'October spirit' lacking as reds mark uprising

'October spirit' lacking as reds mark uprising

I happened to find myself in the middle of a red-shirt gathering at the Democracy Monument on Sunday. It was Oct 14, and the people in red were celebrating an historic event associated with our nation's democracy _ the student-led uprising in 1973 against Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn and his clan.

It was my first encounter with the people in red in the flesh. The whole area was red, with banners and vendors selling red-shirt stuff like T-shirts and caps that were going like hot cakes.

Like many political gatherings, the leaders on stage kept shouting into the microphone non-stop to keep the event brisk and lively even though not many people seemed to be listening. Their main message was only to be expected _ a blasting of the military and dictatorship repeated again and again.

I saw no other political factions at the commemorative event. That didn't surprise me a bit. The absence of other groups is understandable in a country with a deep political divide.

Come to think of it, isn't it ironic that the commemoration of such an historic event was dominated by just one group? Doesn't the sheer absence of other voices highlight the dark side of Thai democracy nowadays?

I left the Democracy Monument for the nearby October 14 Memorial site at Kok Wua intersection. As I walked towards it, my heart raced thinking about what happened on this avenue on this exact day 39 years ago.

Then my destination was right before me. The place looked gloomy with just a few visitors. The only things that reminded visitors of its historic past were some wreaths which were placed there as part of the commemorative ceremony.

Thirty-nine years after the uprising (which came 80 years after the 1932 revolution that installed the constitutional monarchy in Thailand), we are still on the rough road towards democracy. We have witnessed coups, bloodshed, a lot of bad politicians who muddled our politics, and the loss of many unsung heroes who sacrificed their lives for this thing called democracy.

And we still have a long way to go.

Judging by external form, we are a democratic nation _ what with parliament and a strong, elected government backed by a solid majority. But is this the same democracy that those October heroes wished for?

Is our democracy anything close to "people's politics" _ the aspirations of pro-democracy protesters who went up against Gen Suchinda Kraprayoon in May 1992? I don't think so.

It may be easy for red leaders to mobilise tens of thousands of people for a single event, but is that people's politics?

In fact, if we are to judge our democracy according to the level of tolerance people have towards those with different viewpoints, as suggested by Wattanachai Winichakul, former manager of the October 14 Memorial site, then we have not gone anywhere.

Actually, there have been a series of actions by some factions in the red-shirt camp that make me think our society has, in fact, moved backward.

A case in point is the red group under Wutthipong "Kootee" Kochthamakhun, a radio host turned red leader who does not hesitate to use threats and intimidation against his political opponents.

Mr Wutthipong has portrayed himself and his group as "democracy crusaders", but their rowdy and sometimes violent actions go against democratic principles.

The group's extremism is reminiscent of the means used by the ultra-right wing Krating Daeng group which was involved in a series of violent anti-student campaigns before the bloody crackdown on student protesters on Oct 6, 1976. If Mr Wutthipong thinks what he has been doing is called democracy, he needs to be corrected.

What is worrying is that the authorities _ the police in particular _ seem to turn a blind eye to Mr Wutthipong's Krating Daeng-style activities which have often resulted in violent confrontations. There have also been no attempts by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the Pheu Thai Party to deter mob rule which is against the law.

As I left the October 14 Memorial, the commemoration was coming to an end. The red shirts started to leave. If there is such a thing called the "October spirit", an openness to different opinions, then I hardly noticed it at the red gathering there.

Ploenpote Atthakor is Deputy Editorial Pages Editor, Bangkok Post

Ploenpote Atthakor

Former editorial page Editor

Ploenpote Atthakor is former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

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