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Debating the Crisis in Thailand: Is Red Shirt Movement a Genuine Grassroots Struggle, or Front for Ousted Ex-PM, Billionaire Tycoon?

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In Thailand, the government has rejected an offer by anti-government protesters to enter talks after a bloody week in Bangkok that has left at least thirty-eight protesters dead. Some fear the standoff could lead to an undeclared civil war. The protesters are mostly rural and urban poor who are part of a group called the UDD, the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, more commonly known as the Red Shirts. We host a debate between Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a Thai dissident living in exile in Britain who supports the Red Shirt movement; and Philip Cunningham, a freelance journalist who has covered Asia for over twenty years. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Thailand, the government has rejected an offer by anti-government protesters to enter talks after a bloody week in Bangkok that’s left at least thirty-eight protesters dead. Some fear the standoff could lead to an undeclared civil war.

The protesters are mostly rural and urban poor who are part of a group called the UDD, the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship. More commonly they’re known as the Red Shirts. They have been occupying parts of downtown Bangkok for two months. The protesters are attempting to force the Prime Minister to step down and call new elections. Many of the Red Shirts are supporters of the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire tycoon who was overthrown in a coup nearly four years ago.

The tension in Bangkok intensified five days ago when Thai troops began using force to remove the Red Shirts from their barricaded encampments. Live ammunition was fired at unarmed protesters and journalists. In addition to the thirty-eight protesters killed, hundreds have been wounded. The Thai government has defended the use of force, saying armed groups and terrorists tied to the Red Shirts have been attacking supporters of the government and Thai troops.

Earlier today, protest leader Nattawut Saikeau announced the Red Shirts are willing to enter into talks overseen by members of the Thai Senate.

    NATTAWUT SAIKEAU: [translated] The United Nations has not responded to our demand so far, but the request to stop the shooting is an urgent issue which cannot wait, not even a single minute. Therefore, the UDD will accept the senator’s proposal.

AMY GOODMAN: But the Thai government rejected the offer, saying talks would only begin when the protesters abandoned their barricaded camp in Bangkok. On Sunday, the Thai government also rejected a call by the Red Shirts for a ceasefire and UN-moderated talks.

    PANITAN WATTANAYAGORN: [translated] We reject their demands for UN mediation or for them to do to any activities in Thailand. No Thailand government has ever let anyone intervene with our internal affairs. We can solve our problems ourselves, but we are willing to listen.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about Thailand, we’re joined by two guests who have been closely monitoring the situation in Thailand.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a Thai dissident living in exile in Britain. He was a university lecturer in Thailand before having to flee after writing a book criticizing the 2006 military coup. He’s a Red Shirt supporter.

We’re also joined by Philip Cunningham, a freelance journalist who’s covered Asia for over twenty years. He has taught at several universities in Thailand. His writings frequently appear in the Bangkok Post.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Philip Cunningham is joining us from Japan.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn, can you describe what is happening right now in Bangkok and what the Red Shirts want?

GILES JI UNGPAKORN: By the way, my name is Ji.

Well, what the Red Shirts want is democracy, because the present government was installed by the military, and it’s actually the fruit of a military coup in 2006 and various judicial coups. So, demanding fresh elections, demanding proper democratic elections is perfectly legitimate. And even though they have been occupying the center of Bangkok for two months, it’s only a shopping center and a site for luxury hotels, yet the government has deployed snipers and assassination squads. And since the beginning of April, they’ve actually been responsible for sixty-seven deaths and thousands of injuries. And really, the time has come for the government to order an immediate ceasefire and for them to enter into genuine talks with the Red Shirts.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the latest developments, Ji, the offer of the Red Shirts to participate and the government saying no?

GILES JI UNGPAKORN: Well, the Red Shirts have made repeated offers to negotiate with the government, and the government really wants to shoot its way to a victory and to stay in power through the use of force.

You also have to realize that this government has brought about the worst censorship ever in Thailand. It censors all the internet, the media, in all shape and form. They even attack Facebook and everything else.

So the two things that they’re using to stay in power are censorship and brutal force. And they’re not prepared to actually offer the chance of the people to actually make a decision about who should run the country and in what way.

AMY GOODMAN: Philip Cunningham, I had said you’re in Japan; you’re now in Ithaca, New York. But can you give your observations on what’s happening in Thailand right now?

PHILIP CUNNINGHAM: Yes. You know, as a poet Gil Scott-Heron said, he famously said that “the revolution will not be televised.” And it’s being televised, but it’s not a revolution. What we see in Thailand, I think, is a sham revolution, and I think it’s something stirred up primarily by the billionaire tycoon in exile, who you mentioned. There are real grievances. There are real poor people. There are fault lines, and in sensitive areas in Thailand, which are very easy to provoke. It would sort of be like Rockefeller funding riots in the ghettos, if he had somehow been arrested and sent into exile or something like that. I mean, it’s a really strange situation. It’s a hugely tragic situation. The people are dying. They’re dying for a billionaire tycoon in exile. It doesn’t make sense.

