Revolutionary crisis in Thailand

The south east Asian nation of Thailand is in the grip of an increasingly profound revolutionary crisis, which may yet end in a bloody crackdown and the reassertion of openly dictatorial rule by the wealthy elite around the royal family and the military top brass or, as we fervently hope, the coming to power of a new government, representing the interests of the poor, the vast majority, and dedicated to pursuing the root and branch revolutionary reforms of society that Thailand and her people so desperately need.

The latest upsurge of the political forces representing Thailand’s poor majority, who are popularly known as ‘red shirts’, grabbed world attention on 14 March, when 100,000 people rallied in the capital Bangkok to demand the ouster of Abhisit Vejjajiva, the British-born, Eton and Oxford educated, puppet Prime Minister, previously installed on the command of the royal palace and the military top brass.

On 7 April, the red shirts fought their way into parliament, forcing the deputy prime minister to flee by helicopter and leading Abhisit to declare a state of emergency. This proclamation was clearly intended to give a green light to vicious repression and, accordingly, just three days later, on 10 April, more than 20 people were killed and more than 800 wounded when troops brutally attacked people in the capital city.

But if the Thai ruling elite had thought this naked show of force would intimidate and crush the popular movement, they were sorely mistaken. In fact, despite being largely unarmed, the people gave a very good account of themselves. As the Financial Times reported: “Thailand‘s red-shirted protesters were still camped on the streets of Bangkok yesterday after 21 people died in a night of bloodshed and an opposition leader ruled out talks with the government.

The worst violence to hit Thailand in almost two decades began on Saturday night after security forces launched an unsuccessful attempt to end more than a month of demonstrations in the capital.

Troops used live rounds, tear gas and rubber bullets against red-shirted demonstrators in the streets surrounding the Democracy Monument in old Bangkok.

But the protesters managed to keep the troops at bay with a hail of petrol bombs, rocks, water bottles and – according to the security forces – gunfire.

After a 30-minute battle, the army was forced to pull back, leaving more than 800 people injured. The political leadership had been unwilling to sanction the use of unrestrained force.

Relative calm returned to Bangkok yesterday with young demonstrators swaggering around displaying trophies of what they considered their victory: armoured personnel carriers, captured body armour, shields and riot batons.

The army also said the protesters were holding five soldiers hostage.

Alongside the armoured personnel carriers were overturned jeeps, and pools of blood, which had been turned into impromptu shrines by the protesters.”  (‘Thai red shirts defiant after clashes’, 12 April 2010)

In summary, the Thai ruling elite’s resort to its habitual method of bloody repression resulted, in Comrade Mao Zedong’s apt and time-honoured expression, in their “lifting a rock only to drop it on their own feet”. Caught between that rock and a hard place, leaders of the government and the armed forces have been openly squabbling among themselves. One group advocates trying to appease the protestors, with a view to hopefully deflating and finally defeating the movement. The other group consists of outright fascists (apparently including prominent members of the royal family), who argue that their error to date lies in not being brutal enough, and who would like to see a Pinochet-style repression once again grip the country.

Compounding their dilemma is the fact that, for most of the time, over the last months of steadily rising popular protests, the army and police, for the first time in Thai history, have been largely loath to use force against the protestors. “They are all Thais”, declared the army chief of staff, explaining his reluctance to countenance the use of force. Not only does this reflect an appreciation of the direction in which the wind is blowing on the part of some wily operators; more importantly, sections of the top brass are finding themselves forced to respond to the manifest reluctance of many rank-and-file soldiers and policemen to shoot and kill people who, after all, are drawn from the same class as themselves, who are their mothers and fathers, their brothers and sisters, and who are fighting for their interests, too.

With the enemy camp in increasing disarray, the people’s forces have become increasingly bold. A Reuters report put matters thus: “Thai anti-government protesters stepped up security at their base in an upmarket Bangkok shopping centre on Saturday, a week after bloody clashes with security forces killed 24 people.

Thousands of protesters gathered under leaden skies to commemorate the deaths as more permanent fixtures of medical supplies, sanitary facilities and foodstalls were set up.

The ‘red shirts’ have pledged to turn the area into a ‘final battleground’ to oust Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, forcing high-end malls to close and sending tourists fleeing the area….

“‘There has been more talk of crackdown and possible attempts to take us in, so we have to make sure we are not infiltrated’, protest leader Nattawut Saikua said, adding that the red shirts had no plans to march on Saturday and Sunday.

The red shirt leaders would make new sleeping arrangements at undisclosed locations, Mr Nattawut said, as leaders recruited more volunteers among protesters to become their ‘guards’.

The heightened security came after some leaders were surrounded by police on Friday morning. One made an escape by climbing down a hotel by rope, making headlines and highlighting security forces’ failure at crowd control…

They threatened to march to a nearby business district on Monday, targeting Bangkok Bank’s headquarters.

“‘We are considering taking our fight to a business associated with the ruling elite’, said a leader, Suporn Attawong.

Thailand’s biggest bank was targeted in February by the protesters, who accused it of crony capitalism amid ties to Prem Tinsulanonda, a former premier and chief adviser of Thailand’s revered king.

Mr Prem, an honorary adviser to the bank’s chairman, is also accused of playing a role in the coup against [deposed former Prime Minister] Mr Thaksin [Shinawatra], accusations which he has repeatedly denied.

