For the first time since the 2014 military overthrow of the government they had helped to vote into power, followers of the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), or the Red Shirts, gathered to call for democracy and show support for the Pheu Chat Party.
KHON KAEN – In one of the Northeast’s first electoral rallies since candidate registration was finalized, the Pheu Chat Party kicked off its campaign in Khon Kaen last Friday, promising policies focused on improving the welfare of people at the grassroots.
The rally culminated with a speech by party favorite and red shirt leader, Jatuporn Promphan, who celebrated the revival of the red shirt movement.
Before a crowd of several thousands at Khon Kaen horse track stadium, local candidates from the province’s ten electoral constituencies appealed to the crowd to vote for the party in the upcoming 24 March election.
“Our base is the grassroots and the poor. We fight for the poor,” argued Phisit Joonkhampha, listed at No. 35 on the party’s partylist. He believes the party had a good chance to win some seats in the province because of their leadership and policies.
“We will solve problems of poverty, livelihood, health, and agricultural prices,” Mr. Phisit said.
He pointed out that the Pheu Chat Party (For the Nation Party) and other pro-democracy parties are “working for a common goal of democracy,” particularly the two parties closely associated with the UDD and the Shinawatra family–Pheu Thai Party (PTP) and Thai Raksa Chart (Thai Save the Nation Party, TRCP).
“We work in parallel with the other pro-democracy parties in order to restore democracy,” Mr. Phisit said.
Thaksin Shinawatra and his younger sister Yingluck both secured absolute parliamentary majorities, and both were removed by military coups, in 2006 and 2014, respectively.
The United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) is a mass organization set up after the 2006 coup. Its 2010 protest was crushed violently by the military but the movement regrouped and played a major role in drumming up support for Yingluck in the 2011 election.
Many leaders were jailed as political prisoners since 2009 and have been the target of Thailand’s draconian lese-majeste law. The movement largely went silent since the coup in 2014.
Policies aimed at the grassroots
Pheu Chat Party recently unveiled policies focusing primarily on the rural sector which faces issues of lower quality health care, insecure land tenure, high transportation costs of goods, and falling prices of agricultural produce.
The party promises to allot three million baht for each of the country’s 7,000 Health Promoting Hospitals (HPH) so they can provide the same quality as city hospitals. It also hopes to build up qualified personnel for the HPH by providing one medical school scholarship for each of the country’s 7,000 subdistricts, called the “One subdistrict, One medical Student” policy.
Similar to other parties, the PCP says it will provide a 2,000-baht payment per month to elderly citizens.
The party seeks to eliminate the many kinds of provisional land titles and convert them into outright land titles which will encourage farmers to invest more into production. It also vows to cut taxes on vehicles used for transporting agricultural or fishery produce.
Most notably, the party promises to guarantee prices for key agricultural produce.
It vows to restore the Yingluck-era level 15,000 – 20,000 baht per ton of rice, as well as to extend price guarantees to both rubber and sugar cane. At present, Thailand is the world’s second largest exporter of rice, first largest producer of rubber, and fourth largest producer of sugarcane.
Ironically, it was the same kind of policy that brought protesters onto the streets to demand the overthrow of the Yingluck government in 2014. In consequence, Yingluck was convicted for mishandling the rice subsidy scheme in 2017 and fled the country joining her brother in exile.
Thaksin’s parties unified
Pheu Chat, Pheu Thai, and Thai Raksa Chat parties all claim red shirt support and are competing with each other, but candidates in Khon Kaen generally downplay the differences between them and instead emphasize their shared goal of democracy.
Udorn Channuwong is a candidate in the province’s Constituency 6, covering Chum Phae District in western Khon Kaen. The former police colonel and former elected senator representing Khon Kaen province is optimistic about the chances of Pheu Chat, believing they will sweep all ten constituencies in the province. He told The Isaan Record that while Pheu Thai has “different people and is a different organization,” they share the goal of “building a democracy, a true democracy.”
At the same time, Mr. Udorn said those working with PCP “have fought for democracy. Many of us have been injured, have died, and have been imprisoned.”
Detkhamron Singklibut, a former teacher who served as an elected provincial councillor for the last 23 years, is now running for Pheu Chat in Constituency 10 which includes Phra Yuen District, south of Khon Kaen City. He said that 70% of the people in his district are on the side of the pro-democratic parties and was sure the parties would do well as a whole.
But Mr. Detkhamron was less optimistic about the chances of his party which he thought might get half the seats in Khon Kaen and no less than 20 seat in all of Isaan’s 116 constituencies.
Candidates for PTP generally “come from somewhere else” and TRCP’s candidates are little known in the local area, he said. Because he is truly a local and people “have confidence in me,” his chances of being elected are good.
Although he admits that “the military government has all the advantages” in the upcoming election, he believes the people in Khon Kaen know the real score. “People in the area know who’s good and who’s bad. People know if someone’s brought them happiness,” he said.
Old and new supporters at the rally
The rally represented the tying together of two different worlds: Bangkok and the Northeast, and two different periods: a period of when villagers here felt visible and politically recognized, and a period where they virtually disappeared under military rule.