Does Thailand need democracy, the kind of socialism that Ji has been working for? Yes, I think that would be fine. But it has to be peaceful, and the Red Shirts are not peaceful.


GILES JI UNGPAKORN: Well, it’s nonsense to say that the Red Shirts aren’t peaceful. They’ve actually been very, very disciplined and try to maintain a peaceful demonstration in the face of the government, which actually brings armed soldiers and tanks onto the streets. Any government that tries to disperse a peaceful demonstration using armed tanks, guns, and so on, and kills sixty-five people, I think needs to be condemned.

But I’m afraid Philip is misinformed about the Red Shirts. I mean, Thaksin Shinawatra — and I’m no supporter of him; I never voted for him and have always criticized his abuse of human rights —- Thaksin Shinawatra was incapable of organizing the Red Shirts. The Red Shirts were organized by former leaders of Thai Rak Thai, and they developed into a grassroots movement. They collect money in their own communities. They run community radio stations. They have different groups. If you go to any Red Shirt protest, you can see the signs up of the different groups, and you can hear people making donations on the stage and so on. And they’re not dying for Thaksin Shinawatra. They’re not stupid peasants, ignorant peasants who don’t know what they’re doing. They’re actually very well-informed small farmers and urban workers who are incensed by the fact that their democratic rights have been robbed and that this is part of the system that allows such inequality of wealth in Thailand.


PHILIP CUNNINGHAM: Can I say something to that, Amy?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, Philip Cunningham.

PHILIP CUNNINGHAM: I think one thing Ji and I absolutely agree on is that it’s never right to use an army to suppress the people. I think it’s an extremely blunt instrument. It’s crazy. It’s bloody. It’s violent. And that’s wrong. And I completely agree with Ji that the army should not be involved in this.

However, Ji and I used to live on the same street in Bangkok. We taught at the same university. But we really disagree on our analysis of the Red Shirts. I believe the Red Shirts are a fascist movement. I believe the poverty is real. The need, the hunger, for a systemic change, a kind of change in Thailand, is there. It’s in the air. But there is nothing about the Red Shirts — I listen to them every day. I monitor their broadcasts. I’m doing a media study of that. And they insult foreigners. They insult gays. They engage in ridiculous ad hominem attacks. They are playing to the crowd. It’s kind of like a cross between — with Thaksin. And they sing songs in dedication to Thaksin. I mean, it’s sort of like, you know, Mussolini or something like that. Some people compare Thaksin to Berlusconi. I think it’s a little more like Mussolini. It is fascism, and it is a shame, because these people are hijacking the poor people, hijacking the genuine grievances of the poor, to serve a billionaire in exile so he can get back to Thailand and get his money back.

AMY GOODMAN: Ji Ungpakorn?

GILES JI UNGPAKORN: Well, I don’t think that Philip Cunningham really understands the definition of “fascism.” It’s easy to bandy it about. Fascists don’t demand democracy. Fascists don’t have differences of opinion. Yes, there are elements of the Red Shirts who are rough and ready, and some of them are anti-gay, and some of them talk in terms of being anti-foreign, but the majority don’t do that. The majority actually try to give differences of opinion. And this is not an armed group. The fascists are the middle-class peoples who aren’t for democracy, the Yellow Shirts. They are the people who want an end to democratic rights for the poor and so on. And I think that’s just a really outrageous slander on the Red Shirts.

PHILIP CUNNINGHAM: Well, Ji, you’re so naive. I just can’t believe it.

AMY GOODMAN: Why are you saying that?

PHILIP CUNNINGHAM: Well, I think Ji knows very well that the — you know, if he listens to the speeches — I mean, Ji could listen to the speeches as well as I do. It’s nonsense. There is good rhetoric. There’s good drama. This is money from a TV station from Thaksin’s media people. They’ve put together a media show. They’ve put together a sham demonstration, a sham revolution. It’s not the real thing. I was in a Tiananmen in '89. I know what these things look like. I know what a spontaneous uprising looks like. This is not a spontaneous uprising.

What has happened — and I will acknowledge this — is that you've kind of had a chain reaction. You have some real spontaneous uprising now. Thailand is in a very brittle state. It’s very delicate. It’s at the kind of end of an era. And anything could happen, and this could be extremely dangerous. I just don’t want to see Thailand go down a fascist road.

And the Red Shirts have proven to be armed. They’re shooting at soldiers with slingshots, Molotov cocktails. There are people with guns, pistols. It is not a peaceful movement. The students in Tiananmen Square never did that. There was no violence. There’s no comparison to this. This is a bankrupt tycoon-backed Red Shirt movement. I just can’t accept — I just can’t understand why Ji supports it.


