Given the perception by many leftists that the “yellow shirts” in Thailand are a typical color revolution orchestrated by George Soros and the CIA to thwart the will of the progressive-minded “red shirts” defending the Thaksin presidency, it might come as a surprise that Eric Draitser, who blogs at Land Destroyer and is about as committed to Baathist rule in Syria as can be imagined, has a different take on things:
Thailand: Thaksin Regime Turns on its Own Supporters
Regime sends “red shirt” enforcers to threaten farmers and their families for protesting 6 months of unpaid subsidies – smashing the myth of “rural support.”
January 30, 2014 (ATN) – While the US, UK, and others across the West attempt to sell upcoming sham elections in Thailand as upholding “democratic values,” the regime overseeing the one-party self-mandate in a climate of regime-sanctioned terrorism, political intimidation, and a “state of emergency,” has begun turning on its own supporters – mainly farmers.
It should be mentioned that Tony Cartalucci, another hard-core “anti-imperialist”, is also rather averse to the Thaksinite/Red Shirt forces:
Thailand: US Sides With Increasingly Violent, Desperate Regime
US State Department condemns protests against sham election, but ignores assassination and thuggery aimed at opposition.
By Tony Cartalucci
The US State Department openly sided with Thaksin Shinawatra and his proxy regime, and backed their planned one-party sham elections being carried out in a climate of political intimidation, terrorism, assassinations, and a draconian “emergency decree” in a statement released after protests disrupted polls across the country Sunday.
Andrew Vltchek, who despite being in 100 percent agreement with Draitser and Caralucci on the need to defeat the jihadists in Syria, is gung-ho for the “red shirts”. He groups the “yellow shirts” with all the reactionary elements being spawned by George Soros and Samantha Powers:
It is definitely not a set of uprisings that are supposed to improve the lives in all those above-mentioned countries. Instead it appears that these are events sponsored from abroad and their only goal is to bring politically, religiously or economically oppressive or regressive regimes to power: Mubarak and the military in Egypt, jihadi pro-Saudi cadres in Syria, pro-business and pro-Western market fundamentalists in Ukraine and now this feudal clique in Thailand trying to survive by all means.
Of course, I find this all rather amusing. The general tendency of people like Draitser, Cartalucci and Vltchek is to reduce politics to binary oppositions between Western imperialist conspiracies and the “axis of good” state leaders who wander into NATO’s radar screen. That being said, how could you end up with such wildly divergent assessments on Thailand? Isn’t it possible that Thailand, like the Ukraine (notwithstanding Vltchek’s reductionism), is just another example of a society not falling into simple “good” versus “bad” categories? And isn’t it possible that the current cast of players on the front lines of the political struggle in Thailand, just as is the case in the Ukraine, are incapable of moving the country toward a more democratic and a more just future? What is the role of socialism in a society that seems bent on resolving its contradictions within a capitalist framework?
Before answering those questions, it would be helpful to put the current crisis into historical context.
Unlike most other countries in the region, particularly Vietnam, Thailand was never colonized. It also was ruled by a monarchy. The combination of these two factors meant that progressive politics did not historically get channeled into a socialist and nationalist direction. There was no counterpart to Ho Chi Minh, let alone Gandhi.
Even after the nation began to divest itself of feudal social relations in the 20th century, the monarchy continued to exercise a strong hold on politics. Additionally, the army has intervened both in the political sphere and in economics, playing a role somewhat equivalent to Kemalist Turkey or Nasserite Egypt but with far less commitment to nation-building goals.
Primarily agricultural, Thailand was wrenched from its traditional social patterns during the Vietnam War when billions of dollars were poured into the economy to support the American military bases. The investment was not in productive spheres such as infrastructure or manufacturing but in the “service” industries catering to the war machine, such as bars, brothels and airstrips.
But enough cash was floating around in the economy so that Thailand was able to become part of the “Asian tigers” trend that helped it to ramp up per capita GDP from $100 in 1961 to $2750 in 1995.
Like the rest of the tigers, Thailand was bushwhacked by the 1997 meltdown that was triggered largely by currency speculation. Huge numbers of workers left manufacturing jobs in the cities and returned to impoverished countryside villages. After 2001, the economy began to recover but the farming sector largely based in the north and northeast regions remained stagnant.
With ambitions to transform the economy, billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra entered the scene in 1998 at the helm of a party he founded called “Thais Love Thais”, or TRT. In order to break down barriers put up by the old guard of the monarchy, the military, and the state bureaucracy, he needed powerful social sectors to supply the muscle. That was supplied by the millions of farmers who would benefit from his program for rural development, including loan forgiveness, and many of the nation’s poor who would be eligible for a sweeping public health program. In many ways, Thaksin’s approach emulated that of Juan Peron in Argentina. As such, it was understandable why many Marxists would sign up with the “red shirts” who constituted his shock troops. Among them was Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a prolific and ubiquitous commentator on Thai politics who has written for Greenleft Weekly, the Guardian, MRZine, the British SWP, the ISO, and the Fourth International. In many ways, for better or for worse, he is the go-to guy on Thai politics for the left.
