[Marxism] Walden Bello: Class War: Thailand's Military Coup

Michael Karadjis mkaradjis at gmail.com
Fri May 30 10:27:03 MDT 2014


Class War: Thailand’s Military Coup
Outnumbered by the country's rural voters, Thailand's once vibrantly
democratic urban middle class has embraced an elitist, antidemocratic

By Walden Bello, May 27, 2014

Thailand’s military coup is a victory for the country’s elites and
middle classes. But the country’s rural majority is unlikely to stand
aside while the elites dictate a new constitution. (Photo: Pittaya
Sroilong / Flickr)

This article is a joint publication of Foreign Policy In Focus and

After declaring martial law on Tuesday, May 20, the Thai military
announced a full-fledged coup two days later. The putsch followed nearly
eight months of massive street protests against the ruling Pheu Thai
government identified with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The
power grab by army chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ochacame two weeks after
Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck, was ousted as caretaker prime minister by
the country’s Constitutional Court for “abuse of power” on May 7.

The Thai military portrayed its seizure of power as an effort to impose
order after two rounds of talks between the country’s rival factions
failed to produce a compromise that would provide Thailand with a
functioning government.

Deftly Managed Script

The military’s narrative produced few takers. Indeed, many analysts saw
the military’s move as a coup de grace to Thailand’s elected government,
following what they saw as the judicial coup of May 7.

It is indeed difficult not to see the putsch as the final step in a
script deftly managed by the conservative “royalist” establishment to
thwart the right to govern of a populist political bloc that has won
every election since 2001. Utilizing anti-corruption discourse to
inflame the middle class into civil protest, the key forces in the
anti-government coalition have, from the start, aimed to create the kind
of instability that would provoke the military to step in and provide
the muscle for a new political order.

Using what analyst Marc Saxer calls “middle class rage” as the battering
ram, these elite elements forced the resignation of the Yingluck
government in December; disrupted elections in February, thus providing
the justification for the conservative Constitutional Court to nullify
them; and instigated that same court’s decision to oust Yingluck as
caretaker prime minister May 7 on flimsy charges of “abuse of power.”
Civil protest was orchestrated with judicial initiatives to pave the way
for a military takeover.

The military says that it will set up a “reform council” and a “national
assembly” that will lay the institutional basis of a new government.
This plan sounds very much like the plan announced in late November by
the protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, which would place the country for
a year under an unelected, unaccountable reform panel.

The military’s move has largely elicited the approval of Suthep’s base
of middle-class supporters. Indeed, it has been middle-class support
that has provided cover for the calculated moves of the political
elites. Many of those that provided the backbone of the street protests
now anticipate the drafting of an elitist new order that will
institutionalize political inequality in favor of Bangkok and the
country’s urban middle class.

The Thai Middle Class: From Paragons to Enemies of Democracy

The sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset once celebrated the middle class
as paragons of democracy. But in recent years, middle-class Thais have
transmogrified into supporters of an elitist, frankly antidemocratic
agenda. Today’s middle class is no longer the pro-democracy middle class
that overthrew the dictatorship of General Suchinda Krapayoon in 1992.
What happened?

Worth quoting in full is an insightful analysis of this transformation
provided by Marc Saxer:

The Bangkok middle class called for democratization and specifically the
liberalization of the state with the political rights to protect
themselves from the abuse of power by the elites. However, once
democracy was institutionalized, they found themselves to be the
structural minority. Mobilized by clever political entrepreneurs, it was
now the periphery who handily won every election. Ignorant of the rise
of a rural middle class demanding full participation in social and
political life, the middle class in the center interpreted demands for
equal rights and public goods as ‘the poor getting greedy’… [M]ajority
rule was equated with unsustainable welfare expenses, which would
eventually lead to bankruptcy.

>From the perspective of the middle class, Saxer continues, majority rule

overlooks the political basis of the social contract: a social
compromise between all stakeholders. Never has any social contract been
signed which obligates the middle class to foot the tax bill, in
exchange for quality public services, political stability and social
peace. This is why middle classes feel like they are “being robbed” by
corrupt politicians, who use their tax revenues to “buy votes” from the
“greedy poor.” Or, in a more subtle language, the “uneducated rural
masses are easy prey for politicians who promise them everything in an
effort to get a hold of power.”

Thus, Saxer concludes, from the viewpoint of the urban middle class,

policies delivering to local constituencies are nothing but “populism,”
or another form of “vote buying” by power hungry politicians. The Thai
Constitutional Court, in a seminal ruling, thus equated the very
principle of elections with corruption. Consequently, time and again,
the “yellow” alliance of feudal elites along with the Bangkok middle
class called for the disenfranchisement of the “uneducated poor,” or
even more bluntly the suspension of electoral democracy.

Impossible Dream

However, the elite-middle class alliance is deceiving itself if it
thinks the adoption of a constitution institutionalizing minority rule
will be possible. For Thailand is no longer the Thailand of 20 years
ago, where political conflicts were still largely conflicts among
elites, with the vast lower classes being either onlookers or passive
followers of warring elite factions.

What is now the driving force of Thai politics is class conflict with
Thai characteristics, to borrow from Mao. The central figure that has
transformed the Thai political landscape is the exiled Thaksin
Shinawatra, a charismatic, if corrupt, billionaire who managed through a
combination of populism, patronage, and the skillful deployment of cash
to create a massive electoral majority. While for Thaksin the aim of
this coalition might be the cornering or monopolization of elite power,
for the social sectors he has mobilized, the goal is the redistribution
of wealth and power from the elites to the masses and—equally
important—extracting respect for people that had been scorned as
“country bumpkins” or “buffaloes.” However much Thaksin’s “Redshirt”
movement may be derided as a coalition between corrupt politicians and
the “greedy poor,” it has become the vehicle for the acquisition of full
citizenship rights by Thailand’s marginalized classes.

The elite-middle class alliance is dreaming if it thinks that the
Redshirts will stand aside and allow them to dictate the terms of
surrender, much less institutionalize these in a new constitution. But
neither do the Redshirts at present possess the necessary coercive power
to alter the political balance in the short and medium term. It is now
their turn to wage civil resistance.

Since the coup, about 150 people have been reported detained—including
Pravit Rojanaphruk, a prominent reporter for Thailand’s Nation newspaper
known for his criticism of the anti-government protest movement that
precipitated the military’s intervention.

What now seems likely is that, with violent and non-violent civil
protest by the Redshirts, Thailand will experience a prolonged and
bitter descent into virtual civil war, with the Pheu Thai regional
strongholds—the North, Northeast, and parts of the central region of the
country—becoming increasingly ungovernable from imperial Bangkok. It is
a tragic denouement to which an anti-democratic opposition disdaining
all political compromise has plunged this once promising Southeast Asian

Walden Bello, a member of the House of Representatives of the
Philippines, was the principal author of A Siamese Tragedy: Development
and Disintegration in Modern Thailand (London: Zed Press, 1998). 

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