The struggle shaking Thailand

April 9, 2010

The Thai government declared a state of emergency and was threatening more repression after massive protests erupted in Bangkok over the regime's refusal to hold democratic elections. Police have carried out violent attacks on the pro-democracy protesters--known as "Red Shirts" because of their clothing.

The government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the misnamed Democrat Party, came to power in 2008 with the support of the military and the right-wing pro-royalist People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD). The PAD mobilized demonstrators known as the "Yellow Shirts," whose protests crippled the previous government that was supported by the Red Shirts.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a Thai academic and dissident who was targeted by the government for the supposed crime of "lese majesty"--essentially, "disloyalty" to Thailand's head of state, King Bhumibol. He fled the country to avoid censorship and a possible prison sentence of 15 years. He spoke with Lee Sustar about the background to this week's clashes.

CAN YOU explain what's taken place in Thailand over the past several years as the backdrop to the current crisis?

IN 2006, the Thai military carried out a coup against the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a businessman who led the Thai Rak Thai Party.

The military regime stayed in power for just over a year, during which time it drafted its own constitution and reduced democratic space. It appointed half the Senate instead of having it fully elected and so on. Elections were held after a year, but they were won by the same party that had been overthrown by the coup.

The military and the royalists then used the courts to dissolve the party that won the most votes. They actually did this twice. In that period, the middle-class royalist movement was holding street protests, taking over the international airport.

This eventually led to a new government being formed with the backing of the military. This is the present government we see today, headed by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, from the so-called Democrat Party.

Red Shirt protesters demonstrating in Bangkok in March
Red Shirt protesters demonstrating in Bangkok in March

The Red Shirts were originally the people who voted for Thaksin Shinawatra's party, but they have developed into a mass movement that has real roots among the poor, both in rural and urban areas.

Many foreign journalists have wrongly described the Red Shirts as being a predominately rural movement. In fact, it's a class movement of the poor that has become a mass movement for democracy. Consciousness is developing in such a way that the poor see that the enemies of the people and of democracy are the military, the monarchy and the middle class.

So what you have today, at the moment in Bangkok, is a mass movement of pro-democracy Red Shirts representing the poor, who are demanding fresh elections, that the government dissolve parliament and so on.

THE REGIME claims that Thaksin is manipulating all this from exile. What's the truth of the matter?

HE REPRESENTS a figurehead to the mass of the Red Shirts, but he's hardly manipulating the movement.

In fact, he didn't actually build the Red Shirt movement. It was built initially by local politicians from his party, but it really mushroomed into a grassroots movement. People set up their own Red Shirt groups in all sorts of communities in different provinces. For example, they ran community radio stations because the mainstream media is totally censored and biased toward the government.

So the Red Shirts are people who are demanding democracy. They also see the struggle for democracy as a class struggle for the rights of poor people.

Thaksin Shinawatra is a bourgeois politician and a rich businessman, but he introduced the universal health care system in Thailand--one that's more advanced than Barack Obama's proposals. He introduced a number of reforms to raise the incomes of poor people.

So it's very reasonable that he should receive support from the Red Shirts. But the Red Shirts are leading themselves as well. The movement is hardly the tool of Thaksin Shinawatra.

SEVERAL YEARS ago, in the final years of Thaksin's government before the coup, people on the left, from NGOs to pro-democratic groups to labor organizations, were opposing some of his policies and methods of government. Have these coups realigned forces?

THE LEFT in Thailand has always been pretty small. In general, it is aligned with the pro-democracy Red Shirts, because we see this as a mass movement of the people. The NGOs, however, have disgraced themselves. They have lined up with the military. They supported the coup in 2006 and the right-wing PAD. They're actually opposed to the Red Shirts.

This is quite ironic really, because in the 1980s, the NGOs were talking about how the answer was in the villages, and that we have to listen to what the poor say. But now, they've turned their back on them, and believe the villagers are too ill-informed and ill-educated to deserve democracy.

