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.]

In Convoys of Red, Rural Masses Stage Historic Protest

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Mar 14 (IPS) - An unprecedented show of force by men and women from Thailand’s rural hinterland was on display over the weekend as they poured into Bangkok in the tens of thousands to stake a claim on having a voice in shaping this South-east Asian kingdom’s national agenda.
By Saturday evening, an estimated 80,000 anti-government protesters from the northern and north-eastern belts of Thailand had been ferried in to the capital in a scene never witnessed since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, say analysts, who described it as "phenomenal" and "a historic moment."

The protests, which are planned to peak on Monday, had the initial look of an army of soccer fans coming to watch a pivotal game.

There was a festive air, with loud music playing, as a convoy of thousands of pick-up trucks, larger six-wheel vehicles, vans and buses clogged a main highway leading into Bangkok. They were cheered on by hundreds of people who lined the streets during the final 65-kilometre stretch from Wang Noi district, close to the historic city of Ayutthaya.

But it was the colour that they sported – the signature red shirts, with anti- government slogans on some – that affirmed this was an assertion of political identity and mobilisation by a constituency often marginalised and dismissed by Bangkok’s conservative political machine in the firm grip of the entrenched elite, royalists and the powerful military.

Each vehicle also flew the flag of the red shirts, who belong to the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), a protest movement whose political patron is the fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Some of these "rural hordes," as the pro-establishment English-language daily the ‘Bangkok Post’ contemptuously referred to this UDD assertion of strength, included the likes of Narong Unsri, a retired radio operator who had worked in a natural gas drilling company. The 62-year-old had journeyed for 12 hours with seven others in a van until Wang Noi. Others, like Ruakchai Sitilwan, employed in a marketing network, had spent 18 hours on the road with four others in a pick-up truck.

Nearly 80 percent of those from the 19 north-eastern provinces who had come in the convoy were farmers, says Narong, sipping on iced coffee. "We are going to Bangkok to tell the government that we need an election because this government is a hijacked government."

Narong was referring to the question of legitimacy around the 15-month- old coalition government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Rather than winning through a popular mandate through an election, he came to power after the powerful military shaped a backroom deal to ensure that he got an endorsement in a parliamentary vote.

On Saturday night, speakers at the rally site railed against other favourite objects of their ire, ranging from the "double standards" in the country’s political system to criticism of the political aristocracy that they say wields power without having been elected or being held accountable.

The UDD’s rally in Bangkok, underway in areas that have been the sites of major anti-government protests in the past, has been billed as a "million- man" protest to force the Abhisit administration to dissolve parliament and go for an election.

While the UDD’s target of one million protesters is far from being reached, the political significance of Thailand’s rural following camping out in the capital to influence political change has already been achieved.

"This is the biggest rally by rural people who have come to Bangkok making demands on national political issues," says Thanet Aphornsuvan, a historian at Bangkok’s Thammasat University. "This is phenomenal. It should come as a shock to Bangkok’s political system."

"It shows the capacity of rural political mobilisation of a new kind," he added in an interview with IPS. "A long-held view that rural people vote governments in and Bangkok people get them out (through protests) is not absolute anymore. We are seeing the opposite of that today."

The last time farmers of significant numbers flooded the streets of the Thai capital was in the early 1990s. An estimated 20,000 of them were brought in by the Assembly of the Poor, a network of non-governmental organisations, to protest against a range of specific issues from development and dam construction to land problems. They stayed for over a week outside Government House, the prime minister’s office.

Since then, farmers’ associations from the provinces have brought in smaller numbers to raise a cry outside Government House against unfair prices for their agriculture products. At most, these groups have mustered some 5,000 demonstrators.

"In the past, Bangkok has witnessed people from rural areas come to the capital for issue-based protests," says Naruemon Thabchumpon, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University here. "This time, they want to take on national issues and want to come direct to the city to make their demands."

"It is one step forward for democracy," she explained to IPS. "We are seeing a new form of identity politics. They are proud to show that they are red shirts and happy to be identified with what the UDD is standing for."

The Abhisit administration, however, sees the UDD rally in a different light. "I think it is being led by a personality cult," Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said on Friday to a group of foreign correspondents, referring to Thaksin, whose face adorns many of the protesters’ shirts.

"The demonstrators are only backing one political personality," he added. "We have answered their grievances through two (economic) stimulus packages."

But UDD leaders say they are bent on stepping up their protests, although the Prime Minister has repeatedly rejected calls for his resignation or new polls and said he will carry out his term. "I have the right to complete my term," Abhisit said during his weekly television broadcast on Sunday, adding that his government had been accepted widely.

The triumph of this military-backed administration in December 2008 had enraged supporters of Thaksin, many of whom back the UDD. The current Abhisit-led coalition replaced a pro-Thaksin party that had been elected a year before, in December 2007, but was dissolved following a controversial court verdict.

