Nick Nostitz on Thailand’s political awakening

[This is the text of the presentation made by Nick Nostitz at the launch of his  Red vs. Yellow, Volume 2: Thailand’s Political Awakening in Bangkok yesterday.]

First of all I would like to apologize for the long delay of this book. In fact, my manuscript was one year ago to 80% finished. But then came last year’s protests, and I had to lay it aside to follow what was going on then. After the dispersal on May 19 last year, I had to take off for one month to recuperate, mentally and physically. And then came more delays – I had to follow current events on the ground, while at the same time researching what I haven’t be able to witness directly. When I had time left i continued finishing up this volume.

Many of the events described here in volume 2 seem to be in the very distant past now, even though they happened only about 1 ½ to 2 years ago, and have been overshadowed by the ecliptic and tragic events of 2010. Nevertheless – for the understanding of what happened in 2010, it is of high importance to look at the preceding events, as these events formed perception and therefore led to the context of 2010, the same way 2010 will shape the future of the conflict.

Of course one of the most discussed topics is the violence of militants who appeared for the first time openly on April 10 and during the battles in May 2010, and also for the first time in this 5 year crisis engaged directly with state security forces (and not just as previously via M79 attacks against the PAD, state installations and corporations believed to have financially supported the PAD). For many people these militants came out of nowhere.  But if one goes back and analyzes the events of 2009, there was not much of a surprise of this escalation process. Two key events in 2009 can be seen as root cause for the appearance of these militants.

The first cause was the Blue Shirts in Pattaya, and their attacks against Red Shirt protesters, preceding, and leading to the ASEAN summit invasion. These Blue Shirts can be described as a shadow state militia, and never were part of the color movements. Their Shirt color was somewhat accidental. They were set up by the state, and contained members of the security forces – both navy personal, police officers beholden to Nevin Chidchob, and also a few PAD guards who were duped into joining the Blue Shirts. But it goes further, as Suthep Thaugsuban, the deputy prime minister responsible for security matters, was deeply involved as well, and so was the Supreme Command. Any investigation into the Blue Shirts was squashed and discouraged, even though more than enough proof existed of them holding and using arms, even existence of evidence of their identities, such as number plates of pickup trucks they used, which could have easily led further.

The second key event was the early morning dispersal on April 13, initiating the Songkran Riots, or “Songkran Lueat” (Bloody Sonkran) as the Red Shirts call this day. Very few journalists were able to witness from the side of the Red Shirts the initial stages of the dispersal at Samliem Dindaeng in the early morning hours. I remember only three or four other photographers there, all from Thai papers. Different than what the government and the military stated – shots were fired directly into the Red Shirt protesters, there definitely were injured protesters, and possibly even a few killed. I have no proof though. An anonymous witness in the Amsterdam report claimed that there were 6 or so dead. I can’t go that far, as I have no proof. But I do think that this number is within the possible range, given what I saw there. At the time protesters pointed to me where they said that they had to leave corpses behind, but it was just too dangerous to go to the locations they pointed out to me. It was dark, shots were fired, and I preferred not to be a hero.

Most journalists arrived at Samliem Dindaeng when the military was already taking Samliem Dindaeng, and when the operations were halted. The following midday push towards Rajaparop Rd. and towards Victory monument was much more disciplined, especially because the troops from Prachinburi were then replenished and supported by the better trained and disciplined 11th infantry regiment.

Yet again – there were no investigations. There was no independent fact finding council, no truth and reconciliation commission. The claims by the state could continue almost unchallenged.

This of course led to enormous anger under the Red Shirts. And in a society such as Thai society, where violence always simmers under the surface, which is highly militarized, but where both military and militias are in a somewhat ambiguous position with roles that far exceed the limitations of armed forces in a developed country, it is no wonder that some parts of the Red Shirts decided to take matters into their own hands. Nothing comes from nothing, and there are always logical reasons for events, even though through lack of information and transparency the logic at times escapes us.

Another very important point I try to make with this book here is how the Red Shirts developed into what can be defined as a social mass movement. Many people may not agree with my view here, which they are free to, of course.

After the dispersal in April 2009 the Red Shirts completely restructured their organization. Their grass roots network became much more organized, and on a much larger extend than before an ideological foundation was taught and discussed, in which Thaksin of course remained a strong rallying symbol, but which at the same time transcended Thaksin and went into attacking the system itself. This has already begun during early 2009 with the final definition of the Red Shirt’s opponent – the so called “Amart” – traditional elites may be the most suitable translation for this term. Red Shirt intellectuals and thinkers, such as Tida Thawornset, the present acting chairwoman and wife of Dr. Weng, was then already a strong force in the background. She was the main thinker behind the UDD schools, for example. These leaders analyzed the mistakes they have made leading to the disaster of April 2009, such as completely loosing control over the protesters in areas other than the immediate stage environment, and tried to improve their organization so these mistakes will not be repeated. Unfortunately, as we have seen in 2010 during the latter part of the protests, their efforts were not sufficient, and more mistakes have been made, especially during the Ratchaprasong occupation. The Red Shirts were not alone in making mistakes though; the state has done so as well, and continues to. But right now I do not want to go too deeply into 2010 – I still haven’t completed my research, and I also want to have something to say for the launch of my next book, which will cover 2010’s events.

The PAD has not been out much in the period this book covers. Their maybe most important event was the founding of their New Politics Party, which caused much disruption and disagreement within the PAD, and in hindsight was maybe a big mistake leading to a weakening of their alliance. More on the PAD I can talk about in my next book again.

Well, I conclude my talk at this point. I continue to be obsessed with the color movements and their developments. I am already in the middle of writing volume 3, which will cover the events in 2010, and hope that there won’t be that many delays again.

Thank you very much.