Coup and crisis in Thailand - Red Shirts must strike back

Tensions are high in Thailand as a political crisis that has been simmering for years is reaching boiling point. Last week a judicial coup ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and several of her ministers.

Opposition protesters, however, who are made up of the urban petty-bourgeois layers, are demanding that the whole government be removed and replaced by an unelected body with a remit to purge the political system of the democratically elected Pheu Thai party. Albeit in a distorted manner, this conflict is expressing the class divisions in Thailand that will only be resolved through an independent workers’ and peasants’ movement that aims to seize power for itself.

Thailand’s history: coups at the top, crisis for the masses

The political history of Thailand is dominated by military coups. The absolute rule of the monarchy was ended in 1932 by a military manoeuvre. Recognising the role of the monarchy as a rallying point of reaction, the coup leaders established a constitutional monarchy with a National Assembly which was half appointed and half indirectly elected. Full democratic elections were not permitted because the military considered the masses too stupid to elect their own government – a mantra currently being repeated by the anti-government protesters about the peasants in the North of Thailand.

In typical bonapartist fashion this military government leaned on the authority of the King to prop itself up and expunge those radical elements who were calling for nationalisation of the land. However, when conflicts with the monarchy arose, the government did not hesitate to lean on the military to crush the royalists and cement its own position.  

The power of the military, the monarch as a beacon of reaction, and ruling class contempt for democracy have been features of Thai politics ever since. Following the Second World War in which Thailand allied itself with Japan, the country became an important ally of the USA in the Vietnam War. The United States were happy to rely on military dictatorships to shore up the Thai ruling class against revolutionary sentiment that was building from below thanks to poverty among the masses (57% of the population lived in poverty in the early 1960s) and increasing inequality.

The conditions of extreme poverty experienced by peasants, who made up the majority of Thailand’s population, and the lack of political freedom led to the peasants’ revolt of the early 1970s and a student uprising in 1973, both of which were brutally crushed by the military. The 70s saw further instability and coups with the primary aim of eliminating communist ideas, the spread of which had been given great impetus by the peasant and student uprisings at the beginning of the decade.

These anti-communist campaigns ushered in the reign of the free market and an overall increase in the number of people in poverty from 1981 to 1988. The rural areas of the North and North-east suffered the worst standards of living, with the early 1990s seeing 85% of all those in poverty living in these areas, and between a fifth and a seventh of the population in these regions living below the bread line. This is all despite massive economic growth in Thailand averaging 12.4% annually from 1985 to 1996. The rich got richer while the poor became poorer.

The bubble of the “Asian economic miracle”, in which Thailand played a key part, burst in 1997 with the economy crashing down around the ruling factions which had been squabbling over the spoils of Thailand’s expanding economy. For the first time in Thai history, the country faced a major crisis that was resolved by the bourgeoisie without having to resort to a military coup. This was not least because no faction wanted to take control of an economy that had contracted by 10.8% in one year, nor did they want responsibility for the major IMF intervention and bailout conditions that came with it.

The Asian Financial Crisis, caused by the bursting of the speculative bubbles created by the hot money flowing into and out of South East Asia from the West, was a symptom of the global overproduction, present at that time, which is being expressed in a generalised international economic crisis at the present time.

The non-intervention of the military on this occasion made little difference to the masses who, without a worker-led political party, no real trade union organisation, and the peasantry making up the majority of the population, were left helpless in the face of the IMF onslaught. The IMF were given the right to directly intervene in Thailand’s economy to cut public spending and reform financial institutions in favour of further free market exploitation. In other words, they were given the freedom to attack an already suffering worker and peasant population even further. The Thai military were happy on this occasion to leave the dirty work of riding roughshod over democracy and the masses to the IMF.

A turning point: the 2001 election

By the beginning of the 21st Century, although agriculture accounted for a much reduced share of GDP compared to 25 years earlier, it still employed 51% of the population. A rural household earned 3.4 times less on average than a household in Bangkok, and the wealthiest 25% of the population owned over 50% more wealth than the rest of the population combined.

Growth was slowly recovering after the 1997 crisis with the economy growing at 4.4% in 2000 and 2.2% in 2001. Still reeling from the collapse of 1997, with the IMF breathing down their necks and a fragile economy that no-one was willing to take control of, the ruling class conceded that elections could be held in 2001.  

