thailand: Military coup follows political deadlock

Army suppresses democratic rights

On 19 September, Thailand experienced another military coup. This is the 17th coup since a ‘constitutional monarchy’ was established in 1932. The coup led by Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the military’s Commander-in-Chief, ousted the billionaire, telecoms tycoon turned prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. Since 2001, with his government of the ‘Thai Rak Thai’ party (TRT – ‘Thais love Thais’), Thaksin Shinawatra has won two landslide elections, before facing anti-corruption street protests this year. It is widely believed that King Bhumibol gave a ‘green light’ for the military to stage the coup. The armed forces, with the King’s support, capitalised on general hostility against Thaksin, especially from the urban population, in Bangkok, to carry out the coup swiftly, without firing a shot or spilling one drop of blood. The coup was staged, say its leaders, to counter more than a year’s political deadlock.

The fall of Thaksin

Thaksin came to power in 2001 by exploiting the impact of an IMF ‘restructuring’ agenda during the 1997 Asian economic crisis. He gained significant support, especially in rural areas, for his populist programmes for farmers and the poor such as promising cheap health care. At the same time, Thaksin employed protectionist measures to assist his cronies’ economic interests.

Thaksin’s five years in power were characterised by his CEO (Chief Executive Officer) -style administration. Because of global economic pressures, Thaksin resorted to neo-liberal policies, such as privatisations of public utilities (for instance, electricity). He introduced free trade agreements to compete for foreign investment.

These policies caused significant disagreements with local business tycoons and smaller businesses and traders, as well as resentment from the urban population that was engulfed by inflation that hit a six-year high. The urban population was also outraged by Thaksin’s media control and abuse of democratic rights, his constant attempts to pack institutions with his cronies, his brutal ‘war on drug dealers’ (which was a ‘licence’ for extra-judicial killings) and his gross repression against a Muslim insurgency in the south of the country that intensified a separatist uprising.

Urban outrage spilled over when Thaksin’s family sold the controlling shares they held in the telecommunications giant, Shin Corp., to Singapore’s Tamasek Holdings, for $1.88 billion. This made it the largest sale in Thailand’s corporate history. Not a single penny was paid in tax during the sale. This generated protests and demonstrations of thousands in Bangkok during February and March this year made up of the middle class, ‘civil society’ groups, students, intellectuals, opposition parties and religious groups as well as workers. Meanwhile, Thaksin leaned on his popular support in rural areas, where 60% of the population lives. Divisions between the rural and urban areas were taken advantage of by Thaksin to use ‘divide and rule’ tactics to win elections.

However, the tensions between Thaksin and the opposition parties reached a peak over the last few months. Thaksin attempted to defuse protests in Bangkok by calling a snap election for 2 April this year. The opposition parties boycotted the poll and so the result failed to produce a quorate parliament. Consequently, Thaksin promised to step aside after a new cabinet was formed. This was believed to be the outcome that King Bhumibol advised Thaksin to follow, to end the political impasse. But the deadlock continued, which prompted King Bhumibol to tell the country’s judges to sort out the "mess".

The constitutional court swiftly annulled the April election and later, the criminal court jailed three of the election commissioners who organised the polls. The new election commissioners were selected earlier this month. It seemed Thailand was heading towards another election, perhaps as soon as November, in which the opposition parties would readily take part. However, even after the planned November election, the political crisis would not have been resolved, as it was widely expected that Thaksin’s party (TRT) would win the election, due to his significant rural support. Even if Thaksin had resigned as prime minister, as he indicated he would, he would possibly have continued to control the new government’s agenda, through the TRT.

In the meantime, layers of the ruling elite were deeply uneasy about the economic and political consequences of a protracted confrontation between Thaksin and his political opponents. The longer the confrontation persisted, the greater the impact on share prices, on the currency and on investment. Broader layers of the population were also likely to voice their grievances if the economy further deteriorated.

Another cause for the military coup seems to have been Thaksin’s moves against senior army officers, including General Sonthi, who was critical of the prime minister. It is reported that during July, 100 middle-ranking officers loyal to Thaksin were removed from key posts in Bangkok. Recently, Thaksin planned to put two of his supporters into key posts, controlling security in the capital.

Since this week’s coup, the army generals insist that Thaksin, who is in London, at present, is welcome to return home, and even to stand in the next election. At the same time, Reuters reported that two judges and a former central bank chief were likely to be on the new six-person panel to probe Thaksin, his wife, and other relatives, as well as Thaksin’s political colleagues, about their financial affairs. Various court cases are pending against Thaksin, and others seem bound to follow, now that he is out of power.

The King and the military

Thailand, the only South-East Asian country never taken over by a European colonial power, was an absolute monarchy for nearly four centuries, until 1932, when a bloodless coup limited the monarchy’s powers. Yet the king, though a constitutional head, remains highly revered and extremely influential. His endorsement of the military’s coup ended the Thaksin government. For nearly two-thirds of the last century, the dominant role in governing Thailand was carried out by the armed forces. There was a succession of military dictators.

