Thailand – eyewitness report: Decisive battle between the “reds” and the government?

By the time this report was written, the tension had increased to a new level in the streets of Bangkok since the passsing of Wednesday night’s ultimatum.

The protesters are preparing for the impending army intervention which, judging by the murderous fighting at the end of April, would mean preparing for a bloodbath. For more than two months, the "red shirts" opposition to the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva has been occupying the trade and financial district of Siam. They demand the dissolution of Parliament and call for immediate elections.

Context and history of the events:

In September 2006, the then Prime Minister, multibillionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, was toppled by a military coup. At the same time, he was condemned to two years of prison for " conflict of interest " and various financial skulduggeries. Since then, he lives " in exile " in Dubai, waiting for a triumphal coming-back to Thailand.

In Thailand, the support for Thaksin essentially comes from an important number of poor farmers from the rural areas (mainly from the North of the country and from the area surrounding Bangkok), as well as from a part of the poor working class from the cities. He was able to build this support via populist policies and thanks to several small measures in favour of the poorest, that were implemented when he was in power. In the meanwhile, he of course played the role that was expected from him as a capitalist oligarch by implementing neoliberal measures which created huge discontent, widespread amongst the workers in the cities.

By the end of 2008, the "yellow shirt" supporters of Abhisit (the current Prime Minister) occupied the government buildings and two airports, until the then government, accused of being in league with Thaksin, was dissolved. Abhisit’s party then managed to raise enough support, including from pro-Thaksin MPs, in order to form a new government. Even if the army did not play any active role in these events, it is clear for many people that so many "pro-Thaksin" MPs becoming turncoats could only be due to threats from the military.

In the meantime, the "red shirts" were organizing their first important mobilization by gathering 50,000 supporters in one of Bangkok’s biggest stadiums. The main group organizing the protesters is known as the " United Front for Democracy and against Dictatorship " and this is supported by the Pheu Thai Party (Party " For Thais ") that linked to Thaksin.

On the other hand, Abhisit’s party, the Democrat Party is supported by the PAD (People Alliance for Democracy) – the yellow-shirted – and they have their main base in the urban middle class, and some layers of the working class.

The current government is widely discredited and implements policies that reinforce the role of the monarchy and of the military on the political plane. More than 70% of the government members have not been elected.

The red shirts and the battles of 2009

Exactly one year ago, in April 2009, the red shirts occupied Bangkok’s city centre for the first time. They were demanding Abhisit’s immediate resignation and were supporting Thaksin, the opposition figure in exile. Pitched battles raged for several days between thousands of red shirts, mainly young people, and the state forces. A state of emergency was declared and paramilitary forces were deployed. The army charged with tanks and shot at the crowd using real bullets, killing two people and wounding hundreds. The Prime Minister’s car was assaulted by a raging mob. An important summit gathering the elites of various surrounding countries also had to be cancelled given the scale of the mobilization. After several weeks, and facing an important repression, the red shirts leaders accepted to dismiss their troops, promising new actions if new elections were not called soon.

April 2010: the "red shirts" are rising again

Almost exactly one year after the 2009 events, the red shirts gathered again and decided to occupy en masse one of the capital’s economic hearts, the Siam district. Many demonstrations were organized by foot, by motorbike… Their most spectacular action happened several weeks ago, when they decided to march on the Parliament, forcing it to cancel its session and the MPs to run away. For several weeks, the government even had to take refuge and meet in a town outside Bangkok.

At the same time, many rallies are organized on a daily basis. The figures suggest about 100,000 to 150,000 people showing up daily in the occupied centre. The newspaper The Nation was explaining that : "More and more poor farmers have arrived and have joined the reds in order to express their anger about their feeling of having become social victims". This same newspaper was writing on its first page : "Poverty is Thailand’s biggest ennemy. At least 10 million from a total of 65 million people live lower than the poverty threshold. This layer of the population has almost no access to decent food, to healthcare or to an opportunity to reach education".

For the first time, in order to ease the climate, Abhisit was forced to organize parleys with the red shirts leaders. He produced a "roadmap" promising elections due on 14th of November, and a whole range of measures for the poor farmers. This tactic’s main aim was to demobilize the protesters and gain some time. The red shirt leaders had on the other hand decided to maintain their occupation of the city centre and to demand the immediate dissolution of the Parliament.

Facing the protesters’ determination, the army has already two times tried to invade and clear the occupied area. These attempts were met by a furious resistance by the red shirts, and caused dozens of deaths. During the last weeks, many big assaults have also taken place in Bangkok, which wounded and killed several people amongst the state forces. These attacks certainly are, according to the official media, due to the red "hardcores". It is also very possible that these are due to yellow shirt (government) provocateurs who have also launched several violent actions against the reds during recent days.

One of the reds’ main demands since these tragic incidents is the arrest of Defence Minister Suthep, for his responsibility in the murderous repression towards the end of April. The government has on its side toughened its rhetoric and warned warning that if the protesters had not left the Rajprasong centre by the 12th of May, water and electricity would be cut before a tough military offensive, probably in the following hours. This was when, since the end of April, the government was on the defensive, fearing the implosion of the armed forces between pro-government and pro-reds.

The red shirts leader Jatuporn Promphan, stated in The Nation on the 12th of May that they would not give way to the government ultimatum and that : "We are not afraid of such pressures. After so many protesters dying, nothing can stop the reds anymore"

The mood in the "red" entranched camp, and the latest events

On Wednesday 12th of April, several hours before the end of the ultimatum, I had the opportunity to get into the occupied city centre, barricaded from every side by the opposition to the regime. This district, several square kilometers wide, is very seriously secured by the " reds ". Every entry to the area is blocked by huge barricades, preventing access to the rally and sleeping areas.

