CHIANG MAI, Thailand — For months, Thailand has grown frighteningly chaotic. The Southeast Asian nation has lacked an official parliament since December. Protesters intent on toppling the government have sabotaged elections needed to pick a new one — all while invading ministries, blockading parts of the capital and vowing to abduct the premier.
In Thailand, such mayhem historically triggers a coup. The nation has suffered 18 coups since direct rule by kings was abandoned in the 1930s. That’s nearly one every five years, more than any other Asian nation. The usual response is for the army to roll in, depose the leader and install a caretaker before holding fresh elections.
But this time is different. The army is standing back. The nation is so divided that a government takeover could spark civil war.
Most Thais dread the specter of army intervention.
But not Mahawon Kawang.
He’s an influential member of the Red Shirts, Thailand’s largest political movement.
“I want it to happen as soon as possible,” said Mahawon, a radio DJ and childhood friend of the prime minister. The plaid-and-jeans firebrand is known for his on-air screeds against coup plotters and the Thai elites. “I’m confident many feel the same.”
Why would a man who loves the premier and despises coups yearn for a new one? Because, he said, the next putsch will galvanize the masses into an armed resistance force — one that will teach Thailand’s aristocrats, generals and judges that they can no longer engineer purges of elected governments.
“This situation is swinging from a tiny string just waiting to break,” said Mahawon, 47, better known as DJ Freedom Bird. “If a civil war breaks out, Thailand will change forever.”
“Let’s just get it over with,” he said.
The Red Shirts are largely composed of rural and working classes. This voting bloc has defined Thai politics in the 21st century, and is threatening Bangkok’s centuries-deep grip on power. They have repeatedly elected populist, pro-poor leaders only to see them ousted, either by an army takeover or court-ordered terminations over corruption charges. The current crisis threatens to deal them a similar blow.
So the Red Shirts are evolving in a more formidable direction. Elements of the group are openly speaking of armed resistance and organizing followers to resist any potential coup with force.
Such bluster is cheap. Those who speak of mass resistance could be bluffing or simply overconfident. And by broadcasting plans for armed struggled, the movement wards off an army that has little appetite for a messy civil war. But talk of resistance has already gone beyond rhetoric.
In the past, the Red Shirts have proven themselves willing to open fire in their defense.
While agitating for fresh elections in the spring of 2010, the Red Shirts transformed parts of Bangkok into encampments ringed with bamboo staves and razor wire. When the army staged a nighttime raid into one of the camps, a mysterious militia repelled the army units with rifles and grenades. They killed a colonel, yanked guns out of frightened soldiers’ hands and even dismantled armed vehicles. Three soldiers were detained and stolen assault rifles were arranged in a large pile for supporters to see.
Stockpile of weapons stolen from Thai army troops during a 2010 raid against the Red Shirts, Thailand's largest political movement, which had barricaded parts of Bangkok with bamboo and barbed wire. (screengrab)
This nearly unprecedented backlash sent a message to the nation: We are capable of armed resistance.
In the eyes of Red Shirts, Thailand’s elites wield the military and courts to sabotage straight-up democracy, which favors the less-affluent masses. The Red Shirts are now determined to ensure that the next takeover will be the last.
Elements of the Red Shirts are now openly preparing for conflict — amassing recruits, securing access to weapons, readying women to run supply chains and assessing the weapons savvy of its men.
They aim to mobilize more than half a million Thais, mostly from an upcountry rice-farming heartland larger than the United Kingdom.
“We have many men who are former military draftees. They’ve completed two years of mandatory training. They can handle heavy weapons,” said Pichit Tamoon, a 44-year-old former police officer turned Red Shirt operative. He is helping oversee recruitment in Chiang Mai, the premier’s native province and a foreign backpacker hotspot.
“Really, almost anyone from the countryside who’s older than 30 can handle a rifle. We’re hunters, after all,” he said. “Most won’t carry heavy artillery. Just light weapons: sticks and knives. But in every district, we’re compiling lists of volunteers with military experience.” One of the premier’s deputy secretaries — Suphon Attawong, nickname: Rambo — has also stated 600,000 “democracy protection volunteers” will be recruited and trained by a retired general.