The Abhisit government came to power over two years after Thaksin’s second term was cut short in September 2006 by a military coup, the country’s 18th putsch, that sought to get rid of an administration that had won thumping majorities in two elections due to deep support in the rural heartland.

These electoral triumphs were shaped by a range of pro-poor policies that Thaksin implemented while he was in power, including universal health care and pumping in millions of dollars to build the grassroots economy.

The former prime minister, currently living in exile to avoid a two-year jail term for corruption, has seen his fortunes wane since his ouster. The billionaire telecommunications tycoon was stripped over 1.5 billion U.S. dollars of his assets by the Supreme Court in a late February verdict that found Thaksin guilty of corruption.

Rather than bury the influence Thaksin has on millions of rural voters, the court’s verdict added to the list of faults they attribute to the political aristocracy in Bangkok. "We see this as double standards by the justice system and we are here for the rally to say this must end," a 42-year-old woman who works in rice and sugarcane fields in the north-east province of Udon Thani, told IPS.


Giles says: “The real question facing the movement is how to seize state power.”

WHERE IS SOCIALISM? How can Thais organize to move the people backing the UDD toward forming a socialist non-sectarian, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist political party, committed to a radical anti-oppression politics and to building unity/solidarity among the broadest working class, including teachers, service industry workers, government employees, agriculturalists, fisherfolk, the rubber farmers from all over the Thai south? What political grouping in Thailand even comes close to that? That's the real question facing the movement.

Giles Ungpakorn’s miniscule Marxist-Leninist group KRP (กลุ่มประชาธิปไตยแรงงาน ), an affiliate of the IST, has little base whatsoever in the broader population, esp. outside the capital. As a minute cadre group it does good work, but hardly a drop in this red sea of anger and momentary solidarity. The Assembly of the Poor (สมัชชาคนจน ), now 15 years old, has done little to build a political party to contest power, or an inclusive grassroots movement that is organised locally and visible from Satun province in the far south to Loei in the Northeast. The Thai Labour Campaign,10 years in struggle ( ), facing huge constraints, has made too few inroads, esp. outside metro Bangkok.

Thailand needs a mass rural/urban labor movement, along the lines perhaps of a Thai IWW, and a massive socialist worker-farmer party. Not a reborn Bolshevik CPT. The repression against Giles has forced him to flee the country and write from exile in UK. The Redshirts should be demanding HIS return, instead of the tycoon Thaksin and his coterie of corrupt politicians. This is Thai populism. What a paradox.

Are the Reds’ leaders in any sense socialists? Could they begin to form a democratic socialist groundswell movement that can build a party? Read what Weng Tojirakam says and you will wonder. A movement to return to the past?

WORKERS ASSEMBLY: One way to begin building on this upsurge is to explore a Thai variant of a possible new Canadian paradigm Could such workers’ assemblies be created in provinces across the country? Seedpods for a people’s working families party not backed by the corporate elite or Thaksin’s funding.

THAI POLITICAL GEOGRAPHY: The political geography of Thailand continues to play a major role: much of the rural working class in provinces south of metro Bangkok are not in the Redshirt ranks. Even though the military-backed government scarcely represents their interests, they continue largely to support it. As do many Muslim workers in the Thai far south. The rural protesters, largely rice farmers (80%?), are mainly from Isaan, the Lao-speaking chronically impoverished Northeast. They responded to Thaksin’s populist policies. That element of political-social geography continues to stymie the building of a nation-wide mass movement of working families from all walks and provinces. And is also used to discredit the Red movement on the streets, as being mainly from Isaan, a ‘regional’ insurgency 'funded by Thaksin.' A protest calling principally for new elections in a system where the working classes have little representation in any party. As Giles notes, Thaksin is as royalist as the rest.

ABSENCE OF LEFT INTELLECTUAL-ACTIVIST STRATUM: it is striking that aside from Giles, close in his politics to the British SWP, almost no other Thai progressive voices on the left are heard outside the country, and few within. The overwhelming majority of Thai academics across the country have few visions of an alternative people’s politics that could build a socialist movement. Many are remarkably apolitical. Another paradox in this mix.

CRITICAL WATERSHED: all Thais know when the King departs the true juncture for possible change will be reached. The struggle then, as in Iran in 1978/79, and Nepal, will probably become one between the people and the army.
All the more why now is the time to build the socialist base.


(Live negotiations 28/3/2010)

Commentary by Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The Red Shirt leaders called for a dissolution of Parliament and immediate elections so that the electorate could decide on whether or not (and how) to amend the military Constitution of 2007 and also to decide on future government policies.

     Abhisit gave no commitment to fresh elections and questioned the reason for such elections. All he could say is that “we hear what you say”. According to Abhisit further negotiations were necessary. Basically his position was to buy more time while not proposing any concrete time table.

