Ten weeks after they occupied the central district of Bangkok, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), known as the red shirt movement, was repressed and driven out by the Thai army last week. Overall the Guardian (22 May) estimates that 83 people have been killed and 1,800 injured over the last few months.
At the beginning of May, it seemed as though a peaceful resolution to the conflict might be possible. Thai prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva appeared to offer to dissolve parliament in September and hold elections in November this year. However he swiftly reverted to repression, unleashing the military on the protesters.
The military action began with the assassination of an army general (known as Seh Daeng — red commander), who had defected to the red shirts. This was followed by the military intervention to clear the encampment the red shirts had built. Although some red shirts fought back and others attacked government buildings and the hostile press, their movement is now in full retreat.
The immediate political background to the protests and the crackdown is the military coup of September 2006, which overthrew a democratically elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
It was the latest in a long succession of coups, counter-coups and military interventions that have characterised Thai politics for 80 years. Shinawatra, a multibillionaire telecommunications mogul, is known in Britain for his brief ownership of Manchester City football club. His bourgeois populist Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party won a landslide election victory in 2001 and was re-elected again in 2005.
Whilst in power the TRT imposed neoliberal measures, such as energy privatisation and free trade agreements. It conducted a “war on drugs”, which included widespread repression. The army carried out assaults in the south, including the murder of 90 men who had taken part in a peaceful demonstration in October 2004. However it also introduced a universal health care scheme and loans to small village businesses, aimed at buying social peace after decades of instability, but which gave the regime a popular base.
Shinawatra was the first Thai prime minister to complete a full term in office, though his second term was abruptly ended allegations of corruption, counter protests by the bourgeois-rightwing force, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD — known as the yellow shirts), and by the September 2006 coup.
There is no question that the red shirts are more politically progressive than the existing Thai government and its yellow shirt backers. Their democratic demands for the resignation of the prime minister and for elections, backed by direct action, are entirely just. There is no doubt the repression by the bourgeois, unelected, royalist government should be condemned and that political prisoners should be released from jail.
Socially the red shirts are composed mainly of workers, peasants and the poor of Thailand.
However politically the red shirts are not a working class or peasant force. They are tarred by their relationship to Thaksin Shinawatra, who has provided financial backing for them and retains a level of support within the organisation. The red shirts are at best a petty bourgeois movement — the presence of some ex-Communists and Maoists in the leadership does not decisively change that.
The remarkable fact about recent events is the absence of the working class as an organised force. Rapid capitalist development over the last two decades spawned a larger, more urban working class in Thailand — though half the 37 million labour force are still in agriculture. Although overall union density is below 4% — with anti-union laws preventing civil servants, teachers, migrant workers and others from joining — density is over 10% in industry and higher among state enterprise workers.
In 2004, some 200,000 workers took action in opposition to Shinawatra’s electricity privatisation plans. Similarly, at the time of the 2006 coup, the 19th September Network organised demonstrations with independent politics, such as the slogan “No to Thaksin, No to the Coup”. However workers’ organisations do not appear to have played a significant role in the latest events.
Beyond the widespread and understandable sympathy for the plight of the red shirts on the left, there has also been a temptation to exaggerate the radical nature of the movement, to downplay the role of Shinawatra and in some cases to fantasise about a process that will somehow grow over from democracy to socialism.
The most prominent and well-informed spokesperson for this tendency is Giles Ji Ungpakorn, leader of the Workers’ Democracy group in Thailand, which is allied to the British SWP. Ungpakorn has written many important accounts of Thai politics in English and has combined academic research with socialist activism. He is currently in exile because of the crackdown. However much we should respect his work and sympathise with his personal situation, it is our duty to discuss socialist ideas politically.
Ungpakorn wrote in Socialist Worker (17 April): “Many commentators try to explain the conflict as an elite dispute between Thaksin and the conservatives. But the missing element in most analysis is the actions of millions of ordinary people. Thaksin’s pro-poor policies, such as the first ever universal healthcare scheme in the country, helped him build an alliance with workers and peasants.”
As the crackdown began, he was quoted in the paper: “This is a class war. The red shirts represent workers and small farmers. They are facing the armed might of the ruling class and are standing firm.” (SW 22 May).
The quote came from a longer piece on his blog, which stated: “This is a class war. But only the naive believe that class war is a simple matter of rich against the poor. The red shirts represent workers and small farmers. They are the people who have created the wealth in Thailand, but they have not been able to enjoy the benefits. Thailand is a very unequal society. Their hopes were raised when millionaire Taksin Shinawat’s Thai Rak Thai Government offered a universal health care scheme and pro-poor policies. They were inflamed when the elites stage a coup against this elected Government in 2006. Now they are standing firm and facing the armed might of the ruling class.” (17 May, http://wdpress.blog.co.uk)
This approach dissolves important class distinctions, or rather it transforms the legitimate point that class struggles can take different forms into the erroneous view that just because there is a struggle going on, it must express the basic distinction between workers and capitalists, rather than between or within other class forces. This perspective makes far too many concessions to Shinawatra’s politics, ignoring the “bonapartist” elements within them [straddling more than one class base] because of the greater bonapartism of the existing government.
The argument was taken to its logical conclusion by the [Trotskyist] Fourth Internationalist Danielle Sabei, writing in the Asia Left Observer (17 May): “The problem is that decades of repression mean that today there are no political parties based in the workers’ movement capable of being candidates to power and to offer a progressive political solution to the crisis. A number of leaders of the old workers’ parties, whether social democratic or Maoist-inclined Communist, trade unions or peasant associations have been assassinated by the different dictatorial regimes. The workers’ movement has still not recovered. That is why political opposition takes the unexpected form of the red shirts: a political movement which is neither a party nor an association, heterogeneous and marked by contradictions but whose essence is its organic link with the people.”
In other words, the weakness of the left means that another force play the role of “revolutionary” agency usually preserved for the working class, or at least its organised component. This kind of double substitutionism, of finding a locum for the working class, of other parties for working class representation, is at the root of the left’s failure for decades.
The locum has successively been Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s army, Castro or Ho Chi Minh’s guerrillas, or the Sandinistasor — latterly Hugo Chavez’s “Bolivarian revolution”. Stalinist armies, military despots, “popular” forces — that turn out to be actively hostile to independent working class politics.
Unfortunately, Ungpakorn — no doubt encouraged by the SWP’s revolution cheerleaderdom — and others such as the Fourth International have fallen into this trap over Thailand.
The approach has also led to wishful thinking on political strategy. Ungpakorn wrote earlier this month: “To push forward with these necessary changes, the red shirts need to expand their organisation into the trade unions and the lower ranks of the army.” (SW 4 May) Last week he argued, “Strikes to back the protests would put the movement in a much stronger position to win—and to push for more radical changes in society.” (SW 22 May)
This is upside down and the wrong way around. Socialists in Thailand need to help build up the labour movement as an independent force in its own right. Such a movement would of course take up democratic demands and fight the military government. It would find allies in other social strata. The third camp view does not automatically seeing two bourgeois forces as “all the same”. It does not rule out a tactical orientation towards a heterogeneous movement like the UDD.
But it is not the job of socialists to advocate that a bourgeois or petty bourgeois movement extend its influence into the labour movement. It is not the job of the working class to act as a stage army for one or the other bourgeois factions. It may be starting from a far difficult situation, but the Thai working class needs independent working class politics if it is to solve the political crisis and fight for its own liberation.