Political conflict far from over
On Monday, 15 December, the Democrat Party leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, has won enough votes to become the next prime minister of Thailand. He has, for now, the support of the yellow-shirted PAD (People’s Alliance for Democracy) which carried out the months long mass protests that paralysed the country. Based mainly on the urban population, PAD had vociferously opposed the government of Somchai Wongsawat which was sympathetic to the deposed prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra , still in exile.
However, the red-shirted rural supporters of Thaksin, annoyed at being robbed of their electoral choice once again (in 2006 it was by an army coup) vowed, in a mass rally of 50,000 supporters in Bangkok, to fight on against this injustice.
There are serious doubts that Abhisit, with his pro-capitalist leanings and the conflicting demands of the ‘yellows’ and ‘reds’, can reconcile the conflicting parties. Many fear that, if this fissure between the urban population and rural population becomes a mighty abyss of mutual hatred, the situation could soon descend into mass bloodshed or civil war.
The change of government from pro-Thaksin to Democrat followed the occupation by PAD of the Suvarnabhumi International airport and Don Mueang airport from November 25 to December 3. During that period, hundreds of thousands of airline passengers were stranded and Thailand lost revenues of up to $4 billion. Because of the drastic interruption to the vital export and tourism sectors, combined with the global economic crisis, the government has now had to lower estimates of GDP growth for 2008 from 4.5% to 4%. Next year’s growth is expected to be below 3%. This dramatic act of economic sabotage has also alarmed the investors and business class.
Many experiences in the class struggle have shown that, when workers go on strike or occupy a factory to demand their labour rights, without hesitation, the ruling class will call it economic sabotage and immediately act to stop it in order to safeguard the profits and interests of the capitalists.
However, many people are perplexed as to why a state as advanced in security and military practice and as economically dependent on exports and tourism as Thailand, was willing to take the risk of permitting such a vital transport destination – one of the world’s biggest and busiest – to be stormed and occupied by PAD protesters who never numbered more than a few thousand. The answer lies in the power of PAD’s backers – the monarch and the military tops, as well some capitalists giving financial back up – as well as in the severe conflicts within the ruling class in Thailand.
Undoubtedly, the king, with his privilege of lese-majeste (the law against offending the crown) still plays a powerful role in Thai politics. General Prem Tinsulanonda, the king’s most senior adviser, in a pointed speech in 2006, compared the army to a racehorse and the government to a jockey. “Jockeys come and go”, was his message, “But the owner of the racehorse is the king”.
In relation to the occupations of the airports, the BBC World Service described PAD as “a remarkably well trained and well funded movement…Behind the movements are squads of hoodlums, armed with batons, metal spikes and hand-guns who man the barricades and hunt down intruders…It runs its own television station which is widely broadcast…Bigger Thai businesses are widely believed to be financing the movement, including at least two national banks…There are also plenty of former military commanders offering their help to the PAD…The top PAD leader, Chamlong Srimuang, a former general, has close ties to Gen Prem Tinsulanonda, the King’s most senior advisor”.
Conflicts in ruling class
These powers have been pulling the strings behind the scenes, orchestrated by PAD. They are prepared to tolerate this economic sabotage, even though it has infuriated many capitalist leaders and multinationals, mainly to safeguard their own privileges and power that have been sustained over many years in Thai society. However, when business-tycoon-turned-politician Thaksin, formed a government in 2001, their power and privileges were threatened by his increasing rule through authoritarianism and cronyism. They had to stage this ‘economic sabotage’ to further undermine Thaksin and his influences.
At first, multinational corporations and local industrialists had regarded Thaksin as the best defender of the free market in Thailand, given that he was elected as prime minister in 2001 with a larger popular mandate than any Thai prime minister had ever had in the freely elected National Assembly. But apprehension among some national capitalists and elite figures grew when his government slid into authoritarianism and cronyism, and their business interests were ignored. The royalists’ unhappiness also hinged on Thaksin’s alleged disrespect of the king when he did not extend much respect to the Privy Council, which advises the king.
The conflicts between them and Thaksin have been in place for some time and became greater when Thaksin and his family were implicated in the telecommunications scandal in 2006. This infuriated especially the urban population that had resented his government’s policies. Subsequently, some of the elite and rich that had links to the monarchy and the army, and were affected by Thaksin’s cronyism, initiated the PAD and got support amongst the urban population to protest against Thaksin.
Undemocratic demands of PAD
PAD, displaying reverence and allegiance to the king, adopting his colour, yellow, increasingly gained the support of the monarchy. This became obvious, when, in early October, Queen Sirikit went to the funeral of a PAD woman killed by the police when breaking up a demonstration.
In reality there is nothing democratic in the People’s Alliance for Democracy. It advocates a parliament that is 70% appointed by the king and effectively annuls the say of the rural majority – 60% of the population.
All along, the PAD has been exploiting the anger of the urban population against Thaksin’s neo-liberal policies, that affected them during his rule, to fulfill its political agenda and get them to favour a government that could safeguard their interests and privileges. Their true colours, of opportunism and hypocrisy, were revealed when, at this juncture, they are disgracefully backing the Democrat’s government. In fact, the Democrat government in the 1990s carried out very similar neo-liberal attacks which severely undermined the livelihoods of the working class and poor farmers.
Pro-Thaksin government powerless
The elected pro-Thaksin PPP (People Progressive Party) government intervened to try and stop the PAD protesters’ airport occupation by declaring an emergency; but the powerful army as well as the ‘revered’ king were not on the side of the government! Even the police force ignored the order of Prime Minister Somchai to stop the airport blockades and it seems that ‘the senior police officers were fully aware that rich and powerful patrons funded and sustained the airport seizure’.
