Nick Nostitz reports from a special symposium on Thailand’s rolling political crisis.
On 18 June, I was invited to talk at a symposium at the University of Bonn in Germany, organised in conjunction with Stiftung Asienhaus and several Red Shirt groups in Europe.
I spoke at a workshop on the Red Shirts after the coup, and the final podium discussion on the future of democracy in Thailand. There were workshops on more sensitive topics as well, which I did not participate in.
After the opening talks in a large and fully occupied lecture hall, Ajarn Pitch Pongsawat and Nopporn Khunikha talked about the new constitution and Ajarn Pavin Chachavalpongpun spoke on the monarchy. Other workshops covered a range of topics, including the constitution and the referendum, led by Professor Wolfram Schaffar, Dr Pitch Pongsawat and Dr Vichien Tansirikongkhont; the monarchy and lese majeste, led by exiles Junya Jimprasert and Aum Neko, Dr Serhat Uenaldi and Andrew MacGregor Marshall; and human rights violations under the military regime, led by Kunthika Nutcharus and Kheetanat Wannaboworn.
A workshop on the Red Shirt movement was led by exiled Red Shirt leader Visa Kanthap, local Red Shirt activist Bangon Schwarz, Dr Claudio Sopranzetti, and myself. The final workshop examined exiled activists, the European Union and strategies for democracy, and was led by Din Buadaeng, exiled Red Shirt leader Jaran Ditapichai and Kwanjai Chularat.
In my workshop Bangon Schwarz talked about why she as an ordinary Thai became interested in politics. Visa Khantap talked about his long political struggle since the 1970s and the split of former friends into the Red and Yellow camps. I talked mostly about why the Red Shirts have not actively opposed the military coup, reasoning that the majority of Red Shirts are not revolutionaries, but normal citizens and a reflection of the Thai population, who want to express their political views via elections. In the present conditions active opposition would mean imprisoned and dead people, and that the UDD and most other Red Shirt groups had to design their strategies according to this.
I also mentioned that the demand that the Red Shirts should separate from Thaksin would be quite unrealistic, given that the majority of the Red Shirts were people who benefited under the populist schemes introduced by his government. In fact, such a demand would be an infringement on the people’s democratic right to support their politician of choice, and would therefore alienate these sectors of the population similar to what took place when the PAD began protesting against Thaksin in 2005/2006.
When it was asked if more aggressive strategies should be followed I said that this would be quite counterproductive as a civil war would not be in anyone’s interest, and that in the end both Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts are still Thais and have to find ways to continue to live with each other.
In our room three PDRC supporters took part as well. There were some frictions, naturally. Some of the Red Shirts in the room objected that the PDRC supporters filmed the talks, but as the event was live-streamed, and several of the participants filmed as well, I said that the PDRC supporters should also be allowed to film. One Danish PDRC supporter said that the Yingluck government came from vote buying and was therefore not democratic.
I answered that this is an unproven allegation, and referred to the ANFREL election observers who concluded that in general, the 2011 elections went well. I also mentioned Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker’s article, published on 6 December 2013, in The Bangkok Post, “Vote-buying claims nothing but dangerous nonsense”. When moderator Oliver Pye asked to get back to the main topic of the Red Shirt movement the three PDRC supporters walked out of the room.
During a break after the workshops, while participants had cake and coffee, about 15 PDRC supporters, who mostly came from Denmark, gathered near the university’s gate for a counter protest. Organisers of the seminar and the later Red Shirt protest march called the police, fearing that some incident might happen.
During the symposium authorities had watched over the PDRC supporters, to protect them against possible attacks from over-emotional Red Shirts, which did not happen. While not happy about the PDRC, the Red Shirts treated them respectfully. Police then arrived, and politely asked the PDRC supporters to gather at a nearby place where they have announced their protest, and the PDRC supporters soon left to their protest venue.
The final podium discussion took again place in the lecture hall, with Junya Yimprasert, Jaran Ditapichai, Wolfram Schaffar and me on the podium, moderated by Oliver Pye. An interesting friendly side debate took place on the podium between Wolfram Schaffar, who framed the conflict in Thailand in context with the worldwide developments on liberal democracy under attack by rich elites and problems over distribution of wealth, and me, who looked at the Red-Yellow conflict as primarily an identity crises, a transformation conflict and a conflict over participation that is part of the development towards democracy in Thailand.
After, a protest march through Bonn’s inner city was organised. The lecturers flown in from Thailand opted not to take part, as to not violate their university rules. Naturally, I also did not participate, but used the opportunity to take pictures. The day ended in a picnic and party in the villa of one of the organisers in a suburb of Bonn.
Nick Nostitz is a photo-journalist and long-time contributor to New Mandala. Following are some of the images he captured at the symposium.