UDON THANI – As Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is losing popular support, facing fierce criticism for her management of the massive floods plaguing Bangkok, her strongest supporters, the Red Shirts, are finding new ways to strengthen their movement and prepare for the worst. With fears of a looming coup, Red Shirt leaders in Udon Thani are quietly launching a project to consolidate their constituents. Just recently, they began inaugurating entire Districts as Red territory.
“We don’t know if there is going to be a coup or not,” said Sa-ngad Hanarong, a villager from Prajak Silapakhom, a freshly named Red District. “But the purpose [of the Red District] is not to fight. The purpose is to be stronger and keep track of what’s actually going on.”
Prajak Silapakhom was inaugurated as a Red District on October 9. The district, on the outskirts of the city of Udon Thani, is comprised of a total of 41 villages, all of which are Red. Since then, nearby Non Sa-at was the second district to celebrate its Red inauguration on November 1.
The Red District project is an expansion of the Red Village movement that saw hundreds of villages across the Northeast officially title themselves Red Villages for Democracy. But while the Red Villages were scattered shows of support, the Red Districts boast specific objectives and a newfound network of local leaders.
According to Ms. Ratanawan Suksala, the mastermind behind the Red District model, the project is organized around three main goals. It seeks to teach democratic values, initiate anti-drug campaigns, and promote village-level entrepreneurship.
To promote education about democracy, with each inauguration ceremony, for example, comes a two-day lecture series from pundits and Red Shirt leaders. But once the festivities come to a close, so too does this informal schooling.
For Ms. Ratanawan, a former secretary to Member of Parliament (MP) Surathin Pimanmekin and a current consultant to the Red Radio station 106.75, it is the network created by the Red District that helps unify the movement’s goals even more.
“[Before Prajak Silapakhom District was inaugurated,] some people were confused…and influenced by different ideas. But since we have started the Red District, the people seem like they understand more what we are doing,” she said. “I feel like we’re walking together in the same direction.”
In some ways, the model does encourage democratic practices at a local level. Each village is asked to elect ten representatives who attend meetings and relay messages between their constituents and other Red Shirts. And each village also gathers to vote on a local entrepreneurial project.
“I feel like we know more about democracy now. I realize how much I can do,” reflected one Red District resident.
In order to stave off drug use, the Red District model also encourages each village to establish a network of local guards to monitor drug presence in the village. “We’ll hire them on shifts and pay them as guards. We want to give them the responsibility of a job and teach them that working is better [than unemployment],” said Ms. Ratanawan about her future plans. She aims to find funding through private donations.
Anti-drug campaigns are a touchy subject for the Red Shirts after exiled former Prime Minister and Red Shirt icon Thaksin Shinawatra instigated the most violent anti-drug campaign in Thai history that left 2,500 citizens dead. But in Baan Phonthong, Mr. Sa-ngad’s village in Prajak Silapakhom District, there is little concern.
“Everyone is welcoming of this [anti-drug campaign] because we have a plan. If we find people who are doing drugs we want to send them to rehab therapy,” Mr. Sa-ngad explained.
As for the local entrepreneurship stimulus program, the Red District model encourages each village to vote on one product that its residents believe they could create and sell at the greatest profit. Then, the residents focus their resources on producing their chosen good. The program mimics Mr. Thaksin’s successful One Tambon One Product (OTOP) program that encouraged each sub-district, known in Thai as a tambon, to do the same.
Ms. Ratanawan, however, claims that her project is much stronger since it can more effectively distribute profits. She hopes that ultimately villages will petition the government for stimulus money that can prop up their entrepreneurial pursuits. Mr. Sa-ngad’s village has voted to produce woven reed mats while his friends in the next village are focusing on mudmee silk.
But it is not just Udon Thani that is moving towards the Red District model. “Any province can do the same as long as they are Red Shirts and they stick to the same principles,” Ms. Ratanawan said.
Indeed, MPs and provincial Red Shirt representatives from Roi Et, Kalasin, and Khon Kaen have also begun planning to integrate their Red Villages into Red Sub-districts and Districts.
“When people [in Red Districts] get together and work together…they feel stronger and more united. What our country lacks is a sense of unity,” Khon Kaen MP and Red District proponent Thanik Masripitak said. Just last week, Mr. Thanik led a meeting of close to 300 Khon Kaen Red Village representatives to talk about the reconfiguration. At the request of the rice farmers and agricultural workers that make up the majority of these Red villagers, further meetings, he explained, will be postponed until after the rice harvest.
And though the Red District movement is gaining traction amongst many MPs, not everyone is happy with the shift.
Kwanchai Praipana, a prominent Udon Thani Red Radio DJ, part of the Red movement’s old guard and a man whom Ms. Ratanawan laughingly calls her “enemy,” thinks the move is just a way for Pheu Thai MPs to consolidate the power of the Red Shirt movement.
“Representatives want to have the masses on their side,” he said in an interview last month. “That’s why they do this. They take the Red Shirts who are not as truly passionate about democracy onto their side.”
Mr. Kwanchai’s alternative to the Red District movement takes the power away from Parliamentary Representatives and keeps it in the hands of the people, he claims. The so-called “Udon Lovers Model” encourages villagers to join Mr. Kwanchai’s Khon Rak Udon club (for a monthly fee) so they can meet at local radio stations and coffee shops to discuss the political matters of the day.
“Setting up Red Shirt villages – why is that important? It just interferes,” Mr. Kwanchai said.
For Mr. Thanik, however, Kwanchai’s grousing is little more than personal vanity. “As far as I know, Kwanchai doesn’t support the Red Villages because he’s afraid it’s going to steal his thunder,” the Khon Kaen MP said. Where Kwanchai looks to expand the Udon Model throughout the Northeast, Mr. Thanik thinks that does little more than maintain the status quo. “Just because we’ve won [the election] doesn’t mean we should stop. We should draw attention to who we really are and what more we can do.”
It’s what these Red Districts can do, though, that has got some people worried. Establishing a system of civil-society institutions that, in some ways, parallel pre-existing governmental mechanisms can appear to be a direct threat to the Bangkok establishment. What message does it send when a populist, self-proclaimed pro-democracy movement sees it fit to do its own policing, found its own local craft co-operatives, and develop its own political curricula?
The Red villagers of Baan Phonthong, however, know exactly what message they want to send. Speaking on behalf of an assembled crowd of 40 villagers, Mr. Sa-ngad told reporters that, “Everyone would like to say that we’re waiting for the day when we own our real freedom… And we want Thaksin back as soon as possible!”
Though the organization of Red villagers is being reshuffled and expanded, their battle cry remains the same.