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Red shirts are down, but Thaksin is out

Some suggest electric shocks may have been applied, while others point out that the red shirt leaders' post-coup transformation from wild animals to teacher's pets is a familiar charade.

Anyway, anything can happen if you spend several days in the custody of the National Council for Peace and Order. Just look at the two former Pheu Thai ministers who reportedly killed time by playing cards and nearly got into a fist fight after one of them lost Bt4 million.

Jatuporn Prompan, who had pledged bloodshed on an unprecedented scale if a coup happened, emerged from detention with a timid smile and a vow to do his best to help the NCPO restore peace. Militant Suporn Attawong went straight to the Ya Mo statue after his release to tell her he would never be involved in politics ever again. Another "hardcore" red, Preuk Prueksunan, better known as Lungyim Tasawang, has taken to Facebook and slammed the "cowards" who keep running while urging others to fight. Mind you, even a high-profile red-shirt admirer like Cambodian leader Hun Sen has joined, if you will, the kool-aid party, asking the Shinawatras to find a location for a possible government-in-exile elsewhere.

America has reacted to the coup strongly, albeit in textbook manner. The European Union's response was also harsh, although it looked like a "template" might have been used, too. The Western media have been all over Thailand, or, more specifically, the Victory Monument, where anti-coup gatherings took place for a couple of days last week. Australia has come out late, but certainly is determined to make up for lost time. The Kingdom, once again, became a punch-bag for anyone wanting to display political correctness.

What matters, though, is what the red shirts do next. Their strength or lack of it had been dictating Thailand's political course over the past decade. The movement was a fledgling one - some may say not even born yet - when Thaksin Shinawatra was kicked out of power in 2006. It reached its peak in 2010 when it shut down Bangkok for weeks and propelled his sister to office months later. When its confrontation with the anti-Thaksin protesters loomed a few weeks ago and threatened Thailand with a civil war, another twist in the Thai political tale occurred.

So, as far as the NCPO is concerned, Washington and Canberra can suspend more aid, the EU can issue statements condemning Thailand on a daily basis and the global media can say whatever they like. As long as the red shirts are tamed, that is. Which is why the junta must be happy to see US Secretary of State John Kerry occupying the headlines, because the less said about searches of red leaders' homes and seizures of "weapons", the better.

The red shirts are very different from the "whistle mobs", who along with the judiciary softened up the Yingluck administration before the military unleashed the knockout punch late last month. The grass-roots are harder to mobilise without clear-cut, charismatic leaders, well-organised transportation and good funding. While the whistle mobs made "appointments" through LINE, Twitter and Facebook, the red shirts could only wait for what Jatuporn had to say. While the red shirts sought money in exchange for having to abandon their sources of daily income, the whistle mobs showered Suthep Thaugsuban with every denomination of banknote.

This is why what Jatuporn, Nuttawut Saikuar and Thida Thavornseth are saying is a lot more significant than all the American and EU statements combined. And we can't dismiss the role of transportation either. For an eye-catching mega-rally to materialise, all the whistle mobs needed was for the Skytrain and subways to function properly. The red shirts needed plenty of buses and a lot of help from local authorities and community leaders.

The coup has taken away the buses and much of the help. Funding must be dwindling, too, following a series of post-coup summonsing, threats and legal actions. All in all, it would now take a miracle for a major red rally to occur in Bangkok in defiance of the coup makers. If the tables are turned against the NCPO, it's unlikely to be in the near future.

Of course, the red shirts are in disarray. But their muted response to the coup could be deceptive. Flexible yet determined, the red shirts have been a real political force - and they always will be. But their relationship with the Shinawatras must have reached another crossroads. You can say the Shinawatras and their crumbling political apparatus can no longer motivate the red shirts, or you can say the red shirts can no longer motivate themselves to fight for the Shinawatras. Either way, it has become extremely difficult, if not impossible, for Thaksin and Co to plot their return to power through the grass-roots movement.


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