The election in 2001 was the most open and corruption-free election ever held in Thailand and it saw a massive rejection of the neo-liberal IMF intervention. Thaksin Shinawatra was elected as Prime Minister with 40% of the vote (the largest majority in any open Thai election) on the basis of a campaign against the economic policies of the previous government and against the corruption that saturated Thai politics. The masses, having suffered for so long, saw Thaksin’s policies as a challenge to the system that, despite frequent changes of government, invariably failed to deliver anything for ordinary people except hardship and repression.

The Thaksin phenomenon

thaksin-shinawatraThaksin ShinawatraThaksin Shinawatra is not a working class or peasant leader. He is a fantastically rich telecommunications magnate turned politician and is an unlikely candidate for the oppressed rural population of Thailand to support. Understanding the movement in support of Thaksin, whose sister is the Prime Minister who was ousted last week, is vital to understanding the situation in Thailand at the present time.

Thaksin was, in many ways, an accidental figure who found himself expressing the enormous anger of the oppressed classes in Thai society. Political movements in Thailand, stunted by ceaseless military coups, never developed into workers’ and peasants’ parties. But the masses do not wait for a perfect political instrument through which to express themselves before taking action. Thaksin, perhaps unwittingly, became the vehicle for the discontent of the masses thanks to his 2001 manifesto which promised free universal healthcare, a three-year debt moratorium for farmers and the provision of new funds to help local rural areas. For the first time, the masses saw a politician who promised to act in their interests.

This billionaire tycoon was not interested in a socialist transformation of society. However, while in power he implemented a number of Keynesian measures in the interests of the poor, particularly the rural poor. Income in Northeast Thailand (the poorest area) increased by 46% in the period 2001 to 2006. Nationwide poverty fell from 21.3% to 11.3% and the country’s Gini coefficient (a measure of inequality) fell in the four years from 2000 to 2004, having risen in the four years prior to that under the auspices of the IMF. This guaranteed him support from the peasantry, which strengthened his party’s support base in the face of those sections of the ruling class hostile to his ideas.

Despite economic growth of around 5-7% annually during Thaksin’s time in power, sections of the ruling class turned against him out of fear. They were afraid, not of Thaksin himself, who on the surface appeared to be no more than a bourgeois politician who had cunningly managed to lean on the peasantry to prop himself up – they were afraid of the masses that stood behind him, and they feared that Thaksin would conjure up progressive and even revolutionary forces that he would be unable to control.

However, these elements of the ruling class, who rallied themselves around the monarchy and shrouded all their attacks on Thaksin as allegations that he had insulted the King and wanted to abolish the monarchy, did not feel strong enough to use their traditional coup methods to remove him. This is precisely because he had the masses standing behind him and the military feared the popular response if Thaksin was removed. Faced with the prospect of a mass movement against them, a military clique would have found it difficult or even impossible to carry out a coup, forcing these elements to grind their teeth as Thaksin was elected for a second consecutive term in office in 2005.

These circumstances are not unique in time or place. Other populist leaders who have improved the lives of the poor as a way of securing their power include Peron in Argentina and Bhutto in Pakistan. There are even parallels to be drawn with Hugo Chavez’s regime in Venezuela which, although it went much further than Thaksin, has demonstrated time and again both the power of ordinary people fighting coup plots to defend gains that they have made under a progressive, although not truly socialist government, and the stifling role played by a ruling party unwilling to struggle for genuine socialism. All of these are examples of the class question in society expressing itself in a peculiar form, a phenomenon that reflects the low level of the workers’ and peasants’ movement in the country.    

The 2006 coup

Following his second electoral victory the vicious reactionary campaign against Thaksin intensified. Critics made hypocritical, although probably correct, allegations of corruption against Thaksin and his attempt to privatise state-owned enterprises was met with resistance by certain layers of the working class. In some instances socialists and royalists joined forces in anti-Thaksin protests. This contradictory phenomenon is the result of the contradictory position that Thaksin occupied in Thai society – a bourgeois businessman who embodied the hopes of the most oppressed layers.

