The role of Thai social movements in democratisation

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

In recent Thai political history we have seen a number of social movements which claimed to be campaigning for democracy. The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) or the “Yellow Shirts”, Sutep Teuksuban’s People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) and the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) or the “Red Shirts”, are the most important examples.

There is a long held view that the action of social movements, or civil society actors, has the effect of expanding the democratic space. Yet social movements in themselves are not automatically progressive movements for democracy and civil rights. Nor is “civil society”, when defined as non-state organisations, and often made up of middle-class actors, automatically in favour of democracy or of expanding civil rights and freedom.

On the conservative side of the political spectrum we saw the “People’s Alliance for Democracy” and the “People’s Democratic Reform Committee”. Despite their misleading names both these movements sought to shrink the democratic space by calling for a military coup or intervention from the king against an elected government.

These social movements are very good examples of “social movements created from above”, mobilised by the ruling class in order to maintain the status quo in the face of threats to their privileges. We know that they were mobilised from above because although the movements themselves were mainly made up of middle class people, their leaders were top politicians and businessmen with close links to the military top brass and the Palace. After the 2006 military coup, leaders of the PAD were seen celebrating with coup leaders and aristocratic types at a New Year party. The Queen and one of the princesses showed support by attending the funeral of one PAD supporter who was blown up by a PAD grenade, and both the PAD and PDRC leaders have enjoyed special preferential treatment from the military junta and the courts, especially over the occupation of the international airport by PAD members in 2008 and the violent wrecking of the elections in 2014. In both cases the military refused to intervene and restore order on behalf of the elected government. Yet the military used deadly sniper fire to kill almost a hundred Red Shirt protesters in 2010. These Red Shirts occupied a shopping area to demand democratic elections instead of a continuation of the military installed Democrat Party government.

Some have also tried to claim that the Red Shirts or the “United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship” were merely political tools of former Prime Minister Taksin Shinawat. Yet this is a fundamental mistake. The Red Shirts cannot be classified as a “social movement created from above” for a number of reasons. Firstly, most Red Shirts believed that they were fighting to expand the democratic space against the entrenched conservative structures of the ruling class. They wanted an end to the status quo. Secondly, at community level the Red Shirts were a self-organised movement of working people, both urban and rural. This is despite the fact that political leadership came from a group of former politicians in Taksin’s party.

As the Red Shirt movement developed, so did their class consciousness. The Red Shirts started to call themselves “serfs” or “Prai” and many started to question the whole elite political structure, including the monarchy. 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 and economic influence that they had enjoyed before the 2006 coup d’état . However, at the same time, Taksin remained very popular and influential among most Red Shirts.

An important mobilising factor for the Red Shirts was the anger felt by millions of ordinary people at the way they were being robbed of their democratic rights by the elites and the middle classes.

The division between the “Reds” and the “Yellows” in the current crisis is class. There is a clear tendency for workers and poor to middle income farmers to support Taksin’s parties and the Red Shirts, irrespective of geographical location. This is because of TRT’s pro-poor policies of universal health care, job creation and support for rice farmers. Urban workers benefitted from the pro-poor policies which had a positive impact on their extended families in rural areas. It reduced their financial commitments to these family members. In the provinces and in Bangkok, the middle classes and the elites tended to vote for the Democrats and wanted to reduce the democratic space and turn the clock back to pre-TRT times.

But this is not just a simple class struggle. In fact, class struggle in the real world is seldom simple or pure. The Thai crisis has important class dimensions, but they are complicated by the political weakness of the Left and the organised working class. This is why Taksin could dominate and lead the Red Shirts.

If social movements are too closely allied to ruling class political parties they will end up being led, incorporated and dominated by those parties rather than being able to push for changes which correspond to the movement’s own agenda. In Thailand leading UDD members were either politicians from Taksin’s party or quickly became so after Yingluk Shinawat’s election victory in 2011. This has led to the gradual decline of the Red Shirts.

Even if a progressive Red Shirt party were to be built in the future, a balance still needs to be established between political parties and social movements and between grass-roots spontaneity and political organisation. They are not mutually exclusive, but they depend on each other in order to bring about change.

A Marxist “big picture” view of social movements often describes various movements from below as just one big social movement with many arms and legs, constantly changing through time and always linked to international movements. This “social movement” is constantly battling against “the system” which is controlled by the ruling class.

This view allows us to see the Red Shirts as a continuum of past pro-democracy movements such as the People’s Party that overthrew the absolute monarchy in 1932, the pro-democracy uprisings against the military in 1973 and 1992 and the communist inspired civil war in the late 1970s. Many of the key actors in the Red Shirt movements were involved in some of these previous movements. Of course there were also activists from these movements who switched sides and joined conservative elite mobilisations. But the point is that they switched sides and supported previous enemies like the military or the monarchy.

Today the challenge for pro-democracy activists is whether we can all help to rebuild a mass movement for democracy which weaves together all the pressing issues of society and is linked to a new organised political party and the labour movement. However brave the student activists of today may be, their symbolic protests against the junta are not enough. We need a mass movement.

This is a shortened version of a paper presented at the International Conference on Human Rights Education, Soochow University, Taipei, November 2015.


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