Working class and rural poor need party of their own
The present political crisis in Thailand has been ongoing since the 2006 military coup which ousted Thaksin Shinawat – the billionaire tycoon turned politician. It has consisted of a now open, subdued clash between his party and its supporters and another wing of the political elite around the Democrat Party. While there has been a call to postpone the elections on 2nd February, the crisis remains without any sign of ending.
In this divide, the rural poor from the north and north-east of the country as well as some sections of the working class have generally supported Thaksin and any regime related to him; most of the middle class as well as other sections of working class in Bangkok, and people from the southern part of the country are supporting the Democrats. This divide continues mainly due to the vacuum in the history of modern Thailand created by not having a force capable of uniting the rural poor and working class and genuinely representing their needs. The absence of a mass party of the working class and rural poor that could challenge the rule of feudalism and capitalism, has been seen as a free ride by the different regimes representing the interests of the monarchy, the military and the capitalists to continuously exploit the desires of ordinary people.
The most recent conflict in Bangkok has been underway since October 2013. This time, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), which mostly consists of Democrat Party supporters and the former ‘Yellow-shirts’, planned to oust the government of the Pheu Thai (‘For Thais’) Party which has been led by Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawat since 2011. The PDRC accused the Yingluck government of attempting to push through an amnesty for people convicted for corruption and abuse of power which would allow Thaksin to return from his self-imposed exile; he has lived abroad since 2008 to avoid a prison sentence.
Under pressure from the growing street protests and occupations of important parts of Bangkok, and the possibility of the actual overthrow of the government, Yingluck dissolved the government and called a new election for 2nd February. She is confident her party would win again with the support of the majority of voters, especially the rural poor, who got some help from Thaksin’s government. But the PDRC, which has the tacit support of the judiciary, the military and the monarchy, wants to avoid an election and the return of the pro-Thaksin party. They protested by occupying government offices and demanded an unelected ‘people’s council’ to draw up a new constitution instead of having an election. The military and police considered the protests peaceful so far and have cooperated with the organisers. Even so, at least ten people have been killed with sniper rifles and bombs at the protest sites, with both sides accusing each other of provocation. To try and control the protests, on 21st January, Yingluck announced a state of emergency in Bangkok to last for 60 days. But this has not stopped the protest and conflicts. In recent development on Sunday (26th January) during early voting ahead of the elections, an anti-government protest leader was shot dead as protesters blocked voting stations in Bangkok. This could further escalate the tension between the two political camps.
But with the characters involved and the political orientation of the main forces, there is no way out. If elections go ahead as planned on 2nd February, they will mean the return of Yingluck to government as the Democrat Party is boycotting them. This will not end the protests of the PDRC. If the political clash between the two sides becomes uncontrollable, a military coup is possible or the intervention of the judiciary to annul the election of the Yingluck party. This would enrage the rural poor who envisage losing the small benefits they have accrued from a Shinawat government. Without a solution that can satisfy both sides and in a situation of anarchy, the conflict could turn ugly including the possibility of a civil war developing.
‘People’s Council’ to subjugate the masses
The main aim of the PDRC is to replace the elected government of Yingluck with an unelected government or ‘People’s Council’. According to Suthep Thueaksuban, the main spokesperson of the PDRC, who is also a former leader of the Democrat Party, the role of such a ‘people’s council’ would be to reform the state constitution to basically end the political dominance in Thai politics of Thaksin which has operated since 2001. Based on the pro-capitalist and conservative character of the PDRC, a ‘people’s council’ would represent the agenda of big business, that is linked to the army and the monarchy, by weakening the economic domination of the crony capitalists that emerged around Thaksin during his time in office.
This, the PDRC agenda, is not going to satisfy the supporters of Thaksin – the ‘redshirts’ – who are mostly poor farmers based in the rural areas. So far, they have launched protests outside Bangkok and a Facebook campaign to support the election called by Yingluck.
The proposed ‘People’s Council’ would not represent the aspirations of the ordinary people – the working class and poor farmers – who are currently facing uncertain social and economic conditions with the slowdown in the Thai economy. The constitutional monarchy has allowed elements of parliamentary democracy since the 1930s, but all that was created was brutal regimes – either through elections or military coups – that have continuously attacked the welfare and democratic rights of poor farmers/rural people, the working class, young people and students as well as denying the right of self-determination to the Muslim minority in the southern region of the country.
