The last thing we need now is another red mobilisation
published : 30 Mar 2013 at 00:00
newspaper section: News
With the anniversary of the April-May 2010 red-shirt protests looming, can colourful demonstrations and incendiary street brawls be far away?
Thousandsof red-shirt supporters cheer as they listen to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra viaavideo link during a rally atMuang Thong Thani in Nonthaburi last year. APICHIT JINAKUL
Protest organisers often point to numbers as a metric of success. The reasoning is easy to understand, which is perhaps why Hitler saw it that way too. The bigger the crowd - the epic rally at Nuremberg comes to mind - the easier he found it to tap mass emotion and manipulate minds. Individual expression, reflective thought, tolerance of diversity and differences of opinion were stifled in the shadow of red flags and swastikas. So it was then, so it is today. The more who march, the louder the pronouncements, the harder it is for marchers to be true to themselves. To those risking life and limb, the drumbeat from on high can be compelling to the point of hypnotic. With lockstep, groupthink takes hold. The colour schemes, runes and symbols, anthems, bright banners and headbands set the stage for a good propaganda show, but when the rhetoric gets vitriolic and lies take the place of unvarnished truth, individual agency is lost and people get stepped on and crushed.
That's why the last thing Thailand needs is a Manchurian Candidate-style long-distance phone call that triggers the return of the shirts of colour to the street and plunges the nation into chaos again. There is nothing spontaneous about colour-coded gatherings; they are planned and choreographed in advance. But planning can only take things so far, because mobs are emotional and reactionary and difficult to control once the going gets rough.
The man in Dubai is showing signs of petulance with the way time is passing him by; an-ego driven obsession that spells trouble if it results in him deploying his full spectrum political army of elected and unelected, elite and grassroots, famous and infamous, into the fray, especially since there are among his red-shirt followers those who regard slingshots and the slinging of hate speech as an appropriate form democratic of expression. He anoints and appoints both politicians inside parliament and the rabble-rousers outside. He can call on his rank and file followers to fall into line and show their colour by filing out into the street. Herded together among strangers, away from home, demonstrators dependent on logistic support are especially vulnerable to emotional pitches made by slippery, silver-tongued demagogues.
As new money fights old, people with little or no money are the ones with the most to lose.
Greed and financial irregularities are bad enough, fomenting violence is worse. Whether it was the war on drugs in 2003 or the crackdown on Islamic activists in 2004 and 2005, or the underhanded attempts to influence events at the barricades in the streets of Bangkok in 2010, fugitive from justice Thaksin Shinawatra has a lot to answer for.
The good news is that the master manipulator has been out of the country long enough for some of the divisive wounds he inflicted on the Thai body politic to begin to heal. In as much as his sister, incumbent Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, is her own person and not another one of his pawns, a middle way might yet be found to bridge the red-yellow divide. Thailand's economy is healthy and growing. In this maddeningly wobbly and unstable world, Thailand could actually emerge as a bright spot and safe haven if only the greed of politicians, at home and abroad, can be checked, and the rule of law is fair, and fairly applied, to one and all.
The Pheu Thai Party needs to decide if it wants to serve its paymaster or the people. If party discipline is tantamount to enforcing compliance with a personality cult, then the men in suits are no better than the street brawlers who replace reasonable deliberation with bullying and twisting the truth.
Indeed, Thaksin paved the way for the nascent fascism that has intermittently gripped Thailand in recent years, first with his corporatist linking of the state and big business combined with a capricious, authoritarian style. He achieved something close to total media control through carrots, sticks and outright purchase. His tenure in office, and the style he has set for his proxies ever since, is one photo op after another, one concocted news story after another. Behind the scenes. bullying and palm-greasing enforce and maintain, through a mix of fear and orchestrated adulation, his reputation as Dear Leader.
One of the few positive fascist legacies he has bequeathed his homeland is a Goebbels-style propagandistic mobilisation of Thais in all walks of life, especially the common folk, giving the Thaksin personality cult a pseudo-proletarian character and arousing dormant class struggle.
There's something to be said for the awakening of rural political consciousness, even if it is just a false flag, a false dawn. It is important in fascistic movements that the big man appear to be on the side of the little people, and against the old fancy-pants establishment, the loyalists, the royalists and urban snobs which, in the Thai case, have been unthinkingly lumped together as the ammart.
Always good to have an enemy, and more important still, to be the power who defines and delineates the enemy. Thaksin's mobilisation specialists have shown a rare gift in getting his willing little henchmen to march and sing and hate and cry and believe that donning red shirts and following red rituals makes them part of something important and larger than their sorry everyday selves.
But look what happened! Nearly 100 poor souls on both sides of the barricades perished in the streets in April-May 2010 because the mobilisation against a trumped-up enemy in service of a strident personality cult got out of hand. Snipers of unknown provenance dangerously inflamed tensions, all but guaranteeing a brutal crackdown. The generally peaceful, stoic and indigent red shirts whose only home in Bangkok was a barricaded intersection were cruelly painted into a corner by the out-of-touch directives of an absent paymaster and impresario. At a key turning point just before the violent dispersal of May 19, 2010, Thaksin famously phoned home to scuttle a successfully negotiated deal between the red-shirt core leadership and the Abhisit Vejjajiva administration. Peace was at hand, but peace wasn't necessarily the desired outcome.
Philip J Cunningham is a media researcher covering Asian politics.
Philip J Cunningham
Philip J Cunningham is a media researcher covering Asian politics. He is the author of Tiananmen Moon.