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Why socialists in Thailand call for a vote for Thaksin's Pheu Thai Party
Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, leads the Pheu Thai.
By Giles Ji Ungpakorn, Turn Left Thailand
June 16, 2011 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Normally, no socialist should ever call for a vote for a capitalist party in any election. To do so would risk making the kind of mistakes that the Stalinists used to make when they adopted the Popular Front strategy, building alliances with the bourgeoisie and making anti-working class concessions. But it is my opinion, that in the July 3, 2011, general election in Thailand, socialists have no choice but to call for a vote for the Pheu Thai Party [also spelled Peua Thai Party]. Pheu Thai is a thoroughly capitalist party.
The Pheu Thai Party is the descendant of the Thai Rak Thai Party of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Although a party of big business, like all other Thai parties, it was democratically elected to office, with a large majority. This is because it put forward pro-poor policies such as universal health care. But this Thai Rak Thai government was overthrown by a right-wing royalist military coup in 2006 and the party
was disbanded by right-wing judges.
Thai Rak Thai morphed into the Palang Prachachon Party, which won the next general election in 2007. This government was then brought down in 2008 by a combination of legal manoeuvres, fascist demonstrations (which closed the airports) and pressure from the military. The party was disbanded by the courts and the present “Democrat Party” government under Abhisit Vejjajiva was installed by the military. Thaksin’s party morphed a second time into Pheu Thai Party and a mass movement for democracy arose. This was the mass movement called the Red Shirts.
The Red Shirts are the largest mass movement in Thai political history, larger than the communist movement in the 1970s and numbering many hundreds of thousands. Its supporters run into millions. Its main base is among the poor: small-scale farmers, petty traders, urban workers and the urban poor. Although made up of supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra, the movement has developed beyond him. It has moved to the left, stressing the inequality in Thai society. Last year it staged huge demonstrations for democracy.
Many aspects of Thai society, including the monarchy and the military are regularly criticised in Red Shirt circles. In April and May last year, the Democrat Party government and the military shot up to 90 unarmed Red Shirt demonstrators. Now a general election will be held in early July 2011.
Obviously Thai socialists had to relate to and join the Red Shirt mass movement. Turn Left Thailand did just this. But we are extremely small. We have less than 50 members with two key members exiled abroad. We have been trying to relate to a movement of hundreds of thousands. We have managed to have an input into political debates. We have urged people to learn from the Arab uprisings, especially the importance of mass movements and workers’ strikes. We argue that we don’t just want democracy, although that is extremely important. We want a welfare state and eventually socialism. We have also campaigned against draconian royalist laws and for the release of political prisoners.
In the coming election, millions of Red Shirt supporters will be hoping for a Peua Thai victory. Such a victory will not be easy given the level of censorship and repression and the opportunities for the military and the elites to fix the election. The head of the army has been on army-controlled TV many times, warning of a “republican plot”. This is
an attempt to stop people voting for Pheu Thai, even though it is in no way a republican party. The National Human Rights Commission and the Electoral Commission are staffed by royalists. There are no parties of the left or the trade union movement.
The coming election is not about trying to get a woman to become Thailand’sprime minister [Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, leads the Pheu Thai], even though a Pheu Thai victory would have such a result. We are well aware that the politics of the candidate is much more important than their gender. We have seen reactionary women leaders in the Philippines, India and Britain.
The election will be a stark choice between the forces of dictatorship and repression and a party which represents the democratic aspirations of millions. If the Democrat Party and the military have a victory at the polls, they will claim democratic legitimacy for everything that they have done since the 2006 coup, including the shooting of
demonstrators. That is why Thai socialists have to call for a vote for Pheu Thai.
We make no concessions to Pheu Thai in doing so. We are talking to Red Shirts, not Pheu Thai.
To call for an abstention would be seen to be side-stepping the fight and it would make us totally irrelevant. Not only that, the fascist PAD [People's Alliance for Democracy, or Yellow Shirts] movement is calling for an abstention because it set up a party and now realises that it will not be able to win any seats.
But by calling for a vote for Pheu Thai, socialists have to point out that we should have absolutely no illusions. We should not have illusions that Pheu Thai want to take on the ruling elites and destroy the power of the military.Pheu Thai won’t campaign against royalist repressive laws and won’t want to bring the generals, judges and
authoritarian politicians to justice. Pheu Thai certainly won’t start to build a welfare state.
The power to bring about real change in Thai society lies with the Red Shirts. But this mass movement has to be convinced politically that these tasks are necessary. That is what we and many others are trying to do. But to be able to argue and discuss with Red Shirt activists, we need also to stand with them in the immediate electoral battle. We must also talk about the need to build a socialist party as an alternative to Pheu Thai.
Turn Left Thailand welcomes any discussions which international comrades might wish to have with us on this issue.
