, and at least 120 were injured. (4) The Red Shirts claimed that at least six of their members had been killed, and many believed the numbers were far higher. One elderly protestor tearfully told me that she had personally seen the military haul many bodies away in trucks, and she had begged soldiers to let her and some neighbours pass peacefully through military lines to return home. Wherever the truth may lie, the Red Shirt distrust of the government and the military increased exponentially as a result of such stories, so that when protestors were killed in a clash with soldiers a year later Red Shirt leaders insisted on accompanying the bodies to an inquest, to ensure they did not disappear.

Over the next year, Red Shirts gathered often for peaceful rallies, mostly for a day, sometimes for longer, in Bangkok and other places. On several occasions, they planned, then cancelled more extensive protests. Then, much as the Yellow Shirts before them, they declared their own final battle. This time, they were determined to gather in Bangkok and continue their demonstrations until the government resigned and called fresh elections, so that a new government would have a clear mandate from the people.

Final battle

The Red Shirt final battle began in March 2010, as they took over the streets around Democracy Monument in the old administrative quarter of Bangkok. The government sought to contain the demonstrations, first by attempting to prevent protestors from coming into Bangkok, and later by shutting down a television station run by Red Shirt supporters, but demonstrations spread, as a second site was established in the business center of the city, between Siam Square and Lumphini Park. When demonstrators forced their way into the broadcast site and restored the satellite link, the government decided to take stronger measures.

On 10 April, the military moved against the demonstrators. Red Shirt guards and ordinary protestors rushed to defend their barricades against the troops, and as soldiers were forced to retreat, gunfire broke out. By the time the violence ended, 26 were dead, including nineteen protestors, six soldiers and one journalist, and well over 800 were injured. (5) An autopsy showed that nine of the protestors had been shot in the head or heart by high powered rifles from a distance, an indication that trained snipers were involved. (6) The botched manoeuvre led to considerable outrage, as the protestors prepared for further violence. A few days after the attack, they consolidated their protests, moving all demonstrations to the business district. There they prepared for a battle, even as the military brought in more troops and threatened the use of greater force.

Both negotiations and clashes continued through the rest of the month of April, with the military reluctant to employ the level of force necessary to suppress the demonstration, given the presence of some armed Red Shirt guards and a shadowy group of militants called the Black Shirts, led by retired army general Khattiya Sawasdipol. Pressure on the government mounted as the occupation of the business centre proved a large cost on the economy. At the beginning of May, the government offered a compromise solution, offering to dissolve the parliament in four months, triggering an election in November. This would allow the government to stay in power until the military promotion list was issued. While some Red Shirt leaders responded favourably to the proposal, others baulked, and the government and military decided negotiations could not be successful.

The battle both sides had been expecting was sparked by the assassination of General Khattiya, on 17 May, as he was conducting a press interview. He was killed by a bullet fired by a sniper from behind government lines. On 19 May, nearly two months after the protests began, the military moved in. By the time the battle had ended, at least 80 civilians and six soldiers were dead, and about 2100 were injured. (7) Some militant protestors set buildings ablaze as they fled the protest site, and Red Shirt protestors in some provinces followed their lead, causing considerable damage to property.

Deep divisions

While it is certainly the case that Red Shirt protestors are largely made up of those from rural areas and poor communities, while the Yellow Shirt protestors are largely middle class, to think only in such broad terms is to overlook the deep divisions within families and communities. It also obscures differences in political attitudes that may be crucial to undertaking reconciliation. The conflict between Red and Yellow runs deep, with each side firmly convinced that it holds the moral high ground, and each side determined that its sacrifices not be in vain. At the heart of the difference is a clash over the nature of democracy.


