What makes a social movement?

20 05 2010

William Barnes in Asia Times Online runs a line of argument on the red shirts that is worthy of comment. PPT commented on an earlier article by Barnes, claiming that the “radical” red shirts were actually communists. We made the point that his speculation, based on a single source in the PAD, made little sense for anyone who had observed Thailand’s politics in recent years. Barnes is claimed to be “a veteran Bangkok-based journalist.”

In this new article, Barnes says: “As the crisis evolved, the bottom line for the UDD was that they never gained the huge numbers of protesters that would have indicated a genuine popular uprising.” He later adds: “Yet the UDD’s inability to attract the massive popular support that they initially predicted limited the efficacy and credibility…”.

PPT thinks Barnes is seriously misrepresenting the nature of the red shirt movement. Yes, we know that the red shirts said they’d bring a million people to the demonstrations in Bangkok, and they didn’t get close to that in any single demonstration. However, government claims to the contrary, several seasoned reporters and academics recognized that the red shirt demonstrations that began on 12 March were probably the largest single massing of government opponents since 1973. PPT visited the red shirt protest site at the Pan Fah Bridge several times, and was staggered by the huge numbers of people present.

More spectacularly, the red shirt caravan of 20 March was simply huge, mammoth, gigantic – the reader can choose the word. Hours and hours of protesters parading on motorcycles, trucks, cars, pickups and a few bicycles was the biggest and most novel demonstration PPT has ever seen in Bangkok. The most remarkable thing about it was the tremendous solidarity shown by average working people in Bangkok. That scared the elite witless and frightened the middle class even more. Not because there was violence, but because, in their hearts, they finally knew that the were up against a true people’s movement.

Yes, there are Thaksin acolytes and violent elements, just as there is in the rest of Thai society, not least amongst the elite’s protective services. However, the burgeoning support for the red shirts was truly devastating for their opponents, making them desperate to incite violence. If that wasn’t enough, in the countryside, the red tide was all too evident. Whole parts of the country supported the demonstrators in Bangkok

In other words, if such a movement is not a general popular uprising, then Barnes is seeking something that could only exist in fairy tales.

Barnes does note that “the few thousand who remained [at Rajaprasong – later he says there were 600] now seem sufficiently radicalized by the military’s killing of fellow protesters to take vengeance through arson attacks on prominent private businesses and government buildings.” We think he’s right on the radicalization,, although we again think his numbers are zipped. The whole process of red shirt activism from immediately after the 2006 coup has radicalized more than a “few thousand.” That radicalism may be expressed in ways that Barnes and his Bangkok-based journalists might not recognize, but it is a once in a generation change that the old oligarchy will have trouble reversing. This is why repression will increase in Thailand.

We will question the identification of red shirts with all of the burning. We do not doubt that angry red shirts will have been involved in some of this, and we may easily recall that calls were made a month ago to burn the city if the red shirts were defeated. However, we ask why no questions are raised? How could the red shirts burn all these buildings, many of them after curfew and where the military had orders to shoot arsonists on sight? Doesn’t that seem just a little odd? PPT has also had reports of small gasoline fires outside apartment buildings in tiny sois. Why? Is this a warning that supporting the red shirts is a sin? Or is it meant to invoke fear? Or is it disgruntled red shirts wanting to burn nothing in particular? Isn’t it worth thinking back to army actions in the past, where they have been prepared to make “demonstrations” of the evil intent of their opponents? Ask the question at least.

As we mentioned above, Barnes has conflicting figures. He comments that “As of Tuesday, the total number of protesters in the mid-city protest site had fallen to around 600, not including women and children who took shelter in a nearby Buddhist temple and hospital, according to this correspondent’s estimate.” PPT has several correspondents in the area who have great experience in journalism and in dealing with mass movements. In addition, the BBC broadcast pictures live from the area. While there may have been 500-600 around the stage area, there were several thousand in other areas around the Rajaprasong-centered site.

Actually, this points to one of the failures on the part of many journalists, who concentrated on the stage area at Rajaprasong and Phan Fah. In both places, in order to know what was going on and how many people were there, one needed to get into the side streets and lanes.

Barnes, like a number of other international media, became fixated on people in black clothing. He says this of “black shirts”: “Thai military sources had earlier estimated that there were around 500 UDD black-shirt fighters, whom officials referred to as terrorists, in the sprawling encampment. This correspondent, however, found no more than 100 black-shirted guards, perhaps fewer, at the site on Tuesday. There is no confirmation that the black shirts scattered around the city are now orchestrating the mushrooming arson attacks.”

We think Barnes has confused guards – who did dress in black – and those the government calls “terrorists” who dressed in black to kill people on 10 April. Many of the former had changed out of the black “uniform” in recent days (as did many of the red shirts). The international media fetish for finding armed red shirts strikes us as strange, when the most heavily armed groups involved are all in state regalia. The proportionality is lost when journalists seek the “black shirts.”

Reporting like that by Barnes will form the core of the government’s justification of its murderous actions – as happened on 10 April. As previously, PPT urges observers to look at where the casualties were. Who took the brunt of the killing and wounding? It wasn’t soldiers.

Social movements and politics

29 11 2009

Over the past couple of months there have been 2/3 papers published that review the role of social movements in Thai politics in recent years. The papers are by Giles Ji Ungpakorn and by Kengkij Kitirianglarp/เก่งกิจ กิติเรียงลาภ & Kevin Hewison. The last named authors published a paper in English and a revised version in the Thai journal Fah Diew Kan/ฟ้าเดียวกัน.

Thinking that some readers might be interested, PPT has now posted these for download to our General political background page (scroll down to the bottom of the page).

%d bloggers like this: