The Abhisit government’s recent lifting of the State of Emergency decree in key northern provinces has seen the Red Shirt machine swing back into motion in what is widely regarded as heartland ‘Thaksin country’. In the same week as the decree was revoked, events were held in several northern cities, including the regional capital of Chiang Mai. A rally attended by up to 500 Red Shirt supporters was conspicuously held in the midst of the throbbing Sunday night Street Markets, followed a few days later by a symbolic ceremony attended by Red Shirts adorned in black to ‘commemorate’ the 90th birthday of Privy Council head, Prem Tinsulanond. Local Red community radio stations, silenced since mid-May, are back on air and Red publications – rebranded – again sit on newsagent shelves.
The post-decree rallies seemingly confirm that the violent climax to the Bangkok protests and the subsequent interregnum have done little to dampen northern political sentiments. Why then has the Abhisit coalition deigned to unleash such sentiments when the decree, as resented in some quarters as it was, effectively brought such dissent to heel? There is no in-principle reason why the State of Emergency could not have been extended for months to come, as will presumably be the case in Bangkok, or even indefinitely, as in the troubled southern provinces. Official statements indicate that reviving the ailing northern tourist sector – with several countries maintaining prohibitive travel warnings due to the ongoing presence of the Emergency decree – and acting in accord with the much-maligned reconciliation process were the main factors in the decision.
There are however a number of other cards on the table, which together give insight into an emerging dual-track strategy being devised to manage provincial unrest. As in neighbouring Burma, the twin tenets of this strategy are the structural pillars of development and security, defined of course in terms resonant with state interests. In terms of ‘development’, the state has framed this in terms of a cradle-to-the-grave welfare package aimed to ameliorate what is considered to be one of the salient grievances undergirding Red-Shirt politics, that is, social and economic inequality. As such, a raft of welfare measures has been proposed or commenced, including extended free education, pensions for the elderly, utilities and transport subsidies, debt relief schemes and raising the minimum wage. Furthermore, in the north, a pilot project has been initiated in Lamphun, just south of Chiang Mai, in which one and a half thousand rai of land has been purchased by the government for distribution to the local landless. Just as Thaksin did in the wake of the social unrest inspired by the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, the incumbent government is seeking to create a new kind of social compact with the poor and working classes in order to produce a manageable level of social stability. The irony of course is that the Democrats have for years been lambasting welfare policies as fiscally irresponsible.
In terms of security, revelations of a proposed new 25,000 strong Infantry Division at Mae Rim, on the outskirts of Chiang Mai coincided with the announcement of the lifting of the decree. Whilst it has yet to be green-lighted, the 10 billion baht project – reportedly a pet-project of outgoing Army Chief, Anupong Paochinda – could begin roll-out within six months, dramatically changing the demographics and culture of the Red-dominated Mae Rim district. More obviously, the presence of such high numbers of troops provides a further layer of security personnel should the state consider it necessary to discipline troublesome local Reds.
It is also well known that security agents recorded contact details of Red Shirt protestors – including those from the north – rallying in Bangkok, and have subsequently ‘visited’ some upon returning to their home provinces. Moreover, Red Shirt guards advise that police are actively monitoring local activities, including nightly surveillance runs past the Red Shirt’s symbolic headquarters, the Warorot Hotel. Guards estimate that some 100 plain-clothes operatives attended the Sunday night rally.
In addition to the development and security measures, a further wildcard may be in play, though not necessarily a direct outcome of government strategies. It is no longer clear that Chiang Mai remains the ‘Red stronghold’ it is popularly portrayed as, and despite its reputation and association with Thaksin, an increasingly fluid political reality exists at ground level. Whilst it is true that the urban peripheries have been dominated by Red supporters, there are signs even here of a growing Thaksin-fatigue. Outside, for example, the Shinawatra silk outlet in Sankhamphaeng – Thaksin’s birth district – street vendors declare themselves weary of the bitter color-coded politics. For other Sankhamphaeng residents, memories of Thaksin’s largesse – the new roads, the street lights and the like – now reach back on ten years. Whilst they may still elicit a certain affinity for the man, ongoing loyalty requires ongoing acts of patronage.
Moreover, the actual city centre of Chiang Mai exercises a kind of resolute aloofness from party politics, though with increasing anger leveled against the Reds over the downturn in the local economy. Local politics reflects this fluidity and lack of political commitment. Mayoral elections over the past few years have fluctuated between Red and Yellow leaning candidates, with a Democrat candidate winning as recently as 2007. In the 2009 elections, though a Red-aligned candidate won, he did so with an underwhelming performance of only some 22% of total voters.
A sober analysis of numbers presenting at public rallies also questions the ‘Red Stronghold’ thesis. On the night after the first spate of deaths in Bangkok on 10 April, only a few hundred people gathered to protest and remember their dead at Chiang Mai’s City Hall. Nightly rallies during the Bangkok protest gathered anywhere between fifty to a few hundred patrons. As reported above, last Sunday night’s rally attracted at most 500 supporters, with the subsequent Prem ‘commemoration’ drawing a crowd countable in the dozens. Whilst collectively not insignificant, these numbers do not suggest the fierce enthusiasm for the Red movement that is often projected onto the northern capital. Whilst it may be that these supporters represent the tip of a substantial less-visible Red iceberg, it may simply be that support for the Reds is not as substantive as it once was.
The impending threat of internal military colonization represented by the proposed Mae Rim Infantry Division, the prospective inducements of cradle-to-the-grave welfare support, together with the post-Thaksin turn in national level Red Shirt politics poses a number of challenges for northern Reds. It could be that these measures erode local support, particularly given that the figure of Thaksin remains the deepest link to the movement for many of the rank and file. Alternatively, the measures may consolidate the movement, providing the opportunity for northern Reds to further clarify and articulate their struggle, and to demonstrate that the movement is not simply a product of elite capital or of cheap handouts, but rather a genuine grass-roots movement for democratic social and political reform, transcending icon and patronage. How this unfolds in the north has dramatic implications for the future shape of the entire country.