Anyone who supports Democracy or Social Justice would have little difficulty in choosing sides in the current class war being conducted in Thailand.
On one side we have the Red Shirts. They are the poor; workers and small farmers from Bangkok and the provinces. They are demanding a return to Democracy. They want immediate elections. They proudly call themselves “serfs” in the battle against the elites. They started out as supporters of Taksin Shinawat’s Thai Rak Thai Party. This party won an overall majority in democratic elections because they introduced the country’s first ever universal health care scheme and other pro-poor policies. Taksin was overthrown in a military coup in 2006. The Red Shirts formed in late 2008. During the prolonged crisis they have become more and more radicalised. They are not yet socialists, but they speak the language of class struggle. Many are now republicans.
On the other side we have the Yellow Shirts. They are a coalition led by the military-installed Government of Abhisit Vejjajiva. Abhisit’s name actually means “privilege”. He was educated at Eton and St John’s College, Oxford. His so-called Democrat Party has never won an overall majority in any election because they are against state welfare. Behind the Government is the Military. The Thai Military has killed unarmed civilians demanding civil rights and Democracy 6 times in the last 40 years. On the 10th April 2010 they once again brought tanks and automatic weapons onto the streets of Bangkok to disperse a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration. The result was 25 deaths and hundreds of injuries. On 29th April they used lethal force against Red Shirts again. The shot dead a fellow soldier and wounded many civilians. Since becoming Prime Minister, Abhisit has introduced draconian censorship of the media and internet.
Siding with the Military and the Government are the fascist Yellow Shirted PAD (Peoples Alliance for Democracy), a middle class movement which used violence on the streets in 2008 and closed down the international airports that year. The Military turned a blind eye to these airport seizures. The Government, the Military and the Yellow Shirts all claim that they are “fighting for the King”. The Monarchy has always given legitimacy to dictators and tyrants in Thailand. Stiff lese majeste laws protect him and the Military from criticism. Yet the King is old and sick and his son is hated and despised. A recent Australian TV programme showed the prince making his wife pose naked during his dog’s birthday party.
Despite the obvious nature of the two sides, almost the entire Thai NGO movement, including Focus on Global South, and the so-called liberal academics, have sided with the Government, the Military and the Yellow Shirts. Elected “NGO Senator” Rosana Tositrakul has repeatedly called on the Government to crack down on the Red Shirts. They oppose early elections because they believe that the poor are too uneducated to be trusted with the vote.
The Red Shirts have used ingenious ways to get round internet and media censorship. It has been possible to watch live TV broadcasts from the protest site all over the world. In the provinces, Red Shirts have surrounded provincial government offices and in the north-east they successfully stopped a troop train heading for Bangkok by blocking the rails. Some police stations have been seized and Red Shirt motorcycle squads have surrounded soldiers on the outskirts of Bangkok. There are many attempts to win over the lower ranking soldiers and the police.
At time of writing it is impossible to predict what will happen next. The Red Shirt movement would be significantly strengthened by expanding agitation into the organised working class so that strike action could take place. Some trade unionists have shown support for the protests, but to date there have been no strikes.
This is an historic moment in Thai history. Never before have we seen such a large mass movement based on workers and peasants and supported by millions of citizens. The elites are in panic mode. Their old world is collapsing around them. The hegemony of the Monarchy has been broken. The elites can shoot hundreds, even thousands, but they will never win over the hearts and minds of the population.
Background to Thai political crisis
Five years ago, Thailand, under the elected Taksin government, had a developing democracy with freedom of expression, a relatively free press and an active Civil Society, where social movements campaigned to protect the interests of the poor. This was not, however the work of Taksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party administration, since there were serious problems of human rights abuses.
Taksin’s government used murderous repression in the Muslim Malay southern provinces and killed over 3000 people in the so-called “War on Drugs”.
Taksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party was modernising. For the first time in decades, a party gained mass support from the poor because it believed that the poor were not a burden. They argued that the poor should be “stake-holders” rather than surfs. These “populist” policies were developed after the 1997 Asian economic crisis and were a result of widespread consultations in society. This was no Socialist party, but a party of big business committed to free-market policies at a Macro and Global level, and Keynesian policies at village or grass-roots level. When the party came to power in 2001, the banks had stopped lending and there was an urgent need to stimulate the economy. It represented the modernising interests of an important faction of the capitalist class.
