Thailand: A lull before the revolutionary storm
As 2008 drew to a close, an uneasy calm appeared to have settled over Thailand, following months of turmoil in the south east Asian country, which culminated in the leader of the minority, right wing Democrat Party, Abhisit Vejjajiva, being installed as Prime Minister following a coordinated campaign of economic disruption by right-wing mobs and judicial subversion of the democratic process, both backed and instigated by the most reactionary forces in Thai society, namely the monarchy and the army top brass.
Despite substantial economic growth over recent years, Thailand remains one of the most divided and polarised societies on earth, with a poor rural majority almost completely excluded from the fruits of development.
That only began to change when Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist businessman, was first elected as Prime Minister in February 2001, and kept to his election promises, which included low cost universal health care, along with debt relief and micro credits for poor farmers. Although Thaksin’s policies were intended only to create the conditions for stable capitalist development, they were sufficient to provoke a ‘carnival of reaction’ from monarchists, feudalists and militarists, whose interests are opposed to even this limited degree of social development.
Thaksin was deposed in a military coup on 19 September 2006. However, the military junta’s inability to solve any of the pressing problems facing the country, led to a civilian government, comprised mainly of Thaksin’s supporters, with Samak Sundarajev as Prime Minister, being formed on 28 January 2008, following a 23 December 2007 general election. At that time, we wrote in Lalkar: “The people of Thailand have won an important victory in their democratic struggle, but one may be sure that intrigues are still being hatched in royal palaces and barracks to frustrate their will.” (‘Thai people frustrate Royals and generals,’ Lalkar, March/April 2008)
Our analysis has been completely vindicated by events. In May 2008, the grossly misnamed “People’s Alliance for Democracy” (PAD), which is actually a monarcho-fascist organisation, which overtly seeks to disenfranchise the poor rural majority on the basis that they are “not ready” for democracy, launched a protest movement demanding the resignation of the elected government.
On 26 August, PAD staged violent assaults on several government ministries and the state television channel. A mob estimated at several tens of thousands took over the Prime Minister’s compound.
On 9 September, a court ruling dismissed Samak from his post of Prime Minister and barred him from holding political office. The pretext was an alleged conflict of interest, as Samak had occasionally hosted a television cookery show and had been paid very modest expenses, for example the cost of ingredients used – this in a country which has long been, and remains, a byword for corruption, and where the opposition to the elected government has been allowed to plunge the country into chaos without any legal sanction whatsoever. Indeed, the Queen nailed the palace’s colours firmly to the counter-revolutionary mast by paying the medical costs of wounded protestors and presiding at the funeral of a young woman demonstrator killed in the course of a violent protest.
On 17 September, the parliamentary majority elected another supporter of Thaksin, Somchai Wongsawat, as the new prime minister.
In response, the PAD intensified its protests. Occupation of the prime ministerial compound effectively paralysed much of the work of government. Then, on 25 November, the PAD was allowed by a pliant military to take over the country’s main international airports, halting all flights, stranding hundreds of thousands of travellers and inflicting huge damage on the national economy.
Once again, instead of taking measures to shore up the elected government, the judiciary played its allotted role in the counter-revolutionary script, declaring that Somchai’s party was guilty of “electoral fraud” and barring him from politics for five years.
Finally, on 15 December, this coordinated counter-revolutionary campaign succeeded in installing an anti-Thaksin prime minister. The new prime minister was born in England and was educated at Eton and Oxford. He is so far removed from the realities of life for the majority of Thailand’s people that the International Herald Tribune reported that critics joked “that he would need a visa to travel to the rural heartland of the north and northeast”. (‘New leader lacks a populist base’, 15 December 2008)
Indeed, Abhisit’s ability to properly address the problems facing the country and the people are less than zero. Thaksin’s support among the poor rural masses remains as strong as ever. As the International Herald Tribune put it on 12 September: “Traditionally in Thailand, governments have pursued policies that reflected the country’s hierarchical culture, favouring the urban elite.
“‘We can say that every government has a policy platform that has an urban bias.’ Prajak said. ‘So when elections come, they court the support of the rural vote. But when they are in power, they formulate policy that favours the urban and industrial sector.’
“Because of this, he said, ‘We have an unequal growth between the agricultural sector and the industrial sector. This gives us the very high gap in income distribution.’
“Thaksin tapped into this disparity, placing the poor at the centre of his governing strategy with populist policies like low-cost health care and debt relief. Poor and rural voters found their voice in voting for him, creating an overwhelming electoral base that gave him and his allies increasing economic and political power that some saw as a challenge to the monarchy.” (‘Power of the people fights democracy in Thai protests’)
Indeed, for the elite in Thailand, the rural poor have traditionally been seen as scarcely human and it is this gross oppression and humiliation that is now being rejected. As the International Herald Tribune reported on 13 October: “‘The people of Isaan are people, too,’ said Damneun, 48, who is now a farmer, like most people in this small village. ‘We also eat rice, and we also have an education, and they can’t insult us like this.’
“The insult comes from the leaders of an anti-government protest in Bangkok who say that rural voters are misguided and ignorant…
“‘The people of Isaan and the poor people everywhere all like Thaksin’, said Prasart Pangsopa, 54, who breeds cows and grows long beans, red chillies and rice.”
And inevitably, the class anger of the poor is rising: “The anger runs the other way here in Ban Huay Chan, where the farmers spin violent fantasies of mayhem against the protesters.
