What will break the stalemate in Thailand?

October 13, 2008

Paul Heideman reports on the background to Thailand's political crisis and talk of a new coup attempt.

THAILAND REMAINS in the grip of a political crisis, with Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat refusing calls to resign after deadly clashes a week ago between police and anti-government protesters.

Somchai was elected in September, but since then, he has worked out of the VIP lounge of Bangkok's old airport because he was locked out of the prime minister's compound by the opposition.

At the root of the instability is a battle between the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), the organizing force behind the protests, and the elected government of the People's Power Party (PPP), led by Somchai.

Contrary to its name, the PAD is virulently anti-democratic. Headed by media billionaire Sondhi Limthongkul, the PAD was the main force behind the 2006 coup that removed the democratically elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra and replaced it with a junta of generals.

Thus, in the PAD's latest putsch attempt, one of its demands has been the restructuring of the Thai parliament so that 70 percent of its members would be appointed and only 30 percent would be elected.

Thai police respond to anti-government protests by the People's Alliance for Democracy (Craig Martell)

The PPP is hardly more progressive. Somchai's immediate predecessor, Samak Sundaravej, was primarily known for his role in the 1970s in overseeing a massacre at a university in which 46 students were killed for protesting the return of a recently deposed Thai dictator.

Despite its record of violence, the PPP retains the support of Thailand's rural poor. This is largely due to Thaksin's influence in the party. While prime minister, Thaksin oversaw the establishment of the first universal health care system in Thai history, even as he undercut its impact by imposing neoliberalization in government enterprises like energy.

Thai Marxist Giles Ji Ungpakorn characterized the policies of Thaksin and his successors in the PPP as "a 'dual-track' strategy that mixes neoliberalism with elements of grassroots Keynesianism."

But even mild measures are too much for the PAD. Supported by Thailand's urban middle and upper classes, the PAD has stood consistently for pure monetarism.

One of the key elements of the PAD strategy has been an appeal in the name of the Thai monarchy. Thailand's current king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, has been a promoter of what he calls "sufficiency economics," which emphasizes the importance of the traditional peasant economy, in contrast to the urban sector and its foreign investment.

While this rejection of neoliberalism may sound progressive, sufficiency economics argues for the reduction of consumption, and rules out any redistribution of wealth. The latter is especially important for Bhumibol, who, as the world's richest monarch, is worth approximately $35 billion, according to Forbes magazine.

THUS, THAILAND'S crisis is the result of a conflict between two forces with different strategies for the Thai ruling class. As Ungpakorn writes, "Thaksin's side is committed to a strategy of winning power by elections, parliamentary democracy and money politics. The PAD and their friends favor military coups, reducing the number of elected MPs, and increasing the power of unelected bureaucrats and the army."

The army's importance in the crisis has increased as the protests have gone on. The question of whether another coup is in the cards has largely revolved around the actions of the army chief, Gen. Anupong Paojinda. Though a leader of the 2006 coup, Anupong has recently ruled out any similar actions this time around.

He has, however, acted in decisive ways to undermine the PPP since the PAD's protests began. In September, when Samak called a state of emergency in response to PAD violence, Anupong refused to enact the decree. His refusal was less about concern for civil rights than an unswerving loyalty to the Thai monarchy.

Now, the escalation of the crisis has brought the question of a coup closer to the surface. Last week, former Deputy Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh told reporters, "I see [the answer in] a putsch. After the military steps in, power should immediately be returned to the people, and an interim government can be formed, in which every party takes part."

That elements of the Thai ruling class are openly advocating a military coup is bad enough, but Chavalit's role in pressing this solution is particularly bad news for democracy in Thailand.

Chavalit, a former general who was vocally opposed to the 2006 coup, was placed in the government partially as a counterbalance to the coup-plotter Anupong. That he is now calling on his former rival to seize power reflects the degree to which the Thai ruling class is acquiescing to the PAD's thuggery.

For socialists, the most notable aspect of Thailand's political crisis is the absence of any independent left. Since the Thai Communist Party fell apart in the face of government repression in the 1980s, there has been no consistently independent left force in Thai politics. NGOs have swung wildly between focusing on economic development in villages, and allying with the PAD and its virulent anti-peasant line.

Without an independent left that sees the self-activity of workers and peasants as key to moving forward, the crisis in Thai politics will not be resolved on any terms that are favorable to the poor.

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