July 02, 2014 00:00 By Pravit Rojanaphruk
A month after the military intervened amid a deepening political divide and intensifying "colour-coded" politics, The Nation investigates what has become of the pro-Thaksin Shinawatra United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship and the anti-Thaksin Pe
One month after the coup, the fifth floor of the Imperial World Lat Phrao department store is eerily quiet. It used to be the de facto headquarters of the United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) up until May 22 – the day the military took over.
The office now is dark and locked up. However, as soon as I began peering into the darkness, I was approached by a security guard questioning my intentions.
After handing him my business card, I asked what he thought of the junta’s plan to end coloured-shirt politics and if he thinks the red shirts still exist.
His response was rather conclusive.
“They are no more,” he said looking at me suspiciously.
Soon enough, four military officers in fatigues showed up and began taking photographs. A master sergeant then told me, in a not so pleasant way, that he believed colour-coded politics had gone for good.
“Everything is in order now,” insisted the sergeant, who has been guarding the area since the power seizure.
The place, which used to be the buzzing hub of the red shirts, is now all but abandoned.
Later, I called red-shirt leader Weng Tojirakarn, who was arrested right after the coup and has since been released, to ask if he still considered himself a red shirt and a leader of the UDD.
After much pressing, he eventually conceded, saying he was indeed a red shirt and a UDD leader, before adding that the situation was far from normal. “We’re under martial law so we can’t do anything.”
However, he said he was convinced that the plan by the junta – which operates under the name ‘National Council for Peace and Order’ (NCPO) – to dissolve the red shirts and other political groups would not succeed if all sides are not treated equally.
“In the end, it’s the people who will decide [whether to continue being red shirts or not],” he said.
Red-shirt academic Suthachai Yimprasert, one of those summoned by the NCPO, said the seeming absence of the red shirts in post-coup Thailand was artificially induced and wouldn’t last for too long.
“I don’t think it’s going to work. People’s beliefs cannot be changed at gunpoint. Forcing people not to think will just not work,” he said, adding that everybody in a democratic society should have the freedom to think differently.
Suthachai pointed out that some of the red-shirt leaders who publicly denounced their political identity after being detained by the military were not really telling the truth, because “there is no free will”.
“It’s like goons pointing a gun at you. You just have to say what they want.”
On the other side of the political divide, Tankhun Jitt-itsara, a co-leader of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), also thinks the scheme will not work.
“It is impossible [to dissolve red or PDRC] identities,” said Tankhun, who spoke at the PDRC protest stage for most of the six-month-long period.
“This will also ruin the opportunity for people to be politically alert,” he said, adding that the real need was not dissolving colour-coded politics, but getting rid of violence and hate speech against those who think differently.
Back at Imperial World, the owner of Post Cafe on the ground floor, insisted that some red were still visiting the mall – though not necessarily going up to the fifth floor or wearing red shirts – and they were still discussing politics.
Despite the People’s Democratic Reform Committee no longer being allowed to meet formally, key members of the group have been working behind the scenes on a proposal for national reform, which they hope to hand over to the Reform Council when the time is right, a PDRC source said.
The source, who chose not to be named, said the PDRC’s key leaders had last met on June 21 before separately discussing national reform with different groups of people. The source said only smaller meetings were held after that, especially since the PDRC has been told by the junta not to hold any political gatherings or make any explicit comments on politics for now. However, PDRC leaders hope they can hold activities once the Reform Council is created, he said.
“Civil society should take part in the reform,” he said.
As to whether the PDRC – set up by former Democrat MPs, social and political activists as well as academics to “eradicate the Thaksin regime” – would regroup for a movement in the future, the source said they would consider the situation regularly.
“First we will see how national reform progresses and how the ‘Thaksin regime’ is eradicated. It will also depend on the situation,” the source said.
Another source, who also asked not to be named, said former MPs who were part of the PDRC were now visiting people in their constituencies to prepare for the next election.
“Also many of them are focusing on their businesses to make up for the time and earnings they lost out on while taking part in the PDRC rallies,” he said.
Meanwhile, PDRC leader Suthep Thaugsuban, who was previously secretary-general of the Democrat Party and has vowed to stay out of politics, has returned to his home town in Surat Thani province. However, the source said he was believed to be advising the party or at least some Democrats.
The plan to set up a foundation to help people hurt during the political protests has been put on hold.
Earlier, the PDRC announced that a second “Dinner with Uncle Kamnan” fund-raiser would be held late last month at the Pacific Club, owned by Suthep’s daughter. The first such dinner was held the week before.
However, Suthep ended up having to cancel the second event, after junta chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha announced on television that no politically motivated fund-raisers were allowed.
Sombat Thamrongthanyawong, former rector of the National Institute of Development Administration (Nida), who was one of the PDRC leaders, said: “The PDRC has dispersed. There’s no PDRC at the moment.”
Sombat, who now leads Nida’s Asean and Asia Studies Centre, said his last interaction with the PDRC was when it discussed national reform. This meeting took place shortly after the military coup on May 22.
He said the key mission for PDRC members now was defending their legal cases, including those on insurrection and trespassing on government premises that were filed by the Department of Special Investigation.
Meanwhile, the reform proposal has been handed over to Suthep, who will hand it over to the National Council for Peace and Order when the time is right, he added.