While not above criticizing Thaksin, Giles is solidly behind the mass movement that he inspired. Exiled from his homeland for basically being disloyal to the King (anybody who has seen Yul Brynner in “The King and I” knows how risky that can be), Giles sees the red-yellow divide in stark terms. In 2009 he characterized the Red Shirts as being on the right side of history:
A sense of history helps to explain why Red Shirt citizens are now exploding in anger. They have had to endure the military jackboot, repeated theft of their democratic rights, continued acts of violence against them and general abuse from the mainstream media and academia.
The stakes are very high. Any compromise has the risk of instability. The old elites might want to do a deal with Thaksin to stop the Red Shirts from becoming totally republican. But whatever happens, Thai society cannot go back to the old days. The Red Shirts represent millions of Thais who are sick and tired of military and palace intervention in politics. At the very least they will want a non-political constitutional monarchy.
On the other hand, the Yellow Shirts were described in terms very similar to the anti-government protestors in the Ukraine:
The Yellow Shirts are conservative royalists. Some have fascist tendencies. Their guards carry and use firearms. They supported the 2006 coup, wrecked Government House and blocked the international airports last year. Behind them were the army. That is why troops never shot at the Yellow Shirts. That is why the present, Oxford-educated, Thai prime minister has done nothing to punish the Yellow Shirts. After all, he appointed some to his cabinet.
The aims of the Yellow Shirts are to reduce the voting power of the electorate in order to protect the conservative elites and the “bad old ways” of running Thailand. They propose a “new order” dictatorship where people can vote, but most MPs and public positions are not up for election. They are supported by the mainstream Thai media, most middle class academics and even NGO leaders.
Ironically, it a bourgeois politician like Thaksin who is better capable of exploiting contradictions than those on the left committed to analyzing society in Manichean terms.
In a number of articles and books, Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker have been dissecting the “business populism” of the TRT. In an article titled “’Business Populism’ in Thailand” that appeared in the 2005 Journal of Democracy, they put Thaksin’s rise to power under a microscope:
The TRT’s attitude toward governance reflected the party’s business orientation. Somkid Jatusripitak, a key Thaksin lieutenant, worked with Philip Kotler and Michael Porter, who advocated the application of corporate principles and business-school economics to the national economy. Somkid collaborated with Kotler on The Marketing of Nations,9 and compiled his own Thai-language articles into a book titled Thailand Inc. Thaksin adopted his aide’s rhetoric. In one 1997 speech Thaksin said: “A company is a country. A country is a company. They are the same. The management is the same.”10 The TRT’s initial election campaign also reflected its business orientation. In late 1998 and early 1999, the party proposed to restore economic growth in the wake of the crisis by stimulating entrepreneurship, especially among small and medium-sized enterprises.
Thaksin had little leverage in building links to the rural poor who could help catapult his party into power so instead he recruited veterans of the Thai left who were about my age or a bit younger on the basis of bringing significant social change to the country. For many of these erstwhile radicals and Marxists, this was a possibility to have an impact that Maoism failed to have. In a way it was like the “Progressives for Obama” development in the USA but—unlike Obama—Thaksin meant business (in both senses of the word).
While his leftist operatives had visions of class struggle in mind, Thaksin’s program had much more in common with the “third way” that was taking shape in Britain and the USA. In a 2001 speech he said:
The post–Cold War political parties should no longer compete on the basis of ideology, but on the basis of winning the hearts and minds of the people through their actions. . . . those in the opposition try their utmost to topple the government and assume power themselves. . . . Such adversary politics may not be for the best interest of the people. On the contrary, it may be a betrayal of our social contract to the people.
After taking power, Thaksin unleashed a “war on drugs” that was particularly devastating in the south of the country where Muslims had long harbored aspirations to secede from a state seen inimical to their interests. Inter Press Service reported:
In 2003, alone, over 2,500 people were killed in the ‘war on drugs’ that was unleashed by the Thaksin administration to combat growing concern about the high number of Thais – some as young as 15 years – being hooked on methamphetamines.
But Thaksin, who was ousted from power by the military in a September 2006 coup, dismissed charges of extra-judicial killings. Ignored were the directives given by him and others in his administration to show little mercy – which human rights group said, at the time, was a “license to kill.”