The day after the recent coup, the six-man military junta that seized control appeared before the world’s media to insist that it had no intention of clinging to power. They promised to step aside after two weeks, by which time, they would have chosen a civilian administration to run the country for a year. The generals stressed the new cabinet expected to select a committee to write a new constitution, which would be put to a referendum before an election is held.

Although the country has had 15 constitutions, since 1932, many Thai politicians and academics seem convinced that another rewrite will be a great success. The Economist magazine commented: "When the last constitution was written, in 1997, it was widely seen as having struck a successful balance. On the one hand, it was expected to give Thailand the stronger executive and stronger political parties that the country needed, with its history of weak and short-lived administrations. On the other, it introduced new checks and balances, such as a constitutional court and a powerful anti-corruption body. Yet the 1997 constitution is now blamed for allowing Mr Thaksin to dominate state institutions and abuse prime-ministerial power. Various wish-lists of reforms – such as easing the restrictions on switching party allegiance – have been drawn up; though it seems unlikely they will achieve the miracles expected of them, even if they are enacted."

The military junta, which calls itself the ‘Council for Democratic Reform’, insists its aim is to rescue Thai democracy from the "rampant corruption" of the Thaksin government, to end his meddling in the country’s supposedly ‘independent’ institutions and to heal the deep divisions Thaksin has sown among Thais. Nevertheless, when we examine Thailand’s not-so-distant past, it is clear that military chiefs seizing power does not bring a solution.

This week, after the military took control in Bangkok and surrounding areas, the first action of the generals was to ban all protests and public gatherings of more than five people. The new regime subsequently banned all political parties from holding meetings and engaging in other activities. These repressive measures were made to try and stop a counter-coup from Thaksin supporters in the military and to stop protests amongst the rural population, where Thaksin still has popular support. Assuming legislative powers on Thursday, 21 September, the military banned media reports deemed "negative", tightened restrictions on existing political parties (but gave no indication of how long the clampdown would last), and banned the formation of new parties.

It seems that Army Commander-in-Chief, Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who was officially sworn in on Friday, 22 September, as head of the new ruling junta, does not fit the common profile of past coup leaders. Previous military or police generals who ruled Thailand were usually arrogant, egotistical characters – descriptions that, so far, do not apply to Sonthi. "In my dealings with General Sonthi, I’ve found him to be genuine, to be humble, to be polite and to be professional," said Surin Pitsuwan, a former Thai foreign minister and a leader of the ‘Democrat Party’. Sonthi will try to use his ‘moderate’ image to assure both the Thai population and international big business that under his rule life will be peaceful and prosperous. But if the political and economic situation does not recover or becomes worse, Commander-in-Chief Sonthi Boonyaratglin, and the ruling military junta, can take sterner measures against popular opposition.

Thailand’s military coup leaders will most probably assign an interim prime minister who could mollify the multinationals and national ‘business community’. The intention would be to send out a message that Thailand’s export-dependent economy is in ‘safe hands’. Speculation on who will be appointed to the government’s senior posts centres on former World Trade Organisation chief, Supachai Panitchpakdi and Central Bank boss, Pridiyathorn Devakula. Whoever the prime minister is, it is widely expected the military junta, as well as the king, will direct the policies of new interim cabinets.

The multinationals and business conglomerates that, since 2001, benefited very much from former Prime Minister Thaksin’s neo-liberal policies, would also welcome this week’s coup, if it helps resolve a long and debilitating political crisis that has hit economic growth. Economists say they expected little immediate impact on the Thai economy, so long as the political situation remains calm and the country moved quickly back to civilian rule. Political science professor, Somjai Phagaphasvivat, from Bangkok’s Thammasat University, commented, "I don’t see much impact on the overall economy, which ironically could be further affected if Thaksin remained in power. Up until now, it has been battered by a seriously divided society and the political crisis this year…How the situation will deteriorate or improve depends on how coup leaders handle it and whether they will make good their pledge to hold fair elections quickly".

Although the major Western powers, like the US and Britain, issued statements to express their ‘concern’ at the ending of democracy in Thailand, there were no serious condemnations of the military coup. These powers are quite content to see democracy overturned, and the rule of the generals take over, if it is the general interests of big business and imperialism and if it sees off popular protests. So much for the idea of ‘democratic revolutions’ which Bush and other Western capitalist leaders called for in the Middle East and throughout the neo-colonial world!

Thailand’s opposition parties, the urban population and ‘civil society’ groups that staged protests and demonstrations over the last few months to a certain extent, welcomed the intervention of the military. They believe the generals’ action can end the political uncertainty brought about by the Thaksin regime. The leaderships of these organisations do not have a programme to end political and economic crises. This would entail ending the profit system.

