INTERVIEW-Thai activist leader wants "red shirts" revamp

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 3 Dec 2010 11:15 GMT
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*New leader says immediate goal is to get detainees released

*Aiming for long-term struggle, engagement with government

*Says red shirts are not Thaksin's lackeys

By Ambika Ahuja and Chalathip Thirasoonthrakul

BANGKOK, Dec 3 (Reuters) - The new leader of Thailand's anti-government "red shirts" plans to unify the fractious movement and shed its violent image as it gears up for what she says is a protracted but peaceful democratic struggle.

Thida Thavornseth, the wife of a detained red shirt leader, Weng Tojirakarn, was recently named acting chairwoman of the red shirts, formed after the 2006 military coup that toppled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who won two election landslides with massive support from the rural poor.

The former microbiology lecturer and student activist said she would push for the release of detained protesters and halt the fragmentation of the movement that has sparked concern about the emergence of radicals with militant agendas.

"Nothing is more dangerous than having lots of angry oppressed people go separate ways, fighting their own fights," Thida told Reuters in an interview at a maximum-security prison holding her husband, who is among scores held since a deadly crackdown crushed their 10-week protest in May.

Clashes between protesters and troops killed 91 people and wounded more than 1,800, mostly protesters, marking the country's worst political violence in modern history.

"I see my role as someone who will raise the quality of national debate and instil discipline into a movement because we are going to be here for a long time," she added.

"If someone is hoping for quick, immediate revolution, they are going to be disappointed."

By seeking to engage with the government towards freeing the group's leaders, a fresh confrontation is unlikely.

"But we'll have to see if she, as a academic, could really hold the attention of a large and diverse group for long," said Thammasat University law professor, Prinya Thaewanarumitkul.

Despite her activist background, Thida has one problem: she has never addressed a demonstration in her life.

"I never wanted any big stage and microphones," she said. "I have no choice but to make lots of speeches now. But if that means a peaceful change, then I will do it."

POLITICISED BY VIOLENCE

Thida steered clear of politics until after 1973, when a student-led protest was brutally quelled by the security forces. Another violent crackdown in 1976 saw her flee into the mountains to join the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT).

"I saw a student shot in front of my very eyes," she said. "The shock of it...It was hard to turn back after that."

Those seven years in the jungle with the CPT taught her discipline, which she plans to use to work on the weaknesses that have plagued the "red shirt" movement, officially known as the United Front for democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD).

"Because we are a democratic movement, it's hard to maintain one clear image. There are lots of people and lots of opinions. I like diverse opinions and views but in terms of action, we have to be clear and firm," she said.

Thida said the UDD was maligned and dismissed as "violent fools from the provinces" who were manipulated by the self-exiled Thaksin to bring down the government and allow him to return home without having to serve his two-year jail term for graft.

She is eager to prove the UDD's critics wrong and previously set up a mobile "red shirt school" to teach democracy, rights, communal participation, plus a heavy dose of class war rhetoric of "serf" versus "aristocrats".

"I want these people who have been derided as Thaksin's cows and buffalos to become eloquent in politics, to have theoretical groundings since they already know from their daily life what oppression is about," she said. "We have to be more disciplined.

Once a critic of Thaksin, she said the view that the red shirts were simply his followers was too narrow.

"We are against the idea of toppling an elected figure, no matter what the reason is. People voted for him. Let people decide what they want."

(Editing by Martin Petty and Miral Fahmy)