For the Yellow Shirts, concerns about democracy came early during the Thaksin era. Although he originally had support from the middle classes for his promises of reviving the economy, his attempts to overwhelm any resistance to his policies soon raised concerns. The war on drugs, while popular among many middle-class parents when it temporarily curbed the drug trade, raised concerns for human rights activists, and when similar tactics failed to resolve the insurgency in the south, concerns spread. As Thaksin began to take greater control over the government, absorbing smaller political parties into his growing Thai Rak Thai party, and then began to stifle media criticism through manipulation of advertising and through buying up shares, concerns intensified. Finally, when economic growth slowed, 'policy corruption' emerged as a contentious issue. As Thaksin took control of the government, opportunities emerged to shape policies in ways that benefited his business cronies, including his own family. Thaksin's populist programmes, which largely benefited the poor, became an easy target of concern, when seen as fiscally irresponsible, and corrupt, in that they bought Thaksin electoral support among the poor. In short, the Yellow Shirts believed that Thaksin had captured the democratic system, and created a kind of elected parliamentary dictatorship. Ultimately, they decided the only option was to overthrow the government, either through a coup or through popular protest. For the Yellow Shirts, the electoral process itself is not democratic, as the poor have been deceived and bought off by Thaksin, while only the educated classes are capable of understanding democracy and voting on the important issues. The condescension apparent in this attitude to the poor has been frequently expressed in very public fashion, and has exacerbated the tensions between the two sides.

For the Red Shirts, the problems in Thai democracy are much simpler. When the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis struck, the poor were strongly affected. In Thaksin, they found a champion, and for the first time they were able to come together in support of a political party with a clear set of policies that would benefit them. They turned out in large numbers to elect Thaksin, and were pleased to see him overcome resistance and implement the promised policies. Their lives and their prospects improved, and they turned out in three subsequent elections to support Thaksin and his policies. And yet their democratic voice was suppressed, not just with military force, but through the justice system, as courts consistently decided against their interests. Thus one of the most widely used slogans of the Red Shirts was 'No Justice, No Peace'. For the Red Shirts, only an election and respect for the outcome of the election can restore democracy.



Reconciliation in Thailand will be challenging. The Red Shirts no longer have faith in the justice system. Restoring that faith is politically difficult, as it would involve treating Yellow Shirt and Red Shirt leaders in the same fashion by a government that includes Yellow Shirt leaders. The Yellow Shirts no longer trust the electoral system, which they believe has been corrupted through vote-buying. Restoring faith in the electoral system is both politically and logistically difficult. Suppressing vote-buying cannot be done quickly, and it is apparent that the Yellow Shirts will not accept any electoral victory by the Red Shirts. For now, the violence has faded; however, that appears to be largely a result of repression by the government, and a willingness of the Red Shirts to await an election, which must come by December 2011, but has been promised for an earlier, undetermined date. Unless the government makes far greater efforts at reconciliation, including equal treatment for both sides, the current calm is unlikely to last.

In recent years, Thai society has become deeply divided between Yellow Shirt and Red Shirt demonstrators, leading to political conflict and violence. Analysts have noted that the Yellow tend to be from urban middle classes, while the Red are generally from the rural poor, so that class and geography are important factors. The importance of an additional factor should not be overlooked in that Red and Yellow demonstrators understand democracy in very different ways. Where the Yellow believe in an elite-led representative democracy, the Red are more concerned with popular participation and service delivery. Reconciliation will only come about when agreement can be reached on the nature and goals of democracy in Thailand.


(1.) Interview with a Yellow Shirt leader, Bangkok, Jan 2010.

(2.) Bangkok Post, 11 Dec 2003.

(3.) Bangkok University poll 403, 'Khwamkhithen khong prachachon to kankratham lae kansadaeng khong klum tang tang' [The Opinions of the People to the Actions and Demonstrations of Various Groups], th, 27 Nov 2008.

(4.) Bangkok Post, 14 Apr 2009.

(5.) Asia Times Online, 8 May 2010.

(6.) Nation, 13 Apr 2010. BBC News, 1 Jun 2010.

Jim Ockey is an associate professor in political science at Canterbury University. He is the author of the book Making Democracy: Leadership, Class, Gender, and Political Participation in Thailand, and numerous articles on Thai politics.
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Author:Ockey, Jim
Publication:New Zealand International Review
Geographic Code:9THAI
Date:Nov 1, 2010
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