But here supporters throughout Khon Kaen came together for the first time since the coup. There was as much side-discussions between people who had not met in years, and those listening to speakers on stage.
It was also the first time that the national leadership of the UDD met with the people they claim to champion. The rally was a time to look forward, but also to look back with nostalgia.
After almost five years of living as the invisibles of society, the red shirts suddenly flair back into sight.
The crowd attending the rally was people of all ages, but seemed to have a preponderance of the over-40 rural bracket. Once the stadium’s stands were full, people spilled out onto the grass into areas covered by the growing shadow cast by the afternoon sun. The parking area was filled with pickup trucks where small groups of villagers talked among themselves.
“Oh” had come along with some others from Prayoon District in Khon Kaen.The 60-year-old rice farmer joined the rally because she’s been a red shirt for many years.
“I like Thaksin,” she said, adding that she had been supporting Pheu Thai before. But she likes this new Pheu Chat Party more. She liked its policies, although she couldn’t recall one off the top of her head.
“Dong” (not his real name), a 51-year-old village shop owner in Namphong District wearing a straw hat, was sitting separately from those he drove to the rally. When asked about the economy since the last election, he said, “Terrible,” and pointed his thumb down, laughing. In the last election, he voted for the Democrat Party. An overwhelming number of people in his community, he said, voted for Pheu Thai. He was disappointed with the Democrats. He was not yet convinced, but he was interested in this new party. If the farmers got more money for their produce, he said, they’d have more to buy in his shop
“Otto” was not sure why he was at the rally. Some people in his village east of Khon Kaen city said they were going and he decided to tag along. The 43-year-old has spent 17 years working at hotels in popular tourist sites in the south. He hasn’t voted much in the past and has never been to a rally. But he said he thinks about politics a lot. He just happened to be home for his mother’s funeral and had nothing better to do on Friday. He admitted he doesn’t know a lot about the party, but what he’d heard so far makes him think that it would be a good party to support.
Jatuporn’s speech the climax of the rally
The crowd at the rally was enthused but not ecstatic.
The head of the party is Songkhran Kitloetphairot, a long-time politician and former deputy minister of commerce in 2008. He is an establishment politician with few links to the grassroots.
It was only with the announcement that Jatuporn Prompan had arrived that a palpable stir went through the crowd.
Once free of his adorers, Mr. Jatuporn gave a short, exclusive interview to The Isaan Record.
IR: Does what you’re seeing today represent a revitalization of the red shirts?
JP: “The red shirts are a group which has come together, [in some cases] dying, for a long time–about twelve years. And they are a group that met the most with death–100 dead and 2,000 injured. They are those who have been acted upon, who have been together, and who have come to loved one another.
The only thing is that when power was seized [in 2014], each person had to maintain their own freedom and save their own lives from threats [of military repression]. But I think that those who have been with the red shirts are still there, whether they’re wearing red shirts or not. The shirt is just the peeling. What’s important is the core, the spirit of democracy.”
IR: Is the red shirt movement stronger or weaker than before?
JP: “I believe that although people may not be active in the same way as before, those who have been red shirts are not going to change. I’m sure that the phenomena of the red shirts will lead the country back to democracy, even though this time they may not be wearing red shirts. But their red hearts will bring those democratic parties to the sinning line.”
IR: What are the three core goals of the PCP in your view?
JP: “Restore Thailand, build democracy, and step forward together.”
Without doubt, some of the excitement at the rally stemmed from the unprecedented news of the day when the TRCP announced that its sole candidate for prime minister was the king’s older sister, Princess Ubolratana. The news shocked the pro-military parties, particularly the Pracharat Party who on the same day nominated the current dictator and prime minister, General Prayuth.
That the princess not only was seeking political office but seeking it with a party known for its connections to both the red shirts and the Shinawatra family would have been a windfall for the pro-democracy parties as it would have been seen as a royal preference for democracy and Thaksin.
“Those on the side of democracy are extremely pleased. The parties fighting for democracy have to extend our full support to the nominee,“ Mr. Udorn said. The former head of the UDD welcomed the princess’s nomination.
There was great buzz between the pro-democracy parties that they could finally level the playing field and even tipping it their way.
But a few hours after the princess was nominated, the king issued a command disallowing his sister from taking up a political position as it was against custom as well as unconstitutional. On Saturday, the TRCP reversed its decision and said it would comply with the royal order.
On Sunday, a political activist called for the Election Commision to dissolve the Thai Raksa Chat Party for its action.
Yesterday, the Election Commission rejected the TRCP’s nomination of the princess and is considering further action against the party.
It is not clear at this point whether the TRCP’s action will ultimately help or hurt the pro-democracy parties’ chances in the election.
The TRCP may end up being dissolved. Do the Pheu Thai and Pheu Chat parties await the same fate with one misstep?
All Photo Credits: Olivia Torberts studies international politics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C, and is studying about development and human rights issues in the Northeast this semester.