For almost three weeks now, Bangkok streets have been overwhelmed by thousands of red-shirted supporters with a series of anti-government demonstrations and rallies. These are the largest and best organised ones since the 2006 ‘yellow-shirt’ rallies that led to the ouster of former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. Some estimate that between 100,000 and 150,000 people have demonstrated at the weekends to pressurise the Democrat-led coalition government of present Prime Minister Abhisit to call for new elections. This is the latest stage of the power struggle between Thaksin and the government. It has ratcheted up the tense relationship that exists between the rural population that generally supports Thaksin and the urban population that supports Abhisit and the ‘Democrats’.
Democrat government under pressure
The red-shirts – formally known as the ’United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship’ (UDD) – have accused Abhisit of coming to power illegitimately, with the backing of the military and the monarchy. Only new elections, they say, can “return the country to democracy”. The red-shirts also launched a similar series of demonstrations from January to April last year and, at its peak, they stormed the venue of an Asian summit. Direct confrontation with the police ensued, leaving two people dead, but it was unsuccessful in pressuring Abhisit to call new elections.
Abhisit came to power in December 2008 when thousands of yellow-shirts backed by the monarchy and the military, staged a blockade at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang airports. This led to the downfall of a government led by Thaksin’s proxies. (Thaksin was in ‘exile’ in Dubai). Now in this conflict, once again, the Abhisit government is solidly backed by the monarchy, the military and the business community. They all have a common goal – to ensure that Thaksin as well as the opposition, Puea Thai Party that sympathises with him do not return to power. This is mainly to safeguard their wealth and power from being undermined by Thaksin’s crony capitalism, as they experienced when he was in the government from 2001 to 2006.
The government has been forced to come into negotiations with the red shirt leaders to diffuse the tensions. Abhisit has proposed to dissolve parliament by the end of the year – one year ahead of schedule. This was basically to gain more time, to strengthen his position and that of the Democrat coalition government before facing the next election, by “fixing the economy, amending the constitution’s election laws, approving a politically vital military reshuffle and passing the budget”. Nevertheless UDD leaders have urged him to dissolve the parliament by April 12.
Last week, under pressure, the government announced a few populist measures for the rural poor such as canceling $1.3 billion worth of farmers’ debts. This was a move obviously aimed at placating the protesters. However, two rounds of negotiations could not resolve the conflict. Realising that the rallies of the red-shirts have, to a certain extent, pressured the initially unperturbed Abhisit to negotiate and make certain concessions, the UDD leaders are utilising ‘the first round success’ to go all out and urge Abhisit to dissolve the parliament immediately.
More conflicts unfolding
Up to now, the demonstrations were peaceful, unlike the street battles seen in late 2008 and in April 2009. A dozen or so people were wounded over the weekend, including four soldiers, in the series of grenade attacks on government and army buildings. Most have been minor blasts that have not caused injuries. In the first two weeks the red shirts rallied around government and military buildings using tactics such as splashing their own blood on government buildings. But this did not much disrupt the government and business activities. It seems that the Abhisit regime is trying to buy time for a while with the hope that the protesters will go home when their enthusiasm and funding fade.
However, the protests have started to affect the tourism industries and have angered the people involved in them. Last Friday they themselves staged a demonstration in Bangkok to voice their dissatisfaction, saying: “The decline (in tourism) has reached a point where we risk losing visitors for the long-term”.
Last Saturday, the red shirts has started to focus their rallies around the commercial centre and caused central roads in the capital to be blocked. Traffic halted and at least two of Thailand’s biggest shopping malls were forced to close. The demonstration also prompted dozens of department stores and restaurants to close their doors to the public. On Monday, about 100 demonstrators briefly occupied the national election commission offices in Bangkok, to demand commissioners to take action against Democrat party irregularities in the last election. This and the small clash between the protesters and security forces on Tuesday at the demonstration site have further increased the tension between the protesters and the authorities.
The Thai finance minister estimated that around 10 billion baht ($312.5 million) could be lost if the protest was allowed to continue in the commercial centre for more than a week. The business class has started to worry about their profits and they insist on the government taking immediate action to resolve the conflict.