Urban and rural populations

On many occasions, Thailand’s history has demonstrated that whenever there is an intense political or economic crisis, the ruling class will utilise either the monarchy, the military or, when it can, the parliamentary system, as a tool to curtail popular revolt and to mould the state in favour of the profit needs of the capitalist class. This week’s military coup was enacted for similar ends. The intervention of the army was intended to end the year-long political turmoil that adversely hit industry and the entire economy, particularly in Bangkok, which is the hub of Thailand’s economy.

Under the military, there could be some reforms to appease sections of the population, such as the rural poor. But reforms are not sustainable under the profit system, whether presided over by civilian governments or military rulers. Capitalism is unable to meet the fundamental needs of workers and poor farmers. The Thai working class and poor farmers will face more uncertainties and attacks on living standards in the next few years, which will lead to political instability triggering new mass struggles.

During two previous mass uprisings in Thailand, there were illusions in the so-called ‘progressive’ bourgeoisie (capitalist class), particularly amongst the middle classes, students and farmers, who hoped to gain some democratic rights during struggles against military rule. On 14 October 1973, a student-led mass protest toppled a military dictatorship and brought a short-lived period of democratic rule. This lasted until 1976, when right wing and military forces violently suppressed the student movement. In May 1992, another military dictator, Suchinda Kraprayoon, was driven out of office by protesting Thai civilians. They were angered by his anti-democratic measures. But Suchinda Kraprayoon was replaced with a right wing government that was unable to solve the social and economic hardships of the Thai people.

These events illustrate that Thai workers and small farmers can have no illusions in the so-called ‘progressive’ and ‘democratic’ wings of the capitalist class. All the various sections of the ruling class and their political parties will act primarily for Thai big business, including sweeping away democratic rights if they conflict with their class interests.

This year’s deep political crisis revealed the different agendas of the organisations which make up the opposition, including political parties, students, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), unions and others, which united under the ‘People’s Alliance for Democracy’ (PAD). They closed ranks after Thaksin was accused of abusing power, in particular, of enriching himself in a huge telecommunications business deal. But the forces that make up PAD differed over the fate of Thaksin and his party, over the nature of constitutional reform and over ‘free trade’ negotiations with the United States.

Opposition right wing parties like the Democrat Party, which carried out attacks on the working class and poor farmers when they were in government, now mainly concentrate on undermining Thaksin’s party. The Democrat Party’s demand for ‘constitutional reform’ is political rhetoric to try and widen their electoral support. Unions, ‘pressure groups’, and student organisations want more fundamental changes, demanding an end to privatisations and other neo-liberal attacks on workers. But this is not on the agenda of the PAD and Democrat Party leaderships.

Most political parties and mass organisations publicly put hope in the king calming the situation and helping to change the lives of Thais for the better. But the history of the many coups in Thailand shows that the king always gave backstage support to military juntas, such as the Shonthi regime. It illustrates that the monarchy aids capitalist tycoons such as Thaksin to come to power. The king legitimises coups and new anti-working class and anti-poor farmer regimes.

A big cause of instability in Thailand – the Muslim insurgencies and separatist demands in the south of the country- cannot be solved on the basis of capitalism. Only united working class action, in a struggle for democratic rights, for social and economic reforms and for socialism can win real rights for this oppressed community.

Past experiences of mass struggles in Thailand have clearly demonstrated that, despite their heroism and sacrifice, neither the farmers, the students nor the middle class, given their heterogeneous character, can lead the fight to overthrow capitalism. At present, it seems that the rural population (mostly farmers), which is the majority in Thailand, are inclined to support leaders such as Thaksin.

The working class is the only class which could lead the overthrow of capitalism and which could draw behind it the support of the rural poor, the students and the middle class, as well as the Muslim poor in the south. To accomplish these tasks, it is crucial to initiate building a workers’ party. Such a party, with mass support on the basis of a socialist programme, would give confidence to the working class to take the lead in opposition struggles.

A workers and small farmers’ party needs to link the demand for democratic rights and social and economic reforms to the need to establish a workers’ state. A socialist Thailand would appeal for support from workers throughout Southeast Asia and worldwide.

CWI demands:

  • Total opposition to the military coup
  • No to the rule of generals and the rule of corrupt, millionaire politicians
  • No to suppression of democratic rights and clamp-downs on the media
  • For a mass struggle to win full democratic rights, including workers’ rights to organise, to protest, and to strike
  • For independent, fighting, democratic unions and small farmers’ organisations
  • Trade union rights for the armed forces rank and file – win poor soldiers to the struggles of working people
  • For a the building of a mass workers’ and small farmers’ party
  • For a united struggle of workers and small farmers to overthrow the military and its puppet government
  • For a genuine, representative Constituent Assembly
  • Abolish the monarchy
  • For a majority workers’ and poor farmers’ government
  • Full rights for the oppressed Muslim population and all other minorities
  • No to neo-liberal policies of privatisation and de-regulation
  • Take into public ownership big business enterprises, major industries, large private land-holdings and banks
  • For an economy planned to meet the needs of the working people and poor farmers, under the democratic control and management of elected committees from the working class and small farmers
  • For a socialist Thailand, as part of a socialist federation throughout South East Asia
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