In the midst of the uncertainty that has ensued post-election, Sabina Shah is lost. Like many Red Shirts in the Northeast, she expected the election to stir the country towards democracy. But as political parties made lackluster use of the old red shirt network, Sabina found her infamous radio voice suppressed, leaving her to question the weak climax to an election Thailand has been yearning for. Today, she wonders if the Red Shirts will ever see the return to glory they have been waiting for.
Guest contribution by Olivia Torbert
The relaunching of “Isaan Update” was a long time coming. The red shirt radio DJs, once the driving force of the red shirt movement in Khon Kaen Province, were finally back on the air with only nine days to go before the March 24 election.
To kick off the effort, Sabina Shah, or Jo, is streaming live. She’s hoping that the revival of the show will help get the vote out, which in the Northeast inevitably means a vote for democracy. She is cautious about what she says and promises to soften her tone. The radio station management is worried that if she’s too partisan toward the Pheu Thai Party, the station might run afoul of strict election laws.
Jo doesn’t know it yet, but this segment will be the YouTube station’s first and last. Isaan Update will be just a one-off video clip that will attract 500 views and two shares, a mere shadow of what Isaan Update had been from the heady days of 2010, until it was forcibly shut down after a military coup ended democracy in Thailand in May 2014.
Jo’s 18-minute failed revival of Isaan Update and the movement it represented — the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), or more commonly known as the Red Shirts — is emblematic of the peculiar position supporters found themselves in the latest election.
Where once the Red Shirts had provided the backbone of Pheu Thai supporters, the party did not advertise the connection while campaigning. Key movement leaders joined Pheu Thai rallies in the Northeast prior to the election not as red shirts, but as supporters of the party. Very few people actually wore red shirts at the campaign events.
One former red shirt leader, Adisorn Piangket, claimed, though, that the red shirts were at the rally: “The red shirts won’t go away and won’t quit until the end.” Movement supporters might have been there, but they were at the same time not recognizable as red shirts.
The trajectory of Jo’s life over the past 20 years is typical of thousands throughout the Northeast. She was a supporter of the Thai Rak Thai Party led by Thaksin Shinawatra, who was removed from power by a military coup in 2006. She became a leader of Khon Kaen’s first red shirt group in 2009 and was one of the most influential DJs from 2010 to 2014. She suffered under the hand of the military junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), but was ready and willing to dedicate herself to support Pheu Thai candidates in Khon Kaen.
But when it came down to it, there seemed to be nothing for Jo to do. The half-hearted effort to revive Isaan Update failed. She didn’t go to rallies, as she feared her presence might get the party in trouble. She was not called in by the party to help in districts where the Pheu Thai candidate was struggling.
Although the party looks to have won the most seats in the next House of Representatives, it found its support nationwide to have slipped substantially.
Did the party’s decision to eschew the Red Shirts both mark the end of Pheu Thai’s dominance in elections and the end of the social movement? Have the conditions that led to the rise of the Red Shirts in the first place changed? Is the movement spent, or might it arise again in different form?
From beef-seller to red shirt leader
Jo was just like millions of other people in the Northeast who saw the government of Thaksin Shinawatra in the early 2000s as something new to Thailand. Its policies–derided as populist in some quarters–made concrete changes in the lives of the poor majority.
Making a living as a city market beef seller, an occupation she took over from her mother, Jo was drawn into politics after the coup in 2006. She became more passionate about elections and was deeply offended by her local member of parliament jumping parties in 2008 and betraying her trust.
She was in a group of protesters when someone came up with the idea of getting a coffin and symbolically burning it in front of that politician’s house in Khon Kaen. The problem was the regular coffin shops were closed for a holiday. Jo, a Muslim, went to the nearby Muslim graveyard and was able to get the coffin.
Recognizing her resourcefulness, she became the leader of the province’s first red shirt group, “Khon Kaen 51 (KK51).” The same year, she started her own radio show, “Truth Never Dies,” a platform she used daily to broadcast her fiery rhetoric as she challenged the authoritarian government and a new constitution she perceived as undemocratic.
She was part of a network of red shirt DJs, banded together to provide a constant stream of inspiration and information for the disgruntled population of Isaan.
