Leadership matters

Giles ji Ungpakorn

If you are wondering why the opposition to the junta has gone quiet and wondering if the democracy side has lost, it is important to look a bit deeper into Thai society and the state of the movement.

After the spectacular anti-coup protests in late May this year, the junta have systematically arrested and detained key activists, forcing them to promise not to engage in politics. The military has made it clear that any further activities would result in jail sentences via military courts. Some of those who were detained have been fitted up with lèse majesté charges.

The junta is gambling on the idea that if they create a climate of fear, by arresting and detaining enough anti-coup protesters and pro-democracy activists, people will eventually become demoralised and inactive.

The question which we must ask ourselves is: have they succeeded or is this merely a temporary situation?

The junta’s strategy will not work if democracy activists get organised in an underground movement and continue a low intensity struggle which can break into a mass uprising again like in 1973, 1992 or 2010.

This brings us on to the issue of organisation and leadership.

To understand the Red Shirt movement, which is vitally important to the struggle for democracy, we need to see the struggle of the Red Shirts as a kind of “parallel war” where thousands of ordinary Red Shirts struggled for democracy, dignity and social justice, while Taksin and his political allies waged a very different campaign to regain the political influence that they had enjoyed before the 2006 coup d’état.

Yet at the same time Taksin, Pua Thai and the UDD leadership, which supports Pua Thai, have enormous influence over the Red Shirt movement. This is contradictory and dialectic, because the Red Shirts are both self-organised with their own agenda, but also support Taksin and Pua Thai.

This is where the question of organisation and leadership become vitally important.

Up until now the leadership of the Red Shirts, in terms of strategy and tactics has come from the UDD and Pua Thai. But this leadership has surrendered to the military, hoping for a compromise in the future. They do not want to bring down the old order and they are afraid that if they lead a mass movement against the military this might happen and then slip out of their control. They are more interested in future political careers irrespective whether Thailand has real democracy or some kind of Burmese model.

The aims of the UDD and Pua Thai do not correspond to the dreams and aspirations of millions of Red Shirts. But in order for Red Shirts to act independently of their failed leaders, activists need to be organised and progressive elements need to fight for an alternative leadership. This has to involve the more independent Red Shirts who have so far turned their backs on serious organising, preferring loose networks instead. But without serious political organisation and an alternative political strategy the dictatorship cannot be overthrown.

Such organisation must be carried out in secret, which means that it is difficult to know whether it is taking place right now or not.

However, if the junta wins this round, it will only be a temporary victory. To understand why, we need to reject nonsense theories which concentrate only on elite struggles for power around the Palace and other institutions. The root cause of the Thai crisis is the growing dissatisfaction of millions of Thai citizens with the old way of doing politics. This old way created great inequalities of wealth as the economy developed and it also created a feeling by most Thais that they were second class citizens. Taksin exploited this feeling to win repeated elections. The clock cannot be turned back to the 1960s and any system of half democracy imposed by the junta will not be able to paper over the deep cracks which exist in society.