“I don’t want to see our country torn apart,” said Pichit, a private eye who goes by his nickname, The Sword. “But you must prepare for the worst-case scenario. This is serious preparation.”
Sealing off the north?
Fretting over civil war in Thailand was previously reserved for hyperventilating pundits. That fear has since gone mainstream. The implications are huge: Thailand is mainland Southeast Asia’s largest economy and America’s oldest Asian ally.
Thailand’s conflict is highly complex: Each side has high-minded ideologues, corrupt opportunists, wealthy financiers and shadowy armed elements. But the struggle, in general terms, is divided along region and class.
On the Red Shirt side: a politically awakened rural north and urban lower-middle class that has disrupted the status quo by electing leaders who channel more resources to the poor and to the countryside.
On the other: the Bangkok-based old guard, composed of wealthy and influential royal family devotees, the mall-going middle class and military top brass. Elections have not been kind to this small but wealthy group. They are simply outnumbered.
Both sides are now vying for control.
The Red Shirts’ favored party, Pheu Thai or “For Thais,” currently holds power. But their grip is weak. Helmed by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra — sister of the tycoon ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted by army coup in 2006 — the ruling party is besieged on multiple fronts.
The first: a self-proclaimed “people’s coup” street movement that has stormed into ministries, threatened voters during a recent election and even fought off police with bullets and grenades. They intend to totally uproot the Red Shirt-aligned Shinawatra family, a Chiang Mai-born, nouveau riche clan that has collided with old-money aristocrats in its ascent to popularity.
The utopian goal of the “people’s coup” is replacing the elected government with a non-elected council. The handpicked assembly would ostensibly purify the nation of corruption and restore elections at some undetermined future date. That would essentially void the upcountry electorate, which the faction’s followers have derided as easily bought off and too uneducated to elect proper leaders.
This elite-backed “people’s coup” movement is also cheering along corruption cases in the judiciary. Various charges threaten to impeach the premier, terminate her party or both.
But any dissolution of the elected government — via courts or the army — is regarded by many Red Shirts as a “coup,” the red line that would ignite an organized resistance.
If this happens, the Red Shirts could seal off northern Thailand and beckon the prime minister to relocate to her native Chiang Mai, said Mahawon and other Red Shirt sources. “We’ll probably have to concede Bangkok,” he said. “People in the upcountry have already come to terms with this possibility. That will be the other side’s home base.”
What could follow, he said, is a campaign to starve the capital of any rice originating in the north and all electricity from northern hydro-dams. Supporters with trucks would be deployed to block highways against any unwanted incursions.
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Thailand’s political divide also afflicts security forces. Police are generally considered Red Shirt sympathizers. Most army brass are linked to Bangkok’s old guard. What Pichit and other senior Red Shirts envision is a fight between the military and a Red Shirt-aligned force of cops, army defectors and civilian recruits.
Though he did not admit to stockpiling arms, a serious crime in Thailand, Pichit said weapons would be easy to secure. Each police station, he said, stocks “heavy weapons” — a cache that includes US-made M-16s and Heckler & Koch assault rifles.
“The police will cooperate. Just imagine 2,000 Red Shirts surrounding each police station saying, ‘Brothers, can we borrow your guns?’” he said. “If civil war comes, the police will be crucial. They have heavy weapons, body armor and even armored vehicles.”
“Divide like the Koreas”
Talk of sealing off chunks of Thailand with armed militias evokes separatism, a crime potentially punishable by life in prison.
The Red Shirts’ core leadership has repeatedly rebuked accusations that they seek to split the country. Red Shirts who promote permanent separatism are a tiny minority “who let their bitterness get the best of them,” according to Mahawon. The movement regards itself as protectors of Thailand’s democratic system, and any coup plotters as aggressors. In their view, a division between Bangkok and the north would be a temporary evil needed to overcome these aggressors and restore elected governance.
The central leadership has also previously vowed to refrain from assembling armed units — a statement that appears to contradict ongoing recruitment drives as well as GlobalPost investigations.
Still, even rhetoric from top Red Shirt leaders hints at a dark reckoning.
The movement’s new leader, Jatuporn Prompan, who took control last weekend, has said that he doesn’t want to “see the current political situation become like Rwanda or Cambodia” and proclaimed that “if our patience runs out and we cannot tolerate this, we must fight and the situation will take a new twist. The world will remember our battle.”