To date, both the protesters and the authorities have avoided the use of violence, but as the demonstration drags on a showdown seems likely like that in April last year. The government, with the help of the army and police, could employ stern actions against the demonstrators or utilise the ISA (Internal Security Act) that allows the prime minister to use the military to restore order if necessary, to suppress the conflict.
Nevertheless, if the red-shirts are successful in demanding new elections, it is most likely not going to change the political landscape either. In the case of new elections, it is expected that Abhisit’s coalition would lose to the Puea Thai Party, the proxy for Thaksin. If this materialises, the same yellow-shirted alliance with the military and civilian elites that toppled Thaksin in 2006 and their allies in 2008 might again reject the outcome of an election that favours Thaksin’s proxies and could launch their own rallies and demonstrations. That means instability would persist as long as the ‘elite’s war’ continues.
Past political conflicts in Thailand have also shown that when the conflict becomes too intense, the military will step in to take over the government. Military coups have been staged 18 times since the advent of the constitutional monarchy in 1932. But for the time being, it has not be an option. The last military government which lasted for one year after a coup in 2006 failed to impress the local and multinational capitalists.
Another key question now, is the looming royal succession. King Bhumipol Adulyadej, the widely revered monarch, has reigned for six decades and has been an important source of legitimacy for the unelected government when the political conflict has become uncontrollable. He has been in hospital since last September and his successor, the crown prince, is widely disliked by the masses. It is believed that the alliance between the monarch, the army and the Bangkok elite is holding together only out of respect for the ailing king. If the king dies soon, this alliance could crumble. This could lead to another power struggle as the competing elites will attempt to fill the vacuum left by the king and his weak successor. This potentially could lead to more serious confrontations.
Most of the red-shirts are poor farmers from rural areas in the north-east of Thailand where the former prime minister and business tycoon, Thaksin, still has popular support. He was overthrown through a military coup in 2006 and since then remains in exile. But, while the red-shirts are mainly poor farmers linked to some of Thaksin’s political agenda, their reasons and aspirations for rallying in Bangkok are also due to the increasing gap between rich and poor. They accuse the government of “double standards that favour established Bangkok interests”.
The UDD leaders and Thaksin have echoed these grievances and portrayed the demonstrations as, “A struggle between Thailand’s impoverished, mainly rural masses -who benefited from Thaksin’s policies of cheap health care and low-interest village loans and the Bangkok-based elite, insensitive to their plight”. They are even proclaiming this conflict as ‘class war’. It is clear that Thaksin and his proxies that have been isolated by the Democrat government are merely using the rural poor as their foot soldiers to achieve their goal to destabilise the Democrat government.
The same grievances also existed among the working and middle class people in Bangkok during the Thaksin laissez-faire regime; it hugely benefited multinationals and his own crony capitalists. The favourable economic climate in the early 2000s was used by Thaksin to realise his populist political agenda by fulfilling some of the long-term demands of the poor and landless farmers that had been neglected by previous governments including the Democrats. This is not consciously done to benefit them but for his own political survival in subsequent elections by gaining the support of the majority rural poor. At the same time, at behind the scenes he used this overwhelming support from the poor as a mask to accumulate billions of dollars for his family and his cronies.
Workers and poor farmers’ party and socialist programme
It is obvious that the very nature of capitalism has created the ongoing political crisis in Thailand. It is a political clash between two elites to control the government and use this power to exploit the wealth of the country for the benefit of the crony capitalists aligned with them as well as the vultures of the multinational capitalism. The wealth disparities is growing in Thailand, in which the bottom 10% of the population only gets less than 2% of GDP, while the richest 10% gain up to 40% of GDP. This shows why the profit-oriented system of capitalism is supported by the elites in the main political parties and the army as well as the monarch.
They have been manoeuvring by dividing the poor farmers in rural areas from the working and middle class people in the urban centre, Bangkok. These manoeuvres are merely for their own political survival in power and to continuously accumulate wealth from the labour of the poor farmers and the working class. However, the poor farmers, the working class and others that have been oppressed in society for the benefit of these capitalists are now being burdened and alienated by the political crisis that has been created by these elites and capitalists.
