Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 28, 2014

Thoughts prompted by the coup in Thailand

Filed under: Thailand — louisproyect @ 6:14 pm

Protesting rice farmers in Thailand

For journalists like Seumas Milne and Andre Vltchek, the anti-government protests in Venezuela and Thailand are cut from the same cloth. They are middle-class movements fueled by resentment against government programs that favored the poor. If this is the case, you would expect the NY Times and the Murdoch-owned London Times to throw its support behind Thailand’s “Yellow Shirts” after the fashion of their support for the anti-Maduro student protesters. As is so often the case, reductionism does not serve political analysis very well.

Because in fact Thomas Fuller of the NY Times has been consistently in support of Thaksin Shinawatra’s “Thais Love Thais” party. On May 22nd he filed a report that stated “The coup was seen as a victory for the elites in Thailand who have grown disillusioned with popular democracy and have sought for years to diminish the electoral power of Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister who commands support in the rural north. Unable to win elections, the opposition has instead called for an appointed prime minister and pleaded with the military for months to step in.”

If anything, the London Times’s Richard Lloyd Parry was even more gung-ho for the Thais Love Thais party, even using “99 percent” type rhetoric against Akanat Promphan, a leader of the “yellow shirts” opposition:

For all his talk of a national movement acting on behalf of all Thais, Mr Akanat is not an obvious man of the people. His parents were both members of parliament and, like a surprising number of opposition leaders, he received an expensive British education. He attended the £31,680-a-year boarding school Charterhouse and the University of Oxford.

After a day of marching on the streets of Bangkok, he retreats not to a tent pitched beneath a flyover, like those inhabited by many of his fellow demonstrators, but to the five-star sanctuary of the Dusit Thani Hotel in Bangkok, overlooking Lumphini Park.

Like Fuller, Richard Lloyd Perry stressed Thaksin’s FDR type love for the common people:

Mr Thaksin was a billionaire telecommunications tycoon who, on the face of it, also had little in common with Thai farmers. His cavalier attitude to human rights and his manipulation of state institutions and the media drew the loathing of educated, urban Thais.

However, his rural development programmes, which bestowed cheap loans and subsidised healthcare on Thailand’s villages, won him the loyalty of a far larger voting population.

That loyalty has been severely tested by a government program that subsidized rice farmers. A couple of years ago, it seemed like a safe bet since Thailand was the world’s leading exporter of rice. Subsidies were seen as a way of motivating farmers to grow more rice and help consolidate one of Thailand’s major exports. Unfortunately for the Thais Love Thais party, the world market for rice became glutted and demand for the overpriced Thai variety took a nosedive. With tons of rice sitting in warehouses and beginning to rot, the sales that would have paid for the subsidies failed to materialize.

Growing desperate, the unpaid farmers resorted to measures found frequently in the Indian countryside:

BAN NON SON, Thailand—Attempts to steer markets seldom end well.

In this village in northeast Thailand, Thongma Kaisuan’s family and neighbors are trying to come to terms with the death of the 64-year-old farmer, who slipped out into his backyard and hanged himself from a tree late last month. The suicide, they say, is in large part due to the Thai government’s bid to control the world’s price for its best-known export: rice.

Investors and governments often have fantasized about controlling global markets for commodities to drive up prices and profits. In the 1970s, the Hunt brothers, American oil billionaires, attempted to corner the world’s silver market, only to see their position collapse. Sumitomo Corp.’s 8053.TO -0.52% chief copper trader, Yasuo Hamanaka, in the 1990s bought up to 5% of the world’s copper supply. His position also collapsed, losing $2.6 billion. Other debacles include efforts to corner gold, tin and even onion markets.

Now add Thailand to the list of the world’s frustrated speculators.

An attempt to set global rice prices has stripped the country of its position as the world’s top exporter, left its prime minister facing a potentially ruinous investigation into the management of the plan, and thrown thousands of farmers like Mr. Thongma into a deep hole of debt.