The present political crisis started with mass demonstrations led by the mis-named “Peoples Alliance for Democracy” (PAD) in late 2005. This was after Thai Rak Thai’s landslide re-election earlier that year. The PAD began as an “alliance from hell” between disgruntled Royalist media tycoon Sonti Limtongkul and a handful of NGO and social movement leaders. They attacked Taksin’s government for corruption. But they were never interested in criticising his human rights abuses or attacking the rampant corruption of other elites. Taksin responded to the growing crisis by dissolving parliament and calling fresh elections in April 2006. The opposition, including the Democrat Party, boycotted these elections because they knew that they were very unpopular with the electorate. “Liberal” academics “explained” that calling fresh elections was “undemocratic”. The courts then annulled the election, using the bizarre excuse that the ballot boxes were the wrong way round in the polling booths. No evidence was presented that any serious electoral fraud had ever taken place. Later the courts were used two more times, to dissolve Thai Rak Thai and then the party that was reformed under a new name. Rather than accepting that the electorate support for Taksin was because of the government’s first ever Universal Health Care scheme and many other pro-poor measures, Taksin’s opponents claimed that the poor did not understand Democracy. The Democrat Party, being extreme neo-liberals, spent most of the time attacking these pro-poor policies as being a waste of money and against “fiscal discipline”. No wonder no ordinary Thai would want to vote for them! When the Democrats eventually formed a government with military backing in December 2008, they cut the universal health budget by almost a third.
The NGO and social movement leaders of the PAD moved sharply to the Right during the enfolding crisis, becoming fanatical Royalists and calling on the King to sack Taksin’s elected government in 2006. This, the King refused to do, but the PAD demands were seen as a green light for a military coup and the military obliged in September. PAD leaders and military junta leaders were later seen celebrating their victory at a New Year party in 2007. At that time, the Democrat Party also welcomed the coup. According to deputy leader Korn Chatikavanij, “there was no constitutional” method of getting rid of Taksin. He also said that he “respected” the junta for trying to establish political “stability”.
The army ripped up the best Constitution Thailand has ever had, and replaced it with their own. The military Constitution allowed for half the Senate to be appointed by the military, rather than elected. It decreased the role of political parties and installed a crony system where members of the elite appointed themselves to the Senate, the Judiciary and to so-called “Independent Bodies”.
After the 2006 coup, the P.A.D. descended into a fascist type of organisation. It took on ultra-Royalist and ultra-Nationalist politics. Its supporters wore Royal Yellow Shirts. It nearly caused a war with Cambodia over an ancient hill-top ruin. It built up an armed guard who openly carry and use fire-arms and other weapons on the streets of Bangkok.
Finally, at the end of 2008, the army bullied and bribed some of the worst, corrupt elements in Taksin’s party to change sides and support the Democrats. Foremost among them was Newin Chitchorp, named after the Burmese military dictator. He and some Democrat Party politicians also set up the paramilitary “Blue Shirts” who carried arms and attacked Red Shirt protestors in April 2009. Abhisit Vejajeva became the Prime Minister.
The King grew in stature under the corrupt military dictators in the 1950s and 1960s. Earlier, in the 1940s, he had allowed innocent people to be executed after they were falsely accused of killing his older brother. He supported the blood-bath at Thammasart University on 6th October 1976, because he felt that Thailand had “too much democracy”. At the time he was also the patron of the violent fascist gang that were called the “village scouts”.
More recently, the King allowed the army to use his name in staging the coup on the 19th September 2006. Furthermore he allowed his name to be used by the PAD protestors and the Democrat Party, in the destruction of democracy. He has been an advocate of economic views which reveal his opposition to state social welfare for the poor and income redistribution. But what is worse, as one of the richest men in the world, the king has the arrogance to lecture the poor to be sufficient in their poverty, through the notion of the “Sufficiency Economy”. This is nothing more than a reactionary right-wing ideology that says that the poor must know their place. Finally, this king allows his supporters to proclaim that he is “the father of the nation,” and yet his own son is not respected by anyone in Thai society!
