Thailand is currently in crisis, with a deformed expression of class struggle occurring between one side that wears yellow shirts and another that wears red. How can we make sense of this situation, and what is the way forward for those of us interested in the interests of the poor and working class? John Moore, formerly a resident in Thailand, and now a Workers Party activist, argues that the Thai working class is a mass force that has yet to roar, but that the small radical element amongst them shouldn’t ‘give up the bullet for the ballot’ to reform Thai society through the Thai capitalist state.
People’s Alliance for Democracy - utterly reactionary
The aims and class interests of the so-called People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) are utterly reactionary. They want to effectively disfranchise a majority of the population. They are quite blatant about this, saying the rural poor are uneducated and therefore unfit to determine who is the government.
They can certainly draw big numbers. But in a city of over 12 million, protests of thousands needs to be put in context. There have also been cases of Bangkok residents being paid to attend PAD rallies. In a city with mass poverty and increasing unemployment it doesn’t take much dosh to draw in 1000s to a protest. The PAD protesters are commonly termed as the yellow shirts for the colour of the tops they wear.
PPP - populist, but not progressive
On the other side are supporters of the Peoples Power Party (PPP), called the red shirts for the colour of tops that wear at counter-protests. The red shirts have actually been able to draw bigger numbers, including a rally of 60 000 pro-government supporters in Bangkok this year. The PPP base is amongst the rural poor, predominantly in the North-East of Thailand known as Isan. However the PPP is no progressive force despite its populist programme and base support. It has a clear anti-working class programme, and is led, and still supported, by a section of the Thai ruling class.
PPP’s mass popularity, and seemingly unbeatable formula, has irked sections of the Thai elite. The current coalition against the PPP party is made up of royalists, the Bangkok ‘middle class’, and millionaire business interests. It is also supported by top military brass.
A ‘deformed’ expression of class struggle / What side is best?
This picture is confusing. The clash between the red shirts and yellow shirts could be seen as a ‘deformed’ expression of class struggle. (See Thai crisis exposes class struggle) The yellow shirts are predominately middle class whereas the red shirts are made up of poor supporters of the PPP. However, both the programmes of the PPP and the PAD are anti-proletarian, pro-capitalist, and both parties are led by representatives of the Thai ruling class. So the conflict can equally be seen as a dispute between the Thai ruling class itself.
What side should proletarian revolutionaries take in Thailand? This question particular interests myself as I lived in Thailand for over two years, and my wife is Thai. I’ve also had contact with the only Marxist group in Thailand, the Workers Democracy Group (WDG) led by Trotskyist influenced academic Giles Ji Ungpakorn. The WDG has now transformed itself into a more populist based group, the Peoples Coalition Party (PCP).
There is no basis for political support for either side in the current dispute. Both sides represent sectors of the ruling class, both have, and aim to, implement anti-working class programmes. And both are fully committed to managing the Thai capitalist system in the interests of various sections of the Thai ruling class.
Although PPP have implemented policies that have especially benefited the rural poor, their opening up of the Thai economy to western corporate interests and their deregulation of certain parts of the economy will, if not already, have a negative impact on the livelihoods of millions of poor farmers and rural workers. The PPP’s policies are an extension of the populist welfare policies of the former Thai Rak Thai government.
What if there is a violent clash between pro-government forces and the PAD? I think it could be argued that there would be a side for the working class to take in the context of such an immediate clash. The right-wing PPP bases its support and power on the maintenance of a form of bourgeois democracy. The PAD clearly wants to dismantle what limited democracy exists in Thailand. Their ascendancy in such a clash would clearly lead to a disfranchisement of the majority of the population.
