Where Are Thailand's Red Shirt Protests Headed?


>Anti-government protesters clad in red shirts and bandanas, agitating for weeks now at two major sites in Bangkok, have converged today to form a single, massive pool of crimson in the center of the Thai capital's financial district. While living in Bangkok in 2006, I recall looking down from a skytrain station in this same area and witnessing a sea of yellow shirts marching through the streets. Those protests led to a peaceful coup that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra, accused at the time of massive corruption and the same man whom many of the red shirts now hope to return to power.
This new wave of protests began to reach a critical mass several weeks ago but have been visible in the city sporadically for months. The protesters themselves, coming largely from the countryside, have little in the way of a specific agenda, other than demanding improved conditions for the rural poor and bashing Bangkok's urban elite. Recently they have broken through the gates of the Thai parliament, taken over a television station, and literally painted the streets of the city red -- with gallons of their own blood. The current prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, has said he will not step down but has offered to dissolve parliament in six months' time. The red shirts want him gone right away, however, and are prepared to camp in squalor by the thousands around Bangkok's giant (currently closed) shopping malls until he resigns. Attempts to remove the protesters from their camp sites over the weekend turned violent, with 21 people shot dead, including a Japanese cameraman working for Reuters. Protesters later carried coffins of the dead through the streets, emphasizing their martyrdom and deepening the protesters' general sense of victimhood. In the wake of the violence, the military has declined to intervene any further, while General Anupong Paochinda, commander in chief of the Royal Thai Army, has said publicly that parliament should be dissolved if it cannot find a nonviolent solution to the standoff.

I spoke with Newley Purnell, a freelance journalist in Bangkok, about the deep divisions that have taken hold of the country. "The red shirts still control sections of Bangkok -- and they've been protesting here for the last month," Purnell says. "The army failed in dispersing them. People who live in my apartment building are still coming and going to work. Vendors on the street are still serving soups and noodles. The motorcycle taxi drivers are still delivering people to and fro. But people seem more and more, worried about how everything will end. Some Thai people on my street support the reds, and sport red bandanas now. Others tell me that the protests are crazy, and that they wish the reds would go away. But no one wants to see violence. Unfortunately, that's already happened."

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Jessica Olien is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. She has previously worked as a reporter in Asia and the Middle East.

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