Two steps forward one step back as revolution simmers in Thailand

For several days in April, Thailand appeared to be on the brink of a democratic revolution,  with the popular forces, led by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), popularly known as ‘Red Shirts’, in control of the streets of the capital, Bangkok and a number of other major cities, and signs of a split in the armed forces.

UDD leaders called off their protests after the government declared a state of emergency and was clearly preparing for a massacre of unarmed protestors. But, with none of the contradictions tearing Thai society apart resolved, and with the people having acquired a taste of their own power, the outbreak of new, more militant and far-reaching struggles is just a matter of time. (For further background to the most recent events in Thailand, see Thai people frustrate Royals and Generals, Lalkar, March/April 2008; and Thailand: A lull before the revolutionary storm, Lalkar, January/February 2009)

As the progressive Thai academic, Giles Ji Ungpakorn put it: “For the fourth time in forty years, troops have opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators in Bangkok. Each time the aim has been the same: to protect the interests of the conservative elites who have run Thailand for the past 70 years….

“What we have been seeing in Thailand since late 2005 is a growing class war between the poor and the old elites… Ever since 2006, these elites have blatantly acted against election results by staging a military coup, using the courts to twice dissolve [former prime minister] Thaksin’s [Shinawatra] party and by backing Yellow Shirt royalist mob violence on the streets. The present misnamed Democrat Party government was manoeuvred into place by the army…

“The Yellow Shirts are conservative royalists. Some have fascist tendencies. Their guards carry and use firearms. They supported the 2006 coup, wrecked Government House and blocked the international airports last year. Behind them were the army. That is why troops never shot at the Yellow Shirts. That is why the present, Oxford and Eton educated, Thai Prime Minister has done nothing to punish the Yellow Shirts. After all, he appointed some to his cabinet. The aims of the Yellow Shirts are to reduce the voting power of the electorate in order to protect the conservative elites and the ‘bad old ways’ of running Thailand…

“The majority of Red Shirts support Thaksin, not because they like to ‘hero worship’, but because his government brought in a universal health care system and other pro-poor measures. The Democrats and the Yellows opposed these policies all along and knew that they couldn’t win popular elections as a result. This is why they wanted a coup.” (‘Red Shirts in Thailand face the armed might of the ruling elites’ and ‘Looking at Thailand’s crisis: the need to establish some basic standards’, both articles at: http://monthly

Indeed, Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party is the only political party in Thai history ever to win an absolute majority in a democratic election and he is the only prime minister ever to serve a full term. Nearly all commentators recognise that he or his nominees would win with a substantial majority if free elections were held.

The present phase of the class struggle in Thailand grabbed international headlines when protestors forced the abandonment of a regional summit in the south eastern resort city of Pattaya on 11 April, although a mass demonstration had been building outside Government House, the Prime Minister’s Bangkok office, since mid-March.

The summit, to be attended by the leaders of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), along with their counterparts from Australia, China, India, Japan, south Korea and New Zealand, descended into farce, as hundreds of red shirt protestors broke through police and military lines to take over the conference venue while the visiting leaders were hastily evacuated by helicopter. What was especially noteworthy was that the police and military put up no opposition to the protestors. Indeed, they were if anything supportive.  A typical example was that noted by the Financial Times:

“A young army lieutenant offered his bottle of water to a sweltering older protester who was returning to the hotel gates in the tropical midday heat.

“‘They are just like us, we are friends,’ Surya Lamthong, a designer who was among the vanguard of the protesters, said on Saturday, indicating the military guards who were by then resting under the resort’s trees”  (‘ASEAN summit cancelled amid protests’, Financial Times, 11 April 2009).

Humiliated by the abrupt cancellation of the Pattaya summit, and further humiliated when crowds swarmed into the interior ministry looking for him, and then surrounded the car in which he was travelling, beating it with sticks and clubs as it left the ministerial compound, Abhisit Vejjajiva, the unelected prime minister, declared a state of emergency on 12 April. The emergency decree banned gatherings of more than five people, forbade news reports deemed to threaten public order and allowed for the army to be deployed against the people. As tanks and armoured cars appeared at strategic locations throughout Bangkok, the people remained defiant, commandeering buses to block roads and clambering over military vehicles, at first without any protest from the troops.

