[Marxism] Walden Bello on Thailand

Ethan Young ethanyoung at earthlink.net
Tue Feb 4 19:25:35 MST 2014

Thailand’s Edsa 2: from civil conflict to uncivil war?

By Walden Bello
Thursday, January 23rd, 2014 
Read more: http://opinion.inquirer.net/70103/thailands-edsa-2-from-civil-conflict-to-uncivil-war#ixzz2sPVncy93

Thailand’s EDSA 2?
The programs at the rallies to bring down the Yingluck Shinawatra
 government not only feature bombastic speeches called hypak, a Thai 
word derived from Hyde Park in London, a favorite site of soapbox 
There are also popular singers belting out songs like Queen’s “We
 are the Champions” or John Lennon’s “Imagine” that are usually 
associated with progressive causes.  There are, in fact, a number of 
things about the anti-government demonstrators that a middle-class 
liberal observer can relate to.  Many of them are professionals, quite a
 few highly educated.  They are largely young.  They are fiercely 
against corruption.  In short, the sort of crowd that removed Joseph 
Estrada from the presidency in 2001.
There is, however, one thing that bothers liberal analysts, 
including many in the foreign press, about this crowd.  Many of the 
protesters appear to have lost faith in the key tenet of representative 
democracy:  the rule by people or parties that are elected by the 
majority of citizens.  In response to their efforts to oust her and her 
party from office, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved 
Parliament on December 15 and set elections for February 2.
The People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), which had 
managed and maintained the massive protests in Bangkok for close to two 
months, said no to the elections and called on its supporters to “shut 
down Bangkok” beginning January 13 until Yingluck resigned and was 
replaced by an unelected “Reform Council.”  While there is no dispute 
that Thailand’s political system needs many reforms, the truth of the 
matter, many observers feel, is that the opposition has opposed the 
holding of fresh elections because it knows it will lose them, just as 
it has lost the last five parliamentary contests.
The Thaksin Upheaval
The current showdown between the Pheu Thai government and the 
opposition is the latest round in an epic struggle between conservative 
and populist forces that began when Thaksin Shinawatra, the brother of 
the current Yingluck, became prime minister of Thailand in 2001.
Thaksin came to power in the aftermath of the Asian financial 
crisis of 1997-98, which saw more than a million Thais drop to the ranks
 of the poor when what had been one of Southeast Asia’s most dynamic 
economies collapsed owing to capital flight followed by an austerity 
program imposed by hapless governments under the thumb of the 
International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Thaksin had benefited from globalization owing to his firms’ 
monopolistic position in private telecommunications, one of the 
economy’s most globalized sectors.  Yet, with unerring populist 
instinct, he sensed that the financial crisis catalyzed popular fears 
about free-market globalization, smoldering resentment at the urban and 
rural elites that seemed to be cornering the country’s wealth, and anger
 at the international financial institutions. On becoming prime 
minister, Thaksin made a number of dazzling, if opportunistic, moves. He
 paid off the country’s IMF loan and kicked the Fund out of Thailand, 
initiated a universal health care system that allowed people to be 
treated for the equivalent of a dollar, imposed a moratorium on the 
payment of farmers’ debts, and created a one-million-baht fund for each 
village that villagers could invest however they wanted.
This side of Thaksin won him a mass following among the country’s
 deprived and marginalized sectors.  But there was another side to 
Thaksin, the side that most of his urban and rural poor followers chose 
to ignore.
Thaksin literally bought his political allies, constructing in 
the process a potent but subservient parliamentary coalition. He used 
his office to enhance his wealth and that of his cronies. He failed to 
distinguish public interest from private gain.   He gave short shrift to
 human rights concerns, backing a police campaign against drugs that saw
 the extra-judicial execution of over 2000 people.
Like many others with overwhelming power in their hands, Thaksin 
overreached.  His getting the Revenue Department to exempt the sale of 
his family’s controlling stake in a telecom conglomerate from taxes 
brought Bangkok’s enraged middle class into the streets to demand his 
ouster. Feeling mortally threatened by Thaksin’s effort to redraw the 
landscape of Thai politics, the Thai establishment jumped onto the 
anti-corruption bandwagon. Unable to break Thaksin’s parliamentary 
majority or to achieve a critical mass in the streets to sweep him from 
power, the elite pushed the army oust him while he was abroad in 
September 2006.
Redshirts versus Yellowshirts
The military-installed government that took over performed 
miserably, leading to its exiting the country and the coming to power 
through elections of a pro-Thaksin coalition.  A court-ordered 
dissolution of this coalition led to parliamentary maneuvers that saw a 
fragile alliance cobbled together by the minority Democrats led by 
Abhisit Vejjajiva come to power.
This resulted in the Redshirts, as Thaksin’s followers were 
called—as opposed to the anti-Thaksin Yellowshirts—massing countrywide 
and marching on Bangkok early in 2010.  This led to tragic street 
confrontations which climaxed on May 19, when the military broke up 
Redshirt barricades in downtown Bangkok, resulting in numerous deaths 
and arrests as a number of buildings, including the huge Central World 
mall, went up in flames, allegedly set on fire by the Redshirts.
The Yingluck Interregnum

