It is now two years since the phenomenon of the red-shirt "Villages for Democracy" emerged across Thailand, and since December 2010 over 16,000 villages have declared themselves, as this movement continues to evolve and adapt.
Nevertheless, it is extremely significant for both the red shirts and the country at large that the implications of these efforts are yet to be fully realised at the national level. With the arguments over constitutional reform dominating the national political discourse, and also the apparent determination exhibited by the anti-Thaksin coalition to resist reform, the question of the red shirts continues to be the source of much political intrigue.
The capacity to link an emerging grassroots movement to a national political agenda is of critical importance when it comes to an essential question such as this, which relates to the possible return to Thailand of the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. This does, of course, do much to explain the political ploys and cryptic arguments from both sides relating to a further rewriting of the Thai Constitution at this time, revealing the high stakes involved.
Then, when we consider the legal requirement for a majority of registered voters to vote on a constitutional referendum, voter turnout and political mobilisation take precedence over the simple technical victory that is sufficient for parliamentary elections. This helps to explain the questionable and anti-democratic rationale of some Democrat Party politicians in attempting to minimise turnout, should the constitutional referendum go ahead as planned.
In this context, it may paradoxically be in the long-term interests of Thaksin, if his opponents are in fact wrong in their assertions that the red-shirt movement is effectively a wholly owned subsidiary of his. Indeed, few red shirts would actually wish to be perceived in such a light. For those within the red-shirt umbrella, the motivation to continue to politically mobilise must therefore be linked to a strong belief that their relationship to Thaksin is both rational and advantageous.
When it comes to the question of the red-shirt villages, for the majority of Thais there continues to be much uncertainty surrounding their formation. Arnon Sannan, who is credited with having established the red-shirt village concept, has recently argued: “I’ve made it very clear that the red-shirt villages aim to promote democracy and differences. So the non-red shirts should not feel excluded if they believe in democracy.”
However, only a few months after the official launch of a number of red-shirt villages in Ubon Ratchathani, Rattana Kampui, the leader of Serichon Ubon – or Free People of Ubon – noted: “I observed rising conflicts within these red-shirt villages, and acknowledgement that some of the villages are more divided. And a number of the locals are in fear of talking politics.”
This context reveals that if the red-shirt village movement is dominated by a core of activists who act with the expectation that all community members will inevitably come on board, then they will ultimately face disappointment. If, when facing resistance, they become dogmatic and inflexible in their aims and objectives, then their reasonable claims will be lost in the argument, as the remainder of society feels increasingly isolated from their demands.
As Robert Dahl, a noted writer on democracy, once argued: “Yes, individuals and groups may sometimes be mistaken about their own good. Certainly they may sometimes misperceive what is in their own best interests.”
Despite the evident frustration felt by many rural Thais, it remains in their interest to find ways to connect their message with the hearts and minds of the wider Thai population, and this strategy would not be well served by a retreat into isolationism, which has the very real potential to significantly backfire.
The establishment of a red-shirt village creates a geographical zoning, which acts to further alienate these villages from the rest of Thai society, and both sides are now feeling this sense of division. Furthermore, there is the suggestion that these villages are the cause of emerging fragmentation within the broader red-shirt movement, which is weakening their overall position within the red-shirt coalition. Consequently, they risk undermining any opportunity they do have, to effectively contend with the existing power structures of the political establishment.
Indeed, as Francis Fukuyama has recently argued: “It requires a great deal of hard work to persuade people that institutional change is needed in the first place, build a coalition in favour of change that can overcome the resistance of existing stakeholders in the old system.”
In time, the red-shirt movement does have the potential to develop its approach, in order to emerge as a responsive interest group within the Thai political paradigm. This, in and of itself, would assist in better holding government accountable, and if the significance of this prospect was more fully understood, then the opening that this suggests would be more positively accepted by the broader Thai demographic.
In other words, if the red-shirt villages movement can expect to be able to make a strong case to the wider Thai society that they are effective in perceiving problems and constructive in providing solutions, then the evidence for this must be there. As a lack of regard for the rights of the individual, which must be set aside for the alleged benefit of the group collective, has many dangerous precedents, if red-shirt villages can demonstrate that they are developing more democratic and cohesive communities than typically exist across Thailand today, then this achievement will become apparent to the outside observer.
Their recent strategic shift towards the development of more economically oriented cooperatives has the potential to include those who are unaffiliated with the red shirts, and also to reconnect those who have felt themselves marginalised by the often overtly political aspects of this movement. The success stories would greatly assist in the development of an inclusive grassroots undertaking, which could then act to powerfully inform the newly emerging social dynamics of Thailand.
It can be established, therefore, when making the case for Thai democracy and the desire of social-political movements to affect change, that the democratic underpinning in fully respecting the rights of the individual and of political representation is not a partisan case. This concerns all Thais, regardless of their political affiliation or perspective.
Titipol Phakdeewanich is a political scientist at the Faculty of Political Science, Ubon Ratchathani University.