The Red Shirt leader and former parliamentarian has also warned that, if the government is thrown out, “it is possible there could be chaos which could lead to civil war,” according to the Bangkok Post newspaper. Jatuporn said he’s tried to convince Red Shirt elements favoring violence to “come back to our train of thought, which focuses on peaceful means.”
But Jatuporn’s ascent to leadership suggests war footing. The feisty former parliamentarian still faces charges of “terrorism” from raucous Red Shirt rallies in Bangkok four years ago. He is openly despised by Thailand’s army chief, who calls Jatuporn a “bandit” and warns that Red Shirt hostility toward the military will be met with aggression.
Yingluck, whose public statements are typically vanilla and vague, recently stated that Thai politics has descended into a lawless “vicious cycle.” If her opponents “keep hunting us down until we have no space to stand, then those who are bullied will fight back,” she said.
“We cannot deny our close relations with the Red Shirts,” said Suranand Vejjajiva, the prime minister’s secretary general and close confidante. “They’ve been fighting hard for democracy and they’ve suffered a lot.”
“There are elements that would like to use force” within the Red Shirts, Suranand said, but the premier is unable to control them. “We’re worried about what will happen if there’s a coup.”
The Red Shirts have no desire to wrench off the upcountry into a new state, said Singkham Nanthi, one of the movement’s original crop of members. The 52-year-old runs a Chiang Mai cooperative of roving truck taxis with red paint jobs — the original inspiration, he said, for the movement’s signature color.
But a struggle to end “feudal system, a hierarchy with us at the bottom,” he said, could have unintended consequences.
If Thailand is split, it won’t be the doing of any self-identified separatist campaign. There is no “blueprint,” he said. “No one will make the decision per se. The country will just divide automatically,” Singkham said. “The country could split like North Korea and South Korea.”
“If I run my mouth too much, I’ll sound like a braggart. If I say we have fighters and recruitment teams, my words will be used against me. But trust that we’re prepared,” Singkham said. He has previously aided Red Shirts’ logistical planning and offers up his fleet of 2,500 trucks fleet to aid future resistance campaigns.
“We’ve had too many coups and power seizures. We’re sick of it,” he said. “High society can’t fight us face to face. They’re afraid to get hit. They’ll dissolve and run away.”
Moment of truth
Whether Red Shirt-aligned forces truly have the heart and resources for all-out conflict is difficult to determine. Part of their calculus assumes Thailand’s high society is effete, terrified of physical harm and likely to flee the country en masse.
Another crucial factor: defecting soldiers. Thailand’s military fills its ranks with conscripts, many hailing from the regions prone to Red Shirt sympathy. Senior Red Shirt operatives privately contend that, if civil war comes, certain high-ranking military leaders would defect and bring their subordinates with them.
When the Red Shirts repelled army units in 2010, their resistance did not last. Red Shirt camps were soon crushed by the army in a live-fire crackdown that left more than 90 dead and Bangkok neighborhoods in flames. “We learned our lesson,” said Pichit, the Red Shirt recruitment operative. The rank-and-file supporters were unarmed, he said. “What happened? Deaths. Injuries. Now we know better.”
The Red Shirt network is also decentralized and prone to rifts. Some are highly allegiant to the wealthy Shinawatra clan. Others are more compelled by an ideological mission to upend a social hierarchy entrenched for centuries. Some sects may opt to fight while others shrink from combat. It is also difficult to imagine everyday Red Shirt recruits — 7-Eleven clerks, car repairmen, farmers and so on — having the stomach for sustained, bloody warfare.
This potential clash is still reversible, Pichit said. If elected governments are allowed to complete their terms without military or judicial disruption, he said, resistance plans will never leave the drawing board. “It’s depressing to talk this way. I don’t want to see our country torn apart,” he said. “We’re telling the elites, ‘Can’t you pull back? Can’t we start over?’”
But Thailand’s reputation for smiles and serenity should not lull the world into believing this tropical nation cannot spiral towards civil war, said Sriwan Chunpong, 48, a senior member of the Red Shirts’ Chiang Mai division.
“Look at the Middle East. China. Russia. America. It’s happened in places all over the world,” he said. “It can happen here too.”