But the reality was that Thaksin was still enormously popular in the rural areas, among the most oppressed layers, where he was able to call rallies of hundreds of thousands of people from across regions in the North and North-east. For the most oppressed people he was still what they considered to be their best chance for a fundamental change.

With another election scheduled for later in 2006, the military decided to act, using the protests by what were described as the “Blue-Blood Jet-Set” privileged layers in Bangkok as cover for a coup that removed Thaksin overnight. This took place despite just 3000 protesters outside Government House at the time and with just 26% of the population in Bangkok, let alone the rural areas, supporting Thaksin’s resignation.   

Yellow Shirts vs Red Shirts

The coup sparked political instability and conflict between the reactionary royal loyalists, the Yellow Shirts, and the supporters of Thaksin, the Red Shirts, that lasted for the following five years. 2007 saw a pro-Thaksin party win the elections only to be banned from office by a 2008 court decision which amounted to a judicial coup.

World Economic Forum Monika Flueckiger - Abhisit VejjajivaAbhisit Vejjajiva - Photo: Monika FlueckigerDuring this period events reached a tipping point in 2010 when Red Shirt protesters staged enormous demonstrations against the unelected government of Abhisit Vejjajiva. These were brutally crushed with extreme violence by the monarchist loyalists. For a full Marxist analysis of the events of 2010 see here and here

Rattled, the ruling clique were forced to call new elections in July 2011 which brought Yingluck Shinawatra to power on a platform that made clear her closeness with Thaksin, a credential hugely boosted by the fact that they are siblings.

She continued policies that served the interests of the rural poor, with the best known being a rice subsidy scheme that guarantees Thai farmers a higher price for their harvest than they would receive on the international market. Although Thailand is described as a newly industrialised nation, agriculture is still a crucial sector of the economy, so this policy has had an enormous impact throughout the country.

Yingluck Shinawatra

Yingluck ShinawatraYingluck ShinawatraYingluck is, like her brother, nothing more than a populist and a demagogue - she is attempting similar Keynesian measures to those implemented by Thaksin. However, unlike her brother, she is faced with an entirely different global economic situation. The world economy is in crisis and the impact on Thailand, an economy that relies heavily on exports that provide two-thirds of its total GDP, has been severe. In 2011 the Thai economy grew just 0.1% and the first quarter of 2014 saw growth of just 0.6%.

Faced with this kind of crisis, Keynesianism is not an option. The ruling class cannot offer reforms that soften capitalism’s edges, such as the rice subsidy scheme, because they cannot afford them. The backs of the bourgeoisie are against the wall and their only option is to claw back what small concessions have been granted to the oppressed layers in Thailand by Thaksin and Yingluck and to crush the masses in the interests of profit.   

This leaves Yingluck with an impossible situation, stuck as she is between the expectations of the rural masses upon whom she relies for support, and the interests of capitalism which, in the final analysis, she really represents. Clearly, throughout her term in office she has recognised her weakness and has made concessions towards both the monarchy and the military – institutions that have always been opposed to Thaksin’s policies.

The recent protests

But these displays of weakness simply invite aggression and in November 2013 protests sparked by Yingluck’s proposal to offer amnesty to all of those convicted during the political violence of 2010 brought Yellow Shirt demonstrators out onto the streets of Bangkok once again.

Yingluck immediately capitulated to the protests, not only allowing her amnesty bill to fall but also calling new elections for February 2014. But far from deterring the petty-bourgeois layers and monarchist loyalists, her weakness simply emboldened them.

The class character of the protestors is revealed by their allegations against Yingluck and their demands. They accuse Yingluck of being the mouthpiece of Thaksin, who has been living in exile since the coup of 2006, and the two of them are allegedly conspiring to overthrow the extremely elderly King and the monarchy as a whole.

The protesters are demanding that this democratically elected government be removed and replaced with an unelected people’s council, whose role must be to purge Thai politics of all traces of the pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai party. In short, the protestors, basing themselves on loyalty to the reactionary monarchy, are demanding that all concessions to the oppressed layers be taken back and the masses be made to foot the bill for the economic crisis.

