Giles Ji Ungpakorn
Many people might be wondering why Yingluk’s government seems to be paralysed in the face of violent and criminal actions by Sutep’s Democrat Party mob. The answer is not that there are “invisible hands” from the throne or that there is covert military support for Sutep. In fact, the top elites regard Sutep and his acolytes as lowly street gangsters. They also regard former Democrat Party PM Abhisit as a weak creature to be used and then ignored. But these disturbances are useful to the military and the conservatives because they can push Pua Thai and Taksin into further compromises. That is why the military is sitting on its hands with a smug smile. Naturally, Sutep is getting support from the backwoodsmen in the Constitutional Court and the Election Commission, but the street mobs are doing all the work. They are also supported by the reactionary doctors, vice chancellors and NGOs who represent the middle class.
The real reason why Pua Thai appears to be paralysed is that they face a choice. Either they order the sacking of the top generals and reactionary judges and the arrest of the violent protest leaders, using the police and the support of millions of Red Shirts, mobilised on the streets, or they go for a grubby compromise with the conservatives.
To put it more bluntly, either Pua Thai mobilise their supporters and the Red Shirts to tear down the old order, or they make peace with their conservative elite rivals. Given that Taksin, Yingluk and Pua Thai are basically “big business politicians”, they naturally choose the latter option. This is not to avoid civil war, but to avoid revolution from below.
When I refer to Thailand’s “old order” I am not talking about some semi-feudal state structure. I am talking about a modern capitalist semi-dictatorship controlled by the military, the business class and the top civil servants. They are all united in their royalism, but Thailand is not an absolute monarchy either.
Until the election victory of Taksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party in 2001, the old way of conducting politics was for the different elite parties to compete on the basis of personalities and patronage. Taksin introduced the central importance of policies to the electoral process. Before this, and before the 1997 economic crisis, the laissez-faire policies of successive Thai governments resulted in unplanned and chaotic public infrastructure and total lack of welfare. The elites and the middle class enriched themselves on the backs of the poor.
On an economic and social level, the rapid growth that the Thai economy experienced through the 1980s and early 1990s meant that more and more ordinary people were becoming urbanised, educated and more self-confident. People wanted to see change and they wanted a share in the fruits of development.
Growing conflict was emerging between the realities on the ground and the old political structures that had a stranglehold on society. Taksin and Thai Rak Thai played a part in increasing this conflict by proposing modernisation. Yet Taksin’s aim was not to pull down the old order, but merely to gently modernise it. Today, Yingluk, Pua Thai and Taksin are still determined to protect the main pillars of the old order. They fear revolt from below more than competition from the conservatives.
Thailand today is not the Europe of 1848, but there are some aspects of Europe in 1848, as explained by Karl Marx, which can help us understand the Thai situation. Marx wrote that the rising capitalist class in Europe were too cowardly to finish off the old order by leading a revolutionary movement of workers. The capitalist class preferred a compromise with the old feudalists rather than mobilising movements from below which might come to challenge the capitalists themselves. Marx announced that from then on, workers needed to lead an independent “Permanent Revolution” which would sweep away the old rulers and go on to challenge the capitalist class. Leon Trotsky developed this idea further by arguing that in under-developed countries workers should lead movements of workers and peasants to sweep away colonialism or feudalism and not merely stop at modern capitalism, but move on towards socialism. This happened in Russia in 1917 until the revolution was drowned in blood by Stalin.
What this means for Thailand is that we should not raise false hopes that Yingluk, Pua Thai or Taksin will carry out the necessary mobilisations to get rid of the old order. That task must be led by a movement from below whose aims should be to go further than just establishing capitalist parliamentary democracy as seen in the West.
In practice, given the weak state of independent red shirt and left-wing organisation on the ground, the best we can hope for right now is to build a movement from below which continues to push against the boundaries of authoritarianism and to continually criticise any nasty compromises which Pua Thai will want to make. But ultimately, in the long term, this movement will have to rise up and pull down the structures dominated by the military, big business and conservative officials.