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Bangkok is burning: The lessons of Thailand

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A tense stand off has ended in bloody defeat for the Red Shirts. Simon Hardy examines the failure of the movement to defeat the government in Thailand

On the morning of May 19th the Thai Army advanced into the Red Shirt encampment in central Bangkok, firing semi automatic weapons and advancing with Armoured Personnel Carriers. The troops used loud hailers to tell the protesters “Come out and surrender or we'll kill you.” As the assault began, the leaders of the Red Shirt movement, after marching their followers into a violent confrontation with the state, abandoned them, surrendering and offering no attempt to lead resistance to the attack.

A Red Shirt leader, Jatuporn Prompan, stood up on a stage in the centre of the camp as the army began to attack, his nerves gone, he shouted, "I apologise to you all but I don't want any more losses. I am devastated too. We will surrender.” After four weeks of protest, of so many dead and injured, the Red Shirts at the point when it mattered most turned out to be lions led by donkeys.

As the troops moved in, at least 16 people were shot dead, many more were wounded. A western journalist was also killed. Survivors who fled the initial attack began to set fire to key buildings like the stock exchange. The footage on the news presented this as proof of the “mindless” violence of the Red Shirts. In reality, it was the desperate reflex of a movement on the verge of defeat, striking out at whatever it could, sending one last message to the Thai government and the world that their cause was serious.

The government imposed a curfew on Bangkok and, in a clear recognition of the breadth of support for the Red Shirts, on 23 provinces across the country as it sought to control any more outbreaks of resistance. Even 24 hours after the initial military assault there were parts of Bangkok still not fully under the control of the army or police, but it is clear that the backbone of the Red Shirts movement has, for the time, been broken.

Now, the most dedicated activists, the ones that stayed at the protest until the end, languish in prison, many facing charges of terrorism and treason which, if “proven”, could result in the death penalty.

The cause of the movement

As is so often the case with such situations, the political context for the movement is rarely explained to people outside of the country. In 2006, the then Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, was overthrown in a military coup that was backed by religious leaders, the church and other powerful parts of the establishment. Subsequent elections installed a Thaksin supporter, Samak Sundaravej who immediately came under attack from the same establishment forces. He was subsequently removed from office after the Constitutional Court ruled that his appearance as a chef on a TV show (his previous job) was a breach of the constitution. Thaksin's brother-in-law, Somchai Wongsawat, was then nominated as Prime Minister but he, too, was toppled by the Constitutional Court and Thaksin’s party (the People's Power Party) was dissolved. Whether the accusations of corruption and bribery have any basis in truth is not clear, but the intervention of the Constitutional Court was not simply a disinterested meting out of justice - the decision to prosecute the PPP leaders came from the military and the business community, who saw the party as a threat to their presumed right to rule the country as they saw fit.

That is not to say that Thaksin was himself a fundamental threat to the ruling class. He was one of the richest men in Thailand for a while, and the PPP was packed with establishment figures and various pro-capitalist politicians. However, some limited reforms by the Thaksin government terrified the rich and the landlords so much that they ran to the army to “restore democracy”. Thaksin was forced into exile, becoming a martyr and popular hero, whose prestige amongst the poor grew out of all proportion to what he had actually achieved.

Like all too many semi-colonial countries, Thai society is burdened by a hideously bloated military machine, a strong bureaucratic elite and an overactive constitutional court. The frequency with which the military intervenes into Thai politics, both through hard measures (outright coups) or soft, such as pressurising the courts to ban this or that political figure or party, is a shocking indictment of the failure of democracy in the country. The PPP itself was reborn as the “Thais Love Thai” party of Thaksin, which was declared dissolved after the 2006 coup. After that party was banned the remaining MPs and political leaders organised themselves into the Pheu Thai Party which is currently in opposition.

For the business community and the army, such constitutional manoeuvres were not enough to remove the Thaksinites from power completely. As all political leaders know, in the end, power is determined by force, and a movement was needed outside of the government institutions to force the issue. In 2008, a group called the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) was formed. Wearing yellow T-shirts (the colour of the Thai monarchy) and armed with guns, knives and bombs, they mobilised a campaign to bring down the PPP government. The PAD carried out a spectacular seizure of the main Bangkok airport for several days at the end of November 2008, forcing its closure. They surrounded various government buildings demanding that the government resign. Somchai called in the army to clear the PAD out from the airport but, in a sure sign that something else was going on behind the scenes, the generals refused to follow orders. Instead, they issued their own statement calling on the PAD to leave the airport and the government to resign.

The revolt by the army marked the endgame for the PPP government. The Constitutional Court met to decide if the three parties making up the government coalition should be banned for various offences of fraud. In the Supreme Administrative Court, which was surrounded by soldiers after the Red Shirts organised a demonstration outside the hearing, the judges ruled that the three parties were dissolved. Some critics pointed out that the judges were not impartial, one had links to the PAD movement as he was married to an active leader of the Yellow Shirts.

The decision created a power struggle in the parliament as splinter groups broke off from the PPP and a realignment of forces happened. The leaders of the banned parties were themselves banned from political life for five years, triggering by-elections in their constituencies. When the dust settled, the Democrat party, the traditional party associated with big business and the monarchy, was in power, led by Abhisit Vejjajiva who remains the Prime Minister. The current government is therefore unelected and only in power through the machinations and manoeuvring of powerful elites and the army, backed up by armed gangs of pro-Monarchists. This is why one of the key demands of the Red Shirts is the calling of an immediate election to install, as they see it, a legitimate government.