"Black guards", the protesters’ security service, search every vehicle to prevent the entry of weapons or grenades. A huge podium, connected to loud-speakers in the whole district, welcomes the main red shirt leaders’ speeches in an uninterrupted flow. A crowd of many people and families stands there or sleeps on the ground – their new homes. Food and water distribution, and all other basic commodities are provided everywhere in the huge encampment. Everywhere hang pictures of the demonstrations, images of the repression in April, and banners calling for the dissolution of the Parliament. The welcome by the " rank-and-file " activists is very warm, and there is a widespread willingness to explain the situation, in spite of the language barrier. When I ask her what she thinks about the current situation and about the government’s ultimatum, a young 19 year old " red " explains to us that : " I have been here for two months. The army has already tried to evict us several times. Many people have already died. They talk about 20 dead, but for us, it has been more than 100. If the army comes back – and that will surely be the case in the coming days – I will fight against them. "

The Nation’s columnist has been talking about important disagreements amongst the " reds " for a few days now. It is clear that the huge hopes that have been raised by this massive movement, which is being used by Thaksin and by his group of thugs to enhance their own political position, cannot be simply satisfied by a simple promise of getting new elections next November. Amongst the leaders, two wings have been sketched out during the last few days : one the one side, a " moderate " wing who wants to accept the roadmap and demobilize the forces ; on the other hand, a " hard " wing, gathered around the Pheu Thai party, the main political party behind the reds, which is opposed to the ’roadmap’. Amongst an ever-growing layer of the mobilized red supporters, doubts are surfacing about their leaders’ honesty. One of these supporters was stating that : " Today, it is clear that to maintain a confrontational stance against the government would only soon turn this area into a bloodbath. I have tried many times to discuss with the leaders, to no avail. I feel that we cannot trust some of the leaders, and I even wonder if they really fight for democracy. " A radio hoisted on the site was stating a short while earlier that " the rank-and-file are self-organizing and warning their leaders that they had better not forget them ". Another protester was stating : " You could order now to the protesters, from the stage, that they should go back to their homes – I think their reaction would be to throw everything that they can reach at the person who would risk this. Some are even planning to march on the 11th Infantry Regiment and to arrest the Prime Minister before launching a popular uprising ".

By the time I am writing these lines (Thursday 13/05), the army has locked the whole area and got the green light to open fire using real bullets. Dozens of tanks are gathered near the barricades. A state of emergency has been declared in 15 provinces of the country. Only several minutes ago, the main black shirt leader has been killed during an interview with a Japanese TV channel by an army sniper. Battles have flared in the surrounding area in order to keep the army at bay, already resulting in one dead – a 25 year old youth name Chartchai Chalao – and 20 seriously wounded people. The red leaders have also ordered their troops to be deployed on every barricade and to stand waiting for the army. The situation will very certainly worsen in the coming hours.

What prospects for the workers and the poor masses of Thailand ?

It is clear that the events in Thailand are the expression of a power struggle between Thaksin and the Abhisit government. This situation has certainly sharpened the already existing tensions between the rural and urban populations.

The Abhisit government is today clearly supported by the military and by the monarchy, with one purpose : prevent Thaksin and his clique from coming back to power. Thaksin’s supporters have self-proclaimed themselves as mouthpieces of the country’s poor masses, and are only using the anger and the frustration which exists in Thai society to their own advantage. These various leaders have today deliberately sharpened the tensions and the divisions between the rural poor and the urban workers and middle class.

Yet, the victims of the elites’ greed are still the poor farmers, the working class and some other layers of society, whatever side they have now chosen. Corruption has reached a never-attained before level in the country. It is clear that in this situation, none of the leaders will denounce any of the causes of the problems suffered by the Thai people. Thailand is one of the worst-hit countries by the capitalist crisis, and both camps’ leaders anyway agree aboout who will be the one to pay for it uring the coming months and years: workers and the poorest in society.

It is thus today a real disaster that there exists no party with a programme starting from the needs of the poor farmers and of the workers, in order to channel the huge existing anger which is expressing tiself in the streets of the country. We will not end poverty and oppression by trusting either the government or some corrupted billionaire.

The situation today is very unstable, and it is hard to know what is going to happen in the coming days. It is clear that the government has decided to test its strength, and this is now but a matter of hours. What will the reds’ ability to resist be ? Will the dissensions amongst the military burst into the open ? What will be the scale of the slaughter that we are going to witness ?

Whatever happens, even if this is not the most likely, should the red shirts finally get the calling of new elections, the official commentators are expecting a victory of Thaksin’s supporters’ party. Should this happen, it is very likely that the yellow shirt coalition, supported by part of the military, would again take to the streets. This all means that it is very likely that the instability continues in the country.

Moreover, what we are now seeing happening in Thailand – a country that has already known 18 coups since the 1930s – is an indication of the instability which could develop on a wider scale throughout the whole of Asia as a reaction against the worsening of the crisis. For us, revolutionnary socialists of the world, it is therefore even more important to understand the emergency in relation to the building of a mass political force in order to defend the interests of the workers and of the poor masses, as well as the need to organize the battle for a socialist society, the only alternative which could finally break with capitalist barbarism.

The Committee for a Workers’ International demands :

• No to suppression of democratic rights and clamp-downs on the media

• Abolish any draconian law such as ISA (Internal Security Act) which suppresses the rights of the people

• No to the rule of generals and the rule of corrupt, millionaire politicians

• Total opposition to a military coup

• 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 the building of a mass workers’ and poor farmers’ party

• For a united struggle of workers, poor farmers, students and others oppressed by the system to overthrow the corrupt 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 in the South of Thailand and all other minorities

• No to neo-liberal policies of privatisation and de-regulation

• Take into democratic public ownership the 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 confederation throughout South East Asia

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May 2010