In a telephoned message from exile, Thaksin declared: “Now that they have tanks on the streets, it is time for the people to come out in revolution.”

UDD leader Jakrapob Penkair declared: “We will start a people’s war.”

Seeing the writing on the wall, the Thai ruling class brought in elite troops who they could rely on, and who promptly began firing on the unarmed protestors with live ammunition. At least two people were killed and many others injured. Leaders of the protest movement were arrested and warrants issued for their colleagues who remained at large. Besides the admitted fatalities, Red Shirt leaders, former prime minister Thaksin and numerous eye witnesses all reported that many more demonstrators had been shot and killed by the troops, their bodies taken away for secret burial.

As Thaksin told the Financial Times:

“The current prime minister used military force with live ammunition and shot at the people. So many people died, they dragged the dead bodies away, and tried to destroy the dead bodies. This is the same as what happened in October 1996 when there was a student uprising. There were so many missing, but you couldn’t find the corpses because they destroyed them.

“We have had 17 coups, 10 of them successful, and we have had 22 elections. That means that every two elections we have a coup. What kind of democracy is this?” (‘Interview transcript: Thaksin Shinawatra’, Financial Times, 17 April 2009)

While Prime Minister Abhisit hypocritically claimed that his troops were using the “softest means possible” to clear the streets, the real message came from General Songkitti Jaggabatara, the head of the army, who appeared on television, to warn that “all possible means” would be employed.

Everybody in Thailand knows what that means – the armed forces have slaughtered peaceful protestors for democracy in their hundreds, indeed thousands, on several occasions. Needless to say, the contrast could scarcely be greater with the treatment of the regime’s yellow shirt thugs, who late last year were allowed to wreck Government House and shut down the country’s international airports, indeed the whole of Thailand, with impunity. Moreover, faced with this blatant attempt to overthrow a democratically elected government, the army demanded that the government resign and then, in league with the royal palace, engineered its dismissal.

With the near certainty of a terrible massacre, the UDD leaders decided to call a temporary halt to their protests. In the words of one of their leaders, Jatuporn Phromphan: “I want to save the people. But I will continue to fight for democracy.” (Quoted in ‘Protests end but Thailand left shaken’, Financial Times, 15 April 2009.)

At most, therefore, the people will only be allowing the regime, what the Economist described as “a temporary breathing space”. (‘Thailand’s political crisis: Dousing the flames’ Economist, 16 April 2009)

Indeed, in a sign that the movement will surely develop in a more militant direction, on 17 April, Sondhi Limthongkul, a particularly hated leader of the reactionary yellow shirts, was shot in the head, spending a week in intensive care. Nearly 100 spent bullet casings from AK47 and M16 assault rifles were recovered from the scene, as well as an M-79 grenade that was fired but failed to explode.

A spokesperson from the Bangkok police said: “Considering the nature of the attack and the weapons used, we believe it was carried out by people with expertise.”  (Quoted in ‘Founder of Thailand’s ‘yellow shirt’ movement shot in apparent assassination attempt’, Daily Telegraph, 17 April 2009)

In his Financial Times interview, Thaksin succinctly summed up the nature of the people’s protests:

“They need justice. They come and beg for justice, they come and beg for democracy, but they go home with lost life, with injuries and a bitter feeling that society, the government doesn’t give them fair treatment.

“I would urge the whole world to listen to the poor. They are the majority and they have been treated badly so they need to be treated fairly and the place they have been given in Thailand is unfair to them…

“No one is encouraging division, but without justice no peace, without peace no stability, without stability no prosperity.”  (Interview transcript: Thaksin Shinawatra, op. cit.)

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, told the Financial Times: “This is about sharing not just the power but the money and the prestige as well…The elites are facing a choice: lose some now and keep a lot or keep it all now and risk losing the lot.”  (‘Colour-coded challenge to Thai elites’, Financial Times, 12 April 2009)

Fortunately for the longer term prospects of the Thai people’s genuine emancipation, their ruling class shows every inclination to choose the latter option.

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