Thailand: Election is referendum on butchers of Rajprasong
By Giles Ji Ungpakorn
June 17, 2011 -- Red Thai Socialist, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- The political situation in Thailand today does not bode well for free and fair elections on July 3. This point cannot be stressed enough. It is very hard for democratic elections to take place when the country is being ruled by non-democratic politicians like Abhisit Vejjajiva, who was installed by the military after a judicial coup in late 2008. Previously the military had staged its own coup to overthrow a democratically elected government in 2006. What is more, those in power ordered the deliberate shooting of unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators last year. Up to 90 people died, mainly at the hands of specially trained snipers. In Thailand today there is no freedom of expression and freedom to access information. The present military-backed government is using draconian censorship of the internet and community media and it controls all mainstream media outlets. It also uses the lèse majesté and computer crimes laws to jail those who express views contrary to the Government and the military.
So what is amazing is that the opposition Pheu Thai Party, closely allied to the pro-democracy Red Shirts, is leading in the opinion polls. Will it be allowed to form a government if it wins the most seats? Will the military and the conservative elites fix the election outcome? These are big questions on the minds of most Thais.
Fear of a Pheu Thai victory has energised the head of the army, Prayut Junocha, into making an anti-Pheu Thai speech on the two main TV channels owned by the military. He has invoked the spectre of an anti-monarchy movement in a desperate attempt to convince people not to vote for Pheu Thai. But it isn't working. The way in which the monarchy has consistently been used by the military to justify the 2006 coup, the destruction of democracy and the killings of unarmed demonstrators last year, and the fact that the king has remained silent about the prolonged crisis, allowing innocent people to be murdered, has changed people’s attitudes to the monarchy.
In the run up to these elections, the military, the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) and the Electoral Commission, with support from the Democrat Party government, are taking further steps to fix this election. It will not be anything so crude as just stuffing ballot boxes in all constituencies, however. It will be structural fraud.
The military and DSI have accused Red Shirt leaders of lèse majesté. The DSI has said that it can charge people with this law for merely using “body language” like clapping or smiling when someone else makes a speech. The Electoral Commission has also suggested that any political party which mentions the monarchy, in whatever light, can be banned and dissolved. This has created the conditions where the rule can be selectively used against the Pheu Thai Party.
The election is a high risk strategy. The elites are extremely worried by the outcome of the election, but also desperately need to gain legitimacy by actually winning for once. Only the fascist PAD want elections scrapped altogether. Disgracefully, this PAD sentiment is echoed by one key election commissioner!
Previous to this, the conservative elites have changed the election rules and the structures of power to favour their side in many different ways.
1. “Normalising” military intervention by staging the 2006 coup, rewriting the constitution and appointing pro-military senators.
2. Using draconian censorship and military and government control of the mainstream media in order to try to sway public opinion.
3. Appointing conservative royalists to the Election Commission and the National Human Rights Commission. The Election Commission can disqualify Red Shirt politicians after the election, under weak pretexts if necessary. This could significantly cut Pheu Thai's possible majority.
4. Using the biased courts to dissolve political parties.
5. Suggesting that the political party with most “party list” seats, excluding constituency seats, should have the right to form a government or arguing that the party with most seats does not have the automatic right to try to form a government.
6. Increasing the use of the lèse majesté and computer crimes laws against any opposition and using lethal violence against demonstrators, designed to cause fear and demoralisation among Red Shirts.
7. Using threats and bribes to urge corrupt politicians to side with the Democrat Party.
This election is a clear and straight contest between those who favour brutal dictatorship and those who favour democracy.
Despite the persistence all parties handing out cash to the electors, vote buying will not be an issue because people are clear about what is at stake.
The election isn't about Thaksin Shinawatra either, although most Red Shirts are very favourable towards him because of his pro-poor policies. It is the military, the fascist PAD and the Democrat Party want to make the election about Thaksin, but only the Thai and some foreign media fall for this trick.
The military and the Democrats also want this election to be about the king. This may blow up in their faces. Will people interpret a high vote for Pheu Thai as an indication of a strong republican mood? Many media channels still talk about “clashes” between the army and the Red Shirts last year. This term is used to describe the deliberate use of snipers and tanks against unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators. Similar terms are not used by the same media when describing the Syrian crackdown.
Such media also talk about “Thaksin’s corruption and abuse of power”, while ignoring the blatant abuse of power by the military and the Democrat Party and the corruption of the military and certain Democrat politicians. Military spending has skyrocketed after the coup and the military installed Abhisit government. That is corruption on a grand scale. “Thaksin’s corruption” is convenient shorthand handle for lazy reporters to stick on Thaksin.
Thaksin may have been corrupt, although the military have only managed to convict him of one single offence of allowing his wife to buy land off the state while he was prime minister. The land was actually sold at market rates. However Thaksin was responsible for human rights abuses in the war on drugs and in the south. But this election is not a referendum on Thaksin. It is a referendum on the butchers of Rajprasong [the site of the killing of Red Shirt protesters]: the military and the Democrat Party who ordered the killings last year.
It is important to bear all this in mind when news about the election emerges.
Only elitist commentators see this election as 'just about Thaksin'
By Giles Ji Ungpakorn
June 19, 2011 -- In a recent New York Times article, Thai studies academic Chris Baker is quoted as saying that “this election is about nothing else. It's about Thaksin [Shinawatra] and what has happened to him in the last five years.”