GILES JI UNGPAKORN: Well, you can’t understand, I know, because you’re not prepared to accept what’s going on. I follow the reports on the internet. I’m watching the TV there. I’ve been on Red Shirt demonstrations in Bangkok. I have friends who are in the Red Shirt movement. And the fact is that Philip’s analysis, you know, that it’s all being run by Thaksin and the movement is being hijacked, is an insult to the millions of Thais who are genuine Red Shirts. It’s the same old story from the academics, who believe that ordinary Thai people can’t think for themselves, can’t organize themselves —-

PHILIP CUNNINGHAM: Ji, that’s just -— that’s —- I cannot accept that. That is a very unfair sleight.

GILES JI UNGPAKORN: It’s just that -—

PHILIP CUNNINGHAM: Just because someone disagrees with you doesn’t mean they don’t understand [inaudible] —-

GILES JI UNGPAKORN: How about letting me finish, Philip? How about letting me finish?


GILES JI UNGPAKORN: It’s the same kind of attitude that the middle class in Thailand have towards the Red Shirts, and it’s their justification for why they don’t believe in democracy and why they supported a coup d’état, because they said, you know, the Red Shirts have all been bought by Thaksin and they’re being manipulated by him into voting for him -—

PHILIP CUNNINGHAM: Would you acknowledge that some of them have been bought, and a lot of them are not, but would you acknowledge that some of them have been bought?

GILES JI UNGPAKORN: How about letting me finish, Philip? How about letting me finish?

AMY GOODMAN: That question, Ji — that question, Ji, of whether some of them have been bought, bought off?

GILES JI UNGPAKORN: No, they haven’t, actually. You don’t need to buy people off, because the government, Thaksin’s government, horrendous though it was in terms of human rights abuses, actually brought in a universal healthcare system. It’s actually better than the healthcare system in the United States, in terms of what the poor get. They had pro-poor policies to create jobs. They don’t need to hand people money if the government actually offers and then delivers on that. People actually vote for what they want. And it’s actually very, very insulting to the Thai population to claim that they’ve been hoodwinked and bought by Thaksin.

Now, the issue is, really, is how come a tycoon like Thaksin can win the hearts and minds of the poor? And the answer is that this shows that there was a vacuum on the left in Thailand, you know, ever since the Communist Party collapsed, and Thaksin was able to work —-

PHILIP CUNNINGHAM: Ji, this is the weakness of your analysis. I know you’ve been on the left for a long time. We went to the -—

GILES JI UNGPAKORN: Sorry, if you could just let me finish —-

PHILIP CUNNINGHAM: —- you know, the stonecutter that was making the monument for October —-

AMY GOODMAN: Let Philip Cunningham make a statement. Go ahead, Philip Cunningham.


PHILIP CUNNINGHAM: And, you know, this idea that -— I just feel like you’re so hungry for the left to do something that you’re seeing a false dawn, and you’re mistaking it for the real thing. This is a false dawn; this is not the real thing.

GILES JI UNGPAKORN: Sorry, but you’re not listening. You’re speaking over me. You’re not listening to what I say. You’ve got some dream in your head about what I believe in, and you’re starting to argue with a straw man. I’m saying that Thaksin can — was able to exploit the divisions within Thai society between the rich and the poor because the left didn’t exist. And that’s how come a tycoon like Thaksin can win the hearts and minds of the poor.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to end with some —

PHILIP CUNNINGHAM: That’s a sad statement, isn’t it?

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to end with some videotape. The Thai military has been firing live ammunition at the anti-government protesters. Over the weekend, CNN aired footage of Thai soldiers shooting a Canadian journalist, Nelson Rand, who was working for France 24 news channel.

    REPORTER: Nearby, a Canadian reporter is also hurt and about to be shot again.

    WITNESS: One journalist got shot!

    REPORTER: Nelson Rand lies bleeding, screaming for help, next to Bangkok’s Lumpini Park.

    NELSON RAND: Help me!

    REPORTER: He’s been shot in the leg and struggles to take cover. Finally, he’s dragged to safety, but the bullets keep coming. He’s now in hospital.

AMY GOODMAN: That is a live report from the streets of Bangkok, as this reporter, Nelson Rand, a Canadian journalist with France 24, was being repeatedly shot by the soldiers. We just have thirty seconds. I’ll give each of you fifteen. We’ll begin with Ji Ungpakorn.

GILES JI UNGPAKORN: Well, I think the way to end the present crisis is that the government should order an immediate ceasefire and that there should be proper, genuine democratic elections.

AMY GOODMAN: Philip Cunningham?

PHILIP CUNNINGHAM: OK, I think the army should leave also. I think it’s absolutely horrendous what the army is doing. I’m totally against that. But I cannot say that the Red Shirts are democratic or in the right. They are also a problem. And I think it’s a police problem. They have to be arrested and taken care of.

AMY GOODMAN: Philip Cunningham, freelance journalist, he’s in Ithaca, New York. Ji Ungpakorn, Thai dissident, living in exile in Britain.

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