“When love and trust are lost” : heart-to-heart talks with 3 red-turned-orange aunties

Story by Sicha Rungrojtanakul
Photo by Kotcharak Kaewsurach

Cover illustration by Kittiya On-in

Summary box

  • “Red Turning Orange” refers to former the ‘Red Shirt’ supporters of Pheu Thai Party who left to join with the Future Forward and Move Forward Parties, both of which used the colour orange for campaign purposes.
  • The shift is clearly reflected in the results of the 2023 election. Provinces that once were Pheu Thai strongholds are no longer. Move Forward won in every district in Nonthaburi and all but one district in Pathumthani. Even in Chiang Mai, the home of Pheu Thai leader and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Move Forward won in 7 out of 19 districts.
  • In commemoration of the 17th anniversary of the 2006 coup, we interviewed three Red Shirt women who have been regular protest and Pheu Thai supporters about why they are now voting Move Forward.

It happened on Clubhouse

“Back then, Prime Minister Thaksin used to post on Clubhouse. I really loved him. In 2018, when he returned, I went to see him whenever he spoke and had my picture taken with him 10 times.  But once on Clubhouse, he posted that (Section) 112 wasn’t a problem. I disagreed. I only completed Grade 4, but I had to disagree with him. Why is 112 a problem? How many kids have had to flee overseas? You might ask whether the number of political refugees has reached 100 or not – but for me, it is still a problem if there are only just 1 or 2,” said Napatsorn “Auntie Nok” Boonree.

The 61-year-old former jeweller once participated in the Red Shirt protests and is now a regular at the youth-led pro-democracy protests that began in 2020. A “red turned orange,” she told Prachatai that she switched to Move Forward Party (MFP) because of their plans to improve the country’s infrastructure and amend the royal defamation law, or Section 112 of the Thai Criminal Code.

Napatsorn Boonree

“Some policies are hard for young people to follow. They are fighting for change but are still forced to stay on their knees … really,” Napatsorn said.

Although Pheu Thai announced they will not amend Section 112, Napatsorn believes the law is problematic because it can be used to attack those with different political views. She thinks that, at the very least, the penalties should be reduced to fit with the crime and a stipulation should be added to only allow the Bureau of the Royal Household to press charges.

Napatsorn also liked MFP’s plan to end mandatory military service. She has nephews and grandsons, she said, and thinks it’s better for enlistment to be voluntary, noting that many men have sick family members to care for and would collapse at the conscription lottery upon learning that they have to serve in the military.

“It’s better to make it voluntary. Give them a high salary, lots of welfare, then they’ll want to [enlist],” Napatsorn said.

During our conversation, Napatsorn showed us her United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) “VIP Card”, which previously allowed her backstage at UDD events to mingle with UDD leaders, some of whom are also in the Pheu Thai leadership.

Napatsorn’s Red Shirt identity cards - a VIP Card, a UDD Card and a Red Shirt PTV station member card.

“Most people think that the Red Shirts belonged to Pheu Thai, that the party owned us, but actually, that’s not true,” she said.

Napatsorn calls herself a “Thaksin Red.” She has always been a member of political parties in the Thaksin network: Thai Rak Thai, Palang Prachachon and Pheu Thai. Whenever she was free from work, she often participated in their political activities doing her part to push for beneficial changes in society.

Why? “Because over my many years of life, I’d never met a Prime Minister that is as good as Thaksin,” she said.

As a Red Shirt, Napatsorn joined the protests because she saw that Thaksin was not treated justly. Here was a Prime Minister whose policies benefited poor people and who won elections, but he was overthrown and prosecuted by the leaders of a military coup.

In 2018, the Future Forward Party (FFP) was founded under the leadership of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. Napatsorn’s younger co-workers went to listen to his speeches. Their stories convinced her to go as well and she became a fan.

But FFP met the same fate as Thaksin’s popular parties; a Constitutional Court ruling in a case against Thanathorn was used as a pretext to dissolve it. Then, when MFP won the 2023 general election, conservatives came out to block the party from heading a new government and its former leader Pita Limjaroenrat from becoming Prime Minister. For Napatsorn, it was the same story all over again.

“What happened to Pita is no different than what Pheu Thai faced, or what happened to Thanathorn,” she said.