Mr. Thongma’s tale began two and a half years ago. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra launched a gambit to shift more cash into the rural economy by buying up rice from farmers at about 18,000 baht, or $550, a ton, around 50% higher than the market rate.

Across the country, Thais started to buy new televisions, along with smart-phones to tap into the 3G networks springing up across the country. Household debt crept up past 80% of gross domestic product, a dangerously high level, according to the central bank.

Mr. Thongma, for his part, borrowed 400,000 baht, or about $12,000, from an agricultural cooperative to help pay for a minivan for his son-in-law to start a small transport business.

“We were confident about borrowing the money because the government program appeared to guarantee a stable income,” said Mr. Thongma’s widow, Thongbai Kaisuan, as Buddhist monks in orange robes chanted prayers for her departed husband.

Reality quickly sank in.

The timing of the government’s rice program could scarcely have been worse. Just as Thailand began withholding rice from the international market, India resumed exports after a long absence. Major importers such as the Philippines, stung by the 2008 price spike, also began producing more rice. Instead of rising, global prices for rice fell from a peak of more than $1,000 a ton in 2008 to the current level of around $390 a ton for the most commonly traded grades.

–Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2014

You would think from the NY Times and the London Times that the movement against the government was made up of white-wine drinking and brie cheese-eating yuppy computer programmers and civil servants, a trope heard frequently in the past when it comes to “color revolutions”. In fact Yingluck Shinawatra’s undoing probably had more to do with farmer discontent than anything else as Reuters reported on February 17th:

Hundreds of unpaid Thai rice farmers swarmed around the temporary office of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on Monday, threatening to storm the building if the beleaguered premier did not come out and speak to them.

The escalation of the protest by farmers, who have not been paid for crops sold to the government under a state rice-buying scheme that helped sweep Yingluck’s Puea Thai Party to power, came as thousands of demonstrators seeking to unseat the prime minister surrounded the government’s headquarters.

Live television pictures showed farmers climbing over barbed wire fences and barriers at the Defence Ministry compound in north Bangkok where Yingluck has set up temporary offices. They pushed back a line of riot police, who retreated from confrontation, but did not enter the building.

“The prime minister is well-off but we are not. How are we going to feed our children? I want her to think about us,” said one protesting farmer.

On May 7th Yingluck Shinawatra resigned after a high court found her guilty of transferring a National Security chief from his office in an irregular manner. It was clear that the real reason was to remove a politician who had lost the ability to govern after the fashion of Yanukovych in the Ukraine.

If the assumption is that the army will now go full blast ahead with an attack on the poor, it might be worth noting that the General in charge has declared that the rice farmers would be paid the money owed them. Thomas Fuller reported on this today but could not help but remind his readers that the army was only acting on base Machiavellian considerations:

Other reports showed farmers marching to army bases to hand over red roses and holding up banners proclaiming appreciation for the general who led the coup, Prayuth Chan-ocha. Identical banners, featuring rice stalks and the same image of General Prayuth raising his hand in the air, were paraded by farmers in Phuket, Lopburi and Ubon Ratchathani, provinces that are separated by hundreds of miles.

Thai newspapers quoted farmers praising the military in highly formal language.

“We, on behalf of all farmers, would like to thank you for your true kindness and understanding of the hardship of the people,” a man who was described as a farmer was quoted by the ASTV Manager news website as saying. “We are here to offer moral support and flowers to thank you, the military of the entire people.”

All this might be true but what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If buying votes is considered to have something to do with a progressive agenda, then Boss Tweed might be due a revisionist make-over since traditionally machine politics in big cities revolved around favors to working-class voters such as a turkey in November or lining up a construction job on a city project.

Some argue that the Red Shirts will emerge as a true radical movement after the Shinawatra clan has left the building. I hope that’s true but after reading about Thailand on and off for the past few months, I am a bit skeptical. In the final analysis, Thailand needs the same thing as Ukraine does, a mass socialist movement that can unite the anti-corruption urban dwellers with the rural agrarian population. That was symbolized by the hammer-and-sickle of the 1917 Russian Revolution. The iconography might be dated but the political imperative remains.

