Can the Red Shirts rebuild Thai Democracy?

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The simple and brutally honest answer to this question is NO.

Ever since Pua Thai’s election victory in 2011 and even more so since the same Pua Thai government was overthrown by the military in 2014, the Red Shirts have become a spent force. This is because Taksin and his allies in the UDD Red Shirt leadership have prevented the movement from being part of any serious pro-democracy struggle.

When social movements like the Red Shirts are frozen out of activity and starved of the oxygen of struggle, they die.

This is one reason, among a number of reasons, why the military’s draft constitution was accepted in the recent referendum.

Many people might wonder why the Red Shirts and their leaders seem to be paralysed in the face of violent and criminal actions by Prayut’s military junta and by the anti-democratic mobs who set the scene for the 2014 military coup.

The reason why Pua Thai and the Red Shirts are paralysed is that Taksin and his allies in the political leadership of these organisations were faced with a hard choice. Either they had to encourage a mass uprising in response to the coup, which would have involved the mobilisation of millions of Red Shirts, or they could choose to go for a grubby compromise with the conservatives and the military in the future.

To put it more bluntly, either Pua Thai and the UDD had to mobilise their millions of supporters to tear down the old order, or they had to make peace with their conservative elite rivals. Given that Taksin, Yingluk and Pua Thai are basically “big business politicians” wishing to return to the fold of the elites, they have naturally chosen the latter option. This is to avoid revolution from below which risks sweeping them all away.

Thailand’s “old order” is not some semi-feudal state structure. The state and the conservative elites are part of 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. These conservatives are extreme neo-liberals who are totally opposed to spending state funds on improving the lives of ordinary people. They denigrated Taksin’s “dual-track” economic policies, which were a mixture of grass-roots Keynesianism to help the poor and free-market policies at a national level. They also hated the electoral advantage which Taksin had over them because of his pro-poor policies.

The Marxist theory of Permanent Revolution explains that we cannot hope or trust mainstream political parties of the business class to launch a serious fight for democracy against the conservatives. This means that we should not raise false hopes that Yingluk, Pua Thai or Taksin will ever carry out the necessary mobilisations to get rid of the old authoritarian 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 or just turning the clock back to Thailand’s political system before 2008.

If the Red Shirts are now a moribund force for change, it does not mean that individual activists from the movement cannot form an important part of a new movement for democracy.

Unfortunately, those claiming to be a “New Democracy Movement” in Thailand today do not take the important task of building a mass social movement seriously. They falsely believe that symbolic actions can “expose” the lack of democracy and lead to change. They are not serious in their analysis of power in society. This is a failure of politics. For too long now, activists in Thailand have rejected the need to study and debate political theory and to see the importance of class. They still reject the need to build a political party of the left.

Lessons from Thai history show that the power to take on the military and the elites lies with mass movements. The power of mass movements can be boosted to significant levels by building roots within the working class and utilising this economic power to confront the elites.

It is clear from the experience of the Red Shirts that we cannot rely on people like Taksin. We need to build a mass movement from below with links to the organised working class.

Further reading: http://bit.ly/1NsZDDa , http://bit.ly/1syU03r , http://bit.ly/245WxhD

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