Thailand's 'parallel war': Thaksin and the Red Shirts

A mobilisation by Thailand's Red Shirt democracy movement in September 2010.

[For more on Thailand and the Red Shirt movement, click HERE.]

By Giles Ji Ungpakorn

September 9, 2012 -- Links international Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Six years after the September 19 coup d'état against the Thaksin Shinawatra government, it is possible to look back and assess the impact of the crisis on Thai politics and society.

One way of understanding the “dialectical” relationship between Thaksin Shinawatra and the Red Shirts democracy movement is to borrow the concept of a “parallel war” from Donny Gluckstein's book on the Second World War.[1] According to Gluckstein there were two parallel wars against the Axis powers. One was an imperialist war, waged by the ruling classes of Britain, the United States and Russia for their own interests, while the other war was a people's war against fascism, waged by ordinary working people, many of them socialists.

The two wars often overlapped in the minds of millions, but their aims were very different. We can see a kind of “parallel war” in the Red Shirt/United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) struggles against the military-royalist elites, where thousands of ordinary Red Shirts struggled for democracy, dignity and social justice, while Thaksin and his political allies waged a very different campaign to regain the political influence that they had enjoyed before the 2006  coup d'état.

This explains the betrayal of the Red Shirt struggle by Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin and their Pheu Thai Party. For anyone doubting the scale of betrayal one only has to look at the issues of lèse majesté, political prisoners and the non-punishment of state officials for killing protesters. The Yingluck government has increased the use of lèse majesté [the law against "insulting" the monarchy] and refused to countenance any reforms of the law or even the justice system.

Lèse majesté political prisoners like Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, Surachai Darnwatanatrakun and Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul (Da Torpedo) languish in jail and their plight as prisoners of conscience is ignored by the National Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International. Even Red Shirt prisoners who were not charged with lèse majesté, but merely jailed for taking part in street protests, are still locked up in the “political prison”. As for the punishment of politicians and military commanders for the cold-blooded murder of unarmed demonstrators in 2010, no significant progress has or will be made.

The reason for this disgraceful Pheu Thai position is that Thaksin and his allies see the struggle as one between them and their political opponents in the military and the Democrat Party. Thaksin's dispute with the military has been quietly buried, leaving the Democrat Party as the only official opponent. Thaksin is equally keen to use the monarchy for his own legitimacy, just like the military, the top civil servants and other big business leaders. That is why he wishes to preserve the attack on the freedom of speech represented by lèse majesté.

Thaksin has never been committed to human rights and under his government innocent civilians were murdered in the "war on drugs" and in crushing protests in the south in 2004. The idea of holding any state officials and politicians to account for killing civilians is not on his agenda. Even on the issue of increasing living standards, the partial increase in the minimum wage to 300 baht a day in some areas has now been coupled with a two-year pay freeze.

Despite the fact that thousands of Red Shirts supported Thaksin, their struggle was shaped by their own different agenda, an agenda for the freedom and equality of ordinary citizens. Only in Thaksin's egotistical dreams were the Red Shirts fighting for him alone. Many Red Shirts are bitter about what has happened since the Pheu Thai election victory. Many others are not ready to conclude that there has been a terrible betrayal. They continue to make up excuses for the Yingluck government. These excuses usually depend on a mistaken belief that King Pumipon is all powerful and that he controls the military and therefore nothing can be done until he dies. There is an irony that the ruling elites want to promote this line of thought about the powerful monarchy while the effect of this belief among Red Shirts causes hatred against the king and the royal family.

Just like in Gluckstein’s parallel Second World War, the ability of “the people” or the Red Shirts to achieve their goals depends on the degree of political self-organisation, independent from the ruling class. There may be thousands of disappointed Red Shirts, but their inability to form a united progressive movement to fight for freedom and equality has allowed the UDD Red Shirt leaders to police the movement and make sure that it serves only the interests of the Pheu Thai government.

That is why the Thai Turn Left socialist group has suggested that progressive Red Shirts need to come together to build some kind of radical socialist organisation, with clear links to the working class, in order to keep the aspirations of the Red Shirts alive. This idea has been opposed by Niti Eawsiwong and Somsak Jiamteerasakul. Niti hopes that Red Shirts can influence the Pheu Thai party from within. But Pheu Thai is a typical Thai capitalist party with no internal democracy. It is controlled by “people of influence”.

Somsak claims that it is “unrealistic” to build a socialist organisation. He proposes a small NGO-style pressure group made up of intellectuals like himself, independent of the Red Shirts, with the aim of pushing Pheu Thai into having better policies. But small groups of intellectuals with no mass base among either the working class or the Red Shirts can have no real influence in society and no bargaining power with the elites.

[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 book, Thailand’s Crisis and the Fight for Democracy, will be of interest to activists, academics and journalists who watch Thai politics, democratisation and NGOs. His website is at]  

[1] Donny Gluckstein (2012), A People's History of the Second World War: Resistance Versus Empire, Pluto Press, London.