In a three-part series guest blogger John Moore examines the latest crisis in Thailand and argues that the conflict between the Red Shirts and the government represents a deformed version of class war. He argues that although a class war is escalating in Thailand, most western commentators seem bamboozled by the array of divisions and groups clashing against each other in the latest round of the political crisis that has engulfed this country for the last few years. Scenes of thousands of militant and defiant protesters wearing either yellow, red and now blue shirts has led many to view the current strive as irrational political squabbling. Much of the media have viewed the deepening divisions in Thailand with confusion and their reporting has lacked any analysis that goes beyond surface appearances. A careful examination of the clashing groups, and their links to antagonistic social groups and classes, offers a deeper reading of these events. [Read more below]
Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts – a deformed clash of classes
On one side are the royalist Yellow Shirts, an intransigent coalition of the elite made up of the Thai bourgeoisie, top military brass, urban professionals and the monarchy. Facing them off are the Red Shirts, a contradictory alliance of the Thai rural and urban poor aligned with an element of the new rich, personified in the figure of billionaire Thai magnate Thaksin Shinawatra. Recently added to the mix are the Blue Shirts, aligned with the Yellows but with a more plebeian base. The prolonged crisis in Thailand may not be a clear and absolute clash of rich versus poor, but class is at the heart of this conflict. Thai Marxist academic and activist Giles Ungpakorn, in an article published in the Guardian, recently put forward such a view:
What we have been seeing in Thailand since late 2005 is a growing class war between the poor and the old elites. It is, of course, not a pure class war. Due to a vacuum on the left in the past, millionaire and populist politicians like Thaksin Shinawatra have managed to provide leadership to the poor.
Underlying the recent street battles and calls for a ‘people’s revolution’ by the Red Shirt leaders are deep social divisions and a boiling over of anger and frustration by Thailand’s poor and marginalised. Despite rapid economic growth over the last few decades, and GDP per capita figures that dwarf those of many of its closest neighbors, Thailand still has some of the largest gaps between rich and poor in the world. Recent scenes of the Thai prime minister’s car being smashed with sticks by angry protesters indicate how large sections of the poor have lost faith in the ability of Thailand’s fragile democratic system to hear their voice and deliver to them relief from their economic misery. For the last decade Thai’s mostly rural masses have voted in governments that have offered substantial programmes of welfare measures and infrastructure development that acted to alleviate some of the worst excesses of their poverty. With the recent and successive derailing and banning of parties with a populous base amongst the poor, previously implemented social initiatives are under extreme threat of being wiped out by governments firmly on the side of the rich.
The rise of the Yellow Shirts is clearly a reaction, by a combination of the old elite and urban professional and capitalist elite, to populist measures carried out by
Thaksin Shinawatra-led or endorsed parties. Although one of this country’s richest individuals, Thaksin built his support base by delivering pro-poor policies through his Thai Rak Thai/Thai Love Thais Party (TRT). His popularity met near messianic proportions amongst Thailand’s disenfranchised, especially the rural poor of North East Thailand, Isaan. Thaksin’s seemingly unbeatable election machine, combining elements of neoliberal policies, in terms of trade and corporatisation, with significant social programmes including a universal health care system. Thaksin was his own man who had a tenuous relationship with Thailand’s self declared elite - the monarchy and its advisors, the military chiefs and the urban bourgeoisie. His ability to co-opt elements of the now disbanded Thai Communist Party (CPT) into his populist nationalist movement would certainly have both impressed and worried Thailand’s ruling stratum.
Thaksin was changing the rules of the game, basing his power position not on a close relationship with old elites, but on a far wider base which made his ascent to power seem unchallengeable. Thai electoral politics, especially in rural areas, have traditionally been based on local loyalty to influential individuals known as hua khanaen (voting chiefs) who served as intermediaries between voters and candidates by encouraging voters to elect particular candidates (See: Making Democracy by James Ockey). Hua Khanaen range from being local business owners and employers, government officials, local gangsters, religious leaders, teachers and elected officials. Thaksin’s promises and delivery of social programmes aimed at the poor partly succeeded in circumventing this vertical relationship between local communities and traditional influencial leaders. Many Thai voters now became conscious of the different political programmes of parties and based their vote on these programmes. In the 2001 Thai elections, which TRT won by a historic landslide, 40% of the MPs were newcomers to parliamentary politics.
Added to this, Thaksin seemed to be challenging the most sacrosanct arena of traditional Thai power, the monarchy, with not so indirect calls for the King to stop interfering in political concerns. Thailand’s wealthy and powerful had had enough. Thaksin was seen to have gone too far with his populist programmes and with his disregard for Thailand’s traditional elite. So he had to go.
The reactionary mobilisations of Bangkok’s elite and professional stratum in 2006 were successful in derailing Thaksin’s government. The subsequent military coup was welcomed by the Yellow alliance. Thaksin’s party, Thai Rak Thai, was now outlawed, and the military imposed government banned a large numbers of TRT MPs from future parliamentary politics. Despite this, a pro-Thaksin party, the Peoples Power Party (PPP), came to power in 2008 on the back of the votes of the rural poor. The audacity of the poor to vote for a reconstituted Thai Rak Thai, Thaksin’s now outlawed electoral vehicle, led to further militant mobilisations of Bangkok’s elite and professional strata.