11 Comments »

  1. Since countries with a strong monarchical or bonapartist legacy and persistent military coups tend to have land ownership issues a la Latin America historically, I took a swipe at what could be found on Thailand. Not much conclusively, but I did find one item on the arrests of land reform activists in the North-West by the Shinawatras. Doesn’t exactly make these look like friends of land reform. But much more research is required.

    However once again caution on the “anti-corruption clean government” meme, and its relation to liberal-fascist “Blue-Brown” politics. After all, this meme is a favorite of neo-liberals, and speaking of Boss Tweed, weren’t Horace Greely’s Liberal Republican splitters in favor of “clean government” against Tweed, and weren’t these “Blues” in a defacto tactical bloc with the Browns of their day, the terrorist Ku Klux Klan and their civilian face in the Southern “Redeemers” of ex-Confederates, thereby selling the South’s Black ex-slaves down the river with the end of Reconstruction in 1876? Because what the liberals balked at was, precisely, land reform in the South, “40 acres and a mule”?

    And the “progressive City Beautiful” movement at the turn of the 20th century had a distinctly anti-working class edge to it, along the lines of the Paris of Haussmann. As did the Progressive movement generally.

    I like this Pando reporter Ames, mainly for his critical coverage of SV techie-yuppiedom and its oligarchical political culture. Maybe because I have the misfortune of having to hold my nose and rub shoulders with some of these elitist, oligarch-worshipping shits every day. In

    http://pando.com/2014/05/26/revealed-the-head-of-omidyar-networks-in-india-had-a-secret-second-job-helping-elect-narendra-modi/

    Ames identifies a linkage between Narendra Modi’s India, its overseas techie diaspora that tends towards libertarian political economics and “clean government”, and current Ukraine political events: Omidyar Network. Needless to say, Modi is the very epitome of blood-soaked Blue-Brownism. I have little doubt that Thailand’s Yellows, including their upwardly mobile urban base – this according to virtually every bit of reportage I hear on the Thai Yellows, including Bloomberg, the BBC and NHK, hardly foes of Blue politics – would fit this bill quite well.

    If we don’t want to mix up our banners with the pro-Putin left, then in the process of appropriating slogans of “freedom of expression” and “clean governance”, we very well don’t want to be mixed up with the “Blue-Browns”, who at least do us the favor of openly hating the working class and socialism. The Blue-Browns are the greater danger, methinks.

    -Matt

    Comment by matthewrusso9 — May 28, 2014 @ 8:59 pm

  2. OK, I don’t like Ames for this: http://exile.ru/about/ Appears Tabibi was mixed up with this as well. But we can’t let the wrong (Red-Brown) banners run off with the truth. In this case Modi and the nature of the (essentially pro-US) Blue-Brown alliance.

    Comment by matthewrusso9 — May 28, 2014 @ 9:22 pm

  3. The one thing that strikes me about this coup, is the common thread I found in it with the Honduran coup of 2009 and a whole string of coups dating back to Allende – the complicity of the High Courts.

    Comment by Jim Brash — May 28, 2014 @ 10:17 pm

  4. “And the “progressive City Beautiful” movement at the turn of the 20th century had a distinctly anti-working class edge to it, along the lines of the Paris of Haussmann. As did the Progressive movement generally.”

    Yes, there are many examples and San Diego is one of them. Mike Davis co-authored a book, “Under the Perfect Sun”, wherein he and the other authors profiled the progressive movement’s role in the adoption of zoning policies that inhabited the migration of working class people and people of color into the city. Elites in San Diego consciously sought to avoid the industrialization of the city while simultaneously seeking military bases, which, at that time, brought southern whites into the region. Pilots were trained for World War I there, I think.

    Comment by Richard Estes — May 28, 2014 @ 10:54 pm

  5. Sorry Lou, you’re way out of your element here. You fallen into the same trap you’ve warned against with a sort of universalism.