“‘If those people come here I’ll beat them to death and throw them into the river!’ cried Noochen Sinkham, 67, as he squatted on the ground with a cleaver, chopping strips of bamboo.
“Everybody laughed, and the farmer named Marongrit upped the ante. ‘I want the police to throw a bomb into that demonstration’, he declared. ‘Let them die.’” (‘In Thai heartland, anger over protests’)
Needless to say, imperialism treats the Thai monarchy and generals with kid gloves, especially when compared to the neighbouring generals in Myanmar (Burma) or the leaders of anti-imperialist governments. The Thai ruling class have, after all, been long-time, faithful servants of imperialism. As the Economist put it: “The origins of this, in part, were in the Vietnam war, in which America found King Bhumibol a staunch anti-communist ally. Recognising his value as an anti-red icon, America pumped propaganda funds into a campaign to put the king’s portrait in every Thai home. Even today, although quick to decry undemocratic moves in other Asian countries, America rarely protests at the arrests of Thais and foreigners for criticising the monarchy.” (‘A right royal mess’, 4 December)
Nevertheless, such impeccable organs of finance capital as the Economist and the Financial Times have expressed mounting exasperation at the antics of the Thai ruling elite. For example, on 4 September, the Economist dismissed the PAD with the following lines: “The PAD’s leaders, however, are neither liberals nor democrats. A gruesome bunch of reactionary businessmen, generals and aristocrats, they demand not fresh elections, which they would lose, but ‘new politics’- in fact a return to old-fashioned authoritarian rule, with a mostly appointed parliament and powers for the army to step in when it chooses.” (‘Worse than a coup’)
Their irritation has, needless to say, nothing to do with any genuine empathy for democracy or the interests of the poor, but stem rather from fear that, as with the Bourbon dynasty in pre-revolutionary France, or the Russian Tsarist regime, the venality, stupidity, greed and brutality of an anachronistic elite may end up undermining not only what is after all an ultimately dispensable set of imperialist servants, but will also place greater and more strategic imperialist interests in jeopardy.
As the Economist put it on 4 December: “In reality, with public anger at the queen’s support for the thuggish PAD and the unsuitability of Bhumibol’s heir simmering, Thailand risks the recent fate of Nepal, which has suffered a bitter civil war and whose meddling king is now a commoner in a republic. The PAD was nurtured by the palace and now threatens to engulf it. An enduring image of the past few days is that of PAD toughs shooting at government supporters while holding up the king’s portrait. The monarchy is now, more clearly than ever, part of the problem. It sits at the apex of a horrendously hierarchical and unequal society. You do not have to be a republican to agree that this needs to be discussed.” (‘The king and them’)
In the same edition, the Economist also sounded this warning note, redolent with historical parallels for anyone with even a passing familiarity with events in France in 1789 or Russia in 1905: “But the PAD’s ever more menacing behaviour, the palace’s failure to disown it, and the group’s insistence that Thais must choose between loyalty to Mr Thaksin and to the king, may be doing untold damage to the crown itself. Some of Mr Thaksin’s voters must be contemplating the flip-side of the PAD’s argument: if the monarchy is against the leader they keep voting for, maybe it is against them…
“At a pro-Thaksin rally in July a young activist ranted against the monarchy, calling the king ‘a thorn in the side of democracy’ for having backed so many coups, and warning the royal family they risked the guillotine. She was quickly arrested. What shocked the royalist establishment was not just the startling criticism of the king – but that the activist was cheered. ‘It is more and more difficult for them to hold the illusion that the monarchy is universally adored,’ says a Thai academic.” (‘A right royal mess’)
Simply put, the Thai elite feels that it cannot live with even a moderately reforming bourgeois government that concedes a minimum of rights and dignity to the poor rural majority. However, imperialism (which famously has no permanent allies only permanent interests) could live with such a government, if such is the only way to keep revolution at bay. At present, Thailand appears to have no left-wing political party of any significance. The US, Japanese and British imperialists would like to keep it that way, but the brutish and stupid Thai reactionaries, by criminalising and seeking to destroy their bourgeois democratic opponents, risk placing that in jeopardy.
Although the party is apparently currently defunct, imperialism has certainly not forgotten that, less than two decades ago, Thailand had one of the strongest communist movements in the region, outside of the socialist states. As the Wikipedia entry on the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) puts it: “In the 1960s the CPT grew in membership and support and by the early 1970s was the second largest communist movement in mainland South-East Asia (after Vietnam). Even though the CPT suffered internal divisions, at its political peak the party effectively acted as a state within the state. Its rural support is estimated to have been at least four million people; its military support consisted of 10-14,000 armed fighters.”
Moreover, a spectre is now haunting the region, that of the advancing Nepalese revolution. Writing in the International Herald Tribune of 1 December, Philip Bowring, a veteran and intelligent bourgeois commentator on south east Asian affairs, warned:
“As Nepal showed, monarchies can self-destruct when royal families have internal squabbles or when incompetent monarchs overreach themselves and set off a republican reaction.
“It is worth recalling that the late King Birendra of Nepal was a revered figure during a 30-year reign. But after his assassination in 2001 by a crazed son he was succeeded by King Gyanendra, who in 2005 dissolved Parliament and attempted direct monarchical rule. This was a total failure. Republicanism and a Maoist insurgency paved the way for elections and the monarchy was abolished in March.” (‘The crowd and the crown’)
Imperialism fully realises what the stakes are in Thailand, even if their longterm servants do not.