May 3, 2011

IV. The Red Shirt Movement

Red Shirt schools and preparation for 2010

After UDD protests were dispersed in April 2009, UDD leaders retreated to their rural strongholds, particularly concerned by the relative ease with which the army had dispersed the protests, and that the government had dismissed Thaksin’s claims that protesters had been killed and their bodies “disappeared” during the dispersal.[43]

In addition to regrouping and analyzing mistakes, UDD leaders began planning a new round of bigger, better-organized protests for 2010, which they dubbed a “Million Man March” on Bangkok. To ensure success, the UDD organized more than 450 “Red Shirt schools” nationwide, where hundreds of thousands of Red Shirt supporters received an intense one-day course on its version of how to achieve democratic governance. According to a local organizer, the program focused on the nature of “real democracy,” how democracy and Thai politics fell short of this goal, and how to establish “real democracy” in the future.[44]                                                                                           

The UDD in early 2010 began to organize large rallies, barely covered by mainstream media, in rural areas in the north and northeast. For example, a UDD rally on January 31 in Khon Kaen province drew an estimated 100,000 people, and a rally the next day in Ubon Ratchathani province drew a reported 50,000.[45] Other events took place in many smaller towns and villages throughout northern and northeastern Thailand. One foreign journalist investigating reports of Red Shirt activity in the north attended a 2,000-person fundraising dinner in the small town of Srang Khom in Udon Thani province, and heard of a similar 3,000-person dinner in a nearby small town the same night, featuring a call-in from Thaksin.[46] The UDD also trained hundreds of “Red Shirt Guards” to provide security at the rallies. Different volunteer groups were formed to feed and provide other services to the hundreds of thousands of protesters who would soon travel to the capital.[47]

While most UDD leaders sought Thaksin’s return to power and some have acted as his proxies, many mid-ranking and lower level members of the UDD movement had broader aims: including continuing the populist reforms that Thaksin began, and reforming Thailand’s political structure. The traditional political establishment, revolving around the Privy Council, military, judiciary, and allied business interests, has vigorously opposed these efforts.

Forming the Red Shirt Guards

Security arrangements surrounding the UDD movement were complex and organized, aimed at preventing a repeat of 2009, when the military force dispersed the UDD Songkran protests with relatively little force and minimal casualties.

In February 2010, Maj. Gen. Khattiya Sawasdipol, popularly known as “Seh Daeng” traveled to Dubai to meet Thaksin.[48] Upon his return, Khattiya said he would focus his energies on “my duty as head of a unit of security guards to provide protection for the Red Shirt supporters,” and that “the guards will make sure the Red Shirts will not be put down by government security forces.”[49] It is unclear what precise instructions Thaksin gave him.

The composition, command structure, and relationship of the Red Shirt Guards to the UDD leadership remain unclear. But Human Rights Watch’s research, including extensive interviews with UDD leaders and protesters, found that UDD claims to be a peaceful mass mobilization were undermined by the presence of highly skilled and deadly armed groups, including the “Black Shirts,” who were responsible for a number of attacks against soldiers and civilians, but about whom crucial questions of their command and role remain unanswered.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

The most visible element of the UDD security units were the “Red Shirt Guards”—men usually dressed in black uniforms with a red handkerchief in a style modeled closely after the uniforms of the Thahan Phran, the hunter-soldier paramilitary border rangers created to serve in counter-insurgency warfare against the Communist Party of Thailand in the 1970s. Khattiya had been instrumental in recruiting active and retired members of Thahan Phran to work as UDD security units, emphasizing their poor background, in contrast to the elite status of commissioned officers who were siding with the PAD and the Democrat Party-led government. While on duty, some Red Guards displayed the insignia of the Thahan Phran and are believed to have been former or active members of that force. The Red Guards numbered somewhere around 500 members during the Bangkok protests.[50]