Yellow Shirt attacks on democracy

The candour with which the Yellow Shirts tout their anti-democratic credentials may appear shocking at first, but in fact they are simply saying what the international bourgeoisie is thinking. In the midst of an economic crisis the capitalist class cannot afford democracy because the conflicting interests of the 1% and the 99% are thrown into sharp relief. If given a choice, the mass of people will not vote in the interests of capitalism. A genuine democracy for workers and peasants is therefore incompatible with the power of capital.

Elsewhere the ruling class is terrified that a genuine alternative to crisis and austerity might be offered to the masses, but they look with envy at Thailand were the ruling class is able to simply stage coups under the cover of small protests if faced with a dangerous populist movement.

True to their anti-democratic form, the protestors boycotted and disrupted the elections in February 2014, although their small numbers meant that they had limited impact and Yingluck’s party received the overwhelming majority of votes. The Yellow Shirts have never won a free and fair election, only ever having taken power on the back of coups and military intervention. It is therefore not surprising that they refused to participate in this election.

Throughout these demonstrations the privileged classes that make up the core of the protesters have claimed that the peasants in the North of the country are too stupid to understand what they are voting for. This is being used to justify the anti-democratic demands of the Yellow Shirts. This slander is angering people in the poor rural areas, with one woman in the village of Nhong Huu Ling saying “Well, I know they have more education than me, but at least I understand what democracy is. Those people in Bangkok, who have been to university or studied overseas, how come they don't understand democracy?” The reality is that they understand all too well what democracy is, and why they can’t afford it now.

The constitutional court, a reserve weapon in the arsenal of reaction that was used in 2008 to effect a judicial coup, was again made use of to declare the February elections invalid due to the violent protests of the Yellow Shirt supporters. Despite the dwindling numbers of opposition protesters, concentrated at just one site in Bangkok, Yingluck again capitulated, and called new elections for July 2014. But her weakness invited aggression and the constitutional court struck again last week by requiring her to step down as Prime Minister for allegedly corrupt practices carried out in 2011 (a shockingly hypocritical allegation given the record of the monarchy, courts and Yellow Shirt supporters for corruption).

By ousting Yingluck along with nine of her ministers, the court has effected yet another judicial coup, albeit one that stops short of the full demands of the Yellow Shirts who want to see an unelected council appointed to begin the work of purging progressive politics from Thailand and launching attacks on the peasantry.

Where are the Red Shirts?

Throughout all of this, Yingluck has had an ace up her sleeve that she has refused to play. Thanks to peculiarities of the development political movements in Thailand, Yingluck stands at the head of the mass of rural peasants who support her and her brother as the only politicians in Thai history who have implemented measures that have worked in their favour.

These Red Shirts demonstrated their power in 2010, when elements of dual power began to emerge in Thailand on the back of their pro-Thaksin protests – protests that were only crushed due to the prevarication of the leadership and their lack of a clear programme. Although Yingluck has repeatedly threatened to call out her supporters to defend her government against the attacks of the Yellow Shirts and the constitutional court, she has never actually done it, preferring instead to retreat, capitulate and concede to the opposition. Why has she not called the Red Shirts to her defence?

Some commentators have suggested that Yingluck is afraid to create a situation where mass demonstrations are facing off against one another, as in 2010, because it would provide an excuse for the military to step in and, in time-honoured fashion, stage a coup to remove her. Given Thailand’s history this seems like a legitimate concern.

However, Thailand’s history also demonstrates that the military have never waited for an excuse to seize power and it has stepped in at a much earlier stage during movements of social unrest than where Thailand has got to at the present time. The reason for the military’s hesitancy this time has parallels with the absence of their from the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis in the sense that no-one wants to be responsible for the measures that will have to be taken in order to save Thai capitalism.

But a much more important factor than that is that the military fear the power of the Red Shirts, and their reaction to the ousting of Yingluck and her party. This is also the reason why the constitutional court did not feel able to remove the entirety of the Pheu Thai party in one swoop. The ruling class remember all too well the movement of Red Shirts from 2010 which, with a clear programme and a militant leadership, could have developed into a successful revolutionary movement. They are afraid of re-kindling such a movement.   

In reality, this is also the reason why Yingluck has not called the Red Shirts to her defence. She too can see the revolutionary potential of the rural masses and is terrified of it. Like her brother she is a bourgeois gangster, albeit one with some understanding of the masses. She has spent her life building a personal fortune and will not now conjure into being revolutionary forces that could take all of that away from her.

