Q&A: Self-exiled Thai ‘Red Shirt’

Jakrapob Penkair.
Jakrapob Penkair. Daniel Quinlan

Q&A: Self-exiled Thai ‘Red Shirt’

A former government minister and adviser to Thailand’s ousted leader Thaksin Shinawatra, Jakrapob Penkair was one of the founders of the country’s “Red Shirt” movement. The mass movement, which is particularly popular in the rural north, intends to ensure the government led by Thaksin’s sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, wins a sixth successive election on February 2. Supporters stand in opposition to Bangkok-based anti-government protesters, a coalition of upper and middle class royalists, who call for the government to be replaced with an unelected “people’s council”. They have held huge demonstrations in the Thai capital in recent weeks.

Jakrapob moved to Cambodia after being threatened with the country’s notorious lese majeste laws, which have been used to stifle any discussion of the royal family’s role in politics. He is still wanted on politically-motivated charges, after having the cases of lese majeste against him dropped. Daniel Quinlan spoke with him in Phnom Penh about the current crisis across the border.

Do you view the coming days and weeks in Thailand with trepidation?
It’s a worrisome situation but it’s also an awakening. I don’t believe we can transform Thailand so comprehensively if we don’t go through this. I welcome it. I don’t want my country to be in trouble but if trouble means that you would learn and go on as a better person then so be it. The so-called shutdown of Bangkok is [due to] arrogance of the “well to do people” saying “we call the shots”.

Anti-government protesters on the streets of Bangkok late last year. AFP
Anti-government protesters on the streets of Bangkok late last year. AFP

Can you explain the tension that exists between traditional elites and those from the countryside?
Let me tell you what is similar between Thailand and the rest of the world and what I think is a little unique or different. The similarities are that people who perceive themselves as “well-to-do” do not want change and would protect the status quo. People who have no future or a bleak future will risk change and whatever that will bring. Maybe more disaster, but it’s better than that I see today.

These two groups of people clash – that’s just the reality anywhere in the world. The difference in Thailand came in an image of political application. In other words, we didn’t start from ideological differences. Wooing the have-nots to come together and battle the upper classes, there was no such thing in Thailand.

You were one of the founders of the Red Shirts. How did the movement begin?
The Red Shirts had started as a satellite TV station called PTV, or People’s TV, and we weren’t allowed to go on air, so we transformed ourselves into a political group and organised rallies and the name was changed until it became UDD [The United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship] which is the official name of today’s Red Shirt movement.

Do you view the current crisis as stemming from the 2006 military coup that ousted Thaksin, who was perceived as being disloyal to the monarchy?
I view at as the same story, single coherent story of the royal secession. This king, King Rama IX, has been so successful in making himself the very symbol of Thailand. In other words, there are no other competing symbols available so it leads to natural anxieties and fear. If the reign has to stop because of the natural reasons, it’s like a doomsday.

The controversial amnesty bill proposed in November last year could have led to Thaksin’s return, as corruption charges would have been forgiven. It has been rejected by the Senate, but has the bill affected the way people, even among Red Shirts view him?
Thaksin admits that it’s not a very good move that we made in terms of the amnesty bill and constitutional amendments [and] the way it was done, but he and we altogether will not accept that the initiative was ill-intentioned. Yes, it has caused a lot of weariness among the supporters of the Red Shirts: not of the manner in which it was done but the fact that it seems like we have no coherent strategy of how to go ahead with this. In other words they want us to regroup, they want us to give them the big picture instead of giving them little jigsaw pieces that do not combine into anything so clear to them.

During his time as prime minister, Thaksin was accused of acting like a “demigod” and leading an unsuccessful “war” on drugs. Do you consider him above criticism?
He’s not, but at the outset Thaksin is a conservative who runs a liberal government so there is bound to be some conflict in that. I know him, I’ve been close to him and I know that he is a conservative at heart. Actually he wants a better Thailand, but in that process he changes Thailand more then he intended or would have imaged when he first started. He didn’t like it much, but I once called him a “sleepwalker in history”.


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