Weeks of bloody protests and political deadlock within ruling elite
On 9 September, Thailand’s constitutional court ruled that the country’s prime minister, Samak Sundaravej, and his entire cabinet, must resign from office. Following weeks of anti-government protests, the courts made the somewhat farcical finding that the prime minister and cabinet must quit because the right wing PM, Samak, hosted four episodes of a television cookery programme after taking office, thereby breaching rules that bar ministers having business links.
The court ruled the prime minister and cabinet must resign within 30 days once a caretaker government is appointed to run the country. Samak Sundaravej has held the position of PM for just seven months.
The opposition People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) has occupied the grounds of the PM’s office for two weeks, in an attempt to remove Samak from power, who they accuse of corruption and being a puppet of the former PM, Thaksin Shinawatra. The populist Thaksin was removed by a military coup in 2006. The generals ruled for a while and then held new elections, with Thaksin in exile and his party banned. However, Thaksin’s party renamed itself and swept back to power, with Samak Sundaravej, seen as a close ally of Thaksin, named PM. The generals and other elements of the ruling elite backed the recent PAD mass protests against the government. Clashes between PAD supporters and government forces, last week, led to one death and many injured. This led Samak to declare ‘emergency rule’.
The law courts declared Samak Sundaravej breached the country’s constitution, which was rewritten after a military coup in 2006, which forced Thaksin from power. The constitution declared it would end conflicts of interest that were conspicuous during the rule of the telecoms tycoon Thaksin. The constitution only forces Samak, the current PM, to step down – it allows his ruling party, the People Power party (PPP), to re-nominate Samak for prime minister. On 11 September, the People Power re-nominated Samak as prime minister. However, reportedly 5 out of the 6 parties in the government coalition are opposed to the move. The prime minister is meant to be elected on 12 September and it is not clear if the five coalition parties will join the opposition Democrats in a vote to reject the PPP nomination.
The stage is set for the conflict between the PPP and the opposition People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) to intensify and for inter-governmental crisis.
The following article by Raviechandren (CWI, Malaysia), written before the recent constitutional court ruling, looks at the background to Thailand’s crisis and the need to develop a working class and poor people’s political alternative to the main pro-big business parties.
Courts rule Prime Minister, Samak Sundaravej, must resign…ruling party re-nominates Samak
It is not even a year since the elections that ended military rule and another political deadlock has beset Thailand. Although the army tops earlier ruled out mounting a coup, now this is a possibility, as the military general, Somjet Boonthanom, indicated: “If the problems cannot be resolved by democratic means and the country is caught in a deadlock, a coup may be necessary”. If this materializes, it would be the 18th military coup in Thai history.
No solution under pro-capitalist governments
Exactly two years ago, with the support of the monarch, the military carried out a coup to oust the billionaire tycoon-turned prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. Thailand’s opposition parties, and many sectors of the urban population, ‘civil society’ groups, unions, students and others, united under the ‘People’s Alliance for Democracy’ (PAD) – for want of a genuine class alternative – and staged protests and demonstrations, over a few months. This ensued after a deep political crisis that divided the rural and urban population. The majority – the 60% rural population, mostly poor farmers, particularly in the country’s north and northeast – supported populist Thaksin programmes, like subsidising healthcare and initiating poverty-reduction programmes that dramatically lifted their incomes.
At the same time, however, Thaksin’s neo-liberal policies very much hit the working and middle class – much of the population in the urban areas, especially in Bangkok. PAD (People’s Alliance for Democracy), at that time, welcomed the intervention of the military, with the illusion that the generals’ action could end the political uncertainty brought about by the Thaksin regime. The military, during their 15 months’ rule, attempted to reshape Thailand’s form of democracy to protect the interests of the capitalist class, which were threatened by mass street protests in Bangkok. With world economic uncertainties and security issues, they were unable to find solutions under the capitalist system. Accordingly, military rule was further undermined among capitalists when it proved unable to manage the economy.