The radio was the perfect medium to reach rural voters for whom the radio was a popular source of information. Jo estimates that the shows reached thousands of people. But it was more than just a radio show; it created a network.
DJ Bowee (who prefers to go by his DJ name that than his own) was doing his own radio show alongside Jo at the time. “The radio station was the way that they [rural people] could communicate with each other,” he remembers. Isaan Update and its DJs were the primary mechanism around which the red shirt movement in Isaan was organized. The DJs used the platform to organize protests and rallies. It was Jo and another DJ–Numchaiya–who called out thousands to come out at the drop of a hat to stop a train full of troops weapons being sent south from Khon Kaen to join the suppression of red shirt protesters in 2010.
Isaan Update had mobilized a movement but ran into difficulties after the April-May 2010 crackdown on red shirt protest in Bangkok. DJs were accused of inciting demonstrators to attack and in some cases burn down provincial halls in the Northeast.
The Red Shirts come in to their own
In 2010, Jo found herself going back and forth, as leader of KK 51, from Khon Kaen to the protests at Ratchadamnoen and Ratchaprasong in Bangkok and Khon Kaen. Villagers donated money and rice and whatever they could spare to support those the protest in the capital. It was an exciting time to be a red shirt.
But also terrifying.
On the April 10, 2010, things began to turn violent. Very violent.
The UDD had been protesting on Ratchadamnoen Road since March 12th. Jo was spending more time at these protests in Bangkok than in Khon Kaen. The military had been demanding the protesters disperse, which only fueled the anger.
“We didn’t think the military would go all out like they did,” recalls Jo. But they did.
In a matter of days, Jo’s life was left unrecognizable. The military shot tear-gas canisters. Then, supposedly, it escalated to rubber bullets. Then real bullets.
The only reason Jo is alive today, she believes, is because she left the protest for a few short moments to find food. Upon her return, carnage. She laid out the bodies of her friends, walked past the brains and guts of others. She helped move the bodies of slain protesters and heave them on the protest stage to make sure they didn’t go missing.
A month later, the massacre continued at Ratchaprasong in Bangkok. In the end, almost 100 people lost their lives and thousands were wounded.
Jo rushed back to Khon Kaen. The Red Shirts there were incensed and wanted revenge. She implored the seething mob of thousands to refrain from burning down the Khon Kaen provincial hall.
But it was to no avail. According to Jo, an outside group wearing masks showed up and set upon the provincial hall. Many of the Red Shirts followed suit.
She returned to her radio station where a hooded man shot at her (she believes it was just to scare her). When she learned the military was looking for her and she went to ground.
With charges of sedition and arson of the provincial hall against her, she eventually fled the region and went into hiding.
Isaan Update continues on the air
Jo eventually returned to Khon Kaen to face charges and to go back on the air. By this point, Jo was a national celebrity of sorts. She had gained the DJ moniker, “Fight-to-Death Jo” among certain circles, a fitting name given that despite the threats against her, she refused to be silenced.
When anti-Thaksin protesters had seized government buildings in Bangkok and called for open rebellion against the Yingluck Shinawattra government, Jo rallied Red Shirts in Khon Kaen, calling for the governor to support the democratically-elected government.
Then the next coup came in May 2014. The Red Shirts had claimed that in the event of a coup, hundreds of thousands would march against the junta.
But nothing happened. The military took absolute power.
Her life as a red shirt, simultaneously terrifying and riveting, suddenly stopped. Everything stopped.
After the coup, Jo says, “we were on our own. We didn’t come together. We couldn’t talk to more than five people at a time.” She had no doubt the junta was even eavesdropping on all red shirt leaders. There was nothing they could do. At least for the time being, this was end of the red shirt movement as she knew it.
Jo fled after the coup. The NCPO threatened to detain her husband if she didn’t turn herself in. She gave in and was arrested by military officers. Recalling the experience in 2016, she “recalled how she was blindfolded, tied up and incarcerated for a week.”
“It was violent,” she said, “her eyes brimming with tears.”
In defiance, she had said, “I will continue to call for our rights until we become the true owner of this country, however. People pay taxes, so why do we not have rights?”
