In the Los Angeles suburb of Bellflower, “red shirt” members frequently gather to organize political activities to promote democracy millions of miles away in Thailand.
Their political nemeses, the “yellow shirts,” are also hard at work in the Hollywood neighborhood — finding ways to attack the red shirt movement.
With the United States hosting the largest number of Thai immigrants — about 250,000 (including 100,000 living in Los Angeles), Thailand’s color-coded politics seems to have landed on American shores. Both camps use their influence to lobby the U.S. government.
When the Obama administration suspended financial support to the Thai Army because of the coup, the yellow shirt-owned media in Los Angeles condemned it for meddling in Thai affairs.
Red shirts, meanwhile, wrote letters to U.S. congressmen, explaining the grave situation and requesting that the U.S. pressure the Thai military to return power to the people.
Color-coded politics has led to a deep polarization and, because of the large presence of Thai immigrants, is no longer confined within Thai borders.
When former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was scheduled to speak before red shirts at Thailand Plaza on Hollywood Boulevard in August 2012, the event was canceled at the last minute because of a massive protest by around 2,000 yellow shirts. His appearance in Los Angeles almost led to violent confrontations between the two sides.
The yellow shirts depend on their closely knit and powerful networks in Los Angeles. Some own influential Thai newspapers in California such as Siamtown U.S. and the Asian Pacific News —mouthpieces in attacking Thaksin and the red shirts.
For their part, the red shirts rely on cross-country networks, including those in Chicago and New York, in pursuing political activities. Their largest network, called Red USA, is based in Los Angeles; it is also the most active movement of its type outside of Thailand.
In the United Kingdom, a few hyper-royalist yellow shirts threatened to harm self-proclaimed anti-monarchist Chatwadee “Rose” Amornpat, a Thai-born British national for her blasphemy against the king. They turned up at Rose’s old house and created a nuisance in the neighborhood.
In Australia, yellow shirts ban red shirts from entering Thai Town in Sydney on the threat of violence. Some yellow shirts throw feces at restaurants owned by red shirts for their apparent support of Thaksin.
Thailand’s red shirt movement formed in the wake of the 2006 coup that overthrew Thaksin’s elected government. Most of its members come from the country’s poorest north and northeast regions, which are strongholds of the former premier.
After long years of being politically marginalized, the red shirts have in past decades demanded fairer access to political and economic power. Their dream materialized through Thaksin’s populist policies. Once irrelevant regions became political power bases.
But the rise of regionalism posed a serious threat to the old elites dominating Thai politics. Pro-elite groups chose to wear yellow shirts — the color symbolizing King Bhumibol Adulyadej — in their move to topple Thaksin.
The exploitation of royal symbolism without opposition from the palace indicated royal endorsement of the coup when it came in 2006.
The coup subsequently gave birth to the unique color-coded politics between yellow shirts now representing the interest of the traditional elites, including that of the monarchy, and the red shirts who push for greater democratization.
With the recent establishment of the anti-coup Organization of Free Thais for Human Rights and Democracy (FT-HD), reportedly headquartered in California, the U.S. is expected once again to provide a contentious platform in which both red and yellow shirts vie to have their political ideology prevail.
FT-HD secretary general Jarupong Ruengsuwan, former leader of the ruling Thaksin-backed Pheu Thai Party, said that to restore democracy in Thailand, the FT-HD is now working with its supporters around the world — mostly red shirts in Europe, Australia and Japan.
The U.S. still serves as its primary outpost because any perceived U.S. endorsement of the organization is automatically viewed as a blow against the legitimacy of the junta in Bangkok.
Reportedly the red shirts in Germany and Japan have talked about setting up FT-HD branches. The immediate plan is to increase the FT-HD’s global presence and to campaign for stronger international sanctions against the junta.
In a broader context, the moves by red shirts overseas could be seen partly as yet another realization of Thaksin’s ambition to take revenge against political opponents. But it is wrong to simply assume that the red shirts’ political initiatives are strictly to serve Thaksin.
Some red shirts have a genuine pro-democracy agenda, supporting the FT-HD in its effort to diminish the domination of power by the old elites.
Time appears to be on their side in view of the waves of democracy that have swept across the Southeast Asian region. Their political push could prove fruitful, considering that political protest in Thailand is now illegal.
Some yellow shirts continue to discredit the FT-HD, labeling it a mere puppet organization funded by Thaksin.
In tandem, the junta has pressed charges against some members of FT-HD, such as Jakrapob Penkair for his alleged involvement in the arms trade and the crime of lèse-majesté (causing injury to the dignity of the Thai monarchy). Jakrapob had been in self-exile in Cambodia since 2009 until recently, when he appeared in Hong Kong to launch the FT-HD there.
In addition, the junta has sought cooperation from foreign governments in extraditing FT-HD members to Thailand. But this effort is likely to prove futile because of the political nature of the extradition cases.
Relentless conflict between the two colors could negatively affect Thailand’s international standing. Absurd, and even illegal, behavior by some yellow shirts overseas has not only caused embarrassment to Thailand but also put themselves in trouble with locals.
On the other hand, the red shirt international networks still have a long way to go before their campaign makes a real change in Thailand.
In this area, members of the international community can assist in strengthening Thai democratization efforts by choosing to work with pro-democratic forces at the expense of those undermining democracy.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, is among the Thai academics summoned by authorities to return to Thailand. A Thai arrest warrant has been issued against him for speaking against the Thai coup.