Tag Archives: Yellow Shirts

Have the deep divisions between Reds and Yellows in Thailand been healed?

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

When Generalissimo Prayut staged his military coup to overthrow the elected Yingluk government, he claimed that it was in order to bring about reconciliation in a country deeply divided between Reds and Yellows. He also claimed that the junta would push through political reform and end corruption. No thinking person ever believed him and, today, what seems to be the main achievement of the junta is the self-enrichment of its members.

“Reform” is a much abused word and is mainly used for what should rightly be called “anti-reforms”. This is true of Thailand, but also of the neo-liberals in the West who want to destroy trade union rights and the welfare state.

I have discussed the crafting of a system of military “Guided Democracy” by the junta in number of articles on this site, so I will address the question of whether the junta has healed the deep divisions between Reds and Yellows in society. [See: http://bit.ly/2hDTT6S ]

The fact that a number of former Yellows are now critical of Prayut’s junta might indicate that a Red-Yellow reconciliation might be possible. The exiled academic Somsak Jeeamteerasakul certainly feels that this is something worth serious consideration.

However, I have always argued that it is not possible or desirable to have unity between those who believe in freedom and democracy and those who believe that democracy has to be limited because the “wrong” people get elected by an “ignorant” electorate.

This is still the case despite the fact that not all Reds are totally committed to freedom and democracy in the strict sense of the word. Some hold narrow-minded views about Patani and GLBT people. Some supported the so-called War on Drugs. The reason why Reds can be regarded as generally pro-democratic is because they have maintained a position against military coups and unelected political bodies, while the Yellows have supported “any means necessary” to overthrow Taksin’s governments, even if it means supporting military coups. What is more, pro-democracy activists who have dared to challenge the military in recent times have generally sided with, or been sympathetic to, the Reds.

I have deliberately used a colour short hand to describe the two sides in Thailand’s political crisis. I have not used the term “Red Shirts” as this movement no longer exists, having been destroyed through deliberate neglect by Taksin and his allies. The Yellow Shirts also morphed into the multi-coloured shirts (“Salim”) and then into Sutep’s street thugs.

It is very unlikely that the mistrust and hatred of those who participated in the destruction of democracy can so easily be forgotten by the Reds and why should it be? This destruction of democracy continues with the junta’s plans for Guided Democracy. In practice it means that the kind of government favoured in the past by the majority of the population will be ruled out by the military’s constitution and its electoral rules. In the past his kind of government had many flaws but it was also forward looking, pro-modern and serious about some degree of poverty reduction. This means that if nothing changes in the near future, Thai citizens will be saddled with a neoliberal government which treats people, especially poor people, in a patronising manner while improving the lives of the rich.

Yet at the same time, what the junta, together with Taksin’s allies, have achieved is a demoralisation of hundreds of former pro-democracy activists. This has been achieved by both repression by the junta and neglect from Taksin’s people.

So an explosion of opposition to the military is not on the immediate horizon, although we must always be aware that in the right circumstances, things can change very quickly, especially if there is a new generation of activists who are determined to fight.

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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.

FOR THE FULL PAPER GO TO THIS LINK: http://bit.ly/1l34Xqe

Also watch this introductory video: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ePe_PK8LSzo

 

Thailand: 25 years after the end of the Berlin Wall

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The end of the Cold War, as symbolised by the destruction of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago, had a political impact on Thailand and its effects can still be seen today in the present crisis.

The destruction of the Berlin Wall was the last nail in the coffin of the Maoist Communist Party of Thailand (CPT). The party was already in decline because of the disillusionment of the students who had joined the party in the jungles and mountains after the 6th October 1976 blood bath. The students were unhappy with the authoritarian nature of the party. Another factor in the decline of the CPT was the new international alignment where China improved relations with the Thai junta and the United States while becoming hostile to Russia and Vietnam.

Those who left the CPT jungle strong-holds and returned to mainstream society, while still being politically active, became divided into three main groups.

The first group eventually found a home in Taksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party (TRT) and the red shirts. They were attracted to TRT’s pro-poor policies and the Stalinist-Maoist policy of building alliances with “progressive business people” helped legitimise their alliance with Taksin. Pumtam Wechayachai, a prominent TRT politician, boasted that they had now “seized state power” without the privations of living in the jungle camps. Both Weng and Tida, UDD red shirt leaders, were once high ranking officials of the CPT.

The second group of activists set up NGOs and turned their backs on big picture politics. Their aim was to lobby the elites and use foreign funds to help poor villagers. They rejected the idea of the need for a progressive political party, believing that all parties would tend to authoritarianism. They also rejected representative democracy and wished to ignore the state. These anarchistic ideas de-politicised and weakened the NGOs and meant that they failed to build mass movements and any political power. Instead their NGOs functioned like authoritarian small businesses. When Taksin’s TRT came to power and used state funds to improve the lives of villagers in a significant manner, the NGOs turned their anger on the government which was making the previous efforts of the NGOs look irrelevant. But the NGOs lacked a mass movement and any political leverage. They therefore built a reactionary alliance with the yellow shirts and welcomed the intervention of the military.

