Socialist Worker

A briefing on the continuing crisis in Thailand

by Giles Ji Ungpakorn
Issue No. 2117

For the past two or more years – and especially since the September 2006 coup – Thai society has been hypnotised into forgetting about its real social and political issues. Instead, the whole of society – and, most tragically, the social movements – have been entranced by a fight between two factions of the Thai ruling class.

On the one side is the Thai government, the ruling People's Power Party, the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his former party Thai Rak Thai.

On the opposing side is a loose collection of authoritarian royalists, comprising the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), elements of the military and judiciary that supported the coup and the Democrat Party. The authoritarian royalists are not a unified body – but they share a collective interest in wiping out Thaksin's party.

The two sides are mirror images of each other. Both are firmly in the camp of the Thai capitalist elite. Both are nationalistic and prepared to abuse human rights.

Thaksin's former government and current prime minister Samak Sundaravej's government support extrajudicial killings and a hardline murderous position against the insurgency in the south of Thailand.

But the opposing side also cares little about such killings. It counts General Panlop Pinmanee, who oversaw a massacre at Krue Sae mosque in 2004, among its leadership.

Corruption

Both factions are associated with people who have a record of corruption. It is common knowledge that all Thai politicians are engaged in corrupt practices, whether legal or illegal.

The military also has a long record of corruption and the junta that oversaw the illegal coup in 2006 is no exception. After the coup, they appointed themselves to boards of state enterprises and forced through increased military spending.

Yet the courts have clearly been used to single out Thaksin's faction on charges of corruption and 'abuse of power'. And while Thaksin was still in power, the courts bent to his wishes.

So there is no real justice in Thailand. The judiciary are not accountable to the electorate and always support the rich and powerful. In labour courts they always rule against trade unions. There is no jury in Thailand.

Political strategies

There are some differences between the two factions. Thaksin's side is committed to a strategy of winning power by elections, parliamentary democracy and money politics. The PAD and their friends favour of military coups, reducing the number of elected MPs and increasing the power of unelected bureaucrats and the army.

The justification for this is the belief that the poor majority in the country are too stupid to be given the vote. The PAD faction are also fanatical royalists. They want a new coup and were happy to whip up hatred of neighbouring Cambodia and to risk a war over an ancient Khmer temple.

The PAD strategy, as outlined by one of its leading figures Pipop Thongchai, is to create enough political chaos that institutions and parties are destroyed, with a 'new order' arising from the ashes. Needless to say, this new order will not be democratic, nor will it have any commitment to social justice or equality.

Economic policies

In terms of economic policy, the Thaksin faction wants to use a 'dual track' strategy that mixes neoliberalism with elements of grassroots Keynesianism. They say the poor must not be left out and they do have a record of implementing pro-poor policies such as a recent heathcare scheme. However, they are not remotely socialist and are opposed to taxing the rich or building a welfare state.

The PAD and the other royalists, in contrast, are hardline monetarists. They propose interest rate hikes, cutting down spending on the poor and squeezing wages.

Bhumibol Adulyadej, the king of Thailand, is one of the richest monarchs in the world. He supports this economic policy and has also advocated a 'sufficiency economy' where everyone curbs their spending according to their means. That means income redistribution is ruled out – which is why the poor have consistently voted for the Thaksin faction.

Social movements

Compounding this situation is the total disarray of the social movements, NGO networks and trade unions in Thailand. After the collapse of the Communist Party in the mid 1980s, the new slogan of the people's movements was 'the answer is in the villages'.

This was an NGO strategy to promote to rural development along single-issue lines. The slogan also reflected a respect for villagers which contrasted greatly with the attitude of the government.

Now the slogan of those people's movement networks that are supporting the PAD has changed to 'the villagers are stupid and don't deserve the vote!' or 'the answer is with the military, courts and the king'.

Sections of the NGO Coordinating Committee, some Thai staff in Focus on the Global South, HIV+ networks, Friends of the People and some farmer groups have all lined up to support the PAD and the demand to decrease democracy.

The railway workers' union and the Thai Airways union have also shown their support for PAD. The rail union leaders have never campaigned for hundreds of rail employees who have been on temporary contracts without welfare for decades. The Thai Airways union has ignored military corruption in the airline and in the airports authority.

Both unions have turned their backs on serious attacks on trade unions in the private sector and are only prepared to take action when people in high places give them the green light.

Activists pulled

Other activists who cannot stand the PAD have allowed themselves to be pulled into supporting the government. This is just as bad as those supporting the PAD. Some have even cheered when the police tried to break up PAD protests.

The lack of independent class politics in the Thai people's movement is a result of years of rejecting any kind of overall politics or political organisation. This stems anarchist ideas that became popular after the collapse of the Communist Party as a reaction to the party's Stalinist authoritarianism.

The problem is also a result of the 'lobby politics' of the NGOs. Neither strategy leads to building an independent position for the trade unions and social movements. They reject 'representative democracy' – but have no concrete democratic proposals to put in its place.

Build independence

Even today, at this late hour, we can still build political independence. We must campaign for more democracy and more control of institutions from below.

We must advocate a root and branch reform of the justice system, a reduction in the role of the military and the building of a welfare state through cuts in the military budget and progressive taxation of the rich.

Yet there are still those who say that we must take sides in the current elite dispute and leave such reforms until later. The problem with that is that the dispute will not be settled quickly.

And even if it is settled, it will be on the terms of one or other elite grouping – and that will result in a smaller democratic space and less bargaining power for social movements.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn is based in Bankgkok and is a member of the Worker's Democracy socialist organisation in Thailand


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Features
Wed 3 Sep 2008, 17:38 BST
Issue No. 2117
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