In the second part of a three-part series guest blogger John Moore examines the latest crisis in Thailand and asks why the organised working class seem absent from the recent political conflicts that have engulfed Thailand. Undoubtedly thousands of working class Thais have been involved in the current mobilisations against the government. The propaganda of the Red Shirt leaders have targeted both the rural and urban poor, calling for a defence of the social policies, including universal health care, enacted by the former Thaksin led government, and for a ‘people’s revolution’ against the ‘elite’. However, Thailand has a large and significant trade union movement that seems conspicuously absent from the current conflict and mass rallies and protests. A number of historical and political factors account for the absence of organised labour from the current events unfolding in Thailand. [Read more below]
Where is the organised working class?
One immediate reason for organised labour’s absence from the latest political conflicts can be linked to the anti-working class agenda of the Red Shirts’ self-declared leader, Thaksin Shinawatra. From 2001 to 2007 Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai government instituted a mixture of populist policies for the urban and rural poor as well as a number of neo-liberal reforming measures which put the government in direct conflict with elements of the union movement. Populist measures such as the implementation of the universal health care were combined with corporatisation and proposed selling off of state assets along with an opening up of the Thai economy to Western corporate interests.
The Thaksin-led government also gave strong support for US foreign policy in the hope of gaining a United States-Thailand Free Trade Agreement. Working class resistance to the neo-liberal aspect of the TRT government policies culminated in the mass strike of 200,000 electrical sector workers throughout 2004 against electricity privatisation. It is therefore understandable that the most class conscious of Thailand’s working class would be reluctant to align themselves with the former TRT bosses who are now the bourgeois leaders of the Red Shirts movement.
The historical dominance of Maoism amongst the Thai left also explains the lack of strong links between progressive or left-leaning political leaders and the working class. The Thai Communist Party (CPT) was a mass force in the 1970s and 80s and its Maoist derived ideology dominated the Thai left. In keeping with orthodox Maoism, the CPT had a strictly hierarchical and militaristic structure in the form of a guerilla, underground army. The CPT based their activities amongst the rural poor, and all but ignored the urban working class which numbered in their millions. Also, the Thai communists were desperate to align themselves with a fictional ‘progressive’ element of the Thai capitalist class, seeing the Thai revolution as bourgeois–democratic and not socialist.
Since the dissolution of the party, former CPT cadre still lack organic links to the working class and have instead been able to find their ‘progressive’ capitalists in the form of Thaksin Shinawatra and his ruling class allies. In fact, a significant number of former CPT comrades were co-opted by Thaksin, seeing TRT as representing a section of the ‘progressive’ bourgeoisie. Former CPT members active in TRT and now aligned with the Red Shirts see the most significant divide in Thailand as one between the ‘feudalist and traditional forces’ and the ‘progressive forces’ (including the new capitalist elite, the working class and rural poor). They wish to develop capitalism in Thailand in a ‘progressive form’, against some phantom feudal elite.
Thai socialist academic Giles Ungpakorn is a strong critic of this two-stage revolution approach, and has argued that all elements of the Thai elite represent different interests of the Thai capitalistic class. (See From the city, via the jungle, to defeat: the 6th Oct 1976 bloodbath and the C.P.T. – PDF) For example, claims by Maoist ideologues that the Royal Family should be regarded as a feudal elite, is disputed by the fact that the monarchy has major business interests, and certainly much of its new wealth is based on capitalist accumulation.
The rampant corruption and bureaucratic nature of Thai trade unions has also acted as a brake on them acting as an independent voice and agent of change. Despite the numerical strength of the left in the 1970s and 1980s, the CPT’s lack of organic links with the Thai working class allowed the trade union movement to be left largely in the hands of rightwing and self serving leaders. The continuity of a bureaucratic union leadership was recently highlighted when corrupt state sector union bosses called for strikes in support of the reactionary Yellow Shirts. However, these calls were not been met with any significant action or support by public-sector workers.
Thailand’s trade unions have also continued to be a weak political force due to their links to the state, NGOs and rightwing foreign union-based organisations including the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (closely associated with the German SPD.) and the American Center For International Labor Solidarity (associated with the American AFL). This situation of dependency between Thai unions and other organisations, including the state, has thwarted their ability to act as consistently progressive and militant agents for change (See: Thailand: Class Struggle in an Era of Economic Crisis – PDF). However the mobilisations of thousands of Thai workers against the neoliberal agenda of the former Thaksin Government showed the potential of a militant Thai proletariat to be a central force for change.
Next blog post: Deformed class war in Thailand – Part 3