FOR much of April and May, Bangkok’s Rajprasong shopping district was taken over by a raucous protest movement that was eventually quashed by the army. On Sunday, four months after that episode ended in bloodshed, the “red shirts” were back. Several thousand showed up to chant anti-government slogans, release red balloons, tie ribbons on lampposts and call for justice and democracy. If you squinted, and ignored the charred shopping centre torched during the clashes, it was a vision of the April demonstrations. But Sunday’s influx of protesters did not linger. By evening, the crowd had drifted away, having made their point: the red shirts are back.
Thailand’s prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, has tried to push the tragic events of April and May into the background. He has appointed various committees to investigate the violence and to address social and economic inequities in Thailand. Officials tried to frame the red-shirt revolt as a power play by Thailand’s former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been accused of bankrolling the protests and inciting violence. Thailand’s economy has picked up steam, defying predictions of a downturn in the second quarter. Mr Abhisit’s supporters hope that continued growth and a large dollop of welfare spending will save him from defeat when parliamentary elections are held, sometime next year.
Sunday’s gathering was a riposte to such glib optimism. Red shirts are still fuming over their rough treatment by the army, which stands squarely behind Mr Abhisit. A popular slogan at Rajprasong was "Stop Killing People". Others made the point that though 91 people were killed, most of them at the hands of heavily armed soldiers, the army has shown no remorse. “We want society to remember that people died here. Everything the government says is one-sided,” said a middle-aged woman. As if to confirm her view, Thailand’s state-run broadcast media largely ignored the protest in Bangkok, as well as a large rally held in Chiang Mai.
The red shirts are no angels. Armed militants emerged from the shadows during clashes with troops; some of the dead and injured were soldiers, including a decorated army colonel. Low-level thuggery has often marred red-shirt protests in Bangkok and elsewhere. The charred shopping centre is a reminder of the chaos they unleashed on the capital's downtown in May. Many Thais are turned off by both the pro-Thaksin red shirts and their arch-rivals, the royalist "yellow shirts", who occupied Bangkok’s international airports in December 2008.
Mr Abhisit rode to power on the back of the yellow-shirt protest movement. He has failed to bring them to task for their transgressions, even while hundreds of red shirts were rounded up and jailed in May. Much of the movement’s leadership is in prison or on the run. Mr Thaksin lives overseas, and flits between countries on various passports, thumbing his nose at Thai efforts to extradite him over a politically motivated corruption conviction. He is among the red-shirt figures facing terrorism charges, though few expect him to stand trial.
Bangkok has been under a state of emergency since April, but Sunday’s protest was allowed to go ahead. That it ended peacefully may give the government room to lift the emergency when it comes up for renewal in two weeks. But that does not mean that the capital is secure. A series of bombings and attempted bombings have been blamed on militants among the red shirts. Thailand’s southernmost provinces have been under emergency rule for five years as troops battle a shadowy Muslim-led insurgency. That conflict shows no sign of ending. The national politics is coming to bear an uncanny resemblance.