And when Thaksin went after Muslims in the south, he made an amalgam between them and the drug users as recounted by Philip Bowning in the October 28, 2004 NY Times:
The deaths this week of 84 unarmed Muslim demonstrators in southern Thailand was tragic enough in itself. Six appear to have been shot dead and more than a dozen wounded, while 78 died later of asphyxiation while being transported in army trucks.
Just as shocking as the deaths themselves, which may have been due to unfortunate accident rather than design, was Thaksin’s callous reaction. He commended the anti-riot forces for their work, claimed that “many of the protesters appeared to be in a drug-induced state” and suggested that those who died did so not because of the military but “because they were in a weak physical condition resulting from fasting.” In short, the dead had only themselves to blame.
As president, Thaksin offered a carrot to the poor at the same time he brandished a stick against his adversaries, particularly those gosh-darned middle-class educated elites living in the big cities. What better way to keep them in line except by managing the message that went out to the masses.
Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker report on a scenario that sounds eerily like the manner in which Vladimir Putin maintains the status quo in Russia:
In order to break with the “old politics” and to suppress critics, Thaksin’s government has set out to restrict the public sphere. Four television channels and all radio stations are still owned by the government or the military. Thaksin has instructed them to broadcast “positive” news only. Two companies that had pioneered public-affairs programs fostering debate lost access to the airwaves. Reporters and producers found themselves dismissed or reassigned. Thaksin’s family company bought Thailand’s only commercially owned television channel, ITV, in 2000. A dozen staffers who objected to the slant of the channel’s election coverage in early 2001 were summarily sacked. On all channels, the time allocated to news and current-affairs programming shrank significantly, and the remaining time was used to broadcast the government line. Even dramatic series adopted themes with a progovernment, even propagandistic, edge.
Finally, there is ample evidence that despite some genuine benefits for the people, Thaksin’s “business populism” was titled toward the business side of the equation. Once again let’s hear what Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker have to say:
Despite pressure from supporters, Thaksin’s government accepted all the existing IMF reforms and even launched a privatization program more ambitious than anything that the IMF had outlined. Proposals to restrict large foreign retail concerns that had gained a foothold in Thai markets during the crisis were dropped “simply because we don’t want to send a wrong signal to the foreign community.” Thaksin insisted that he was an international businessman himself, and firmly committed to free markets. Beginning in late 2001, his government aggressively sought more foreign investment. Thaksin retained some nationalist credentials by repaying the IMF’s crisis loan early and dubbing the occasion “Independence Day,” but this was purely symbolic.
Thaksin did a similar two-step in key areas of foreign relations. After 9/11, no doubt with an eye on the Muslim minority long concentrated in southern Thailand, he kept a certain public distance from the U.S.-led war on terrorism while quietly lending assistance in keeping with Thailand’s treaty obligations. An official visit to Washington in mid-2003 produced a U.S. designation of Thailand as a “major non-NATO ally,” as well as favorable references to Thaksin’s campaign against drugs—a significant legitimation given that the UN and the U.S. State Department had raised human rights concerns related to the antidrug campaign. Shortly thereafter, Thaksin committed 440 Thai troops to humanitarian missions in Iraq and signed Thailand on to a new U.S.-orchestrated security grouping designed to combat violent Islamism in Southeast Asia.
While I am generally leery of anything that Eric Draitser and Tony Cartalucci have to say on anything, I do recommend a look at what they have written. But I especially recommend the article titled “More Dishonesty About Thailand’s Upheaval From the International New York Times”, an article in the December 15, 2013 Truthout by Michael Pirsch. For those of you following the Times’s coverage on Thailand, you might have noticed that the paper tilts toward the “red shirts” rather than the “yellow shirts”—as does The Economist. Thomas Fuller, who covers the Thailand beat for the NYT, is in the habit of reminding his readers about the Thaksin carrots, less so the stick.
(I should hasten to add that I found out about Pirsch’s article from my old friend Jeffrey who learned about it in turn from the pro-“yellow shirts” proprietors of an outstanding Thai restaurant in the Rockaways called Thai Rock. (http://thairock.us/) I have eaten there twice and can assure you that it really does rock.)
I strongly urge you to read Pirsch’s entire article but will reproduce the concluding paragraphs that I think are essential reading:
The universal health-care policy is popular everywhere in the country. The same cannot be said about the corruption-riddled rice-pledging scheme, which pays farmers a price 40 to 50 percent above world market price. It is estimated the government has lost $13 billion over the last 2 years funding this scheme. Not all farmers qualify for payment, as a minimum weight of harvested rice is required. Many of the poor rice farmers in the northeastern part have farms too small to grow the minimum. Some analysts estimate 20 percent of the funds go to farmers, the other 80 percent go to middle men and rice millers. Again, it isn’t the rice price supports people are angry about, it is the corruption surrounding the policy. There are several ongoing investigations regarding corruption in the program.