    Here’s the facts.

    Thaksin rose to riches on his own, outside if the traditional urban royalist elite which has controlled everything for centuries.

    Doing business his own way turned into doing politics his own way. In order to win he populist programs like the rice buying scheme and cheap healthcare. This didn’t go over with the Bangkok “hi so” who felt their taxes were subsidizing the lazy and backward farmers of Isaan rather than continuing the long followed state development plan that would benefit them personally (more domestic goods production, more luxury apartments, and more modern roads to make it easy for them to get around in their expensive cars).

    Thaksin went outside of the normal, highly corrupt/nepotist channels to pursue his policies because he had no other choice.

    Doing so offended the Royal Court via its most loyal aristocratic supporters, the powerful military (the single force that created modern Thailand from an 3 century old absolute monarchy in 1932), and the aspirant urban petty bourgeoisie.

    This created the yellow shirts who used terrorism to grind down his government. Then he was removed by a coup by an sent who claimed they needed to do it to restore order. Then his party was outlawed. Then the party that came out of that was outlawed. Then the coup gave way to an “impartial” government headed by yellows that cracked down on red shirts hard killing several dozen.

    After that there was another election and the third Thaksin party won again. The old shit started all over again. Yellow shirt protests in strategic centers that the army allowed. Then courts. Then martial law. Then a coup.

    It was only when the red shirts started to clamour that the army got involved. Especially after grass roots red shirt leaders warned of a civil war if the yellows seized power.

    Of course Thaksin and his party are scared to death of the red shirts getting out of their control. That almost happened after the coup drove him out. Red shirt groups started to make demands that went well beyond his program and even headed towards socialism. That’s why Thaksin reigned them in then, and that’s why Yingluck wouldn’t mobilize them to defend her government (instead she tried to appease the yellows with a new election — they responded by attacking polling stations since they knew they couldn’t win). That’s why when the coup was announced this time party leaders turned themselves in when they could have easily merged with the millions who support them and mobilized them to overturn the coup.

    Some rice farmers protested against Yingluck sure, especially in central Thailand. But the majority still support Thaksin and his party. Especially in the north. Not coincidentally the north was also the basis of a large communist party that waged a guerrilla war for decades, ending only with a peace treaty at the end of the 20th century that didn’t really settle anything.

    Comment by Steve D — May 29, 2014 @ 5:44 am

  6. Thaksin rose to riches on his own, outside if the traditional urban royalist elite which has controlled everything for centuries.

    Doing business his own way turned into doing politics his own way. In order to win he populist programs like the rice buying scheme and cheap healthcare. This didn’t go over with the Bangkok “hi so” who felt their taxes were subsidizing the lazy and backward farmers of Isaan rather than continuing the long followed state development plan that would benefit them personally (more domestic goods production, more luxury apartments, and more modern roads to make it easy for them to get around in their expensive cars).

    —-

    Thaksin was appealing to a strong tradition in Thai political culture (reflected elsewhere in the region, too) that an effective leader is one who can rise above the law. The absolute monarchs who ruled Thailand until 1932 were above the law. The military dictators who succeeded the absolute monarchy effectively continued this tradition. Local politicians gather followers by demonstrating that they have the “influence” to act above and beyond the law, and that they thus will be efficient patrons. The colloquial term for such local leaders in Thai is jao pho which translates literally as “godfather.” But the origin of the term is not the Hollywood mafia model. Rather it is a term for local spirits with supernatural powers. In its Thai meaning, it captures the idea of being above the law.

    Thaksin draws on this tradition. Take a trivial but revealing example. When he recently bought a new BMW, he had the police block a portion of an expressway so he could drive it himself way above the legal speed limit. The local press reported the incident in awed tones.

    from: http://pioneer.netserv.chula.ac.th/~ppasuk/thaksinregional.pdf

    Comment by louisproyect — May 29, 2014 @ 4:32 pm

  7. Yeah I’m Thai who grew up in Thai. What do I know? Sure some western academic knows more. This is what I meant about applying false universals. And trying to learn everything from books (especially ones written by people who learned from books themselves — twice removed from realty).

