This post contains my personal impressions of the “Red Armies”. Over the years, I have concentrated much more on the pro-government forces than the “Yellow People”. I have found, and still find, the “Reds” a far more captivating phenomenon. The general stereotype is that these people are just duped, uneducated villagers, hired thugs, bought by Thaksin, and therefore not worthy of recognition.

In the real world, I find among the “Reds” a far wider political diversity of opinion than found in the anti-government groups. There is no common ideology, and I have seen the constant growth of political awareness in the two years I have been hanging around them. There is constant disagreement on many issues, which, on the one hand, makes them far weaker than the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) in protest tactics. Yet, on the other hand, this is how democracy grows.

As a comparison – when I disagree with members of the PAD about ideology, I often end up in very uncomfortable debates, and have to deal with often completely unreasonable views. One of the most glaring examples occurs when I bring up the fact that nowadays most western journalists are not exactly pro-PAD: the general answer to this point is that Thailand was different, that Thai people can be very happy without western luxuries such as cars, and can simply grow rice. This is usually the answer of urbanites that have not spent a day of their life growing rice or doing one bit of manual labor.

Yet, when disagreeing with the points of the “Reds”, I often experience rather challenging, and very educating, discussions.

I have never been scared or felt intimidated while hanging out and taking photos among the “Reds”. And I have not been asked, as with PAD, to report only from their side and relay just their view points.

The “Reds” in battle on 2 September 2008.

La’or Biathong, 56, and his wife Bunchu. Both came from a village near the provincial town of Korat to the pro-government protest against PAD with 30 relatives and friends. La’or was caught up in the fighting. He said,”I was not armed, I tried to hold back other unarmed protesters, and pull out injured. I came here because i love democracy, and cannot accept that the PAD wants to have only 30% elected, and 70% appointed representatives in the parliament. I wish both sides could forget and make up, because otherwise the country gets destroyed.” La’or was beaten by a group of PAD fighters with clubs: he has fractured both arms, 26 stitches on his scalp and his back is covered by marks from slingshot projectiles.

Chaba Singhaglangpon, elder sister of Narongsak Krobthaisong (56), who was beaten to death by PAD fighters during the street violence of the 2 September 2008, picks up the corpse from Watchila Hospital for transport to a temple where it will be laid out for 7 days.

“Red” guards hold up a newspaper with photos of them in the street violence in the early hours of 2 September 2008 that killed and injured friends. They said, “Then we went with empty hands, we only had machetes, wooden and iron bars, and they had guns. This is not going to happen anymore like this.”

Are the “Reds” paid? I have no idea? Some are definitely being paid, how many, how much – I don’t know. And anyhow, that is not really a point that has ever been of much interest to me because, paid or not, I have found a genuine belief in their cause even in the most uneducated villager, or in the hardest fighter on their side. I have had the opportunity to also have very open conversations with many people from their leadership, an opportunity I was never given by the PAD. With PAD you are there to listen to what they have to say; critical comments are definitely not welcome. And even the most outrageous conspiracies you have to swallow.

Members of the “Udon Lovers” group in Bangkok.

Wanchai Paipanna, founder of the pro-government group “Udon Lovers”, in front of about 30,000 members.

About 1000 members of the “Udon Lovers” gathered at Udon Thani City Hall to welcome former Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej’s cabinet.

Of course the “Reds” are also very much part of Thailand’s patronage networks – there are shady godfathers involved, and there are strategies that are very difficult to reconcile with democratic ideals. Yet, these people are aware of this, and are often uncomfortable with this inevitable fact of life in Thailand. But, generally speaking, most I spoke with do know that this is part of a process of growth that should one day be overcome here – even some of those shady characters themselves said so.

PAD is as much part of this same system, yet I rarely hear similar self-reflective admissions from their side. I only see increasing paranoid fanaticism, clearly steered by the leadership. So, for example, in the PAD camp around Government House, almost every hour there are rumours of impending attacks by groups from the “Reds”, a strategy to keep them always on edge, and in a tight unit: very military-style.

With all its growing pains, I do find among the “Reds” some fascinating social and political development. There are mostly people from the lower classes who are in part of a process of growing political awareness (and more than a few with a very keen sense of politics, and the problems of Thai society); and there are people of the middle classes who are in the process of shaking off typical Thai imprints. Over these last two years I have seen things in constant ideological and political flux. Perhaps never has politics in Thailand captured so many people that have previously never been very involved.

Importantly, “Red” politicians are approachable for the people, many times I have seen these politicians surrounded by their voters. Some may argue that this is only a strategy to blind people, but I view this as the beginning of real democracy – people want and get representatives they can identify with, they can touch and talk to, feel close to (of course, Samak as a Prime Minister was a bit of an enigma in this motley bunch, as he is not exactly a politician that is easy to get close to in any way).

Government spokesman Nattawut Saikua with some of his many fans.

Eccentric Udon Thani MP Suratin Pimanmekin with a “Red” crowd.

I can’t say where this is going, but it definitely is going somewhere very interesting and will change Thailand profoundly. This the beginning of mass participation in politics where many don’t just follow a prescribed ideology. Compared to this I view the PAD as a group that claims to positively change Thai society, but with the methods of turning the clock back, of being inspired by fear of the unknown, distrust of any democracy where even the villagers get a equal vote, and with the ideals of an idyllic Thailand that has never existed other than in the minds of theorists.