In this situation, none of them will denounce the capitalist system that has exacerbated the class disparity and marginalised large segments of the population of poor farmers and the working class, politically, economically and socially. This shows that the red-shirted leaders are actually waging an ‘elite war’ for their own survival not ‘class war’ for the emancipation of the poor from the capitalist hegemony.
Capitalist ‘democracy’, created for the survival of the capitalists and their system, is also being undermined when the parties that lose an election cannot accept the outcome. It is crucial for workers and all exploited layers in society to defuse the tension between the rural poor and the urban working and middle class, but this will not be the agenda of the capitalist elites that prefer their ‘divide and rule’ political hegemony. In the coming period, a new movement that unites the working class, poor farmers, students and middle class is crucial to emancipate the working class and the poor farmers from the clutch of capitalism and its apologist of political elites. It needs to be based on struggle against capitalist domination that has marginalised large segments of the population.
The urbanisation and industrialisation of the 1990s pushed the rural population, especially the poor farmers, into struggles to gain their rights from the government. Notably, in 1997, a coalition of rural villagers and urban slum-dwellers from every region of Thailand staged a mass demonstration of over 25,000 people for 99 days in front of Government House in Bangkok to force the government to address their grievances, many of which involved large-scale development projects that affected their communities. At that time they came into a coalition called ’Assembly of the Poor’ to fight for their rights. Ultimately this coalition ended up in NGO activism and was incapable of developing this movement politically. The fact that it did not link up the struggle of the poor farmers with that of the working class to challenge the system, left a vacuum that was opportunistically used by Thaksin to get into power.
The economic contribution of the majority of Thailand’s people – the 60% rural population – is mainly through agricultural activities. This accounts for around 10% of Thai GDP. (Annual GDP per capita in Thailand is a mere $3,850.) Manufacturing, electronic and service industries – concentrated mainly in the urban centres such as Bangkok – account for 80% of GDP. This means that although in a minority, almost 40% of the working class of Thailand is playing the key role in contributing to Thailand’s economy and generating the huge profits needed by the capitalist class. Although at present around 2% of workers are unionised and the laws are not favourable to them, workers’ strikes and struggles are also occurring from time to time to fight against neo-liberal attacks and to demand their rights. For instance, last year in June, the railway workers in the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) labour union staged a strike to protest the restructuring of the railways organisation. This industrial action closed down rail services across Thailand and forced the government to negotiate.
Class war or class struggle in the understanding of socialists means the conflict between the working class and the capitalist class. Socialists work for emancipating the working class, and others oppressed under capitalism, through mobilizing their full force to establish a democratic socialist society – one which would utilise the wealth and resources of society for the needs of the majority through public ownership and democratic control and management. It would be a society without prejudices and oppression.
In order to realise these aspirations, the working class needs to initiate their own leadership and organisation that should be armed with socialist policies with the support of others that are oppressed by the system such as poor farmers, poor middle class layers, youths, students and others. On the other hand, such a party also needs to link the demand for democratic rights and reforms and for decent living standards to the need to transform the system. It would fight to establish a state that fulfilled the needs of workers and poor farmers and appeal for the support of the workers and poor in Southeast Asia and worldwide towards building a socialist society.
- No to suppression of democratic rights and clamp-downs on the media
- Abolish any draconian law such as ISA (Internal Security Act) which suppresses the rights of the people
- No to the rule of generals and the rule of corrupt, millionaire politicians
- Total opposition to the military coup
- For a mass struggle to win full democratic rights, including workers’ rights to organise, to protest, and to strike
- For independent, fighting, democratic unions and small farmers’ organisations
- Trade union rights for the armed forces rank and file – win poor soldiers to the struggles of working people
- For the building of a mass workers’ and poor farmers’ party
- For a united struggle of workers, poor farmers, students and others oppressed by the system to overthrow the corrupt government
- For a genuine, representative Constituent Assembly
- Abolish the monarchy
- For a majority workers’ and poor farmers’ government
- Full rights for the oppressed Muslim population on the South of Thailand and all other minorities
- No to neo-liberal policies of privatisation and de-regulation
- Take into democratic public ownership the big business enterprises, major industries, large private land-holdings and banks
- For an economy planned to meet the needs of the working people and poor farmers, under the democratic control and management of elected committees from the working class and small farmers
- For a socialist Thailand, as part of a socialist federation throughout South East Asia