Neither did the regime under Thaksin and his parties honestly solve the social and economic needs of the working class and rural poor, using only a populist and opportunist agenda as bait for the votes of the poor to satisfy their desire for political power. In almost six years in government, Thaksin and his cronies increased their wealth manifold and Thaksin is at present one of the 10 richest Thais.
Only through the setting up of a revolutionary constituent assembly with democratically elected representatives of the working class, poor farmers and others in society from urban and rural areas, a real political solution that meets their needs and welfare would be realised, not the bogus ‘people’s council’ that is planned to subjugate their needs.
Marginalised rural and urban poor
The poor and rural supporters of Thaksin are against the Democrats forming a government which they believe would undermine the existing social benefits such as the universal health care coverage, the agrarian debt moratorium programme, the Village Fund scheme and others that they gained under the Thaksin regime. Their claim has been confirmed by the PDRC which says that when the ‘People’s Council’ takes power, it will end the populist agenda of Thaksin.
In Thai history, under the military regimes and various pro-capitalist governments, during the pre-boom period (1968-1986) and the boom period (1987-1996), Thai society experienced widespread inequality, and the poor farmers in the rural areas were almost completely left out of the massive economic development in Bangkok and other urban areas. The rural poor and farmers also experienced brutal attacks on their land rights and living standards during the Asian Financial Crisis in 1998, under the government of the Democrats which followed the measures dictated by the IMF.
With the constitutional changes in 1997, local business elites started to dominate Thai politics by joining political parties to safeguard their business interests. Thaksin and other local business tycoons that survived the Asian Financial Crisis formed the ‘Thai Rak Thai’ party (‘Thais Love Thais’). In 2001 Thaksin and the TRT won the election by campaigning massively amongst rural voters with a populist agenda to address the grievances of the rural poor, who are the majority in Thailand.
Rather than initiating independent policies representing working class and rural poor people, the Assembly of the Poor – the coalition of rural villagers and urban slum dwellers which had authority among rural and urban poor at that time – supported Thaksin. Merely focussing on ‘lesser evilism’, they failed to understand the capitalist character of Thaksin’s agenda, masked with populist gestures. Thaksin and the TRT distinguished themselves from all other parties in Thai history as none of them had ever implemented such populist measures before.
If a working class party had existed in Bangkok at that time, it could have linked up with the struggles of the rural poor. Without it, another capitalist party, but this time with a populist agenda, managed to take power. But under the pressure of free market policies and an economic crisis like the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, the gains of the rural poor could be clawed back to save big business.
The Thai economy is now very much dependent on the industrial and manufacturing activity in the urban areas such as Bangkok, although more than 60 percent of the population is still involved in different agricultural activities. This means that most of the wealth of Thai capitalism is created by the working class in the urban area. The working class in Bangkok is also under attack from the neo-liberal agenda of the Yingluck regime. The poor farmers and the working class have common exploiters, the capitalists. For the poor farmers and rural poor to maintain their rights and welfare, they should ally themselves with the working class in the urban areas to build a force that can challenge the rule of capitalism. The alliance could also attract the support of students, middle class people and others in society that are also looking for a genuine change in the system.
Working class leadership
Capitalist media such as the Economist and the Far Eastern Review, as well as the leaders of foreign countries, have proposed that the PDRC should negotiate with the Yingluck government to end the political deadlock. They fear that an unelected ‘people’s council’ or a military takeover would not end the deadlock, and this could only worsen the economy of the country and affect big business. This conflict is between two parties of capitalism that compete for political power. They have no genuine concern about the poor or ordinary people, and just use them as pawns in their game.
Working class, rural poor and other oppressed people in Thai society should not trust these politicians, the military and the monarchy who dance to the tune of capitalists. Only through a coalition of the working class, rural poor and others could their needs and welfare be fought for and the political deadlock ended. In order to build this coalition, a political party based on workers urgently needs to be organised and to seek the support of genuine representatives of the rural poor and other exploited layers in society. Such a party should base itself on a socialist programme as the alternative to the agenda of the capitalists, whichever camp they are backing in the current struggle.