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Tailandia, le camicie rosse promettono di dar battaglia

Dal Guardian dell’8.7.2010:

Thailand’s redshirts pledge to fight on

• Rebel movement goes underground in Chiang Mai
• Political activists in hiding as police search continues

Redshirts in Bagkok A monks leads prayers with redshirt protesters in Bangkok during the anti-government protests in May this year. Photograph: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

In the near-empty Red Coffee Corner cafe, in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, the portraits of four men have pride of place above the front window: Che Guevara, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Thaksin Shinawatra.

Beneath the picture of the exiled billionaire former prime minister – ousted in a coup, convicted of corruption but still a hero to millions – Jakrapon Botirak was holding court, discussing the future of Thailand and its fractious politics.

“This [cafe] is not a good business,” he said. “It loses a lot of money. But it is important that people have a place where they can come to talk about our country freely. This is a place for that.”

Thailand’s north, populated largely by small-scale farmers and shop owners – the country’s “rural poor” – is known as the redshirt heartland. It is from here that the anti-government movement, whose protesters occupied the streets of Bangkok for more than two months, drew its numerical strength and where it remains strongest.

On Tuesday the government signalled that the movement was still a threat, as it extended a state of emergency for another three months in about a third of the country, including the areas around Chiang Mai.

“The people here are still red,” Jakrapon said. “Not on the surface, [there are] no more shirts, but they still have the red feeling, they still oppose the government.”

Since the violent crackdown by government troops in May that ended the redshirts’ protest on the streets of the capital, the movement, once proudly public, has been forced underground. Few supporters are now willing to identify themselves or talk openly about the cause. Redshirt stickers and flags, once ubiquitous across this part of Thailand, are a scarcity now.

All that remain are anonymous, vague threats of “guerrilla warfare”, and “uprising against the government”, all without detail or timetable.

Police are still actively searching for known political activists in Chiang Mai. There is, reportedly, a list several dozen names long, but most of the people are in hiding. The Red Radio station, where Jakrapon was a DJ, has been raided several times and its broadcasting equipment confiscated under Thailand’s emergency decree law. Jakrapon’s coffee shop is one of the few places in the town that remains defiantly red.

But beneath their seeming acquiescence to the government’s reasserted authority, people in Chiang Mai are still enraged, according to Jakrapon. “People are still very angry with the government. The government did not choose the smooth way to end the protests, by talking. They chose the violent way, by shooting.”

Fourteen people were killed as troops marched on the reds’ protest camp in central Bangkok on 19 May, bringing to at least 88 the number of people who died in the political violence over 68 days of protests.

But the forcible end to the protest has not dissolved the disaffection felt by many Thais towards their government.

“People are ready to fight again, they are not afraid. This is only a rest, a break,” Jakrapon said.

Despite the portrait overhead, Jakrapon said the redshirt movement had moved beyond its former figurehead, the fugitive Thaksin. “Thaksin has no special rights or power. The reds are about democracy now.”

This is debatable. Thaksin’s foreign billions bankrolled much of the long-running demonstration, and opinion persists at senior diplomatic levels that it was his refusal to negotiate with the government that led to the demonstration’s final bloody end.

But the redshirts in Chiang Mai say they oppose the government led by Abhisit Vejjajiva because it was never popularly elected. They say it is a puppet administration for the interests of the wealthy elite and the military figures of Bangkok. And, regardless of motivation, in that distant capital it is recognised that while the protest might have been crushed, the discontent that drove it remains.

“Things have calmed down,” said Bangkok’s governor, Sukhumband Paribatra. “But I am of the opinion that things are not back to normal yet. It may be just an interlude, I hope I’m wrong, but I think it is a possibility that this is a quiet interlude between two crises. This is why I’m very worried.”

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Chulalongkorn University, in Bangkok, said the government faced a difficult task trying to reconcile Thailand’s yawning political divide. “The early signs aren’t good. There’s vindictiveness in the air.”

Tawangwong Yoduppatham runs a tiny shop on the northern outskirts of Chiang Mai. He went by train to Bangkok four times to join the protests and was behind the reds’ tyre-and-bamboo barricades when the troops advanced. “The soldiers, they shoot at everybody, even people who are peaceful. I saw people killed. We run, we have to leave, but we leave more angry at the government.”

He is cynical about government talk of an early election, a “circuit breaker” on the political impasse gripping Thailand. Tawangwong believes that even when the parliamentary term expires at the end of next year there will not be elections. “Nobody here trusts the government. They say one thing and do another. They lie to us.”

He added that the sense of peacefulness in Thailand’s north belied the people’s anger. But with the redshirt leadership in hiding or in prison on terrorism charges, there is a vacuum at the head of the anti-government movement.

“There are two groups of people, some who want more protests for the world to see, and other people who want to go underground, to do violence against the government. But for now, the people are just waiting for new leaders to come up. For sure, the grassroots people are all ready to fight.”


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