Remembrances of Red Trauma (29) – Are we what we remember?

Cover image by Ratchaprasong (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In the past month and a half, we ran a series entitled Remembrances of Red Trauma on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the bloody crackdown on protesters in Bangkok in April and May of 2010. A traumatic climax to the most volatile period in Thailand’s recent political history, the events left behind a trail of pain, tragedy, and unanswered questions. But it also opened the eyes of many to the reality of the nation’s deep-rooted crisis over power, inequality and injustice whose shadow still looms large a decade later.

It was our third attempt at running an in-depth series on a single topic published simultaneously in English and Thai. It is part of a new section we kicked off last year with the series Sweetness and Power on the sugar industry and its impact on the Northeast and followed by The Soul of Molam on the evolution of popular Isaan music.

This third series revisited the events of 2010 and their aftermath through a collection of articles, features, short stories, interviews, and videos. In line with our editorial mission, we told the stories through the experiences of Isaan people directly or indirectly affected by the event.

Of the 94 people killed in the clashes, at least 36 were from the Northeast. In an interactive map, we showed who the victims were and how they died. We also portrayed some of those killed in an effort to understand their political beliefs and motivations to join the protests.

Assessing the aftermath of 2010, we looked at how the events affected the lives of those who joined the Red Shirts demonstrations. We talked to people who say they were wrongfully convicted for crimes committed in the protests and we published letters from prisoners. We also highlighted the work of the Redfam Fund, an initiative to support families of political prisoners.

We interviewed a man who joined the Red Shirts as a teenager and contributed to the burning of the Udon Thani provincial hall on May 19. He was sentenced to eleven years and six months for his crime but was released by royal pardon after six years.

Following up on the legal case against the infamous “men in black,” our reporter looked at the five suspects who were arrested in 2014 shortly after the military took control of the country. Two of the defendants interviewed for the story, still fighting in court, asserted their innocence. Their lawyer raised suspicion that many similar prosecutions of Red Shirts protesters were “politically motivated.”

In an op-ed, a contributor wrote about the yawning gap in the delivery of justice after the protests, noting the disparity between the prosecutions of protesters and the failure to hold accountable any of the politicians and military commanders who ordered the crackdown or the soldiers who carried out those orders.

In a interview, a former national human rights commissioner acknowledged the failure of government agencies to bring about justice for those killed and injured or to push for institutional change to prevent similar events in the future.

By talking to public intellectuals in the region, we tried to understand the impact the events had on the nation’s psyche. In an online panel discussion and several interviews, experts, academics, and writers drew lessons from the traumatic events ten years ago.

We learned how the year 2010 left a mark on the country’s literary scene. But as prominent author Duanwad Pimwana noted in an interview, writing about the atrocities still poses a challenge for many writers in Thailand. Only few have dared to come to grips with the turbulent period in their works.

In the Northeast, a small collective of writers around the magazine Chai Kha Ruang San has been penning a growing body of short stories and poems reflecting on the 2010 violence and its aftermath in the past decade. We included nine of their works in Thai in the series, and made three short stories available in English translation for the first time.

On our social media channels, the series drew many reactions, comments, and feedback while stimulating extended and often very heated discussions among readers, especially on the Thai page. In the following, we want to capture some of the feedback and comments we received in our inbox, and on both the English and Thai Facebook pages.

Some readers asked whether the series would become available in print or in a downloadable file format. As we are discussing the idea of putting our series out as books, this feedback serves as welcomed encouragement.

As we noted in the introduction, the public remembrances of 2010 in itself, and the discussion of the event’s meaning remains a highly controversial topic in Thai society. Reflecting this, some readers questioned the benefit of revisiting the atrocities, and voiced concerns it could lead to more tension and violence.

But others stressed the importance of keeping the memories of the period alive to draw lessons for society to prevent violence in the future and counter the country’s culture of impunity.

Teerapol Anmai, a lecturer at Ubon Ratchathani University’s Faculty of Liberal Arts, who we interviewed for the series, wrote to us in a message: “If the media doesn’t remind us or revisits the events, it’s as if the thousands of the injured and the large number of people thrown into prison never existed.”

Commenting on an interview about the public discourse that berated the protesters as “red buffaloes,” Facebook user John Stanfield wrote: “The peoples of Isaan have been discriminated against for hundreds of years by ignorant so-called elites who have no insight into what it means to be one people. I could call them Gold Buffaloes as the attainment of wealth and power is empirical to everything else. They need to look in the mirror instead of looking down on the very people who feed them.”

In the 24th part of the series, Isaan writer Phu Kradat drew lessons from the 2010 violence and reflected on what he perceives as the failure of the Red Shirt movement in bringing about genuine change. In response, some readers argued the movement was unsuccessful because of strategic mistakes and a leadership too much focused on individuals.

Facebook user Peter Quinlan commented: “One of the biggest problems was that, like all political movements in Thailand, the Red Shirts became a personality cult, and so its message was lost in the scramble to defend individuals’ “reputations” or to follow them regardless of their actions, rather than any principle. They got caught up in defending physical locations instead of ideas. Very poor leadership. Just my observation.”

Other readers condemned the protests methods of the Red Shirt movement that paralyzed the capital for more than two months in 2010 and ended with several buildings going up in flames.

“Blocking public ways and destroying public property are not legitimate protests. I have heard this argument before–that the protests need to cause pain to the state–it’s not a legitimate argument,” wrote Facebook user John McPherson in a comment.

Saowanee T. Alexander, a linguist at Ubon Ratchathani University who we interviewed for the series, wrote us in an email: “[The series] informed those who didn’t know about the event, and invited those who were involved at the time to reassess their standpoints. Those who had only heard stories about the event learned that justice has yet to be delivered.”

She also wrote of a parallel between the crackdown against the Red Shirts in 2010 and the most recent cases of forced disappearances of Thai dissidents. Over the past ten years, the Thai people have grown more aware of injustices and repression by the state as the outburst of public anger over the abduction of activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit in Cambodia showed.

“What we see is that the more damage is done to them, the louder grows the voice of the victims and the silent majority,” Saowanee wrote. “If you ask how society benefits from remembering the events of 2010, the answer is that it reminds us that no matter how much injustice and darkness there is, the people won’t give up their struggle.”

The full series can be accessed on our website here.

We’d like to hear more of your comments and feedback on our coverage. You can message us on social media or write an email at contact@isaanrecord.com.

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