The crisis of leadership in the Red Shirts

The timing of the assault and the “cleaning up operation” by the Thai army was not an accident. In the days leading up to the attack, the leaders of the Red Shirt movement had given a clear message to the government that they were not going to escalate the confrontation, that they would meet armed attack with only passive resistance and that they had no strategy to take the movement forward. The government realised that the Red Shirt protest had run out of momentum, that it had no idea how to win. At that point, the fate of the people in the protest camp was sealed.

The lack of strategy is the crucial reason for the failure of the movement. No matter how militant the tactics used, and blockading the centre of the capital city for several weeks is certainly very militant, unconnected from a radical strategy that could actually undermine the military regime and create a new political situation in the country, the movement was doomed to failure.

The Red Shirt movement, although it drew most of its support from the urban poor and peasants, did not mobilise either the peasants or, crucially, the urban workers, as independent social forces. As a result, it could not use tactics, such as a general strike or strikes within strategic industries, that could have tipped the balance of forces decisively against the government. Instead, they limited their demands to new elections. The fundamental reason for this is that the Red Shirts’ leaders only ever saw the mass mobilisations as a stage army, a passive force to back up their own bid for power.

They could not call for strikes and uprisings throughout the country because that would have virtually guaranteed that they lost control of the movement – not to mention the potential threat to their own wealth. The issues were essentially the same as those that paralysed the Green Movement in Iran in 2009; faced with a choice between unleashing a mass movement, which could threaten the entire ruling class with a social revolution, and surrender to their rivals within the ruling class, they chose surrender.

When a movement tries to organise “the people” or “the nation”, it is putting forward a populist agenda. Populism appeals to capitalist politicians because it obscures the reality of class division behind an appeal to “the people”. Populism acts as a powerful binding agent, holding many workers and poor people to middle class or upper class leaders who, in effect, use them for their own agenda.

The alternative strategy

It was as far back as 1848 that Marx recognised that the modern capitalist class had become decidedly unrevolutionary. When faced with a real struggle against a dictatorship or an undemocratic regime, the capitalist and middle classes tend to surrender rather than take real revolutionary steps for change. After the failure of democratic reform movements that swept Europe in 1848, Marx argued that it was by then only the working class who could fight a revolutionary struggle through to its end. This was because working class forms of struggle not only tackle the issue of democracy, but point to a socialist solution to the crisis. The working class, mobilised in its millions, taking collective action as workers in strikes, occupations and mass demonstrations, can attack capitalism at its heart, the profit system, raising the question of 'who truly runs society?'

This is why populism can be so dangerous for a revolutionary movement. Within a populist movement, the different class interests of capitalists, workers and peasants have to be subordinated or the movement would fall apart. Keeping “the people” united behind a capitalist leader or party inevitably means limiting the movement to the goals of that leader or party – and that is never the destruction of their own class interests. The leaders of the Red Shirt movement only ever envisaged using their peasant and urban poor followers as an auxiliary force in their own power struggle with the government. For socialists it is always the self activity of the working class and the poor which is the key question. Are they organised along class lines and fighting for their own interests?

Thaksin himself, living in exile and doing a part time job as economic adviser to the Cambodian government, has said that the repression could lead to a guerilla war. This is not inconceivable. Certainly, there is no lack of grounds for rural discontent throughout the country, especially in the north east of the country where the Red Shirts have most support. Whatever form it takes, as many commentators have pointed out, the movement has created deep divisions within the country. In the current economic situation it is unlikely that any long-lasting stability can be achieved. Nonetheless, if the movement is to make real progress, even towards its immediate aim of restoring an elected government, it will have to generate a new leadership that is not ultimately tied to the existing order.

As the fate of the Red Shirts’ occupation has made clear, even to ensure an election will require the overthrow of the key centres of power, including not only the present government but also the judiciary and the General Staff. There can be little doubt that a movement committed to such a democratic revolution would also find itself opposed by the Monarchy, no matter how revered the King has traditionally been.

In short, the movement has to fight for a sovereign Constituent Assembly, a new constitution, not just a new Prime Minister. To ensure that such an Assembly is convened, and convened democratically, the movement must create its own organisations; in the countryside, peasants’ councils, in the cities, workers’ councils. These councils will need to build their own armed forces, their own militia, first to force the existing government to retreat but then to organise and oversee elections to the Assembly. Within the movement, revolutionary socialists will fight to build a workers’ party based on a programme that recognises that to win, and then maintain, the democratic rights of the workers and poor peasants it will be necessary go beyond political revolution to social revolution; the overthrow of capitalism and the building of a socialist republic based on the rule of the workers’ own organisations and their allies, the poor peasants.

Only this political strategy, the strategy of Permanent Revolution, can lead the existing struggle for democracy independently of the narrow interests of the cliques of politicians who see it only as a means to achieve their own interests. Only a party committed to Permanent Revolution can genuinely lead the workers and peasants of Thailand in a struggle for control over the economy so that the wealth of the country can be used to raise the living standards of the overwhelming majority, not the selfish greed of the few who have brought the country to ruin.