The third group of activists who left the jungle became academics. Almost all of them drew the conclusion that “Socialism was finished”, despite the fact that what was really finished was Stalinism and the authoritarian State Capitalist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe. The real world choice was never just between Stalinist State Capitalism and free market Capitalism. There was always a third choice of “socialism from below” as represented by the ideas of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg. The 2008 world economic crisis shows this very clearly. So does the growing inequality resulting from free market neo-liberal policies in China, Vietnam and Eastern Europe; not to mention the rest of the world. These academics became right-wing apologists for the military and some can now be seen sitting on the junta’s anti-reform committees.

Looking back over the last 25 years it is clear that the paths of the two sides; that led to being red shirts or yellow shirts, were both problematic. They lacked a socialist strategy for empowering the growing working class and the small farmers through building a party and mass movement independent of the elites.

The roots of the Thai crisis

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

 It is insulting and patronising to see the present crisis as merely a dispute between two factions of the elite, just like a fight between supporters of two football teams, lacking any reasoned political arguments[1]. This is the point of view of some NGO activists who half supported the 2006 military coup and have said in the past that villagers who voted for Taksin’s party “lacked information”; a euphemism for “stupidity”.

It is also a lazy generalisation to argue that the Red Shirts are rural villagers from the north and north-east and that Sutep’s Yellow Shirt supporters are Bangkok residents.[2] The results from the 2011 general election showed that in the 33 Bangkok constituencies, the Democrat Party won 44.34% of the vote, while the Pua Thai Party won 40.72%. This shows that the Bangkok population is evenly split between Pua Thai and the Democrats and this is based on those who have house registrations in Bangkok. Thousands of rural migrant workers who work and reside permanently in Bangkok are registered to vote in their family villages. If they were registered where they actually live and work, Pua Thai might have achieved an overall majority in Bangkok. Many Red Shirt protests in the past have been made up of Bangkok residents.

The real 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 Pua Thai and the Red Shirts, irrespective of geographical location. This is because of Thai Rak Thai’s pro-poor policies of universal health care, job creation and support for rice farmers. In the provinces and in Bangkok, the middle classes and the elites tend to vote for the Democrats and want to reduce the democratic space and turn the clock back to pre-Thai Rak Thai times. Back in 1976 in Thailand, the middle class supported repression and dictatorship to destroy the Left. In the 1930s, the middle class were the back-bone of fascism in Europe.

But this is not just a simple class struggle. In fact, class struggle in the real world is seldom simple or pure. One way of understanding the “dialectical” relationship between Taksin and the Red Shirts is to see a kind of “parallel war” in the Red Shirt/UDD struggles against the conservative elites, where thousands of ordinary Red Shirts struggle for democracy, dignity and social justice, while Taksin and his political allies wage a very different campaign to regain the political influence that they had enjoyed before the 2006 coup d’état. However, at the same time, Taksin remains very popular with most Red Shirts.

Class is also very much connected to the roots of the long running Thai crisis. This political crisis is a result of an unintentional clash between the conservative way of operating in a parliamentary democracy and a more modern one. It came to a head with attempts by Taksin and his party to modernise Thai society so that the economy could become more competitive on a global level, especially after the 1996 Asian economic crisis.

Thai political leaders since the early 1970s had always adopted a laissez faire attitude to development, with minimal government planning, low wages, few trade union rights and an abdication of responsibility by governments to improve infrastructure. This strategy worked in the early years, but by the time of the 1996 Asian economic crisis it was becoming obvious that it was seriously failing.

In the first general election since the 1996 crisis, Taksin’s party put forward a raft of modernising and pro-poor policies, including the first ever universal health care scheme. Because the Democrat Party had told the unemployed to “go back to their villages and depend on their families, while spending state finances in securing the savings for the rich in failed banks, Taksin was able to say that his government would benefit everyone, not just the rich. Taksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party won the elections. The government was unique in being both popular and dynamic, with real policies, which were used to win the election and were then implemented afterwards. Previously, the old parties had just bought votes without any policies.

Taksin’s policies and his overwhelming electoral base came to challenge many elements of the old elite order, although this was not Taksin’s conscious aim at all. The Democrats lost the election. The military could not compete in terms of democratic legitimacy and support. The middle class started to resent the fact that the government was helping to raise the standard of living of workers and poor farmers.

Another military coup, or a rolling back of democracy by other means, will not make it easier to rule over the majority of the electorate who have been politicised and mobilised by the Red Shirt movement. A “compromise” between Sutep and the Pua Thai care-taker government would not be a step forward either. It would result in reducing the democratic space and reducing the power of the electorate.

[This article should be read in conjunction with my articles: There is no “crisis of succession” in Thailand http://links.org.au/node/3633 and “Thai Spring?” Paper given at the 5th Annual Nordic NIAS Council Conference, November 2011, Stockholm University, Sweden. http://www.scribd.com/doc/73908759/Thai-Spring ]

[1] Jon Ungpakorn “What is the real nature of hatred in Thai society” Prachatai 5th January 2014. http://www.prachatai.com/journal/2014/01/50958

[2] Duncan McCargo “The Last Gasp of Thai Paternalism”. New York Times, 19th December 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/20/opinion/the-last-gasp-of-thai-paternalism.html?_r=0