Napatsorn (right) during the 16 July 2023 protest;
Her sign says, “Senators, MPs, Election committee – don’t destroy the feelings of 14 million people who voted for MFP” (Photo by Zee Faozee)

Deciding who to vote for in the 2023 election, Napatsorn admitted that, although her heart was settled on MFP, she still thought about voting Pheu Thai in the hope that a landslide victory for the party would drive the junta leaders from power.

“I also loved PM Thaksin, but I had been to the young people’s demonstrations.  My eyes and ears were already wide open … we have to walk forward, not backwards,” she said.

This past August, when news spread that Thaksin would be returning to Thailand, Napatsorn posted a picture on Facebook of her and her Red Shirts friends in March 2008 holding a sign saying how happy they were that the day they’d been waiting for for 15 years had finally arrived. This time, however, she told Prachatai she had no plan of meeting him at the airport.

Napatsorn and Thaksin Shinawatra (Photo supplied by Napatsorn Boonree)

“People can change their minds. When Pheu Thai announced that it was inviting the parties of junta leaders to join the government, my Red Shirt friends couldn’t take it. They resigned from the party and threw their memorabilia away,” Napatsorn said.

“They might need to improve themselves, no? … to think about why people who once supported Thaksin so much would throw away all of their collections.”

Napatsorn joined a protest caravan heading to the Pheu Thai party headquarters on 2 August 2023. Her sign says, “don’t go back on your word.”

No trust left; the anger of those who once forgave

“I’m not okay with how they tricked people like this. I’m not okay… I’m hurt that the party we gave our hearts to … we once thought they followed democratic principles, but no. If they were straightforward and clear during their campaign that they were going to band together with those people, voters would have decided not to elect them … once you have lost the people’s trust, you can’t just get it back.  There is no reserve supply.  When it’s gone, it’s gone,” shouted a Red Shirt supporter standing in front of the Pheu Thai Party, after it was reported that Pheu Thai was forming a coalition with Bhumjaithai, Palang Pracharat, and United Thai Nation – parties led by junta members that supported the government of Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha. MFP was not invited to join the coalition, which later named Srettha Thavisin Prime Minister.

The same woman was filmed in early July 2023 throwing Red Shirt paraphernalia on the ground in front of the Lancaster Hotel. The incident took place after a press conference where Pheu Thai and MFP announced that Prachachart Party leader Wan Muhamad Noor Matha would be named House Speaker. The fight between Pheu Thai and MFP for the position triggered criticism of the Pheu Thai leadership, prompting some Pheu Thai supporters to burn their red shirts and throw away their party membership cards.

Ladda Chamchai

Insults from other Pheu Thai supporters is what Ladda Chamchai, a 55-year-old bag factory owner, received for throwing away her party memorabilia, which included a t-shirt from the “Truth Today” TV show, a photo of Thaksin, and a book written by Yingluck.

“They insulted me, saying who the hell are you? Are you really a Red Shirt? How could you do that? How could you slander Prime Minister Thaksin?” she recalled.

Red Shirt collectibles:  “foot slappers” for applauding speeches; ceramic cups printed with pictures of Thaksin and Yingluck; party papers and magazines; and even energy drinks.

Ladda described herself as a “Red UDD” that came out to fight against dictatorship. She participated in almost all of the Red Shirt protests, including some held in foreign countries, like the friendly Red Shirt football match against a Cambodian team in Phnom Penh.

Her voice shook when she talked about the brutal suppression of Red Shirt protests in May 2010.

“Whenever the “Fighters to the end” (nak suu thulii din) song played, it meant that someone had died. Every time the song played, another death.  We would stand there silently. The day ‘Se Daeng’ (Major General Khattiya Sawasdipol) was shot, the song played about 5 times – they want people to forget … but those who were there are unable to forget,” she said.

Ladda at a protest with a “foot slapper” in her hand

Now, Ladda questions Pheu Thai’s stance towards the justice system and the provision of help to victims of the 2010 massacre.  She notes the blanket amnesty bill and the government’s unwillingness to permit the International Criminal Court (ICC) jurisdiction to consider the Abhisit government’s  suppression of the Red Shirt protests.

Although she voted for Pheu Thai many times, Ladda believes that the party was wrong not to do something in response, to make sure that protests could not be suppressed in the future.

“I’m not attached to individuals, not attached to political parties. Whenever a party violates its principles, whenever it doesn’t work to protect the people’s benefits, I won’t support it. In the past I was a little crazy, loving some individuals so much that I refused to listen to any criticism, no matter how reasonable. Now it’s not like that,” she said.

