Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Remembrance and Tragedy: Understanding Thailand's "Red Shirt" Social Movement

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

Remembrance and Tragedy: Understanding Thailand's "Red Shirt" Social Movement

Article excerpt

The starting point for considering the rise of the so-called "Red Shirts" (2) movement is to be found in the consequences of the 19 September 2006 coup d'etat in Thailand, supported by conservative elements within civil society, ruling elites, and the military. This subsequently led to a serious crisis of moral legitimacy for the palace and those interests (including the army) acting in the name of the monarch against the collective aspirations of the masses. The blood that spilled on the streets of Bangkok more than three years later in 2010 subsequently left the majority of people trying to make sense of the past six decades of elite dominance masked in the shadow-play of parliamentary "democracy". This condition of "unseen forces" within the state (imperium in imperio) but acting outside elected government is the real hand of power in Thailand today, and in events following the 2006 coup had exposed itself to the masses coming out from the shadows of the state.

This article, based on ethnographic research conducted in 2007-11 among Red Shirts, is a reflection on memory of these events. The discussion provides a glance back at modern history and served as a means used by informants to reinvent the lived present as a regime of images which, as Jackson (2004, p. 220) notes, demarcates what is best left unsaid and what is regarded as "common" knowledge. The article argues that the narration of certain events such as the massacre of citizens in April/May 2010 are controlled and regulated discursively through a hegemonic force which exists beyond the state. How will the tragedy of April/May 2010 be narrated in elite-controlled standard histories is debatable--as memory of the past, conscious or unconscious, is conditioned by the experience of the present. But there will be little forgetting among the masses who are now acutely aware of their own destiny.

There are multiple ways in which these narratives of suffering have unfolded in recent times, but the most disconcerting relate to the institution of network monarchy (McCargo 2005) and the so-called "unseen hands" which ignored its sacral duty of citizen "protection". Indeed, emanating outwards from the summit are replicated polycentric patronages where privilege and self-interest prevail. Informants recounted tales of personal loss or the disappearance of kin, and the many people (still, at the time of writing, August 2011) incarcerated under fuzzy, trumped-up charges, or held without the recourse to due legal process. There were also stories of continuing state violence and intimidation since 2008, leading up to the state election held on 3 July 2011.

Protests, Melancholia, and "Sites of Memory"

The Red Shirt protests in Bangkok and their urban sites or stages, including the massacres in early 2010, will be erased in formal historical narratives, just as the streets and walls were washed clean along with any evidence of state brutality less than a few days after the massacre. But to the people, these protest sites such as Bangkok's Rachprasong Intersection, or inside the supposed sanctity of Wat Pathum'wanaram where six protestors were shot by army snipers, will be retained as specific sites of memory (lieux de memoire; Nora 1989; Morley and Robins 1996) (3), as a loci of remembrance for the new democracy movement. As Lefebvre (2004, p. 51) asked: "are there not alternatives to memory and forgetting: periods where the past returns--and periods where the past effaces itself?" This alternative he conjectures would be as a "rhythm of history", an everyday poetics of movement that is linked to the inscription of place (Lefebvre 2004, p. 89).

In Thai society, it is the memory-nation that is important; the reliance on national narratives of history to ensure a sense of continuity in the imaginative ethno-symbolic construct of "Thainess". The cultural notion of Thainess is constructed by elites around hegemonic projects of nation building and localization (Connors 2005; Thongchai 1994; Morris 2002; Taylor 2008). …

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