This is a common view held by all those who subscribe to the elitist view of Thai politics. The thrust of the argument is that ordinary Thais, especially poor people, do not understand democracy and are not really interested in politics. The implication is that before the 2006 military coup, Thaksin “bought” the support of the majority of the electorate, with both money and short-term populist policies, and in doing so, trapped them in a patron-client system. Thus all Red Shirts and those who will enthusiastically vote for the Pheu Thai party on July 3 have been “led by the nose” like buffaloes.
This kind of argument was used by right-wing neoliberal opponents of Thaksin’s universal health care and village fund job-creation policies. These academics and Democrat Party politicians argued at the time, and people like Peter Warr still argue now, that such “short-term populism” was “bad for the country”. The implication is that it would be better for everyone if Thais did not have secure jobs and universal health care, a point of view only possible for middle-class people who never have to worry about hospital bills and unemployment or under-employment.
Academics like Chris Baker support the king’s sufficiency economic ideology which is in clear opposition to redistribution policies. For the king, the poor should find ways to survive in their poverty while the rich can spend as much as they like. No wonder the Thai neoliberals love this ideology. It justifies not spending government funds on improving the lives of the majority.
The elitist argument was extended to justify the 2006 coup by claiming that “it wasn’t possible to have democratic elections” because the majority of the electorate had been “bought” and felt obliged to their patron Thaksin. This was merely a poor fig leaf to disguise the fact that these elitist were prepared to back a military coup if the people voted for “the wrong party”.
Since the rise of the Red Shirt movement, the elitists have tried to paint this movement, the largest social movement in Thai history, as merely a “Thaksin fan club”. This is the view of Jon Ungphakorn and many others, who believed at the time of the 2006 coup, that the majority of the electorate voted for Thai Rak Thai “because they lacked the proper information” or were poorly educated.
The Red Shirt movement was not built by Thaksin. He has shown an inability to build or lead mass movements. But he needs the Red Shirts and the Red Shirts see him as a very important political figure. That doesn't mean that the Red Shirts are just a Thaksin fan club which is being manipulated by him. The movement was built and sustained by hundreds of grassroots activists.
Whether they are conscious or not of the implications of their views, the elitist analysis treats ordinary Thais like ignorant children. At no time are ordinary people credited with having any political understanding and of being able to develop that understanding through struggle. Yet, real-world field work in Thailand, by anthropologists like Andrew Walker, shows a very sophisticated rural electorate which is able to weigh up the pros and cons of each party’s policy.
The elitists believe that they are the “enlightened ones in society” who can see through all the bullshit of the populist politicians. Only they know what is good for the country and good for the people.
The elitist view of Thai politics has been around for a long time. In the mid-1950s people like Fred Riggs were writing that Thai politics was really just about what the elites do, because the vast majority of the population were “passive” and “politically ignorant”. More recently, Paul Handley, in his banned book The King Never Smiles, insults the poor by saying that they are weak and stupid.
Most Red Shirts, but not all, are enthusiastic supporters of Thaksin because for the first time in decades a politician and his party took the poor seriously and believed that they should be brought in as stakeholders in Thailand’s development. That is not being “led by the nose” or being trapped in a patron-client system.
But anyone who has communicated with Red Shirts will also know that they have a whole spectrum of political views and that they turned out on many demonstrations over the years because they were angry with the destruction of democracy and the way that the majority of citizens are treated without respect. Not only do they want democracy, they want dignity, justice and a degree of economic equality. After the April and May 2010 shootings of nearly 90 unarmed Red Shirt protesters in Bangkok, after the imprisonment of hundreds of political prisoners, the blanket censorship, the use of lèse majesté and the silent approval of all this by the king, hundreds of thousands of Red Shirts are also very angry.
It is strange but true that what General Paryut Junocha said, about the election being about the monarchy, could be partly right. If so, a large vote for Pheu Thai might be interpreted as a modest vote by many, but not all, against the monarchy.
Ironically, the well-educated, royalist conservatives are the very people in Thailand who place blind faith in the superhuman efforts of one top leader, who is supposed to have done everything for Thailand. Perhaps they are the ones who are “too stupid” to be allowed a role in politics?
On July 3 Red Shirts will be voting for democracy, dignity, justice, equality and the need to punish the generals and the Democrat Party politicians who have blood on their hands. They will also be voting for Thaksin. But the irony is that they also know, somewhere in the back of their minds, that neither Thaksin nor Pheu Thai will be able or even willing to solve the deep political crisis to the satisfaction of most Red Shirts.
[Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a political commentator and dissident. In February 2009 he had to leave Thailand for exile in Britain because he was charged with lèse majesté for writing a book criticising the 2006 military coup. He is a member of Left Turn Thailand, a socialist organisation. His latest book, Thailand’s Crisis and the Fight for Democracy, will be of interest to activists, academics and journalists who have an interest in Thai politics, democratisation and NGOs. His website is at http://redthaisocialist.com/.]