The government proved toothless and could only observe the unfolding airport occupations. Subsequently, these circumstances were used successfully by PAD to get rid of the ‘puppet government’ of Thaksin. They confidently carried out the dramatic airport occupations without fearing any legal sanction. In fact, PAD initially expected that, with its ‘last resort’ attempt to destabilise the economy and subsequently undermine the pro-Thaksin government, it could put pressure on for another military coup with the support of the king. However, the failure of military rule to manage the economy competently after ousting Thaksin in 2006, meant that another military coup was not the most desired alternative – especially among the business class – to end the political conflict.
Ultimately, with no other alternative, a ‘judicial coup’ was the best option to oust the pro-Thaksin government. The Constitutional Court was pushed to intervene in the ongoing political drama to end the airports blockade. Subsequently, the Constitutional Court banned Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat – who had spent less that 3 months in power – from standing for office for five years, and dissolved three of the parties of his ruling coalition by accusing them of vote buying in the December 2007 election. (The same court had been used to disqualify Somchai’s predecessor, Samak Sundravej, for accepting payment for appearances on TV as a chef, when the PAD protests became uncontrollable.)
Many Thais are aware of the recent trend of using the Constitutional Court to deal with political conflicts. The courts have lost credibility and are no longer accepted as neutral, at least by millions of Thaksin supporters.
The Democrat Party candidate for prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, garnered support when former allies of the pro-Thaksin party defected to his side. This enabled the “democrats” to defeat the coalition of the Puea Thai Party – the new pro-Thaksin party. It is also rumoured that the country’s military head intervened to make sure that the Democrats had enough defections from the pro-Thaksin coalition to form a government.
Abhisit is the fifth prime minister in little more than two years. His elevation to prime minister is clearly supported by the yellow-shirted PAD and has also been given the green light by the monarchy and the leadership of the military. Some representatives of the business class, crippled by the global economic crisis and frustrated with the ongoing political deadlock, have also declared the Democrat Party to be their choice.
On the other hand, the 50,000 red-clad supporters of Thaksin who gathered in the stadium in central Bangkok on December 13 under the banner of the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship are mainly from the rural population. They were there to hear a pre-recorded video speech in which Thaksin attacked the “inappropriate interference in the political process” of the army and denounced the law-makers who had been loyal to him but switched their allegiances. The following day, ‘The Nation’ reported: “They say Thaksin Shinawatra’s political star is waning; you wouldn’t know it from looking at the red-shirt rally yesterday. Thaksin may be on the run and banned from politics for five years, but his supporters seem unprepared yet to throw in the towel”.
Many in the rural population are supporting Thaksin because of the benefits they have gained with his populist programmes, particularly in the country’s north and northeast. These groups were neglected by the traditional political elites. Thaksin’s policies, like cracking down on the drug trade, subsidising healthcare and initiating poverty-reduction programmes, have dramatically lifted incomes in some of Thailand’s poorest regions. It was clear that the Thaksin government was able to make those concessions because of favourable economic developments, especially in the manufacturing and service industries, during his rule. This tactic gave him the upper hand to maintain crucial electoral support from them. It has been the norm of the free market system to claw back any concessions made in one period by slashing public spending in a later period.
How long can the Democrats survive?
Although Abhisit, the Oxford-educated leader, vowed to strive towards ‘national harmony’ and to be ready to work immediately to correct the ‘economic issues’ in order ‘to restore confidence within the next two or three months’ to the business class, the current global economic crisis that has started to weaken Thailand’s economy could work against his wishes.
Abishit has drawn support mainly from southern Thailand and from Bangkok’s middle class, however he has had less success in attracting the support of the working class and rural population. He has advocated free healthcare, a higher minimum wage and free education, textbooks and milk for nursery-school children. Without doubt his programme will be supported by the working class and poor farmers. But the question is whether he can apply all these popular measures in the present economic conditions and without confronting the capitalist class Abhisit and his Democrat Party have consistently supported and promoted the free market system. The rural as well as the urban population will again become aware that he is no different from many of the previous pro-capitalist leaders.
Resentments are building up among the pro-Thaksin ‘red shirt’ movement who see the new government as a part of the plan to demolish Thaksin’s loyalists’ network. Therefore they are demanding amendments to the harsh provisions in the Constitution that make political parties vulnerable and have been responsible for the court decision to dissolve the ruling party. They also demand action against the PAD for its seizures of Government House and Bangkok’s airports. If these resentments and the protests grow further with the agitation of Thaksin and his party leaders, the Abhisit government may not last long.
On he other hand, the Democrats will also have to appease the PAD which demands that the new government ‘install new politics that will not see a recurrence of past political crises’. The ‘new politics’ means for the PAD giving the king the power to appoint the majority in the lower house. This ‘new politics’ may assist in fulfilling the desires and motivations of the elite and business class but not the needs of the majority in Thai society – the working class, middle class and poor farmers.
In that situation, as Jaran Ditta-apichai, a former human rights commissioner indicated, ’the Democrats won’t last long; they will be attacked from two sides – red and yellow’.
Mass workers’ party vital
Thailand’s political crisis shows that the conflicts of interest within the ruling class are now being unburdened onto the shoulders of the oppressed class. On the one hand is the monarch and the military with their privileges and power, and the section of the capitalist class who are using the urban population to achieve their political agenda. On the other hand, the billionaire tycoon, Thaksin, and his capitalist supporters have used the rural population – the poor farmers – to achieve his goals.
Reactionary and opportunistic capitalist policies have worsened the polarisation between the rural population (mostly poor farmers) and the urban population (working class and middle class) in Thai society. There is an urgent need to build a mass party of the working class and poor farmers with socialist policies, to unite the oppressed class for common struggle against the incapacity of capitalism in Thailand to assure them the basics of a decent life.