Jatuporn's best days may be behind him

Jatuporn's best days may be behind him

Former UDD head can no longer count on support of red shirt rank and file

Jatuporn Prompan addresses the rally at Santiporn Park on April 10, 2021, calling for unity from all sides to remove Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha from office. (Photo by Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)
Jatuporn Prompan addresses the rally at Santiporn Park on April 10, 2021, calling for unity from all sides to remove Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha from office. (Photo by Wichan Charoenkiatpakul)

There is a lot riding on veteran activist Jatuporn Prompan kick-starting a mass protest targeting Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's ouster.

But if Mr Jatuporn thought that because he chairs the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) he could count on the support of the red shirts to solidify the campaign against the government, he may be heading for disappointment.

For one thing, the intensity of the red shirt movement's activism that served as a dominant force in politics a decade ago has paled against the evolving political situation of today, according to academics.

Also, some leading red shirt figures are keen to know what Mr Jatuporn's intentions are in waging the anti-government campaign this time around under the banner of "Sammakhi prachachon pheu prathet thai" (People's Unity for Thailand).

The core strength of the UDD at its peak was rooted in its resistance against the military coup engineered by army chief Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin on Sept 19, 2006 that toppled the Thaksin Shinawatra administration.

'Villages for Democracy'

The red shirts banded together in support of Thaksin and demanded that democracy be restored. They gradually consolidated and formed the first "red shirt village" in Ban Nong Hu Ling in tambon Nong Hai of Muang district, Udon Thani, on Dec 15, 2010 with Anon Saennan as the core founder.

The village carried the motto "There will never be room for another coup".

Mr Anon was subsequently made leader of the Red Shirt Village of Thailand whose members were steadfast in their vow to uphold pro-democracy principles and to fight for Thaksin's return to power. But their chief mission was to call for justice for the red shirt protesters who perished in fatal clashes with the security forces in April 2009 and May 2010.

The first red shirt village, with a population of 353, created its own logo and welcomed visitors with sign boards that read: "Red Shirt Village for Democracy". Some signs were adorned with images of Thaksin. A red flag was erected outside each house.

The concept of the village was catching on. Soon, most villages across Udon Thani subscribed to the red shirt movement which quickly expanded to other regions of the country.

Five million "red manuals" were published and distributed as guidelines to member villages nationwide on how to conduct their affairs. The villages were later connected through the umbrella network known as the Federation of Red Shirt Villages of Thailand and Mr Anon was elected its chairman.

By the time that then prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's younger sister, dissolved parliament on Dec 8, 2013, a total of 28,532 red shirt villages were up and running. The villages' registered members exceeded nine million at the time of the May 22, 2014 military coup led by army chief Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha which toppled the Pheu Thai Party-led government.

The red shirts had rallied in droves behind the Yingluck administration and to counter the growing mass protest by the People's Democratic Reform Committee which came together on the pretext of the Yingluck government's push for a wholesale amnesty law that was feared to benefit Thaksin, convicted by the Supreme Court in the Ratchadaphisek land fiasco.

Mr Jatuporn was one of the mainstays of the red shirt rallies which were dispersed by the military in the May 22 putsch.

Jatuporn back in protest saddle

Mr Jatuporn organised his first rally in a decade on April 4 at Santiporn Park, this time taking aim at Gen Prayut whom he accused of leading the country down the road to destruction through his incompetence and autocratic ways.

About 500 people turned up for the rally code-named "4-4-4", a reference to the date of the protest debut.

Mr Jatuporn promised the protest was meant as a melting pot of people across the political divide who agreed Gen Prayut must immediately give up power. Among those in attendance were Pibhop Dhongchai, a former core member of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD); Veera Somkwamkid, secretary-general of the People's Anti-Corruption Network; Karoon Sai-ngam, a former Buri Ram MP; Taikorn Polsuwan, a former leader of an anti-Thaksin group; and Saknarong Mongkol, a law professor at Thammasat University.

However, the leading figures from the red shirt villages were noted for their absence from the protest launch.

What's more, Mr Anon, who once fought side by side with Mr Jatuporn, has turned against him.

"Don't fall for Mr Jatuporn's words urging people to hit the streets and purge Gen Prayut from power. It's the same old, anti-dictator rhetoric," Mr Anon said.

"There's no denying the fact that the Palang Pracharath Party formed the government and chose Gen Prayut to be the premier.

"In the past, we red shirts engaged in the political struggle and went to jail for it. Families were torn apart and some of us lost their lives. Where were these leaders when we needed them?"

"Now, these leaders are back in the fray and asking people to prop them up. It's a complete joke how they have the nerve to come asking for political ideals."

Mr Anon commended the Prayut government for its efficient handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and offer of relief programmes to help people and the economy cope with the effects of the crisis.

He denied the red shirt villagers had fooled Thaksin into providing the resources to support them. Thaksin knew better than to be that easily deceived, according to Mr Anon.

Winning back red shirts' trust

Mr Jatuporn would find it hard to revive the trust of the red shirts and the protest he is leading only aggravates social conflict.

A source who used to be a red shirt core member said the Jatuporn protests have failed to attract a large turnout. No movers and shakers in the UDD ranks have joined the rallies.

In the source's view, some red shirt village leaders say the Jatuporn rallies are nothing more than a symbolic gesture. The source said the red shirts may have been pressured by someone in the government to stay put and not take part in the protest.

The source is understood to refer to Suporn Atthawong, vice-minister to the PM's Office and a "redeemed" red shirt co-leader.

"Now, the red shirt villagers are mostly weak politically although the villages are still there," the source said, adding that since Mr Suporn has brought several UDD figures to work in the government, the red shirt movement has been emasculated.

The government has been in power for seven years and wrested control over state authorities while the red shirt villagers are not fired-up and full of leverage as before.

The source admitted the announcement by some UDD factions shunning the Jatuporn rallies was because they were disappointed with the red shirt leaders who gained fame and fortune after being given positions in government, past and present.

The villagers were left behind and the force they once wielded ebbed away.

Post-Songkran protest outlook

Another source in the UDD said a picture of how the Jatuporn protest will play out will be clearer after this week's Songkran holiday. People's minds are on the upcoming celebration which might explain the low protest turnout.

Mr Jatuporn has put the protest on hold, citing the resurgence of Covid-19.

The source said the post-Songkran protest has a chance of pulling in bigger crowds that might include people fed up with the government's management of the Covid crisis.

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