Like many Red Shirts, she felt defeated when the military-drafted constitution passed in a referendum in 2016. Certainly, people wanted elections, thinking it would move the country forward, but the constitution itself guaranteed an undemocratic future for Thailand.
A return of the Red Shirts?
When the NCPO could no longer delay elections and a date was set, the loosening of freedom of expression laws might have seemed like an opportunity for the Red Shirts to reappear and play a role in supporting the democratic parties competing in the March 24 polls. Jo left off taking care of her new grandchild in Bangkok and returned to Khon Kaen, ready to help the Pheu Thai Party in any way she could.
Initial indications were positive. On February 8, 2019, after years of silence from the Red Shirts, Jatuporn Promphan, a key movement leader, found himself surrounded by an almost suffocating number of followers as he stood on a stage in front of several thousand supporters, some even wearing red. The rally was for the Pheu Chart Party that claimed proudly to the be the party of the UDD.
The rally seemed to send the message that the Red Shirts were back, still a relevant and influential force in Thai politics. Yet, minutes after his rallying cry on stage, Mr. Jatuporn conceded in an interview with The Isaan Record that perhaps the movement was not going to be as active as before. But he was “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.”
His words might have been true had Jatuporn been rallying red shirts for the Pheu Thai party. Unfortunately, his party, the Pheu Chat looked to win only five House of Representatives seats in the election.
Jo returned to Khon Kaen, ready to work with the old gang of Isaan Update DJs to help in whatever way they could to help the Pheu Thai Party win votes.
It should have been obvious that the Red Shirts were to be eclipsed by a new pro-democracy movement. As Baowee, Jo’s fellow DJ, was now working to rally up support for the Pheu Thai; but he wasn’t wearing a red shirt while doing it.
“People don’t wear red shirts any more. After the coup, they tried to break down the color politics and those people would be thought as a threat to national security,” he said. “We also want the country to move forward. We don’t want people to think that we’re troublemakers.”
Both Pheu Thai and the popular new Future Forward Party seemed to agree. Whether consciously or instinctually, both were working to redefine the identities connoted with democracy in Thailand – including that of the Red Shirts.
The Pheu Thai Party simultaneously rejected red shirt leaders while trying to maintain their red voter base. Surasak Glahan, an editor for the Bangkok Post noticed that all red shirt leaders had been dropped from the Pheu Thai candidacy. They had been encouraged to move to their secondary parties, the Thai Raksa Chat or Pheu Chat. Glahan feels certain that “the Red Shirts would not approve of the Pheu Thai today.”
When Pheu Thai candidate, Jakkarin Phatdamrongchit, was asked about the lack of red shirt leadership, he didn’t seem concerned, the red shirts would still vote for Thaksin. When asked if he was a red shirt, he said he wasn’t sure, but his constituents thought he was and that seemed to be all that he cared about.
The Future Forward Party did the opposite. They publicly renounced the now inflammatory red shirt and yellow shirt divisiveness and called for a new generation of pro-democracy. But they also welcomed individual red shirts as long as their vision matched that of the party.
But the fading position of the Red Shirts wasn’t yet evident. Jo recognized it, but assumed they were not revealing themselves as a movement due to the heavy hand of the NCPO. The Red Shirts will not be back until Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha no longer holds absolute power of his military government, she believes. Before the polls, Jo believed election day would be the turning point.
The faux revival of Fight-to-Death Jo
Jo decided to reprise her role as DJ, this time adapting to the times. With the irrelevance of the radio, Fight-to-Death Jo was to be a YouTube star for the Pheu Thai.
There was a secret recording studio, a return of fellow DJs, and a plan to sweep the nation yet again. But this time things were different.
“The manager was afraid of a lot of things,” Jo remembers. With the new restrictive election laws, the contents of Jo’s show was highly censored.
Her goal was to encourage people to vote. But to do so, she knew she needed to incite the fervor that once swept Isaan. Ten minutes into her first show her manager tried to cut her off; she managed to stay on for eight more minutes before it was shutdown. Even her most watered down message was too inflammatory. After one show with 500 views and two comments, Jo was told she couldn’t do any more shows.
While she tried to adapt her old strategy to new technologies, more than just media platforms had changed; politics were unrecognizable now. “The NCPO doesn’t allow you to talk about the truth,” she argues. “If [I] still wanted to talk but without the truth, well, I just can’t do that.”
