The 2009 Red Shirt siege of Bangkok, which brought the city to a halt, was largely overshadowed by the events of 2010 and Pheu Thai’s subsequent election win. Without any protester deaths, and with the protest site off-limits to the media and foreign bloggers, there was little international awareness of the events after the collapse of the ASEAN summit in Pattaya.
The 2009 protest was designed to be quick and surgical with small numbers of highly organized men committing acts to shake the resolve of the government.
The overall message was revolution. Thaksin openly cheered on protesters in video linkups. Revolutionary decrees were read from the stage such as one assuring the populace that any law could be broken in the effort of the people to take back the country.
Besides overrunning the ASEAN summit and causing foreign leaders to flee, the Prime Minister’s car was attacked in Pattaya and later in Bangkok, and hostages were taken and displayed on the Red Shirt stage. The Red Shirt leaders repeatedly emphasized that the people were so angry that they could take out their frustration on any interlopers so foreigners and reporters were warned to stay away from the protest site. This limited international coverage and sympathy for the protest.
Above: Daily News, April 14, 2009 – The Prime Minister’s secretary taken hostage by Red Shirts
While some of the events took place around Victory Monument and there were other scattered incidents around town, the main protest area settled in the traditional protest spot at Government House far downtown. Scattered burning buses carried out by small bands of highly organized men and the gas trucks rigged to explode near the Huay Kwang flats had little impact in winning the hearts and minds of the public. What the “protest” actually was for was very clear–it was direct force exerted by a disgruntled politician against the government. In the past, such action had been threatened by political figures such as former PM Chavalit Yongchaiyudh and Democrat Suthep Thaugsuban, but Thaksin finally made it a reality.
Above: Buses being burned in 2009
The deaths the protest were supposed to produce–to invoke the Thai convention that a government that kills people must step aside–did not materialize. This did not stop Thaksin from afterwards insisting to perplexed Western reporters there were many deaths at the hands of the military.
The Red Shirt protests the following year in 2010 displayed a bottom-up rethinking of the entire event and ended up being more successful.
First, Thaksin kept his distance. Notwithstanding fiery rhetoric from the stage and some violent threats from Seh Daeng, the 2010 protests were not overtly revolutionary, but emphasized the call for new democratic elections instead.
In 2009 the protesters were made up of cells of organized men–with older women making up most of the protesters at the main protest site at Government House. In contrast, the 2010 protests were massive and diverse to drive home the idea that all the people wanted new elections. Instead of holding the protests far downtown, they ended up being centered in Rajaprasong where they could not be ignored.
Most importantly, in 2010 the Red Shirts welcomed the press and foreigners and attempted to maintain a friendly and non-violent image towards them on the ground. This resulted in an extraordinary amount of foreign press coverage in the midst of smiling and cheering Red Shirts–a compelling image for the international media. Bloggers, this time being welcome, dutifully posted photos and comments and put a human rural face on the event.