As far as the labor movement is concerned, there are sections of the labor leadership that are in league with the royalists. However, the mass of ordinary workers and the majority of the rank-and-file workers are supporters of the Red Shirts. But one of the problems is that the Red Shirt movement has so far ignored the potential to build support among the organized trade union movement. This is something it needs to do in order to strengthen its bargaining power.

LET'S MOVE up to the current standoff. Are the reports in the media correct that the decision of the courts to expropriate some of Thaksin's wealth was the trigger for this latest protest, or was it something more than that?

IT WAS more than that. These mass protests have been taking place at regular intervals ever since the military installed the present government in late 2008.

People were very angry with the way that the courts seized Thaksin's wealth. And to be honest, the corruption charges against him haven't really been proved. In that sense, people are justified to be angry.

But really, this is a point where people have decided that they're going to make a stand and get the government to resign.

The government itself, by using the emergency decrees, has threatened to use force to disperse the demonstrators. The main claim is that the demonstrators are affecting the shopping centers of Bangkok.

This is very ironic because if you go back to 2008, the royalists had actually closed down the international airport and Government House, which had a much greater impact on the economy. And nobody from the royalist side has ever been charged for committing those crimes.

WHAT DO you see as the likely outcome? There was some speculation in the media that because the regime agreed to some negotiations, it might be bending somewhat. Is it just playing for time and hoping that the movement will disperse, or is it cracking a bit?

THE NEGOTIATIONS that you mentioned were unprecedented. They took place on live television, and this was a very important opportunity for the Red Shirts to put forward their point of view and expose the government. Normally, mainstream television only gives the government's side.

So in some sense, it does show that the government was forced into those negotiations. However, the government refused to accept the demand for the dissolution of parliament.

Yes, the regime is trying to buy time. One of the reasons they want to buy time is because the military commanders at the moment want to ensure that their people get the jobs when the annual military reshuffle takes place later this year. They also want to buy time in order to destroy the chances of the Red Shirt parties winning in a future election, which must be held in 21 months' time.

But so far, the Red Shirts have been very resilient and have shown that they actually represent a majority of the electorate.

WHAT IS the role of the U.S. here? When the coup took place, there was some finger-wagging and statements of dissatisfaction, but the military relationships continued, basically intact.

YES, THE military relationships have been maintained. I think that the position of the U.S. government is that it's quite happy to work with any government in Thailand. They might do a little bit of finger-wagging, as you say, if there's a coup, but they'll still carry on working with a military-backed government.

Really, in the case of Thailand, the U.S. is more interested in balancing the strategic influence of China. So the U.S. isn't really backing any side, but it's working with whoever is in power at the time. Right now, it's working with a government that was installed by the military.

However, a recent human rights report from the U.S. government was very ill-informed and tended to whitewash the censorship and abuse of human rights that's going on in Thailand at the moment.

There is no free media in Thailand anymore. People are put in jail for posting comments on the Internet. The U.S. government claimed that there's academic freedom, and yet I was charged with lese majesty for writing a book against the coup d'etat. There are other academics who have been dismissed from their jobs as a result of making political stands against the regime.

Because of the way the military used the monarchy over time, it's impossible not to criticize the monarchy when you're criticizing the military. This then becomes an excuse to crack down on people.

The U.S. human rights report also wrongly claimed that last April, the pro-democracy Red Shirts killed two people. In fact, it was government troops who shot dead two people and injured over 30 people.

WHAT SHOULD people who support democracy and workers' rights internationally do in regard to Thailand?

I THINK it's important to keep a close eye on Thailand at the moment because the demonstrators are very fearful the military will use force at any time. It would be useful to have international organizations making statements opposing the use of force against peaceful demonstrators. And if force is used, it would be important to protest that.

Also, it's important to counter any information that implies the Red Shirts are merely tools of Thaksin, and that it's impossible to understand what's going on in Thailand. In fact, what's going on in Thailand is very similar to what's going on in Honduras, where a pro-poor president was ousted in a military coup.

Transcription by Matt Beamesderfer

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