If I shout loud enough, I won't hear you

31 May 2010

After Songkran 2009, the mainstream Thai media's strategy towards the red-shirt movement was to ignore it - as if it would disappear if they paid no attention.

There was almost no reporting of the upswell of organization in the northeast and far north, the regular local meetings, the groups forming around community radio stations, the star status of certain radio DJs, the foundation of political schools, the growing consensus of opinion around the phrase "double standards" as a key description of Thai society, and the spreading feeling of participation in a movement of historical moment.

So when the red shirts arrived in Bangkok in March, it was a surprise to many that this was clearly not a mob of stupid, uneducated, buffalo-like peasants, paid by Thaksin, and intent on mayhem. There were lots of them. They were very good-natured. They said they were participating because they felt this was their chance to help themselves, and help change the country for the better. Their demands were simple and disarmingly reasonable: restore a proper elective parliament as a first step towards overcoming the pervasive double standards. They might admit taking money which might have come from Thaksin, but they insisted that was not why they had come.

The impact was powerful. Of course, many of those who came out to show support and swell the rallies were their brothers and cousins, rural migrants who had come to the city in a bid to cross the yawning wealth gap which is one reason behind the movement. But sympathy spread much broader than that, in part because many people realised that they had been consistently misled by their own government and own media. The shock of such discovery can be very powerful. Right up to the last moments before the rampage, ordinary people were coming out to show support and jeer the security forces.

Despite the fatal spiral from 10 April onwards, and despite the violence and destruction of 19 May, the red-shirt movement seems to have gained in strength. The foreign press and the blogs (not the local media) have carried several reports of the reds returning home. They are unrepentant and unbowed. Their commitment has been strengthened by participation, and their emotions heightened by the martyrdom of their peers. While the penumbra of support and sympathy in the city has certainly shrunk in reaction to the violence, it would be a mistake to imagine it has shrunk very far. The messages people have taken from the violence are mixed.

The red-shirt movement is clearly a powerful force. It is not going away any time soon. The historic change which is under way is far from complete. The government and media cannot simply ignore it in the hope it will wither from negligence. Indeed, blindness now would seem fatal.

Instead, the government, the yellows, and their supporters have launched two campaigns. The first is to crank up the demonisation of Thaksin as the evil genius behind everything. The government seems to think that charging him as a terrorist, with no evidence yet on display, will change his standing in the eyes of the world. More strikingly, in the blogs and letter-pages and the social networking sites, any trace of red-shirt sympathy is met with diatribes about the perfidies of Thaksin that go on and on, festooned with block capitals and exclamation marks and other forms of shouting.

The second campaign is to focus attention on the violence, especially of the finale. The security authorities parade the arms allegedly found around the protest site. Certain photos and video clips are being constantly shown. Similar material is whirling around the virtual world.

Of course, Thaksin may be thoroughly evil. Of course, the red-shirt movement is an umbrella which covers many groups, some of which believe change will only come through violence. But the real purpose of these two campaigns is to draw attention away from the big-elephant fact that a lot of people came out in support of the red-shirt protest, that the movement has some very reasonable demands, and that it hasn't gone away. These twin campaigns are an attempt to erase all the imagery and messages of the red movement from its March arrival in Bangkok, and to replace them with two pictures - Thaksin raving drunkenly down the video-link from a Dubai hotel room, and the blazing frontage of Central World.

Of course, many people shouting on the websites and letter-pages are totally sincere. They hate Thaksin and they fear violence. Fair enough. But is it a good move to try imagining away a powerful mass movement that isn't over yet? Does it help to rage against the foreign press for publicising matters which the government and local press are trying to wish away?

Thailand's urban middle class likes to think of itself as part of the modern international world. The Democrat Party presents itself as modern, globalised, liberal, humane. These positions now face their biggest challenge. If the government tries to manage the red-shirt movement by suppression - more arrests, more intimidation, more closures of media outlets, more demonisation of enemies - the country's standing in the world will only sink further. This is a moment of historic decision.

Old regimes under challenge need to compromise if they wish to remain a serious part of the future.

The prime minister is still saying there can be an election only after peace has returned, which of course means never, since an election is needed to establish peace. The Democrats still seem to think they have a duty to remain in power to engineer reconciliation, when in truth the existence of this government is one of the major barriers to reconciliation.

Recently several surveys have shown that a majority of Thais see elections, a free media, and a good judiciary as the means to achieve social peace and move ahead. The government should listen to its own people, not just those who shout very loud.