In addition to the Khattiya recruits, most Red Shirt Guards from broader groups were recruited and commanded by the network of activist-turned-politician, Ari Krainara.[51] The Red Shirt Guards underwent rudimentary training in crowd control and other public order functions and received UDD-issued identity cards.[52] Their main role at the protest sites was to maintain public order and protect UDD leaders. Working in rotating shifts, they helped keep the protest camps well organized.[53] Most Red Shirt Guards were not visibly armed. On some occasions they helped to calm violent confrontations and even protected soldiers and police from being attacked by angry UDD protesters, as was the case when soldiers retreated after being attacked by heavily armed militias on April 10. Nevertheless, Human Rights Watch found cases of Red Shirt Guards involved in low-level violence, especially when manning checkpoints around the UDD rally sites.

The “Black Shirts”

The UDD’s public deployment of hundreds of security guards dressed in uniforms resembling those of the paramilitary Thahan Phran implied a militaristic element to the protest movement. Indeed, many assumed that Red Shirt security guards were behind the armed violence against government forces.                                     

However, Human Rights Watch’s investigations found that the attacks did not originate with Red Shirt Guards, but with a secretive armed element within the UDD whom protesters and media called the “Black Shirts” or “Men in Black”—though not all were dressed in black.[54]

Members of these armed groups were captured on photographs and film armed with various military weapons, including AK-47 and M16 assault rifles, as well as M79 grenade launchers, during their clashes with government security forces.[55]                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

A journalist, who spent several days together with a group of armed militants at the Ratchaprasong protest camp, described to Human Rights Watch his experience with the Black Shirts:

The day I met up with the group, they were near Lumphini Park and the Rama IV [road] junction, living in a tent. I was not allowed to photograph them. I met about 17 or 18 of them, but they said they were part of a group of 30. They had more people helping them, helpers and their own medics. They were all ex-military, and some of them were still on active duty. Some of them were paratroopers, and at least one was from the Navy. They had AR-15s, TAR-21s, M16s, AK-47s [military assault rifles], but I didn’t see them with M79s [grenade launchers]. They told me that their job was to protect the Red Shirt protesters, but their real job was to terrorize the soldiers.
[T]hese guys were fearless. They operated mostly at night, but sometimes also during the day. They went out in small teams [to confront the army].…
They didn’t use walkie-talkies, just mobile phones and runners [to deliver messages]. I saw no interaction with the Red Shirt leaders. But these guys were contacted by someone, someone recruited them to come, I have no idea who. Someone provided them with weapons…. They rationed their bullets—when they went out they had 30 bullets [each].
They weren’t really “black” shirts—they were sometimes in green military uniforms and others dressed like Red Shirt protesters. They didn’t have any relationship with the Red Guards, and weren’t interested in dealing with the Red Shirt leaders.… They took their work very seriously. The guys I met, they knew how to move and shoot. They also had experience handling explosives.… The Black Shirts didn’t come to try and take territory—they shoot and then they leave, they hit [the soldiers] and retreat.[56]

A Thai journalist stationed near Bon Kai junction said the Black Shirt militants he encountered during the May 17-19 clashes were well-armed, appeared to be trained in military tactics, and seemed to have a separate command line from the Red Shirt Guards:

From what I saw, the Black Shirt militants and the Red Shirt protesters were fighting alongside each other in the areas around Bon Kai junction. But they did not share the same command line. The Red Shirts seemed to be driven by anger as they saw soldiers moving in and opening fire at the protesters. They burned tires and used slingshots to shoot metal bolts, rocks, and fire crackers at soldiers. They also tried to use petrol bombs and homemade rockets, made of PVC [durable plastic] and metal pipes, to attack soldiers. But the aim of their rockets was not accurate enough to hit soldier bunkers and cause any serious damage. Some of the Red Shirts went out on foot and motorcycles to challenge soldiers to come out from their bunkers and fight openly. But they had to dash back behind the barricades when soldiers shot them with rubber bullets and live rounds. This cat-and-mouse game went on all day. I only saw two of the Red Shirts firing at soldiers with revolver pistols.
The Black Shirts, on the other hand, were well armed. They attacked soldiers with AK-47 and HK-33 assault rifles, and M79 grenade launchers. They were also very cautious when they moved around, using smoke as their cover. They appeared to benefit from the havoc created by the Red Shirts, which distracted soldiers as well. The Black Shirts did not stay in one spot for too long. They moved around, took their positions, opened fire, and then retreated. The way they operated reminded me of those with military training. Some of the Black Shirts used walkie-talkies, while others use mobile phones, to communicate with each other. Their operations seemed to be coordinated by a man who always had sunglasses on. At one point, I heard him giving orders to the Black Shirts to fire M79 grenades at the bunkers and sniper posts of soldiers. But when I asked the Black Shirts about that man, they told me I should not raise that question again if I want to stay behind their line. The Red Shirts that I talked to said they did not know who that man was either. Nevertheless, they believed that the Black Shirts were there to protect them and help them fight more effectively.[57]

[43]During dispersal operations on April 13, 2009, Thai and foreign journalists were allowed to closely follow the troops. The UDD claims that at least six demonstrators were killed during the crackdown and their bodies taken away by the army, but has not been able to substantiate this claim with independent sources.

[44]Human Rights Watch interview with local Red Shirt leader, Chonburi, June 17, 2010.

[45]Marwaan Macan-Markar, “Rural Thailand Simmers with Anti-gov’t Rage,” Inter-Press Service, February 8, 2010; Nirmal Ghosh, “Red Shirts Warn Thai Army to Stay Neutral,” The Straits Times, February 4, 2010.

[46]Human Rights Watch interview with Marwaan Macan-Markar, Bangkok, June 9, 2010.

[47]Human Rights Watch interview with local Red Shirt leader, Chonburi, June 17, 2010.

[48]“Seh” is a common reference to a military officer who graduated from the Staff College, and “Daeng” was Maj. Gen. Khattiya’s nickname.

[49]Wassana Nanuam, “Khattiya told to end quarrel with red shirts,” Bangkok Post, February 26, 2010.

[50]Anthony Davis, “Red Rising—Protests in Thailand Widen the Political Divide,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, May 14, 2010.

[51]Ari Krainara was elected a member of Parliament in 2006 from the Thai Rak Thai Party in Nakhin Sri Thamarat province. Following the September 2006 coup, he joined with others to build the anti-coup network that ultimately became the UDD, mobilizing in particular former and current student activists from Ramkhamhaeng University.

[52]“UDD to deploy 5,000 red guards,” Bangkok Post, March 13, 2010.

[53]Anthony Davis, “Red Rising—Protests in Thailand Widen the Political Divide,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, May 14, 2010.

[54] Officials from the Attorney General’s Office said during a senate hearing on March 3, 2011, that about 30 to 50 heavily armed Black Shirts were engaged in a series of attacks on military and civilian targets. “Attorney-General Joined DSI Accusing Soldiers Shot Red Shirts,” (อสส.จับมือ DSI โยนบาปทหารยิงแดง)Asia Satellite TV, March 3, 2011, (accessed March 3, 2011).

[55] “New Evidence Showing Hooded Gunmen Who Fired AKs and M79s,” (โฉมหน้า ไอ้โม่งมืออาก้า ทีมยิง เอ็ม ๗๙ !!! หลักฐานใหม่)OK Nation blog, June 5, 2010,; and “What Happened at Khok Wua Junction,” (เกิดอะไรที่แยกคอกวัว 10/4/53) (accessed November 7, 2010).

[56] Human Rights Watch interview with Olivier Sarbil, Bangkok, June 14, 2010.

[57]Human Rights Watch interview with Thai journalist [name withheld], Bangkok, September 10, 2010.