Subsequently, the general election, in December 2007, which was supposed to bring about democratically-elected administration, after a year of military rule, could not resolve the country’s deep divisions and the bitter resentments among its population. The pro-Thaksin People’s Power Party (PPP), and Thaksin’s proxy, the political leader, Samak Sundaravej, gained the majority of votes in their party’s strongholds, where the rural population is concentrated. Samak Sundaravej maintained Thaksin’s populist agenda for the rural poor. However, since winning the elections, Samak has been unable to fulfill the needs of the urban population and it seems that he merely has followed Thaksin’s neo-liberal policies and ‘crony capitalism‘. This, once again, enraged the working and middle class in Bangkok.
PAD’s reactionary appeal
The main PAD (People’s Alliance for Democracy) leaders are made up of the media mogul, Sondhi Limthongkul, the ex-general, Chamlong Srimuang, and a former Bangkok governor, who played a key role in the anti-government protests in 1992. They are connected to conservative sections of the military, the state bureaucracy and the royalist establishment. The PAD first emerged in September, 2005. It was a largely a personal crusade by Sondhi, once a passionate Thaksin supporter, who turned on his former mentor after feeling abandoned when his business went bankrupt.
The populist programmes advocated by Thaksin for rural populations sparked fears in the country’s elite and its conservatives. They feared the wealth gap that gave them their lives of huge privileges could evaporate. The cronyism practiced by Thaksin also irked the local capitalists, including Sondhi. He and other national capitalists used various allegations of high level corruption to oppose a further loosening of protectionist measures and market reforms, which threatened their pursuit of wealth.
The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) consists of middle and upper-class inhabitants of Bangkok, and southerners, supported by the conservative elite, as well as factions of the monarchy and the Thai army. The PAD has been trying to use the anger of working and middle class people in Bangkok to overthrow Samak’s government. They stated that the rural population should not be allowed to determine the country’s political fate and claimed: “Democracy with ‘one man one vote’”, gives too much weight to Thailand’s rural majority”. Instead, they proposed that since “parliamentary democracy is not working in Thailand, the post-1973 dictatorship-era which made Parliament a body in which most lawmakers are appointed and only 30 per cent elected”, should be re-enacted.
In August 2008, PAD members seized Government House and were later joined by tens of thousands of members, including PAD’s paramilitary force, who barricaded themselves in with barbed wire, bamboo spikes and an electric fence. PAD members and allies seized airports in Phuket, and other places, blocked off major roads and stopped train operations across the Kingdom, severely affecting the tourist industry. They also seized a television broadcaster, as well as several government ministries, to undermine Samak’s government.
It is clear that the opportunist PAD leadership is using support from a faction of the armed forces and is utilising the slogan, ‘We love the King!’ to achieve its pro-business agenda. To strengthen their positions, and to attract the working and middle class layers affected by the neo-liberal policies of the Thaksin and Samak governments, PAD advocate nationalist and ‘democratic’ demands. They want the government to drop its attempt to amend the constitution, halt large infrastructure projects, commit itself to political reform and accept a Thai court ruling in a dispute with Cambodia over an ancient temple. Janya Yimprasert, a labour activist, commented: “The right-wing PAD leadership has not the slightest concern for the jobs and conditions of working people, nor, despite its name, for the defence of basic democratic rights”.
Disgraceful role of union leaders
The reactionary and bureaucratic trade union leaders have thrown their uncritical support behind the yellow-shirted, anti-government protesters from PAD, who welcome military rule with royal patronage.
One of the key leaders of PAD, Somsak Kosaisook, is also Chairman of the State Railway Workers’ Union of Thailand (SRUT), which is affiliated to the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF). Other key ITF affiliates, under the umbrella of SERC (State Enterprise Workers’ Relations Confederation), include the Thai Airways International State Employees’ Union, AOT-SWU (the airport workers‘ union), LU-PAT (port workers) and LU-ETA (expressway workers), “Which have all been playing an active and important role in PAD”. The trade union ‘leaders’ are using the concern among government workers that Samak will continue Thaksin’s economic restructuring, which involved the privatisation of state enterprises and job losses, to advocate support for the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD).
Meanwhile, PAD, with the support of the union bureaucrats, tried to undermine the economy and transport system of Thailand. On 3 September, SERC (State Enterprise Workers’ Relations Confederation),asked its 200,000 members: “To rally, take sick leave and organise work stoppages, and meetings in order to stop the government’s privatisation policy and various mega-projects, especially in the transport sector” to interrupt the supplies of power and water to government offices and to disrupt telecommunications and rail, road and air transport.
