Bailing out the red shirts

The direct and most immediate beneficiaries of the Pheu Thai-led coalition government are undoubtedly the Red Shirts.

Since Yingluck was sworn in as Thailand’s 28th prime minister, her party has made securing the release of 132 Red Shirts from various prisons throughout the country a priority. Jarupong Reaungsuwan, Pheu Thai Secretary, views such action as instrumental in putting the country on the road to national reconciliation.[1]

From early August on, more than 40 Red Shirts – mostly detained on charges of terrorism – have been successfully bailed out by Pheu Thai MPs. More are in the process of being released.

Bailing out supporters was never an official job description for MPs – at least until now.[2] Even previously, only the very top Red Shirt leaders, some of whom were also Pheu Thai members, were rescued. Unlike attending weddings or funerals, securing Red Shirts’ release from jail comes at a much higher cost. Pheu Thai Ubon Ratchathani MP, Vorasit Kalthinand, has used his title deed – worth 16 million baht – as well as salaries and political positions of 9 other MPs from southern Isarn, to get bail for 4 Red Shirts who were sentenced to 33 years in prison for (allegedly) torching Ubon City Hall.[3]Other MPs have spent a minimum of 1 million baht to secure freedom for each Red Shirt in jail.[4]

The swiftness of Pheu Thai MPs in responding to the Red Shirts’ demand to get their members out of jail is testament to both the degree of organization of local Red Shirt networks as well as the party’s recognition of the indispensability of the Reds for their political survival.

At one level, well organized Red Shirt sub-national groups, such as the Khon Rak Udon Club (KRUC) or the UDD Mahasarakam, have successfully leveraged their electoral support for Pheu Thai candidates to secure the release of their members.

Kwanchai Praipana,  leader of KRUC, tried 4 times without success to get bail for his peers. With Pheu Thai back in power, he was able to press constituent MPs from Udon Thani and nearby provinces to secure their release.

On another level, incentives to bail out the Red Shirts go far beyond constituent MPs’ self-interest calculus. Not only does Pheu Thai make securing release of the Red Shirts its official party line, but its top leaders as well as party-list MPs, some of whome have no personal ties with those in jail, back the party’s initiatives politically and, more importantly, financially. The party had fund-raised more than 100 million baht specifically to secure bail for their Red Shirt supporters.[5]

The relationship between Pheu Thai and its Red Shirt supporters is changing. The ties that bind the party and its Red Shirt counterparts have moved beyond the electoral realm. Increasingly Red Shirt leaders from national, provincial and local levels are demanding more from the party in return for their votes. The Reds want Pheu Thai to see their electoral support as “conditional”, not automatic. Sub-national Red Shirt groups are beginning to act like special interest groups – lobbying MPs on behalf of their members.

Pheu Thai MPs must tread this carefully to ensure they don’t alienate non-Red Shirt constituents.



[1] http://www.dailynews.co.th/newstartpage/index.cfm?page=content&categoryID=8&contentID=157571

[2] http://www.matichon.co.th/news_detail.php?newsid=1313484187&grpid=00&catid=&subcatid=

[3] http://www.manager.co.th/Local/ViewNews.aspx?NewsID=9540000107737

[4] Note that thus far only those on charges of terrorism have been granted bail – not those on charges of lese majesty.

[5] http://news.voicetv.co.th/thailand/16508.html