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Asia

New Red Shirt leader eyes the path of peace

In Thailand, efforts are continuing to overcome the social and political divisions highlighted by massive anti-government protests earlier this year. The Red Shirts have a new leader, Thida Thavornseth.

Thida Thavornseth, center with microphone, at a rally in Bangkok last Friday

Thida Thavornseth, center with microphone, at a rally in Bangkok last Friday

Seven months after the Thai military used force to end anti-government protests in central Bangkok’s commercial district of Rajprasong, thousands attended an open-air concert there. It featured a new symphony by Thai composer Somtow Sucharitkul, played by a 150-member orchestra and choir.

The performance marked a further step to overcome deep rifts within Thai society. Somtow, who wrote the symphony to honor Thai King Bhumipol Adulyadej, said achieving reconciliation remains a challenge.

"There is an enormous amount of anger, and the whole concept of winning and losing and coming back is not deeply engrained in our culture", Somtow told Deutsche Welle. "This is a culture that in the past has been really driven by the idea of vengeance in many ways, and this is something that we have to overcome. I feel that if I can’t do it with words, perhaps I can do it with music."

Thai soldiers suppressed Red Shirt protests with force in May

Thai soldiers suppressed Red Shirt protests with force in May

The clashes between protesters and security forces for more than two months left 91 people dead and almost 2,000 injured. The protests were led by the so-called Red Shirts, largely supporting former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. After a coup ousted Thaksin in 2006, two more pro-Thaksin governments were forced to stand down by court decisions.

Red Shirts in disarray

But after the army clampdown in spring, the Red Shirt movement has been in disarray. Many of its leaders were arrested or fled the country.

The new acting chairwoman Thida Thavornseth is no stranger to Thai politics. Her husband, Weng Tojirakarn is in jail along with other Red Shirt leaders. Thida said she took up the leadership amid fears that hard-line elements were planning to take over. "We have to find a leader to lead people in the right way, and we want to keep the movement peaceful," she said. "Otherwise the democracy movement – our democracy movement – may be destroyed, as some people want to destroy the peaceful movement."

Thailand remains deeply divided. Many among the rural poor and the urban working class continue to support Thaksin.

Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva

Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva

Preparing for next year's elections

The government, led by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s Democrat Party, has launched investigations into the bloodshed along with a Truth for Reconciliation Commission. But progress has been mixed, and Thida is skeptical. "The first thing you have to find is the truth, and justice for the people. Only then you can move on towards reconciliation."

Chris Baker, an author and commentator on Thai politics, said the Red Shirts' main focus will be to support the pro-Thaksin Puea Thai Party ahead of the general elections. "They are very much concentrated on when the next election will be and how that will be managed. Then there’s a lot of pushing and shoving, so it’s far from simple," said Baker. "So that’s what people are concentrating on, not court cases and reconciliation commissions."

On the weekend, by-election victories for the Democrat Party and its coalition partner provided a short-term boost for the government.

Author: Ron Corben (Bangkok)
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein

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