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Red Shirts muzzled as army heads to villages

Arnon Sannan is still on the junta's watch list. Photo by Marwaan Macan-Markar.

UDON THANI, Thailand -- An 80-meter tall radio tower rises out of a shrub forest on the edge of Udon Thani, a city in northeast Thailand. It is all that Arnon Sannan, a local, has to show for his previous life as the voice of a community radio station he ran out of a two-room studio at the foot of the tower.

     The military regime that grabbed power last May delivered the coup de grace on the 40-year-old's station after troops stormed it on the night of the putsch. They confiscated his equipment and detained him for seven days in a nearby army camp. "I was released on three conditions: no political activity, no media activity and I need[ed] the military's permission to travel outside the province," he recalled.

     Arnon's fate is one shared by other community radio operators across Isaan, as this northeastern rice belt is known. They were obvious targets for their political color -- they are all members of the so-called Red Shirts, a strong grassroots movement that was allied to the elected government that the generals ousted last year. 

     It does not surprise Arnon that the junta is yanking their stations off the air. They gave voice to the pre-coup political order that drew support from over 16,000 self-proclaimed "Red Shirt Villages" in Isaan.

     A year after the coup, muzzling these radio stations has become one measure of the junta's success in silencing the Red Shirts. The fate of Red Shirt Villages offers another gauge. Today, these once politically active communities have shed all visible symbols that marked them out -- including banners with images of the Shinawatras, Thailand's most influential political clan, who founded political parties that have won all general elections since 2001, lately with the support of the Red Shirts.

     "The communities had no choice but to remove all the signs after the military moved in," said an Isaan parliamentarian of the ousted government.

Triple whammy

The military accomplished this purge through a three-pronged strategy. The first was to detain Red Shirt leaders for a brief spell at camps in the region, releasing them only after extracting signed pledges of silence. Following that, the military's Internal Security Operations Command conducted two waves of thinly disguised brainwashing in Red Shirt Villages. The security operations unit initially ran "reconciliation centers" to restore "happiness" and "unity" to Thailand. Next, soldiers went from village to village, leading meditation sessions to cleanse their minds of thoughts that threatened to "destroy our country," according to one report of such a session in Khon Kaen, the second-largest province in Isaan. The sessions were named the "Project to Strengthen Stability at the Village Level."

     Nothing is being left to chance by the military in the aftermath of its neutralization of the Red Shirt leadership in Isaan. "Soldiers continue to visit our village to talk to people and watch out for any political trouble," said a former director of a public school residing in a Khon Kaen village. Similar scenes occur across the province: Uniformed troops patrol villages, in many cases with their eyes on the active Red Shirts. Such patrols, in fact, have affirmed what human rights activists long suspected: The military had long focused on these communities before the coup, as they were seen as political threats to Thailand's stability. 

     The junta's success over the Red Shirts also received a shot in the arm from an unlikely quarter. Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the patriarch of the Shinawatra clan, himself overthrown in a 2006 coup, is now a fugitive in exile. He asked Red Shirt leaders in the northeast to cooperate with the junta, an appeal that stoked frustration among some local leaders.

     Still, they have not turned their back on their political movement. The silence of the Red Shirts suggests surrender, but that is an illusion: Their networks thrive on social media. "We are very loud on Line," chuckled Arnon, referring to the country's most popular social networking service.

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