Published online by Cambridge University Press: 21 October 2015
On 19 May 2010, beginning at about four o'clock in the morning (I know the time because I was already on-line watching the tweets), Thai military forces began to position themselves around the Ratchaprasong/ Lumphini/Silom area of central Bangkok, where protestors known as the “Red Shirts” had been rallying since 3 April. As the troops tightened the noose, the leaders of the protestors — who now numbered about 3,000 — decided to surrender in order to limit the loss of lives that they realized would happen. Many of the women and children at the protest site had taken refuge in nearby Wat Pathumwanaram. Six people, including a nurse, were shot at the temple. With these deaths, the total number of those killed in the conflict between 10 April and 19 May was officially pegged at eighty-seven. Of these, eleven were soldiers, and the others were civilians.2 The total number injured was at least 1,800, the majority of them civilians.
After the military moved to end the protest rally, a number of hardcore followers of the Red Shirts, clearly following advance planning, set fire to buildings in the central business district, with the greatest destruction being at the Central World Plaza of Bangkok, the second largest shopping mall in Southeast Asia. Moreover, Red Shirts mobilized followers up-country to attack and burn provincial office buildings in Udon Thani, Khon Kaen, Mukdahan, and Ubon Ratchathani in northeastern Thailand, from which many of the followers of the Red Shirts come. The toll of dead and injured and the destruction of buildings made this the worst civil violence in Thailand's history.
What I wish to do here is first to talk about who the Red Shirt supporters were (and are) and then to discuss the implications of this intense civil conflict. It is my contention that the strong support for the Red Shirts from among those living in and originating from rural northeastern Thailand is indicative of deep division of Thai society that cannot be overcome by the prosecution of the Red Shirt leaders or government “development” programmes that perpetuate the traditional hierarchical relationship between officials and subjects. Northeastern families today have become increasingly “cosmopolitan” because they are linked to a global labour force, have sophisticated understandings of Bangkok society, and yet still retain long-standing resentment for being looked down on as country bumpkins.