The King is weak and has no “character” and his power is a fiction. The King has always been weak and lacking in any democratic principles. As a “stabilising force”, the Monarchy has only helped to stabilise the interests of the elite. The King has never had the courage to defend democracy or oppose military violence. Army generals, politicians, businessmen and privy councillors prostrate themselves, “Thai Style”, on the ground and pay homage to the “powerful” king, while exercising the real power in the land and enriching themselves.
How did the Thai NGOs become so reactionary, siding with the conservative elites against the poor in the suppression of democracy?
After the “collapse of Communism” the NGO movement turned its back on “politics” and the primacy of mass movements and political parties in the 1980s. Instead they embraced “lobby politics” and/or Community Anarchism. Despite the apparent contradiction between lobby politics, which leads NGOs to cooperate with the state, and state-rejecting Community Anarchism, the two go together. This is because they reject any confrontation or competition with the state. Instead of building mass movements or political parties, the NGOs concentrated on single-issue campaigns as part of their attempt to avoid confrontation with the state. This method of working also dove-tails with grant applications from international funding bodies. It leads to a de-politicisation of the movement. Thus, NGOs have cooperated with both military and elected governments in Thailand since the early 1980s.
The NGOs also oppose Representative Democracy, along Anarchist lines, because they believe it only leads to dirty money politics. But the Direct Democracy in village communities, which they advocate, is powerless in the face of the all powerful state. It also glorifies traditional and conservative village leaders which are not subject to any democratic mandate. Eventually, the idea goes together with a failure to defend parliamentary democracy. Their anarchistic rejection of representative politics, allowed them to see “no difference” between an elected parliament controlled by Thai Rak Thai and a military coup. Instead of bothering to carefully analyse the political situation, the distrust of elections, votes and Representative Democracy allowed NGOs to align themselves with reactionaries, like the PAD and the military, who advocate more appointed public positions.
The Red Shirts, a new Civil Society?
A new movement for democracy is emerging from the Red Shirts. This movement is made up of the urban and rural poor: small farmers, house wives, street vendors, low-ranking state employees, taxi drivers, students and workers. Many middle class observers will feel uncomfortable that this is a movement of ordinary citizens and not the educated middle class. The Red Shirts are not “refined folk” with experience of activism. But they are rapidly developing organisational, media and internet skills. In a situation where the NGOs and the middle class intellectuals have turned their backs on democracy and social justice, this is what is really required to build a democratic movement. This is what “People Empowerment” looks like.
Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a Thai socialist, currently in exile in the U.K. His latest book “Thailand’s Crisis and the Fight for Democracy” will be published in late April 2010.
 Giles Ji Ungpakorn (2007) A Coup for the Rich. WDPress.
 Pasuk Phongpaichit & Chris Baker (2004) Taksin. The business of politics in Thailand. Silkworm Books.
 Kevin Hewison (2003) Crafting a new social contract: Domestic capitalist responses to the challenge of neoliberalism. In Ji Giles Ungpakorn (ed.) Radicalising Thailand: new political perspectives. Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University.
 Interviews with ABC news 20 September 2006, International Herald Tribune 29 September 2006 and with Bangkok Business Day 22 September 2006.
 Giles Ji Ungpakorn (2007) already quoted, p. 11.
 Even politicians like Taksin Shinawat and most former Thai Rak Thai MPs are loyal to the King.
 Ji Giles Ungpakorn (2003) Challenges to the Thai NGO movement from the dawn of a new opposition to global capital. In Ji Giles Ungpakorn (ed.) Radicalising Thailand: new political perspectives.(already quoted).
 The best explanation of Thai Community Anarchism can be found in Chatthip Nartsupa et al., (1998) Agricultural Community Economics in Thailand. Wititat Poompanya 7. In Thai.
 Giles Ji Ungpakorn (2007) already quoted, chapter 3.
 NGOs are opposed to taking votes in meetings, preferring “consensus”. Ji Ungpakorn (2006) Social Movements in Thailand. WDPress. p.64, In Thai. Chris Nineham (2006) Anti-capitalism, social forums and the return of politics. International Socialism 109, U.K.