All this, while some of the unions neglected to take action against serious attacks on trade unions and the working class by the government. And now the union leaders are only prepared to call for strike action when they know that their actions are supported by pro-business elites and that their positions and privileges will not be harmed by government. However, the union bureaucrats’ role in PAD, and PAD leaders’ calls for the replacement of democracy with military dictatorship, have lost PAD much support amongst workers. This was apparent when most workers ignored the call for ‘strikes’ on 3 September. This also helped ensure failure for attempts by PAD to paralyze the government.
Thai society deeply divided
The People’s Alliance for Democracy actions irked the rural population that supported Thaksin and Samak and this further divided an already polarised society. Red-shirted pro-government supporters, from the Democratic Alliance against Dictatorship, confronted PAD supporters, in Bangkok, which led to the death of one PAD supporter and many injured. Although PAD support was not as strong in numbers, as in 2006, when PAD ousted Thaksin (with support from factions of the military and the monarchy), PAD could continuously cause problems for Samak’s government. At the same time, the Thai ruling class is facing immense pressure from international capitalism to avert this conflict that has hit an already volatile economy. The conflict has also affected tourism, one of the main contributors to the national economy.
At this point [until the 9 September, constitutional court ruling forcing the prime minister from office – Editors], Samak is still adamant that he will not resign as prime minister and he has proposed a referendum in October to determine his government’s fate. It is expected that the referendum, as well a snap election, could favour Samak’s party. However, none of this will end the conflict. With further pressures from the big business class, ultimately either Samak has to resign and be replaced by another candidate from his coalition, or the Democrats, the main opposition party, forms a new government, since PAD would, “Accept anyone as an interim leader, as long as Samak left”.
Build a mass party of workers and poor farmers
However, all these solutions will be short-lived and yet another military takeover is on the agenda. The crisis is far from over, as long as the economy and social needs of the rural and urban population are not justly and equally met. As shown by the experience of Thailand, this is unobtainable under a profit-oriented market economy that is supported by the monarchy, the military and the both the ruling and opposition political parties.
Only a democratic socialist planned economy, that is based on the needs of all could find permanent solutions to the economic and social needs of Thai society. Some of the right wing media misled the public that the clash between the rural population and urban population is a ‘class struggle’. In realty, both rural and urban workers and poor are oppressed by the same system and the conflicts and divisions between these populations have been created by the opportunistic and reactionary policies of pro-capitalist ruling governments and because of their inability to meet the needs of the mass of the Thai population. Therefore, class struggles should be between the oppressed and the oppressor, and not as advocated by the reactionary’s media.
The working class, which is gravely affected by the crisis of the capitalist system, would support the demands of the poor farmers who are also affected by the same system. Meanwhile, the middle class, the poor Muslims in the south, and students are also affected by the capitalist system. Although workers are a minority in Thai society, due to their collectively organised character and their huge economic power, they can lead the struggle to establish a government of workers and poor farmers. This power could see the genuine transformation of Thai society, which has for long suffered under capitalism and feudalism, to a socialist society, as part of a voluntary and equal socialist federation throughout the region.
The trade unions and working class organisations need to be independent and to act as class organizations to oppose the policies and agenda of the capitalist ruling class and the reactionary forces that have divided Thai society. Workers’ organizations must reject the pro-capitalist policies of all the parties – in office or out of office – and also the reactionary military, which intervenes in ‘civilian’ politics not to act as ‘mediators’ but, in essence, to safeguard the interests of the capitalist class or sections of the ruling elite. A strong workers’ party, with a clear socialist programme, could unite all working people and the landed poor, and with class appeals win over the poorly paid rank and file of the state armed forces.
The initiative to build a mass party of the working class and poor peasants is crucial to genuinely unite the rural and urban populations. The trade unions and workers’ organisations need to develop a programme to meet the needs of workers in Bangkok and elsewhere. This should be linked to a programme that underlines the needs of the rural population, the middle classes and students, as well others oppressed by the system. They also need to link the demand for democratic rights and reforms to the need to transform the system; to establish a democratic workers’ state and to appeal for the support of the working masses in Southeast Asia, and worldwide, to aid in the struggle to build a socialist society.