Over the course of several months, Thai Red Shirts (TRS) have attended many of the UDD’s political schools. The latest school in the Northern province of Chiang Mai was the UDD’s thirteenth ever political school and more schools are scheduled for the coming months.
While the concept of “political schools” may have negative connotations for some readers, in this case they refer to gatherings akin to political party conventions. Much like party conventions, the UDD’s political schools are important venues for the exchange of ideas between the movement’s leadership and grassroots activists. They also serve to build strong local Red Shirt organizations that are vital to the movement’s long-term success as a vehicle for democratic change in Thailand.
At a previous event in Lamphun province, UDD co-leader Nisit Sinthuprai said,
The Red Shirt movement needs to start at the village level. We need a strong network of local committees that can work together to defeat the amaat system in Thailand.
UDD chairwoman Tida Tawornseth stressed that these local committees need to be democratic,
When you form local organizations, you need democratically elected committees that don’t rely on one person alone. Democratic principles need to be put into to practice, or else they become obsolete.
School participants, or “students”, told TRS that the gatherings have helped them to be effective activists in their local communities.
One Red Shirt said,
It gives me a lot of encouragement to work harder. There’s a lot of valuable information to take in.
Beyond outlining the movement’s core principles, goals, and strategies, the speakers also delve into the history of democratic action in Thailand. The UDD places the Red Shirt movement in the tradition of past pro-democracy groups such as the Confederation for Democracy of 1992 and the Octoberist student movements of the 1970s. In fact, many of the school’s speakers, Jaran Ditapichai and Dr Weng Tojirakarn for example, played prominent roles in these previous configurations.
If the figures on stage haven’t change significantly, the audience certainly has. The Red Shirt movement’s largest contribution to Thai democracy is the political mobilization of lower-middle to lower class individuals, predominantly from rural Northern and Northeastern Thailand (Isaan). Earlier pro-democracy movements were by and large made up of university students, urban workers, and middle-class professionals who opposed the persistent usurpation of political power by elite sanctioned military coups d’état.
The transition from a largely middle-class movement to mass based grassroots activism has a lot to do with ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Elected in 2001, Thaksin’s government implemented policies that dramatically improved the quality of life for lower-class Thais. Millions gained access to affordable healthcare through the “30 baht program” and the Village Development Fund gave a lifeline to farmers who were still recovering from the devastating 1997 financial crisis and subsequent International Monetary Fund bailout. Thaksin’s sensibility to the needs of the lower classes was rewarded by a landslide re-election in 2005. For many, casting a ballot for Thaksin was their first meaningful act of democratic participation in a country where voting for the highest bidder was common place.
However, it would be overly simplistic to describe the Red Shirt movement as a rural poor phenomenon. Thais from Isaan and the North continue to move to cities for work thereby increasing the ranks of urban Red Shirts who are just as concerned with the state of Thailand’s political system. While voting for the Pheu Thai party is not a sufficient, nor necessary, condition for being a Red Shirt, the recent gubernatorial elections in Bangkok suggest that there is growing disillusionment with the pro-amaat Democrat Party.
There is also a growing group of middle-class and academic activists that are either self-identified Red Shirts, or sympathetic to the movement’s goals and ideology. Their convictions have little to do with Thaksin and a lot to do with achieving basic political and civil rights. Some are old enough to have witnessed previous coups and state sanctioned massacres, others have been compelled into action by the most recent episode because they too recognize that military coups, politicized judiciaries, and excessive limits on the freedom of speech do not belong in any democratic society, but have been ever present in Thailand’s tumultuous modern political history.
Such diversity within the Red Shirt movement highlights the last and perhaps most significant purpose of the UDD political schools. By providing the grassroots with a wider historical and political context to their activism, the political schools serve to bridge the gap between Thailand’s progressive forces of all socioeconomic classes. It is an ambitious and long-term project but crucial to a sustainable democratic future.