     Abhisit falsely claimed that he was “democratically elected, not manoeuvred into power by the military”. He claimed that he “always” opposed the “methods” of the 2006 coup. When challenged about whether he would reject all laws and bodies which stemmed from this illegal coup and oppose military intervention in politics, he said that any amendments to the military Constitution of 2007, as demanded by the Red Shirts, would have to be made by both the elected House of Representatives and the Senate. Half the Senators were appointed by the military after the coup. In other words, while Abhisit claimed to oppose the 2006 coup, he supports all the measures brought in by the military junta, including the military appointed senators. He also asked if the Red Shirts would accept the interventions of courts after any future elections if a political party was found to be in breach of election laws. This implies that Abhisit supported the manoeuvring of the courts which dissolved the elected Samak government on the grounds that Samak engaged in a cooking programme on TV.

     Abhisit implied that any further negotiations should also involve other parties which might not be happy with amending the military Constitution. In other words Abhisit thinks that the PAD should be involved in negotiations. He also resurrected the old chestnut about the “silent majority” not supporting either side in order to argue that the Red Shirts did not represent the majority. Yet repeated elections and the size of Red Shirt mass demonstrations undermines Abhisit’s claim. The fact that he was forced to negotiate with Red Shirt leaders on live TV is also an indication of the Red Shirt’s strength.

     Abhisit refused to answer whether the present Thai state was controlled by the military and other non-constitutional elements. He refused to comment on the fact that the military Constitution enshrines the legitimacy of the 2006 coup. He refused to answer the charge that the military had illegally allowed the PAD to seize the international airports  against the wishes of an elected government in late 2008. He claimed that the military Constitution of 2007 was accepted by a democratic referendum. He ignored the fact, pointed out by Red Shirt leaders, that many provinces were under martial law at the time of the referendum and the fact that the military junta spent millions in a one-sided campaign to accept the Constitution.

     Abhisit stated that before fresh elections could be held, the issue of Constitutional amendments should be solved and society had to be “peaceful”. On the side of the Government, PM secretary-general Korbsak Sabhavasu also stated that the Constitution should not be amended by the party that wins a future election because this would not be “democratic”. But the Red Shirt leaders affirmed that they wanted Parliament dissolved now and fresh elections held as soon as possible. They pointed out that they were making these demands on behalf of millions of Red Shirts who have little patience for a continuation of the military backed Government. They maintained that fresh elections should be held before any new amendments to the Constitution are made. This is so that the people can give their opinion in fresh elections about how to proceed with the Constitution without any further delays or excuses for delays. Let us see what the people decide. If Abhisit claims he is representative of the majority of the electorate he shouldn’t be worried about fresh elections. The PAD now have their own political party, so their support can be tested in practice by elections. The Red Shirts said that if Abhisit felt that he could govern the country right now in the face of mass protests then he could just ignore the demands for elections. The question is... can he really govern?

The negotiations were adjourned for a toilet break at 18.57 Bangkok time.

PM secretary-general Korbsak Sabhavasu claimed that elections would solve nothing and possibly lead to a crisis. What guarantee was there that people would accept the result? The Red Shirts repeatedly gave assurances that Red Shirts would accept the result of democratic elections. What Korbsak failed to mention was that the crisis resulted from the fact that the military, the PAD and the Democrat Party refused to accept the results of democratic elections ever since 2005.

     The Red Shirts proposed an ultimatum that Parliament should be dissolved within 2 weeks and that they would wait until tomorrow to hear the answer of the Government.

Negotiations ended at 19.22 Bangkok time.

While these negotiations were taking place, a gang of thugs set fire to the food tents of the Red Shirts.



Broadcast live on TV

Commentry by Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The Government side requested a period of secret negotiations before the live broadcast. This was rejected by the Red Shirt leaders in the interests of transparency.

     Red Shirt leaders repeated their demand for the dissolution of parliament within 15 days and elections in 45 days.

     Abhisit replied that fresh elections would solve nothing and that a dissolution within 15 days was “impossible”. He stated that there were certain conditions to be met before elections. He claimed that no one should give in to “mob rule or mob demands”. Yet, in the past, Abhisit’s Democrat Party always cooperated with the PAD mob which seized the international airports and Government House, which eventually led to a military installed illegitimate government with Abhisit as PM in December 2008.

     Red Shirt leaders stated that the present government was created in the military barracks. The Government also presided over “double standards” in the application of laws. There were many cases of corruption in Sufficiency Economy projects, military purchases and other projects. They stated that they have no faith in the Government’s commitment to reforming the Constitution. Abhisit can only stay in power by having armed soldiers stationed at every corner of the capital city. An election where various parties outline their economic and social policies and their proposals for constitutional reform and put them to the electorate is therefore the best and most democratic option.