Despite voting for Pheu Thai in the 2019 election, Ladda voted Move Forward in the  2023 election, as Pheu Thai had no clear stance on the formation of coalition government with parties led by the military “uncles” of the previous regime. Announcements were made near the end of the campaign, but she didn’t believe them. In contrast, MFP was clear from the start; “if the uncles are in, we’re out.”

“No one person can destroy a political party. Parties destroy themselves by not adhering to their principles, their ideologies, their own words and speeches,” Ladda said.

For Ladda, collaborating with the 2 military parties and ‘creating harmony by ending coloured shirts’ doesn’t sound valid. She thinks that the colour conflict has already disappeared because the pro-democratic parties won a landslide. The new public consensus is to end a succession of dictatorships, and “harmonise” by letting political refugees return under an amnesty law.

She added that from now on the path to democracy will not be easy, “because they’ve already cashed democracy in for their personal benefit.”

Red-orange, a coming together

“When I joined the Red Shirts, there was a group of law professors known as the Khana Nitirat. I went to their seminars – I went every time and learned a lot. At the time, I wished that these academics would become MPs and make straightforward speeches about laws in parliament so that people could easily understand them. Later Ajarn Piyabutr [Saengkanokkul] founded Future Forward Party. I read about their policies and felt hopeful…so I turned to Future Forward,” said Arpornrat Boonchai, a Red Shirt protester from Pathum Thani, who said she decided to vote MFP because she liked how they have been strong in their stance from the beginning.

Arpornrat Boonchai with her foot slapper

She believes that the Red Shirts and Orange Shirts share common concerns and that there is nothing strange about changing parties when new choices come along, provided they are still in the democratic spectrum.

She acknowledges that the Red Shirts are generally understood to have been supporters of former PM Thaksin and the Pheu Thai Party, but notes that the ‘Reds’ were never completely united and feels that those changing parties should not be called fakes.

Arpornrat Boonchai with Thanathorn Juangroonruangkit, leader of the now-dissolved FFP
(Photo supplied by Arpornrat Boonchai)

“They claim that the Oranges are the ones saying it, but it’s been like that ever since Ratchaprasong, ever since we started commemorating the April-May 2010 clashes. The Red Shirts started saying it ourselves, that we “fight and grovel at the same time,” that “one bastard orders the killing and another orders the shooting.” It’s been like this since Red Shirt times,  before Orange fandom.  There were many Red Shirt factions, and some also insulted Thaksin,” she said.

Arpornrat calls herself an “independent Red” who had nothing to gain from going to protests and was acting on her own accord. She said that, if the Move Forward party does something wrong one day or go back on their promises, she will no longer support them.

“I was quite angry. I’m a Red Shirt. I joined by myself. No one forced me. I didn’t apply for the sake of a particular person. I went by myself. I saw injustice, I wanted to fight against unfairness, so I went to fight. I don’t have to quit, I can still be a Red,” she said.

Arpornrat with then-MFP leader Pita Limjaroenrat
(Photo supplied by Arpornrat Boonchai)

During the Ratchaprasong protests in 2010, she went alone and often stayed near the smaller stages. She did not care where she was in the protests, as long as she got to go. Later, she started to make friends.

After the Red Shirts were suppressed, the atmosphere was full of fear. She continued to participate in red cloth ceremonies led by Sombat Boonngamanong, also known as Bor Kor Lai Choot, one of the leaders who wished to create an atmosphere of hope.

“We staged commemorations every 10 April and 19 May. We made plans to take care of people coming from other provinces, from the Northeast – we looked after them and prepared food for them,” she said.

She talked about her role on the support team, something she did for many years.  Now, however, she feels the fight has been passed on to the younger generation, now leading their pro-democracy protests.

Since 2007, Prachatai English has been covering underreported issues in Thailand, especially about democratization and human rights, despite the risk and pressure from the law and the authorities. However, with only 2 full-time reporters and increasing annual operating costs, keeping our work going is a challenge. Your support will ensure we stay a professional media source and be able to expand our team to meet the challenges and deliver timely and in-depth reporting.

• Simple steps to support Prachatai English

1. Bank transfer to account “โครงการหนังสือพิมพ์อินเทอร์เน็ต ประชาไท” or “Prachatai Online Newspaper” 091-0-21689-4, Krungthai Bank

2. Or, Transfer money via Paypal, to e-mail address: [email protected], please leave a comment on the transaction as “For Prachatai English”