 fire for allegedly having given the green light to repressive actions, 
the Abhisit government was voted out of office in another electoral 
exercise in July 2011 and replaced by a coalition led by the Pheu Thai 
party headed by Yingluck, Thaksin’s younger sister.
Yingluck has been widely seen as a stand-in or puppet for his 
brother, who is described as ruling from Dubai, where he lives in exile,
 having been convicted and sentenced in absentia for corruption by the 
Perception turned into protest when her government tried to push 
through an amnesty bill that would have forgiven all those charged in 
connection with the tragic street 2010 street protests, both on the 
anti-Thaksin and pro-Thaksin side. The opposition contended, however, 
that the bill was mainly a ploy to allow Thaksin to return to the 
country without having to serve out his jail term.  This was confirmed 
when in an early morning parliamentary maneuver, the ruling coalition 
rammed through a provision that would extend the amnesty to ten years 
before 2010.
Raising the Ante
With the Bangkok middle class angrily taking to the streets, 
Yingluck retreated and told pro-government senators in the Senate to 
withdraw support from the bill.  It was too late.  Bangkok has always 
been an opposition stronghold, and the civil protest, led by Sutep 
Thaugsuban, one of the top leaders of the Democratic party, escalated, 
with the demonstrators numbering in the hundreds of thousands by 
mid-December. The anti-amnesty movement was transformed into a movement 
to oust the government.
At first staging rallies at the historic Democracy Monument in 
downtown Bangkok, the protesters moved on to shutting down government 
offices, giving the image of the government as being besieged and unable
 to function, a perception that was reinforced when the opposition 
Democrats resigned en masse from Parliament.
Yingluck’s counterstroke was to dissolve Parliament in 
mid-December and set new elections for Feb 2, 2014.  Sensing it had 
momentum, the opposition called for a boycott, insisting that Yingluck 
step down and calling for the formation of an unelected council that 
would formulate reforms.  To give muscle to these demands, the 
opposition launched the campaign to “shut down Bangkok,” targeting 
government buildings and occupying key intersections in downtown 
Bangkok.  Now entering its second week, the shutdown has not succeeded 
in getting Yingluck to resign, although it has triggered a tailspin in 
the city and the country’s economy.
Thailand’s Liberal Community: a House Divided
The opposition’s stand against elections has deepened the 
divisions within Thailand’s liberal and progressive community.  For 
Kraisak Choonhavan, an ex-parliamentarian who is one of the pillars of 
the human rights community, non-participation in the coming elections is
 justified by the fact that the priority is a “total reform” of the 
electoral system.  “Every democracy needs such a period of reform,” he 
To others, the principle of one person-one vote, the basic tenet 
of democracy, is what is at stake.  Speaking as an foreign observer to 
the Bangkok Post, Chris Baker, who together with his equally prominent 
wife, economist Pasuk Pongpaichit, has written some of the most 
comprehensive exposes of Thaksin’s amassing of wealth and power, 
expressed concern that key forces in the PDRC “have clearly said they 
think Bangkok people should have more weight in the elections than 
non-Bangkok people.”  The Post itself, a supporter of the street 
protests against the Amnesty Bill, drew the line on protest leader 
Suthep Thaugsuban’s call to boycott the elections, characterizing it a 
