In the third part of a three-part series guest blogger John Moore examines the latest crisis in Thailand. Here he asks what is the likely trajectory of the Thai crisis and argues that the anti-government Red Shirt movement needs to split along class and political lines for there to be a progressive outcome to the continuing conflict. Furthermore, he argues that although the current chapter of the Thai political crisis may have ended, deep seated political and economic divisions in this country mean we will see further examples of conflict involving mass mobilisations of people. The intransigent positions on both sides of the red/yellow divide, and the underlying clash of classes, will mean that this crisis will not be resolved through mere political maneuvering and manipulation from high. The growing republican sentiments amongst the Red Shirts also points to the escalation of divisions in Thai society. [Read more below]
Loyalty to the monarchy, especially to King Bhumibol, has until recently transgressed class, status and political affiliations. Even the insurgent Thai Communist Party (CPT) in the 1970s and 80s showed extreme caution in terms of signaling any criticism towards the Thai monarch. This accepted loyalty to the King seemed, until recently, an unbreakable hegemonic consensus. That this hegemonic order is now breaking down points to a qualitative shift that is occurring in terms of the political/social consciousness of a large sector of the Thai population.
The anti-monarchy sentiments that are now surfacing amongst Thais would have seemed impossible just a few years ago. Stringent lèse-majesté laws were rarely used in the past, due mainly to the deep-seated cultural etiquette in Thai society of never criticising the King. The escalation of arrests and prosecutions using these laws points to a growing republican sentiment felt by large numbers of Thais. The present government is using such laws to clamp down on this growing descent. Thai Reporter earlier this year stated that ‘The new Administration led by Mr. Abhisit Vejjajiv [Democrat Party PM], however, has pledged to prioritize suppression of any offence related to defamation of the monarch.’
With the deep seated social divides evident in modern Thai society, the King and his advisors have traditionally played a role of ostensibly acting as a mediator between different interest groups. Indeed, the King is seen to have acted as a benevolent broker, averting violent clashes during past conflicts. However, the King’s less than subtle siding with anti-Thaksin forces and the military in 2006, which culminated in a military imposed governed, acted to alienate large sectors of the population. The King’s silence over the actions of the pro-royalist Yellow Shirts and their efforts to squash the voting power of the rural poor, has been taken by many to indicate his support for this movement. Also the Queen, who is more openly reactionary in her positions, is widely seen as actively supporting the anti-Thaksin forces. In November last year the BBC reported:
A decision by the queen to preside over the funeral of a PAD [People’s Alliance for Democracy - official name of Yellow Shirts] protester last month has only added fuel to the debate, with many in the Thaksin camp complaining that she has taken sides.
The King has allowed himself to be trapped in a political cul-de-sac by appearing partisan in the current prolonged crisis. The ‘red shirt’ leaders have monopolised on this perception by accusing the King’s key advisors of being central figures behind the 2006 coup.
If this anti-royalist sentiment grows and consolidates it could act to rip Thai society apart. The escalating anger now being directed at the royal family and its advisors was highlighted in a recent Economist article, A right royal mess:
At a pro-Thaksin rally in July  a young activist ranted against the monarchy, calling the king “a thorn in the side of democracy” for having backed so many coups, and warning the royal family they risked the guillotine. She was quickly arrested. What shocked the royalist establishment was not just the startling criticism of the king—but that the activist was cheered. “It is more and more difficult for them to hold the illusion that the monarchy is universally adored,” says a Thai academic.
Even amongst those who continue to be firmly pro-royalist, the King is a problematic unifying force due to his age and fragility. Even more problematic is the strong hostility felt towards the crown prince, even amongst the most avowed royalist. The possibly of the current king dying in the near future is an unspoken sub-text of the strains and divisions that are opening up in Thailand. With a global economic crisis, coupled with strong political uncertainty in Thailand, the political explosion that could soon engulf this country could make present events seem like a kindergarten scrap. Whatever the outcome, the social and political framework of Thailand will undergo substantial changes.
Thai working class - a mass force that has yet to roar
The deformed nature of the class struggle in Thailand, with the poor being led by the corrupt billionaire Thaksin, as of yet offers only a slim chance of meaningful change for Thailand’s working class and rural poor. The divergent interests of the capitalist leaders amongst the Red Shirts and its mass plebeian base are becoming more apparent. Red Shirts supporter Giles Ungpakorn recently commented on the class and political divides within the anti-government movement:
A progressive outcome will not occur through the ascendancy of the Red Shirts’ pro-Thaksin leadership. This element has shown their reactionary nature in the past with the right wing measures carried out by the former Thaksin led government. This government was conspicuous for its record of human right abuses including a curtailing of press freedom, attacks on Muslims in the South and with its ‘war on drugs’. Coupled with these abuses, the Thai Rak Thai government implemented a neo-liberal agenda which put it in direct conflict with public sector unions.
The Red Shirts movement contains all the contradictions of Thaksin’s former political party, which implemented populist social measures for the poor coupled with elements of a neoliberal reforming programme. It is understandable that tens of thousands of Thailand’s poor have aligned themselves with the ‘Red’ movement that calls for the defence of social welfare initiatives as well as for a ‘peoples revolution’ against the traditional elite. However, for there to be a progressive outcome to the current conflict the Red Shirts need to split along class and political lines. The Thai left’s break with Thaksin would indicate a clear rejection of his rightwing populist politics and allow for a fuller engagement with the disenfranchised working class. As things stand at the moment, there seems to be no way out of Thailand’s crisis.