Demonstrations in Bangkok, Thailand, have brought about a severe crisis for the government of prime minister Abhisit. This is a culmination of demonstrations which have been going on for weeks. On the one side is a government, installed by parliament under pressure of the military, and after court action. On the other side are demonstrators, mobilised by the so-coalled Red Shirts, demanding the end of that government, and new electionas afther the parliament has been dissolved. They are generally, but not exclusively, supporters of former prime minister Thaksin, who twice won elections but was overthrown in a military coup. On Saturday, thousands of demonstrators clashed with thousands of soldiers, ordered to suppress the protests. At least 21 people died: protesters, but also a Japanese camera man working for Reuters, and four soldiers.
That the crisis is coming to a head is shown by political reactions, both from the side of the protest movement – the Red Shirts – and from the side of authorities. A Red Shirt leader, Jatuporn Prompan, called on the King, the much – and undeservedly – revered Bhumibol, to act. This shows a lack of confidence in the strength of the protest movement itself. It is not an good thing when a movement for more democracy calls upon higher, totally undemocratic authority to get its way, if only partly. It can also be seen as a sign of hesitation, a lack of confidence in the movement’s strength to push all the way – and maybe a lack of desire, too. Moving all the way, the Red Shirt movement can easily become – in a certain sensse already is -much more than a pro-Thaksin movement. It might move in the direction of more racical democratic, but also social, change. Not all Red Shirt leaders might find that desirable. Hence, maybe, the call upon the monarch to solve the crisis for them.
This is happening almost at the same time that the authorities are clearly hesitating. That was already noticeable on the day of the clash, last Saturday. After pushing forward, after violent clashes, military leaders withdrew the troops in a sort of truce with the protesters, who by that time were not unarmed anymore. That was not a sign of authorities’ strength.
Today, there were more symptoms of weakening on the authorities’ side. The electoral commission in Thailand is invesigating possibly illegal funding of the governing party. Illegal funding has been effectively used against a pro-Thaksin-party, during the right wing campaign to overthrow their government. Now, this weapon is working the other way. It may give the Army an excuse to drop its support for the current government. It may even lead to the disbanding of the governing party, just like a pro-Thaksin-party had to disband after a similar investigation.
Army support for the government seems already fading. General Anupong Paojinda, head of the army, has said that parliament should be dissolved. He adds, however, that the timing should be subject of negotations. The Red Shirt movement wants parliament dissolved immediately. Still, the remarks of the general add to the already significant pressure on the government to make concessions.
What is the background of all this? We see a clash with two dimensions, contradictorily related. In one sense, this is a clash between different segments of the establishment, between competing bourgeois politicians and factions around them. We have on the one side the government, supported by the military leadership, by the business elite in Bangkok, and by the court of king Bhumibol. On the other side, we have former prime minister Thaksin, living in exile but still exerting influence to rbing about a kind of come-back.
He was – and still is – an enormously rich businessmen. He went into politics, and won two elections convincingly. His government was seen as corrupt, but not more so than preceding governments. He used bloody repression against Muslim rebels in the South of the country. In an anti-crime-campaign, police killed large numbers of suspects, or so-called-suspects. He opened up the urban economy to neoliberal measures, privatisation for instance. All this makes him quite an unlikely hero for the downtrodden, the oppressed and the poor.
Both sides – the Bangkok elites who govern today, and Thaksin who governed until 2006 – have used street movements to have their way. The government of today got appointed by parliament after ferocious street protests against Thaksin, and against a government of Thaksin supporters that got elected after the military overthrew Thaksin. The street movement was known as the Yellow Shirts. In 2007, they blocked two Bangkok airports. The military tolerated that, showing on whose side they were. Shortly after that, the pro-Thaksin-government was replaced by parliament, and the present government was installed.
Then it was the turn of Thaksin supporters to take to sthe streets. That is what we are seeing these days and weeks. But, where the Yellow Shirts got the support of the army – with army pressure helping them to governmental power – the Red Shirts have to confront that army. This is one sign that Red and Yellow shirts do not just support different politicians; they have a different social base, they appeal to different groups of people. And that difference has political and social reasons.
Thaksin, when he was prime minister, was corrupt and repressive. But that is not at all the whole story, as Giles Ungpakorn, socialist from Thailand, critical Red Shirt supporter and exiled for political reasons, explains. Thaksin also introduced policies that helped poor people in the countryside, farmers in the rural north of Thailand. They got accessible health care, and credits. For this reason, Thaksin came to be seen as a friend of the poor. He became tremendously popular among large numbers of poor people in the villages of Thailand. This made him, at the same time, a most hated figure among the middle classes in Bangkok, the urban rich, and among the forces upholding the position of the rich: the army and the court. They used corruption charges against Thaksin. But their deeper grievance against Thaksi was class-based, rooted in the fear of the rich for anything that made the poor stronger and more confident.
That is the second dimension of the struggle. Not just a struggle between capitalist political factions, but at the same time a struggle between rich and poor – and between dictatorship and democratic change. Thaksin was elected twice. Abhisits government cannot say that much. His government, formed in 2008, is the product of parliamentary manoeuvre, court action, military pressure … a kind of indirect military coup. The road for all these machinations were earliar opened by the military coup of 2006, against Thaksin himself. The Red Shirts stand for restoration and strengthening of democracy, for elections whose results are respected,even if these results are disliked by the Bangkok elite. The government and the military and the court stand in the way of these demands.
The Red Shirts are Thaksin supporters, and in that sense, a bourgeois force in Thai politics. At the same time, they are mostly poor people, standing up for their right to be something, to be taken into account. That gives the protest movement a potential that goes beyond the limits of capitalist politics-as-usual. And there are those within the Red Shirt movement who, less or more conciously, push things beyond these limits. In other words, things might get out of hands of any bourgeois political force, from Thaksin or others like him. That makes the events interesting, and for revolutionaries potentially explosively important.