The pro-Thaksin Peoples Power Party was eventually dethroned through a succession of measures including the storming of government buildings by Yellow Shirt protesters, a court ruling against the PPP prime minister for accepting payment for a TV cooking show, the occupation of the Bangkok airport, and the eventual outlawing of the PPP and a number of pro-Thaksin MPs. With recent scenes of tanks patrolling Bangkok’s streets and the army firing into protesting crowds, Thailand’s ruling class has now made clear that the Thai plebeians should keep in their place or face the violent consequences.
The Yellow Shirts – a reactionary coalition
The Yellow Shirts make up the street soldiers of a broad alliance, which includes high ranking members of the military, the monarchy and the King’s central advisors, the misnamed Democrat Party and large sections of the Thai bourgeoisie and urban professional stratum. They are fervently anti-democratic and have fascistic tendencies as detailed by the Asian Human Rights Commission. The Yellow Shirts’ militant protests earlier this year propelled the current coalition of parties to power. Although this loose alliance has being able to mobilize significant numbers in street protests and occupations, the Yellow Shirts and their allies have shown strong contempt for the popular vote. The Yellow Shirts are avowed monarchist who have both called for royalist intervention against the democratically elected Peoples Power Party (the successor of the outlawed Thaksin led TRT party), and for a greater constitutional role for both the monarchy and military (see: Thai PM consults king over escalating protests). Yellow Shirt’s leaders have also called for anti-democratic measures including making both houses of parliament largely appointed rather than directly elected (As detailed in Rifts behind Thailand's political crisis). Recently the Yellow Shirt leaders have moderated this call, arguing for 50% of parliamentary seats to be voted for and the rest to be determined by ‘occupational representatives’. Their rationale for calls for a curtailment of democratic institutions is that the poor are to ill-educated and easily manipulated to make an informed decision about who should be the government. Clearly the Yellow Shirt leaders have been incredibly frustrated that pro-Thaksin parties and politicians have repeatedly gained governmental control through the popular vote, despite numerous and continuous efforts to thwart their ascendancy to power.
The Red Shirts – a peculiar cross class alliance
The Red Shirts represents a peculiar alliance between a section of the Thai ruling elite with increasingly republican tendencies and significant numbers of the rural and urban poor. It can only be understood in terms of being a continuation of the political movement that Billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra was able to forge after the Asian economic crisis of 1997.
Thaksin seems a strange choice for leader of Thailand’s poor and dispossessed. However, he had over the last decade shown an adeptness at combining the concerns of a post-Asian crisis elite with the material desires of the wider Thai population. The pro-IMF austerity policies carried out by the immediate post-Asian crisis Democrat Party governments in the late 90s acted to alienate and frustrate large sections of the Thai population across all classes and sectors. Thaksin proved himself to be a political master at fusing these divergent interests into his newly formed party, Thai Rak Thai. Not only was he able to sign up some of Thailand’s wealthiest elite to his populist and nationalistic programme, but as explained earlier he was also able to co-opt a large layer of former Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) cadre to his agenda. Ideologically, Thai Rak Thai represented an uneasy synthesis of populist nationalism, leftist welfare ideals, moral conservatism, and latent republicanism. This hodgepodge ideology, reflecting the divergent popular base of TRT, is equally evident with TRT’s successors, the Red Shirts and their parliamentary supporters.
Thaksin and the Red Shirts undoubtedly maintain significant support amongst the Thai poor, primarily as a legacy of the populist welfare measures carried out by the former Thai Rak Thai government. Thaksin’s government clearly made life better for millions of Thais, with initiatives that included inexpensive universal health care, government loans to poor farmers, and infrastructure development in deprived rural areas. Although the present Democrat Party-centred government has for the mean time maintained these initiatives, the overall neoliberal agenda of the Democrat Party is clear. For the last decade its leaders have consistently attacked Thaksin’s populist welfare programmes as a form of ‘vote-buying’, populist money wasting, and they have advocated a less interventionist state coupled with reduced government expenditure.
Significant numbers of Thailand’s poor have shown they are prepared to take radical measures to protect the limited social gains they have achieved over the last decade and to take on the traditional Bangkok elite. A recent article on the World Socialist Website quoted an academic at Thailand’s leading university, Chulalongkorn , on the anti-establishment nature of the ‘red shirts’ protests:
A desire for fundamental social and political change is what is fuelling the mass protest of hundreds of thousands in Bangkok. The Bangkok English daily, The Nation, described the motivations of the hardcore of remaining protesters after the recent military crackdown:
The Red Shirts are, however, not a pure, progressive movement of the poor. The organisation is still supported by elements of Thailand’s new rich including Thaksin Shiniwatra and others who have displayed strong reactionary tendencies. Thaksin’s former government escalated military intervention in the Muslim south of Thailand and carried out reactionary initiatives including a ‘war on drugs’ which led to the extra- judicial murder of thousands of Thais. The mixed class, and ideologically ill defined, nature of the Red Shirts is reflected in both leftist calls for defending the poor and marginalised and recent reactionary attacks by elements of this group on Muslims in Bangkok and gays in Chang Mai. A split along class and political lines is the only solution to resolving this contradictory and confused nature of the Red Shirts movement.
Next: Deformed class war in Thailand – Part 2