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Thailand's `class war': Hundreds of thousands take to the streets to demand democracy

Bangkok, March 14, 2010

By Giles Ji Ungpakorn

March 15, 2010 -- Hundreds of thousands of Thai Red Shirt pro-democracy demonstrators took to the streets of Bangkok and other cities over the weekend of March 13-14. This was a show of force to prove the strength of the movement and to dispel any lies by the royalist government and the media that the Red Shirts are not representative of the majority.

The stated aims of the movement are to force the military-installed government of Abhisit Vejjajiva to dissolve parliament and hold fresh elections. However, it is difficult to see how the Red Shirt leadership is going to turn this massive show of popular anger into a force that can confront and overcome the army, which staged a coup back in 2006. This is because the Red Shirt leaders are not yet prepared to launch an all out ideological attack on the military and the monarchy.

Calling fresh elections will not solve this problem. However, the massive turn out of Red Shirts from Bangkok and the provinces is an important step forward. The vast majority of Red Shirts are poor people, both urban and rural, and the Red Shirt leaders are at last talking openly about a “class struggle” between the people and the elites. They need to go further and agitate among the urban working class and the lower ranks of the army in order to build up the momentum for revolutionary change. Any compromise will retain the power of the royalist elites who have constantly frustrated democracy.

The political crisis and unrest which we have seen in Thailand since the September 19, 2006, military coup against the elected government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra represents a serious class war between the rich conservatives and the urban and rural poor. It is not a pure class war and those taking part have different aims and different concepts of democracy. Due to a vacuum on the left since the collapse of the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT), millionaire and populist politician Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai party managed to inspire millions of ordinary Thais.

Despite the fact that many commentators try to explain the present conflict as only an elite dispute between Thaksin and the conservatives, and that it is a dispute between “the old feudal order” fighting back against “the modern capitalist class”, this is not what the conflict is really about. The missing element in most analyses is the actions of millions of ordinary people.

Thaksin built an alliance with workers and peasants through his pro-poor policies such as the first ever universal healthcare scheme and local village funds to develop rural areas. The Red Shirts like Thaksin, but they are not just being used by him or fighting only for his return. They want real democracy and social justice. Both Thaksin and his conservative opponents are royalists in modern terms, in that both sides seek to use the institution of the monarchy in order to help support capitalist class rule. Feudalism was abolished in Thailand in the 1870s.

What gradually turned the conservatives against Thaksin was their fear that they would lose their privileges in the face of Thaksin’s widespread modernisation program, which had mass popular support. In the past the elites had used a combination of military power, royalist ideology and money politics in order to ignore the wishes of the population.

Neither Thaksin nor the conservative royalists intended their dispute to turn into a class war. But the mass pro-democracy movement is starting to question the entire elite structure, including the monarchy. This is because of the arrogant attitude of the conservative royalists and the prolonged nature of the crisis, plus the self-organisation and self-funding of millions of Red Shirts at grassroots level. This class war is bringing about changes in political attitudes and putting all sections of society to the test. But the real question facing the movement is how to seize state power.

[Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a Thai socialist currently in exile in Britain. His latest book Thailand’s Crisis and the Fight for Democracy”will be published in April 2010.]

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