     Abhisit denied that there were legal double standards applied under his government. Yet no one from the PAD has been punished for seizing the airports and Government House and using violence on the streets in 2008. He brushed aside any need to consider amending the final clause of the military Constitution which gives legitimacy to the 2006 coup. Abhisit claimed that it was impossible to hold peaceful elections in the present climate. He lied that the 19th September 2006 coup happened because there were violent clashes between two groups.

     The Red Shirt leaders answered that the only democratic way to resolve the present deep divisions in society was to ask the electorate to decide the future of Thailand. The Red Shirts then proposed the dissolution of parliament within 2 months.

     Abhisit introduced yet another condition for holding elections in order to buy time and stretch out the time before elections. He said that elections could not be held until the economy stabilised. He repeated that constitutional amendments and a referendum to approve such amendments would have to be made first before elections. In effect he was saying that elections could not be held until at least the end of 2010 and maybe even later. It might even be the case that it would take longer to achieve these things than the one year and nine months. That is when new elections must be held according to present the military Constitution.

     Nothing was achieved by these negotiations and the danger is that talks might continue behind closed doors without proper accountability to the democracy movement.


Thai NGOs side with Military-Royalist Government against the pro-Democracy Movement of the Poor

By Giles Ji Ungpakorn

March 30, 2010 -- One again the Thai NGOs have sided with the Military-installed Royalist Government against the demands of hundreds of thousands of pro-Democracy Red Shirts. The Red Shirts, who represent millions of ordinary working people in urban and rural areas, have been staging huge protests in Bangkok in recent days. Their demands are for the dissolution of parliament and fresh elections. They want the issue of constitutional reform and Government policy to be determined by the electorate in elections. The present Government was installed by the military following a coup in 2006, manoeuvrings by pro-military judges, violent demonstrations by semi-fascist Yellow Shirts and the proclamation of a military inspired Constitution. This Constitution has decreased the democratic space in Thai political society. One example is the fact that the previously elected Senate is now half appointed by the military.

     The reaction of military-backed Prime Minister Abhisit was to say that “elections solve nothing” and that he would not dissolve parliament until a long drawn out process of “constitutional reform was carried out”. His government has been pretending to deal with constitutional reform for over a year with no results. Naturally, the main Government party, which has never won anything approaching a majority in elections, has “little faith in elections”. The excuse for the 2006 coup was that the majority of the electorate were “too ill-informed to have the right to vote”. Yet repeated elections since 2001 have shown strong support for Red Shirt parties.

     During the latest negotiations between Red Shirts and the Government, the NGOs have backed the Military/Royalist Government’s position, as outlined by Abhisit in the televised negotiations. These NGO groups include NGO-COD, the Consumers’ Network, the Health Network, the Sustainable Agriculture Network, the People Living With AIDS network and FTA Watch (see Prachatai 29/3/2010). They want constitutional reform before any elections. They see the main threat to Democracy coming from “Electioneering Politicians” rather than the Military and the Royalist Elites. They ask the Government to “consider” holding elections in 6 months time. This position is nothing new. These NGO groups supported the 2006 coup and had close links with the PAD. They are opposed to Representative Democracy and are suspicious of voting. They regard ordinary villagers and working folk with contemp. NGO Senator Rosana even referred to the recent Red Shirt protestors as “uncivilised”. The latest NGO position is even more reactionary than the position of many academics who signed an open letter calling for elections in 6 months.

     Thai NGOs have long ceased to side with the poor and oppressed in society. They have become an elitist group of professional aid workers.

Dr Tajing Siripanit, a commissioner from the Thai National Human Rights Commission, stated on NBT television at 13.30 on 4th April 2010, that the military-backed Government “would be justified in using force” against the peaceful pro-democracy Red Shirt protestors “because they were disrupting shopping” in the centre of Bangkok. In fact, the Red Shirts are not blocking the pedestrian entrances to any shopping centres.

Previously, the National Human Rights Commission remained quiet about the fascist-PAD blockade of the international airports in 2008 and the 2006 military coup. They have remained silent about the use of lese majeste against Government critics and they are silent on the censorship of the media. Many members of the National Human Rights Commission are PAD supporters.

This is an example of what the Red Shirts mean when they say that the “independent bodies” are staffed by military junta appointees. This is why we need immediate fresh elections and the abolition of the military Constitution.

Most Thai NGOs who repeatedly called for the democratically elected Peoples Power (Red Shirt) Government to use restraint against the PAD protestors in 2008, have remained silent during the present government’s threats to use force against Red Shirt protestors who are maintaining peaceful protests in the streets. They have also supported the military-backed Government’s refusal to call immediate fresh elections. Some NGOs have said that local community rights issues need to be sorted out first before elections, as though community rights and Democracy have nothing to do with each other! Amnesty International in Thailand has PAD supporters on its staff and so AI has refused to take up lese majeste prisoners as prisoners of conscience.