Same Same But Different: Comparing Thailand protests of 2010 and 2014

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The Red Shirt protest movement in 2010 didn’t end well. After the Thai military ran over their protest site at Ratchaprasong intersection, people set fires and destroyed buildings across Bangkok.

The Red Shirts, supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra’s party, won the next election. Now the roles are reversed. The Reds are in power, and the Yellow Shirts are using the same protest locations and street market atmosphere as their Red Shirt rivals in 2010. But the anti-government Yellow Shirt protestors in 2014 are a very different crowd, featuring rock stars, fashionable Bangkok ladies and tech-savvy youth wielding social media to topple what they feel is a corrupt dictatorship.

— Text and photos by Christopher Johnson —

This was central Bangkok on May 19, 2010. Soldiers used the skytrain tracks and other approaches to over-run the Red Shirt camp in battles that killed scores of people. 

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The Red Shirts had earlier promised to set fires around Bangkok if the government attacked them. This was the view from outside the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand.

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Without a helmet or flak-jacket, and only minutes after my colleagues were shot, I followed advancing soldiers down Ploenchit Road to Ratchaprasong intersection.

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A lone man walked amid the debris.

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Soldiers and police arrested men and took them away.

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Soldiers, who said they were normally based in Kanchanaburi west of Bangkok, tore down Red Shirt posters and propaganda praising Thaksin.

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The Red Shirts said soldiers shot dead their members in various locations, including a Buddhist temple.

The Democrat Party-led government, installed after a military coup, said they were acting in self-defense against armed rebels, and they needed to take back the city’s central business district from rebels ensconced in a fortress of barbed wire, tyres and sandbags.

During and after the military crackdown, criminals attacked banks, ATMs, media offices and other buildings, and burned down shopping centers and old theaters.

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Days later, the Ratchaprasong area was still a mess, with garbage in front of the Four Seasons and other luxury hotels.

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Almost four years later, many of the Red Shirt leaders now hold government positions. The fugitive billionaire Thaksin, who says his enemies convicted him of corruption to rob him of assets and power, continues to rule the country from overseas locations such as Dubai. His enemies have now taken over Bangkok. Their motto is: Shutdown Bangkok, Restart Thailand.

This is Ratchaprasong intersection now in January 2014. Rebuilt after the 2010 violent crackdown, the Ratchaprasong area now features a tree backlit by the colors of the Yellow Shirts movement loyal to the monarchy, symbolized by yellow. 

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Both protest movements, in 2010 and 2014, closed off traffic and turned Bangkok transport corridors into crowded, festive markets full of hawkers peddling t-shirts, hats and paraphernalia supporting their causes. This was the Red Shirt zones in 2010.

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This is the same Siam Square area in 2014.

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REFORM THAILAND: Both movements in 2010 and 2014 called for strident reforms to rid Thailand’s political system of endemic corruption, injustices, military coups and killing of protesters and activists. The Red Shirts wanted to overthrow unelected Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. They accused him of murder. 

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Loyal to Thaksin (a former police captain who built his fortune on selling telecommunications equipment to the police and government), Bangkok police allowed the Red Shirts to occupy central business districts in Bangkok.

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One Red Shirt rebel wore a police helmet.

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The 2014 protesters, meanwhile, want a reform council to strengthen rule of law and democratic checks and balances to prevent elected leaders from wielding dictatorial power. 

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ROLE REVERSAL — Anti-government protest leader Suthep Thaungsuban was deputy leader during the government’s crackdown on Red Shirts in 2010. The Red Shirts accused him of murder. They want him executed. In 2014, he has spent hours every day doing what his nemesis, convicted fugitive Thaksin, cannot do — march freely on the streets of Bangkok. 

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THAKSIN’S ARMY OF “SLAVES” — Unlike the well-educated, white-collar academics and office workers now occupying Bangkok protest sites, many Red Shirt protesters in 2010 were elderly rural ladies radicalized by billionaire Chinese-Thai capitalist Thaksin’s call for “slaves” to rise up against the wealthier Bangkok elite, also led by Chinese-Thai businessmen connected to other political groups. Thaksin says his opponents used laws and courts to rob him of power and assets. 

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THE BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE — The anti-Thaksin protest sites in 2014 have become a fashionable habitat in 2014 for the “beautiful people” of Bangkok, including actors, DJs and celebrities who don national flags, colors and hats boasting their adulation for King Bhumibol, Asia’s longest serving monarch. 

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SOUTHERN SUPPORTERS — In contrast to Thaksin’s reliance on northern rural folk, the Suthep-led demonstrators in 2014 often come from southern provinces with large Muslim populations who blame Thaksin for the War on Drugs, Tak Bai massacre and ongoing civil war near the Malaysian border. 

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Protesters in 2010 held up cell-phones to broadcast Bangkok speeches to northern villages via radio.

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Their protests often resembled upcountry festivals.

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ROCKING FOR REFORM –The 2014 movement features sophisticated sound and light systems and Thai rock legends such as Rang Rockestra, Audy and the bald-headed leader of Fly, who have turned the protest movement into a sort of “Woodstock” with massive outdoor performances broadcast live on Blue Sky TV.

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GOD SAVE THE KING — Even English-speaking, hardcore punks such as alternative rock pioneer Audy have long expressed their love for Thailand’s “deep culture” — embodied by King Bhumibol — and their disdain for corruption and Thaksin’s attempt to amass power through alleged vote-buying and price schemes aimed at swaying northern rice farmers.

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THE SELFIE ARMY: Tech-savvy Bangkok youth in 2014 have amplified their movement through social media such as Facebook, where they often post their political views and photos of themselves at protests such as this one near the MBK shopping center. While some 2014 protesters hail from southern provinces, most can return nightly to the comfort of their Bangkok homes or join protests during lunch breaks. This gives them a home-field advantage over the Red Shirts. 

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Paid daily wages to occupy an unfamiliar city, Red Shirt families, sleeping on hard pavement or in vehicles, endured 40 C heat in the hot season of 2010. 

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Both sides have now proven they can occupy Bangkok and shutdown normal business and traffic. Despite recent bombings and shootings, leaders on all sides have so far been careful to avoid repeating the bloody military crackdown and ensuing looting and burning of shopping malls, theaters, ATMS, convenience stores and piles of tyres in central Bangkok in May 2010.   But throughout history, Bangkok protests have often started with flowers and ended in tears and blood. This was the Buddha after the crackdown in 2010.

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