A telling encounter between the late long-time Thai politician Snoh Thienthong and Thaksin’s wife, Pojaman, reveals the motivation behind the policies of Thaksin’s proxy political parties. Snoh claimed he asked Pojaman why she needed so many billions of dollars and was told, “In politics, you have to hand out money. It has to be considered a business.” Snoh asked her what would happen if things blew up, and she replied, “If Thaksin falls, the Thai Rak Thai party will have to stay in power for at least two more terms for safety.”* Since Thaksin fell in 2006, there have been 3 proxy regimes, and none has served a full term. It becomes clear from the single-minded Phuea Thai party goal of absolving Thaksin that Thaksin is more important than anyone or anything else in Thailand.
At every opportunity, Fuller writes with sympathy about Thaksin. He calls the one conviction of Thaksin in the government land sale to his wife the result of a “highly politicized trial.” He does not even mention the 2,500-plus murders in Thaksin’s “War on Drugs.” He does not reference the torture and murders in the Malay-Muslim South, nor the forced disappearances of 18 human rights activists. He also does not mention the multiple corruption allegations against Thaksin. He does not credit the protestors with demanding an end to corruption; instead, he belittles the focus on corruption.
Fuller describes the protestors in his November 27 article, “Among the protestors are elegantly dressed Bangkok residents, supporters of the Democrat Party, and rubber farmers . . . ” On December 3, he described the protestors as “. . . a diverse group varying from upper class Thais who have attended the rallies in high heels and office attire to rubber farmers . . . also include groups of students known for their brawling, which compounded the political tensions.” The reference to vocational students, known for their brawling with rival schools is true. What Fuller hides from the reader is that, for the first time in history, vocational students have joined together in a single goal without violence against each other. They are fighting the corruption of Thaksinism.
I have walked through the demonstrators’ main encampments near Democracy Monument during both day and night. I have yet to see the high-society matrons Fuller sees in his dreams. I have seen the faces of everyday Thais who appear to come from all walks of life. I have seen the calloused and weathered hands of men and women who have performed manual labor their entire lives. I have seen artists, roadside food vendors, elders, children, shop owners, factory workers wearing their company’s jackets. Fuller’s descriptions insult the many diverse Thai people who have attended the protests. All are sick of the corrupt nature of their government.
He also implies that the demonstrations are an affront to democracy since Thaksin’s proxy parties have won recent elections. The most recent election in 2011 saw the “Thaksin Thinks-Phuea Thai Acts” party receiving 48 percent of the vote. This total was not enough for the party to form a government, so they had to invite other smaller parties to join. They were more than happy to do so given the corrupt nature of Phuea Thai and the opportunities and rewards that follow from being part of the majority. The Phuea Thai percentages drop when we factor in the number of eligible voters. Phuea Thai received only 32 percent of the number of eligible voters. That means 68 percent either did not vote for Phuea Thai or did not vote at all. If it would be possible to factor in the number of bought votes, the percentages might be less in both calculations. Eliminating vote-buying is the number one point of the six-point reform plan presented by the protest leaders. Thailand does not come even close to having a democracy and neither does my country, the United States of America. We make a big mistake confusing the 2 to 5 minutes it takes to cast our votes as the expression of democracy. As Howard Zinn pointed out, the time we spend voting is not as important as what we do in the intervening years between those 2 to 5 minutes. This is what Thailand is doing today.
I don’t want to leave the impression that I am a partisan of the “yellow shirts”. As was the case with my post on the Ukraine, my main interest is in highlighting the complexities of the struggle. In the world of schematic Marxism, you always end up with all of the good guys on one side of the barricade and all the bad guys on the other.
Thailand, like the Ukraine, suffers from a deficit of class consciousness. In a way, both societies are victims of the collapse of official Marxism. In Thailand, Marxism meant Maoism. Most of the activists who emerged in the 1970s were attracted to Maoism and some went so far as to join guerrilla detachments in the countryside. The failure of that movement left many activists in a quandary as to how to move the struggle forward. When Thaksin came along with promises (and intent) to change Thai society, they jumped on board. Whether or not that change went to the heart of class relations became a secondary consideration.
In the Ukraine, activists made headlines by toppling a Lenin statue. In all of the protests over the country’s desperate attempts to avoid the consequence of neoliberal assaults, the solutions have revolved around more neoliberalism—either EU or Kremlin in nature. It is up to the anarchists mainly to draw class distinctions.
Taking the long term view, the Thai left has the same mission that we all do, namely to resurrect Marxism and develop a party that can fight for social transformation. That might sound utopian, but I don’t know of any other solution that is worth fighting for.