She was done being a DJ.
March 24th: A day of confusion
On March 24th, Thais across the country stepped into a voting booth for the first time in nearly eight years. In a day of charades, the whole country pretended that a lawful and meaningful vote was taking place. But things turned out differently.
Jo has no doubt the vote count was meddled with. While Pheu Thai tried to send representatives to observe the voting process, there might have been only one or two overseeing multiple stations; voting fraud would have been easy, she argues.
What transpired the night of the election solidified this thought in Jo’s mind. “As the Election Commission was trying to postpone the vote count from late night, to morning, to afternoon and so on, it was clear to me that it was not transparent.”
Whether meddled with or not, the pro-democracy parties, including Pheu Thai, Future Forward, and smaller Pheu Thai aligned parties won 47.56% of the popular vote; a 3% increase from the 44.3% of the votes won by the Pheu Thai in 2011. While that was enough votes to hold a majority in 2011, the junta’s revised constitution was designed specifically to ensure that the NCPO would lose power only if over 70% of the votes were against them.
Even with these seemingly favorable results, the Election Commission (EC) effort has been plagued with errors and ambiguity surrounding the counting and recounting of votes.
When asked what she would say if she were to have a radio show today, after the election, Jo had a simple message. “I would want to talk about the election results and the calculations that the Election Commission are making. It’s like they’re doing whatever they can on the hoof to support the NCPO and Palang Pracharat Party and there is no fixed rule.” The seven EC members were appointed during the junta rule.
“They might not be red, but they won’t turn yellow”
The election seems to leave little to be answered for the Red Shirts. Those at the Pheu Chat rally in February may be beginning to question whether the rally was a reunion rather than a resurgence. The idealistic clarity and triumph that Jo had hoped for shows no signs of coming back. She may be known as Fight-to-Death Jo, but whether it’s the death of herself or the movement remains unclear.
However, Saowanee T. Alexander, Assistant Professor of Sociolinguistics at the Faculty of Liberal Arts at Ubon Ratchathani University, challenges this notion. She speculates that the movement’s relevance will show itself soon depending on the actions of the EC and NCPO.
“If electoral politics continues to go downhill to the point where street politics is back, we will see them,” she says.
But she admits that for now, the Red Shirt movement lives on within individuals rather than as an organized force.
DJ Baowee is quicker to admit defeat. “Individuals may say one day they were proud to be red shirts but we won’t see it again as a movement.” he says, “ It’s like there’s no real red shirt identity.”
These eulogies might serve as a testament to the death of a movement. But at the same time, a new generation of a pro-democracy activists and politicians have eclipsed the Red Shirts. In a way, this is what the Red Shirts had fought for; democracy in Thailand to be a larger movement than just themselves.
In the midst of the election controversy, Pheu Thai apparently has a new strategy of being a watered down version of their past selves. They have allowed Future Forward to take the leading role in challenging the EC. While the Pheu Thai kept the votes of the Red Shirts; Future Forward adopted the essence of the movement. The Future Forward Party may well come to represent exactly what red shirt supporters had hoped for.
Even DJ Bowee admits, “Future Forward is an ally of the front to support democracy in Thailand but I still like the policies of Thaksin that helped people’s livelihoods.” While unclear in the midst of the elections, it is increasingly obvious that for democracy to take hold the past and future of democratic movements must unite.
As Ms. Saowanee noticed, some older red shirt followers have now put on orange shirts, the color of Future Forward Party, and joined the party’s rallies.
Jo sees party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit as the younger generation’s version of Thaksin; she is ready to join this fight as both a Red Shirt and a believer in democracy. The Red Shirt movement may be something of the past, but only because they succeeded.
As for Jo, she is ready for whatever comes; “I’ve been angry since the [military drafted] constitution” she says half-jokingly. Looking back on her show, she sees now that attempting to revive what once was would never work. Things are different now. While she is still Fight-to-Death Jo, her strategy must evolve. But one thing remains constant in Jo’s tumultuous life: her will to fight.
Olivia Torbert is a student of International Politics at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. This semester, she has been studying human rights issues and development in Khon Kaen.