The political crisis in Thailand has hit tourism, a mainstay of Southeast Asia’s second largest economy, hard and caused a selloff in the stock market, which has given up almost all of this year’s gains as foreign investors have sold heavily.” (‘Thai protestors boost security at Bangkok base’, 17 April 2010)

What all this shows is that the necessary ingredients that together constitute a revolutionary situation are steadily coming together in Thailand – the ruling class is no longer able to rule in the old way; and the people are no longer prepared to be ruled in the old way.

The Financial Times reported on what are in effect the first spring shoots of a new society in Thailand: “Behind barricades of tyres and sharpened bamboo staves that surround their four-block bastion in central Bangkok, Thailand’s red-shirted protesters have built a parallel community in their own image.

The food is spicier, the political discourse more profane and the accommodation and sanitation far more rudimentary than that of the Thai capital’s usual inhabitants.

Thousands of protesters have converged on Bangkok from the rural heartland to demand the resignation of Abhisit Vejjajiva, the prime minister, who they believe is the puppet of vested interests among the unelected mandarins of the city’s corporate, military and palace elites.

Many are supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister who courted them before being ousted in a 2006 coup.

“‘It is a kind of class war. There aren’t many people in the elite but they hold all the power and use it to take advantage of the people,’ said Uraiwan Paichinangkul, 64, a retired civil servant standing in the shade of a 60ft banner reading: ‘Dissolve parliament and return power to the people.’” (‘Red is the colour for Bangkok class warriors’, 23 April 2010.)

And in this class war, following a military threat to again use imminent and deadly force against the protestors, a series of explosions hit at military targets in the capital’s business district. Weng Tojirakaran, one of the red shirt leaders, declared: “If they come to kill us, we are willing to fight them. We are not afraid; come, come, come, come immediately.”

Nor is this movement confined to the capital. It is truly nationwide. For example, on 21 April, protestors in Khon Kaen province, some 400 km north-east of Bangkok, stopped a train carrying 200 troops and heavy equipment they believed were being transferred to the capital. (‘Bombs hit Bangkok following ultimatum’, Financial Times, 23 April 2010.)

Their confidence growing, the red shirt movement has also felt able to offer tactical concessions to the government, whilst not yielding on their fundamental demands. They have said they are prepared to give the Prime Minister one month to step down, relaxing their demand that he go immediately. But Abhisit, the weaker his position has become (he has spent most of the past six weeks to the end of April out of sight and hiding in a heavily guarded military base – and even his pre-recorded television response to the red shirts demands was forced off the air for several minutes) has only become more intransigent, like many a tyrant before him living out his final days. Appearing to rule out any compromise, and apparently without any hint of irony, considering the circumstances of his own accession to power, although with the customary arrogance and disdain of the exploiting classes, (see ‘Thailand: A lull before the revolutionary storm’, Lalkar, January/February 2009), he declared: “There must not be a precedent that allows intimidation to bring about political change.”

But the clear impression of growing disarray at the top was only highlighted by his appearance with army chief General Anupong Paojinda, who repeated his earlier promise not to use force against the protestors. (‘Thai factions on collision course after PM hardens stance’, Financial Times, 26 April 2010.)

But Abhisit himself seems to be under pressure from even more hardline elements, closer to the royal palace. Whereas, in a 27 April interview with CNN, the Prime Minister declared, “we will try to enforce the law with minimum losses and we will try to find a political resolution, but it takes time, patience and cooperation”, his deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban declared that the government had been patient for too long. “We have been patient for two months. But we will use decisive measures under the law from now.”

As the Financial Times observes, such disarray widens the space for the people’s forces to grow and develop: “But the authorities seem paralysed: a symptom, analysts say, of a feud within government between hardliners who want to crack down and a faction who believe resorting to force is likely to cause widespread loss of life with uncertain prospects for success.

The result has been gridlock. The protesters have taken over some of Bangkok’s most expensive real estate, closing five high-end shopping malls and half a dozen five-star hotels.

They increased their disruptive effect on Tuesday by threatening to block one of the city’s elevated train lines, forcing the operators to close it as a precaution. The system, which carries almost half a million passengers a day, was reopened after four hours, but not before adding to the city’s already appalling traffic problems.

And the protests are spreading across the country. Red-shirted protesters have set up roadblocks in at least three rural provinces to prevent security forces sending reinforcements to Bangkok.” (‘Bangkok searches for strategy on protestors’, 27 April 2010.)

As the movement develops, so its political content and goals become deeper and more radical. Thus, although the red shirts continue to enjoy support from the exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the movement is increasingly focused not so much on his return but rather on a thoroughgoing transformation of Thai society in the interests of the poor. The former Prime Minister himself appears to understand and even welcome this.

As a Reuters report put it: “Thaksin, ousted in a bloodless 2006 coup, said he had stopped speaking by telephone and video links at red shirt rallies in Bangkok over the past couple of weeks because the movement had gone beyond fighting for his cause.

“‘Initially, people were fighting for me, who they felt was unfairly treated, but now more and more people are fighting for justice and democracy. They don’t want the elite to keep interfering in democracy,’ Thaksin said.” (‘Thaksin urges snap poll to end Thai crisis’, 19 April 2010.)

The working and oppressed people of Thailand are living through exhilarating but dangerous days, standing at the crossroads between a bloody nightmare and a better tomorrow. Whatever direction events take them, they need and deserve the wholehearted support of working class, anti-imperialist and progressive people everywhere.

NOTE: For background on the current situation in Thailand, see ‘Thai people frustrate Royals and generals’, Lalkar, March/April 2008; ‘Thailand: A lull before the revolutionary storm’, Lalkar, January/February 2009.