    “The absolute monarchs who ruled Thailand until 1932 were above the law. The military dictators who succeeded the absolute monarchy effectively continued this tradition. ”

    The absolute monarchy that ruled for ** years WERE the law.

    Similarly the coup leaders quickly rationalized their actions with a new constitution (as nearly every coup has since, even in 2006). They enshrined their actions in law.

    “Chao pho” are Chinese ethnic mafioso. They are limited in what they do and where they are. Half of the country has no chao pho activity.

    None of that had anything to do with what I said. Thaksin rose outside of the traditional avenues. He was born into a family of Chinese speculators and financiers, and he used corruption to be sure. So far that’s usual for Thailand. Ironically most of his early connected businesses failed.

    But then he got into all sorts of new technologies. He made his real money and impact there.

    He was assigned to government by a contact to be sure. But then he split and founded a populist political party. The new party proved so popular that he became the first Thai prime minister IN HISTORY to serve a full term.

    Like I said he also diverted state funds into populist programs rather than the traditional state sponsored development that the Bangkok elite have pursued since the modernizing generals took over in 1932. During Thaksins first term spending on infrastructure fell more than 15% while healthcare was extended to the rural areas for the first time. His early friends in politics like Chamlong Srimuang not only disowned him but took up active membership in the drive to take him out of office.

    That’s why he won the next election hands down. Millions of farmers who had never voted came out to the polls.

    He’s also from Chiang Mai. Not the traditional Bangkok power center.

    Forget the wishwashy NYT and American liberal press. Look at what the Thai media says. The same thing as the Bangkok bourgeoisie that controls it: “the impoverished, poorly informed masses are easily manipulated by people of his ilk.” (The Nation. 21 march 2006. English language). They argue that farmers are too stupid to chose in election and that popular social programs are “bribes.”

    Comment by Steve D — May 30, 2014 @ 5:49 am

  8. I think in general socialists need to be very careful about supporting military coups even where the issues are complex. Egypt has been another example of how badly this stuff plays out. Around the world we see democratic but often corrupt forms of populism on the one side and on the other side rule of law type authoritarians often backed by NGOs. I think the left should not uncritically side with either but always defend democracy against authoritarianism.

    Comment by johng — May 30, 2014 @ 8:10 am

  9. From the New York Times:

    “General Prayuth has appointed himself interim prime minister and shows no sign of handing over power to a more neutral figure. Asked by reporters on Monday about the timeline for future elections, he abruptly quit the stage without responding. His staff later summoned the reporters to be reprimanded for asking ‘inappropriate’ questions.

    “The harsh media clampdown, including the blocking of international TV news channels, and the ban on criticizing the junta are missteps in a country where smartphones are increasingly ubiquitous and only fantasists would believe they can control access to information. All these moves suggest that the Thai military remains wedded to an outdated anti-Communist mind-set, believing that those who oppose the army are a small minority of subversives.”

    Sounds like people the left should support, am I right?

    Comment by Steve — May 30, 2014 @ 2:59 pm

  10. “They argue that farmers are too stupid to chose in election and that popular social programs are “bribes.””

    A universal criticism of populist governments by neoliberals. Poor people are gullible fools incapable of recognizing their electoral self-interest who allow people to buy their votes. I can’t remember how times I’ve heard this said about the people who have voted for Chavez and, now, Maduro, in Venezuela. Rory Carroll of the Guardian was the most recent instance of it that I’ve encountered. If gives us a pretty good idea of what we can expect in the unlikely event that the US produces another FDR.

    Comment by Richard Estes — May 30, 2014 @ 4:23 pm

  11. NYT today verified what I say. Generals speech indicates that they will reorient spending to road and trains and eliminate the ability of rural farmers to decide future elections.

    Comment by Steve D — May 31, 2014 @ 5:39 am


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