The word “redshirt” has very different meanings in the United States and Rural Thailand. In the U.S., student intercollegiate athletes normally are permitted to play on their teams for only four years. If they are in five-year undergraduate programs, during that fifth year (often the first one) they may be part of a team but not actually participate in sporting events. They are referred to as “redshirts.” In Thailand, however, redshirts are supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Redshirt protests in Bangkok, September 2010 Photo by Takeaway in Wikimedia Commons Creative Commons license
Redshirt protests in Bangkok, September 2010 Photo by Takeaway in Wikimedia Commons Creative Commons license

Members of the so-called “redshirt” movement mounted massive demonstrations in Bangkok in 2010 in an effort to remove the prime minister of Thailand at the time, Abhisit Vejjajiva, and force a call for elections. This movement succeeded in prompting an election in 2011 that brought Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, into office. Yingluck was the leader of the Phuea Thai (PT) Party, which embodied redshirt ideals.

Thaksin became prime minister in 2001 on a platform of supporting changes in Thailand. He said he wanted to develop a new economy and society that would provide more support for the Rural Thai people rather than for Thailand’s urban elites. Thaksin’s initiatives caused him to be ousted by a coup in 2006. After that, the redshirt movement sought to continue promoting this concept of a nation divided by these two classes—rural poor and urban elites.

A recent journal article by Yoshinori Nishizaki seeks to challenge the widely-held notion that the redshirt movement, formally known as the “United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship,” has universal support in Rural Thailand.

The redshirts argue that the rapid economic growth of Thailand since the 1960s has preponderantly benefitted urban elites at the expense of the rural poor. Furthermore, they have sought to convince their Rural Thai supporters that they need to think of themselves in antiquated terms from the 1930s. They label urban elites as ammart, aristocrats, people who conspired to overthrow Thaksin. They describe rural people as phrai, serfs, a class term for downtrodden poor people stuck in grinding poverty because of the urban elites .

The solution advocated by the redshirts: overthrow the system through class struggle. Their arguments have resonated with many rural Thai, for a lot of them turned out wearing red shirts at the Bangkok protests in 2010. The redshirts clearly had a lot of support.

Nishizaki argues in his paper that support for the redshirt movement in Rural Thailand has not been as universal as their promoters would like the rest of the world to believe. He discusses differing points of view held by the Rural Thai peasants in northern Chiang Mai Province where, not coincidentally, Thaksin was from.

The author argues, and provides ample figures to demonstrate, that while the redshirt party may have won elections, the results have not been as overwhelming as their supporters contend. Then, he examines the opinions of the peasants in two small, rural villages in the Mae Ai District of the Chiang Mai Province.

Nishizaki did his fieldwork during numerous visits to the two villages from 2009 through 2012, and he had many opportunities for discussing with the villagers their opinions of the issues being raised by the major parties and their candidates. Since the campaign in 2011 received extensive coverage from the media, the redshirt movement was a constant topic of conversation. Many of the peasants, he found, are strongly opposed to the redshirts.

Nishizaki found that while his informants, all of whom identified themselves as peasants, were significantly poorer than the people of the cities, many of them were opposed to Thaksin and to the redshirt movement. The reasons were that they were critical of the claims made by the redshirts because of their own life experiences. What they have perceived about the redshirts did not square with what they, themselves, have experienced. The fact that they may be poor and relatively uneducated does not diminish their critical faculties in any way, the author argues.

The rural people would not deny that they benefitted from some of Thaksin’s policies. But they also pointed out that some of his policies jeopardized their incomes, such as his decision to sign a free trade agreement with China in 2003. It opened up Thailand to a flood of cheap fruits and vegetables at prices that the farmers in Mae Ai District couldn’t compete with. Many farming people blame Thaksin for deserting them.

Villagers told the author that, while Thaksin claimed to understand the problems of the Rural Thai farmers, he really didn’t. He did not institute any real land reforms, an issue that frustrates them. One informant told Nishizaki that the reason no effective reforms have taken place is that Thaksin, himself, is a large landholder. He is a hypocrite who has vested interests in seeing that the landholding system in Thailand does not change, the informant said.

The informants were also highly critical about the integrity of some of the local government officials who were appointed by the redshirt politicians. They were, critics said, firm supporters of Yingluck’s party in order to channel government development moneys into local coffers so that they could then be redirected into private accounts. These critics also claimed that redshirt activists sometimes funneled money into vote-buying schemes, activities that strengthened their opposition to the redshirts.

The peasant informants were particularly incensed by the phrai rhetoric of the redshirts. Rural people who have worked hard, saved carefully, lived modestly, and slowly gotten ahead have tended to resent being lumped into this antiquated “serf” category. It is true that Mae Ai was quite secluded and impoverished up until the 1970s, but as roads were built into the remote area, the economy began to slowly improve. People began getting jobs in urban areas and to send remittances back to their rural families. Farmers were able to start planting crops for export, and they began to have more money to invest in additional plots of land.

One peasant that Nishizaki interviewed, Hendee, a staunch opponent of the redshirts, finds their rhetoric about phrai particularly offensive since he and his wife have managed to pull themselves up through their lifelong hard work. They do not see themselves as helpless, rural poor. They now straddle the divide between the lower, poverty-stricken class and the increasingly affluent middle class. The social classes into which they were born do not necessarily represent lifelong shackles.

Nishizaki concludes that his analysis reports on only two villages in a corner of one province of Rural Thailand, so his results can’t be generalized. But they are, obviously, indicative of at least some of the forces at work in the rural regions of the country. Because of the incredible variety of people and situations in Rural Thailand, the situation, he writes, “cautions us not to accept wholesale the prevailing class-based [redshirt] analysis of the movement (p. 24).”

Nishizaki, Yoshinori. 2014. “Peasants and the Redshirt Movement in Thailand: Some Dissenting Voices.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 41(1, 2): 1-28