Even now that she has been ousted as Prime Minister she is being cautious in how she acts. On May 10 she called a rally of Red Shirt protesters but this was held 40km from the centre of Bangkok where the opposition protesters were demonstrating. So far she seems to have offered little in the way of a strategy or plan for a counterattack against the Yellow Shirts and the judicial coup that has ousted her. As has been consistently the case over the last six months, she has is leaving the initiative to the reactionaries, paralysed by fear of her own supporters.    

The seriousness of the revolutionary potential in Thailand has made an impression on overseas investors, as well as Yingluck and her enemies. Moody’s, the credit ratings agency said last week that Thailand was credit-negative and GDP forecasts had been in freefall since December 2013. Credit Suisse has revised 2014 growth down to 2% while Bank of America put its forecast for growth at 1.1%. Toyota have warned that the crisis is likely to jeopardize future investment in the country and Honda has announced that it will be holding off on a $530 million manufacturing plant development for at least six months.

Clearly, unlike in previous periods of unrest which have never rattled the markets too much, international investors believe that this time around there is the potential for serious upheaval, as opposed to simply a rearranging of which clique controls the country. The international bourgeoisie, as well as the Thai ruling class, will also be hoping that Yingluck does not unleash the masses which stand behind her.  

The need for an independent movement

If Yingluck will not mobilise her supporters, then the Red Shirts must mobilise themselves. It is through independent action by workers and peasants that they will be able to defeat the military clique, the monarchy and the Yellow Shirt reactionaries. What is required is for the vague and fractured movement of Red Shirts, composed mainly of peasants, to unite with the working class in the cities, who thus far have played no real role in events, to form a united workers’ and peasants’ movement under the leadership of the proletariat.

This would be a class-based movement, free from the control of bourgeois demagogues and capable of acting in a decisive and independent manner against the ruling class in Thailand. This is the only way to safeguard and improve the standards of living for the mass of people in Thailand. Placing faith in anyone other than themselves will only lead to the misery for the masses at the hands of the bourgeoisie.

An independent workers’ and peasants’ movement could make explicit the anti-monarchy position that has always been latent in the Red Shirt movement. There is no doubt that the monarchy is, both in Thailand and elsewhere, a bastion of reaction and a reserve weapon for the ruling class to use against popular movements. In a constitutional monarchy the role of the monarch is limited to a ceremonial one during periods of stable bourgeois rule – a useful distraction and symbol of conservatism with which to beat bourgeois values into the consciousness of the nation.

However, this institution, built up by the ruling class as a mystical and independent body in periods of relative class peace, takes on much greater significance in a period of revolutionary turmoil and open class war. The monarch has important constitutional powers that can be rolled out as a safeguard for when democratic procedures give the bourgeoisie an answer it doesn’t like. In this sense, it is a rallying point for all the reactionary forces in society.

The abolition of the monarchy and the nationalisation of all its assets must be a central component of the programme of a workers’ and peasants’ movement. This must be part of a demand to re-write the constitution, giving full democratic control of Thailand to the workers and peasants by establishing a constituent assembly and taking all land and major companies into state ownership.

The ruling class has had a lot of practice in executing violent coups and counter-revolutionary measures and so to defend the gains that an independent Red Shirt movement would make, it must arm the people against the military and fight for the right of Thais to take control over their own lives.    

Revolutionary potential

A Red Shirt movement organised along these lines, with a bold leadership and a clear socialist programme, would be unstoppable. But without such a movement, civil war is a distinct possibility. While the different bourgeois factions manoeuvre and prevaricate, the class struggle will continue to develop. The situation cannot remain in limbo for long.

Both sides in the class conflict have learned from the events of 2010. Despite the fear the memory of those events inspires in the ruling class, the economic crisis will force it to act against the workers and peasants soon enough. But the masses have had a taste of their own strength.

As one woman said: “We won't accept another coup, like in the old days, we will fight to keep the government we elected. And if the military tries a coup again, we are ready to come out, to die for democracy." The seeds of revolution are present in Thailand; it is our task to build a Marxist movement of workers and peasants that would see them flower.  

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