The small Trotskyist influenced PCP, I believe, has taken the correct stance of giving no form of political support to either side in this dispute. I think they have exaggerated the point in calling the PAD ‘fascist’. The ascendancy of the yellow shirts would not lead to the type of totalitarian societies seen in traditional fascist situation such as Italy, Spain and Germany in the 1930s. The PAD wants to seriously curtail democracy, but I do not think there is any evidence to say they would smash organisations of the working class and the rural poor, as happened in the case of the usurping of power by traditional fascistic forces. However the PAD are clearly reactionary.
The ongoing crisis in Thailand needs to be seen in the context of the election of the populist Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thailand) party in 2001. For the first time in this country’s modern history a political party directly appealed to the sentiments of the mass of the population, overwhelmingly poor farmers, with a populist economic programme. The ‘mass’ protests against Thai Rak Thai (TRT) in 2006, and subsequent protests against the present Peoples Power Party (PPP) led government, are a reaction against the voting power of the poor. The PPP is essentially a reformed TRT, since it was banned in 2007 after a military coup.
With the election of TRT in 2001, Thailand’s poor received a number of benefits. With the 30 baht health care plan, millions of Thais, previously denied adequate health care, could now go to the hospital and come away with medicine. Many villages had roads resurfaced, or surfaced for the first time. The moneyed elite deride former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra for ‘buying’ the poor’s vote, but this is the same way votes were ‘bought’ by Western Social Democratic forces and the new deal US Democratic party in the 1930s and 40s. For much of the population, their lives just got better under TRT.
Ironically former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is a billionaire and one of Thailand’s richest men. A section of the Thai bourgeoisie initially aligned themselves with TRT, which combined ‘Keynesian’ populist policies in the rural areas with anti-working class neoliberal policies. Key elements within the military and the royal family eventually fell out with the previous Thaksin-led government, beginning to see his mass support as a threat to their power influence. Populist policies have included economic grants to villages (used for microcredit loans) and the 30 baht health scheme. Such populist policies were combined with corporatisation and selling off of state assets and an opening up of the Thai economy to imperialist corporate interests. The Thaksin-led government gave strong support for US foreign policy in the hope of gaining a United States-Thailand Free Trade Agreement. The anti-working class nature of the TRT government was highlighted by the mass strike of 200,000 electrical sector workers throughout 2004 against electricity privatisation.
What is the way ahead for the working class and rural poor in Thailand?
What is the way ahead for the working class and rural poor in Thailand? Giles Ji Ungpakorn has made some sound critiques of Maoist views of class struggle in Thailand. The Maoists were once a mass force in Thailand, basing themselves predominantly in the rural North East during the 1970s and 1980s. During this time they carried out an orthodox Maoist ‘people’s war. The Thai Communist Party (CPT) members have given up the bullet for the ballot and aim to reform Thai society through utilisation of the Thai capitalist state.
Many former CPT comrades were co-opted by Thaksin, seeing TRT as representing a section of the ‘progressive’ bourgeoisie. The former CPT members active in TRT/PPP see the most significant divide in Thailand as one between ‘feudalist and traditional forces’ and ‘progressive forces’ including the new capitalist elite, the working class and rural poor.
Giles has made succinct critiques of this two-stage revolution approach, and rightly points out the all elements of the Thai elite represent different interests of the Thai capitalistic class. Even the royal family has major business interests, and certainly much of its new wealth is based on capitalist accumulation. (See From the city, via the jungle, to defeat: the 6th Oct 1976 bloodbath and the C.P.T.)
The working class in Thailand has shown it can be a powerful force, such as with the above mentioned mass mobilisation of 200,000 workers against electricity privatisation. In the current crisis, the Thai working class has not yet shown itself to be an independent force. Some corrupt state sector union bosses have called for strikes in support of the reactionary PAD, but to my knowledge these calls have not been met with any significant action or support by public-sector workers.
The Thai working class is a mass force that has yet to roar. However, the hope for an escape from this country’s woes lay in a party that can organise and lead this class to taking state power.
Editorial note: this article has been edited since it was orignially posted. There were references to the revolution in Nepal that many in the Workers Party felt were disrespectful.