There are similarities and differences between the current political conflict and the Kingdom's nearly two-decade-long war against communism, but the current conflict is even more severe in the eyes of three former communist rebels.
“There’s no sign that it will end any time soon. It may require a decisive victory from one side,” said Suthachai Yimprasert, a former communist rebel who now teaches history at Chulalongkorn University. He said the current conflict was in its eighth year, having begun before the 2006 coup.
“I hope it can end without a civil war,” he said, adding that both sides should stick to a democratic way of sorting out their differences.
Suthachai went into the jungle of Surat Thani province in the aftermath of the October 6, 1976, massacre of left-wing students. He was then a student at Thammasat University.
Suthachai – a professed red shirt – said Thailand today was experiencing a struggle between democratic and anti-democratic forces. The communist insurgency, he said, raged from 1965 until a 1982 general amnesty opened up a new political space – but only after at least 10,000 deaths, according to his estimate. But unlike the war between the state and the communists, an end to the current conflict is not being sought through democratic means.
Back in the late 1960s, nobody knew when the Thanom Kittikachorn regime would end, so armed struggle was inevitable, Suthachai said.
He said the anti-government People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) should seek to dislodge Yingluck Shinawatra and her older brother Thaksin through elections.
Gawin Chutima, 58, another ex-communist rebel who went into the jungle in the same province as Suthachai, and a veteran activist in non-governmental organisations, said he was more disturbed by the current division, which affects more people throughout the country. He supported the PDRC in its early days when the focus was solely on corruption, but has since distanced himself from the movement.
“The division is deeper now,” said Gawin, who worked in the jungle as an intelligence officer for the now-defunct Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) for seven years between 1976 and 1983.
“At that time, even though family members may have thought differently about politics, their bond was stronger than their [political] differences. At that time, they were still able to talk with one another,” he said, in reference to stories of families now torn apart by the current political conflict with family members and friends becoming estranged.
“It’s so hard to stay in the middle today. If you disagree with someone, you are automatically branded as being on the other side.”
Gawin says today’s instantaneous dissemination of information, propaganda and hate speech through social media leads people to believe quickly in a certain viewpoint, and to become easily politicised.
Although Gawin never took up arms during his seven years in the jungle, he said people back then didn’t make that decision lightly, as they had to see death and oppression with their own eyes, unlike many today who are manipulated by the partisan mass media as well as social media.
He said he was appalled by the praise heaped by PDRC supporters on the so-called “popcorn gunman” who was seen firing during a clash with red-shirt demonstrators, as it suggests a ready endorsement of violence, unlike during the communist war.
Thais, said Gawin, should learn to co-exist peacefully with people who think differently.
“Should we talk before more people are killed? Or should we let more people be killed before we talk?” he asked.
Vipar Daomanee, 59, another former rebel who was a member of the People’s Liberation Army of the CPT and later taught at Thammasat University, was in the jungle for four years in Prachuap Khiri Khan province. She thinks the situation now is not as bad as during the Cold War, when enemies would be summarily executed, although she agrees with Gawin that hatred is more widespread now than in the past.
Vipar sees a parallel with the past in the process of dehumanising the enemy. Back then, communists were made into evil figures, something non-human. Today, said Vipar, Thaksin and red shirts are often portrayed as non-human and the political hatred is even extended to the young son of caretaker Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
“The cult of nationalism can turn ‘the other’ into evil,” she said. “Now it’s the so-called ‘Thaksin regime’ being turned into evil. We don’t know if the result of this hate propaganda is comparable to the effects of anti-communist propaganda in the past or not.”