‘Black shirts’ Cast Shadow on Bangkok Protests (FT 18/5/10)
In Thailand’s colour-coded tribal war, they are called the black shirts, a shadowy and violent force that has been photographed on the fly but has never come out openly.
They are the men with guns, apparently the armed wing of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship – known as the red shirts – a protest movement that bases much of its legitimacy on its claim to be a peaceful organisation.
The vast majority of the 5,000 or so protesters who remain behind the barricades of tyres and sharpened bamboo staves in central Bangkok are still dedicated to the ideal of peaceful and disciplined protest: for five weeks the demonstrators, mostly drawn from the poorer end of society, have camped out in the country’s richest shopping precinct, but none of the stores has been broken into.
However, militancy is on the rise. In the protesters’ sprawling encampment around the Ratchaprasong intersection, young men high on a toxic mix of testosterone and methamphetamine swagger around in dark glasses, their preferred wardrobe consisting of black shoes, black trousers and black T-shirts, preferably displaying the logo of a pistol manufacturer; Glock or Heckler and Koch are particularly popular.
“It is a problem. It is a thing I don’t want to see. Like most of the leaders I want to keep our movement peaceful and to go on like this for ever, but the anger of the people has accumulated,” Karkaew Pikulthong, one of the leaders of the red movement, said. “This operation has exposed their feelings,” he added, referring to the government offensive , in which 35 people, only one of them a soldier, have so far died.
The pacifists among the red-shirt movement’s leadership seem to have lost out to hardliners. Many of the 20 or so men who lead the organisation wanted to accept the government’s offer two weeks ago of elections in November, but they were over-ruled.
Most of the red shirts participating in the conflict are fighting the soldiers’ assault rifles and shotguns with catapults, homemade explosives and petrol bombs. But there is increasing evidence that the red shirts have an armed wing that may or may not be within the control of the leadership.
“They have armed auxiliaries and I think this has been a conscious effort by the [United Front] strategists,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
“The red shirts say they have a right to defend themselves and the government says they are terrorists, and it precludes a negotiated solution,” said Mr Thitinan. “The violence is going to be protracted.”
Many people believe that Major General Khattya Sawas-dipol , a renegade army officer regarded as an extremist even by his political allies, was behind the black shirts. A confidant of Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister who was ousted four years ago and who remains the godfather of the red-shirt movement, Maj Gen Khattya was the first casualty of the latest round of violence.
Mr Thitinan is not surprised that an armed wing should emerge given that Abhisit Vejjajiva, the prime minister, has failed to address many of the concerns that motivate the protesters since he came to power in December 2008.
“Suppression without accommodation begets a better-armed movement,” he says.
One of the central fears of analysts like Mr Thitinan is that the violence will spread to the countryside, where most of Mr Thaksin’s supporters are based.
There have already been demonstrations in towns such as Chiang Mai, Ubon Ratchatani and Khon Kaen, and security could deteriorate, possibly by design.
“They are looking beyond Ratchaprasong, they are looking at armed resistance to the Abhisit administration,” Mr Thitinan says of the black shirts.