“deeply flawed plan” that “contains hugely anti-democratic principles 
that are troubling at best.  The entire call for a year or more of this 
country under an unelected, unaccountable ‘council’ is unacceptable.”
To many liberals and progressives, recent remarks by 
scholar-activist Thirayut Boonmi, who has iconic status as key leader of
 the historic 1976 student uprising, are troubling.  According to an 
account of his comments at a recent forum that appeared in the Nation, 
Thirayut acknowledged that while the anti-government movement “consists 
of a minority in Thai society, mostly from the middle classes and people
 from the South,” he argued that “those who voted for the Yingluck 
Shinawatra administration have forfeited their rights by accepting a 
corrupt and dictatorial government, which would have to be removed by a 
‘people’s revolution.’”  To people like Thirayut and Kraisak, 
extraordinary means are needed to rescue Thailand from what they feel is
 the all-pervasive corruption of the country’s institutions by the 
Shinawatra family which Thirayut likens to a “flock of mating vultures.”
>From civil conflict to uncivil war?
What is clear is that both sides of the political divide defy 
simplistic explanations.  The protesters are not simply tools 
manipulated by traditional political and economic elites threatened by 
Thaksin’s threat to their interests, as some pro-government analysts 
have characterized them.
Most see themselves as participants in a grand crusade against 
corruption.  On the other hand, most of the masses that have brought the
 Redshirt coalitions to power are not bought and corrupted by Thaksin’s 
money, as they are portrayed in anti-government speeches; they really 
feel that they are fighting to salvage democratic rule and economic 
justice against reactionaries.
While the protests have still remained largely non-violent, 
instances of violence, including grenade throwings over the last week, 
portend another bloody denouement like May 2010.  Some pro-government 
sources people think the PDRC strategy is to provoke the military to 
intervene to oust Yingluck and impose Suthep’s unelected Reform Council.
There is tremendous hesitation on the part of the military to 
embark on this, given the terrible experience it had in governing the 
country after the 2006 coup, though another putsch this time is not out 
of the question.  There is also low probability of intervention from the
 king, who has long been regarded as a moderating force in Thai 
politics.  Old and ailing, King Bhumibol is no longer seen as being in a
 position to act as he did in 1992, when he brought opposing figures 
together to put an end to military repression of pro-democracy protests.
Victory Monument
With no third force to break the deadlock, there is no prospect 
in sight except deeper and sharper polarization.  If Yingluck is ousted,
 it will be the turn of the Redshirts to invade Bangkok.  The February 2
 elections may push through and put another Pheu Thai government in 
power, but this will not bring an end to the opposition’s refusal to 
grant legitimacy to any Thaksin-led government and put its middle-class 
muscle to oust it.  For many on both sides, it is no longer a question 
of if but when this deep-seated civil conflict descends into outright 
civil war.
*INQUIRER.net columnist Walden Bello represents 
Akbayan in the House of Representatives.  He was the principal author of
 Siamese Tragedy: Development and Degradation in Modern Thailand 
(London: Zed, 1998).

Read more: http://opinion.inquirer.net/70103/thailands-edsa-2-from-civil-conflict-to-uncivil-war#ixzz2sPVg5lAH

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