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Thailand: A revolutionary situation

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The struggle is not just between red and yellow shirts, but between opposing class forces. Sean Ambler argues that the workers and peasants can forge their own solution to the crisis

A week of pro-democracy protests, culminating in the shutting down of the ASEAN conference and many parts of the Thai capital, have been temporarily repressed by the Thai army. The so called "red shirts", protestors from the National United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), have mobilized against the government of Abhisit Vejjajiva which came to power in a thinly veiled coup last December. This was the latest in a series, beginning in 2006 in an open military coup against the government of Thaksin Shinawatra. The response of various elements of the Thai state over the events of this weekend show the depth of the political crisis the national bourgeoisie has been in since divisions began under the Thaksin government: many traditional elites calling for brutal suppression of the protests, Thaksin himself called for a "peaceful revolution". These divisions have created an opportunity and revealed the possibilities for a genuine democratic revolution in the Thai state – events are still playing out in Bangkok and it is unclear, despite government announcements of regaining control, which side will have won the strategic victory.

The current revolutionary situation was sparked by Saturday's (11th April 2009) summit-siege in Pattaya which shut down a regional economic conference of the Association of South East Asian Nations. Tens of thousands of red-shirted UDD protesters were able to overpower the police and military guarding the conference venue leading to the summit which was due to take place later the same day being cancelled. The ease to which the demonstrators were able to deliver a major blow to the Thai state, which was due to receive a $10 billion dollar economic package from the Chinese premier, hints at the unwillingness of the army rank and file, mostly from the same rural and urban poor backgrounds as the demonstrators, to use force against the mass protest.

The confidence gained by the demonstrators led to large demonstrations throughout Bangkok, paralysing the city's infrastructure. Road intersections were blocked by taxi drivers, the interior ministry was stormed just after Abhisit announced the state of emergency from inside, and his secretary taken prisoner by the demonstrators. The “extreme” state of emergency, banning all meetings of more than five people, was ignored by demonstrators who took over more of the capital as tanks and armed personal carriers were sent into the streets. Several of these were then successfully overturned or overtaken by protestors, with the military initially unwilling to use excessive force.

On Monday morning that changed – troops began to open fire, some over the heads of the demonstrators, others fired into the crowds. By the end of the day over ninety injuries were reported, many at Victory Monument where protestors blocked the Din Daeng intersection. Protestors bravely fought back, with buses being driven into lines of troops and petrol bombs, made from a commandeered LPG tanker, being thrown. By nightfall it had been reported that two protestors had been killed during gun battles.

The current political crisis has its origins in 2006 when Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai (TRT), translated as 'Thais Love Thais', government was ousted by a military coup which imposed military rule over the country for a year. The coup was in response to the growing pressure from sections of the traditional elite organised into the People’s Alliance for Democracy, a name that outperforms the German Democratic Republic in Orwellian doublespeak. This organisation, headed by a former supporter of Thaksin media-billionaire Sondhi Limthongkul, organised demos of supporters in Yellow shirts which helped provide the pretext for the September 2006 coup, after twice causing early elections which resulted in victories for the TRT. Its central demand was the removal of Thaksin and the TRT, its social base was the middle-classes, their reason for protesting being anger of the increasing domination of foreign capital in Thailand’s economy. Yellow is the colour of the Thai royal family and was conciously chosen to demonstrate the loyalty of the protestors to the established order.

The TRT had originally unseated the Democrats who had ruled since the return of electoral democracy in 1992, on the back of an anti-IMF platform in 2001. While adopting popular social programs, including the first universal health care system and micro-credit, the government sought to open up Thailand to foreign investment including privatising state owned assets. This acted against the interests of many of the national bourgeoisie, who used Thaksin’s own sale of his media empire, Shin Corp, for $1.9billion to Singaporean state investors in February 2006 as a pretext to launch a campaign ostensibly over corruption in this deal. The military regime’s imposition of capital controls after their September coup, which was openly backed by the PAD, led to a dramatic collapse of the stock market and foreign investment, and itself proved unpopular enough for the Thai capitalists to allow the successor of the TRT, the People’s Power Party (PPP) to win the first elections after the coup with 233 out of 240 seats, slightly less than half, and form a coalition government with five small parties in December 2007.

In their year in power the military cemented its grip over Thai politics with the production of a new constitution. This was designed to allow the judicial arm of the state, a self-selecting group ideologically loyal to the King and military, to dissolve political parties and ban their leaders and apparatus from parliamentary politics for set periods of time – hence allowing soft-coups such as the ones that occured twice in 2008. This constitution, while superficially legitimately installed, was done so over a background of a ban of political activity – including campaigning for a “no” vote, while the military backed a campaign for a “yes” vote.

Despite a clear vote for the PPP, the constitutional courts removed the Prime Minister Samak Samaravej on the 9th of September 2008 for receiving a small remuneration for hosting a cooking show. The immediate background to this decision, as more noticeably during the second constitutional coup in December, was PAD protests which had begun on 26th August in an occupation of Government House. Then after protests culminating the occupation of both Bangkok’s main airports by the yellow shirted supporters of the PAD. The PPP and two minor parties were dissolved by the constitutional court on the 2nd December, ostensibly over electoral fraud – undoubtedly true, but a feature which is common to all Thai parties which offer small bribes for votes.

While the PPP once again was refounded, this time named Puea Thai, many parliamentarians switched sides, some from the former PPP, to the Democrats who have an uneasy, but currently mutually beneficial, relationship with the PAD. Military-organised bribery, including a figure of equivalent to $1.2million per parliamentarian, were reported from sections of the Thai media. The bribe was large enough to ensure that a sizeable number of parliamentarians voted for the Democrat government allowing Abhisit Vejjajiva became Prime Minister. While he has attempted to win support with some limited populist measures, he remained tarnished by the reputation of the coup and it is clear the majority of the Thai working class and the poor peasants, who make up the clear majority of the population, are against him.

While the actions of the last few days are organised by the UDD, an organisation closely linked to Thaksin, a bourgeois politician who privatised much of the economy and led brutal suppressions of Muslim separatist movements in the South and of those involved in the drug trade in Bangkok, the protests have been around demands for the removal of the military’s political power. While the bourgeois media mainly presents the protestors as Thaksin supporters, many are not. The UDD contains the affiliate of the International Socialist Tendency (British affiliate being the Socialist Workers Party), called the Workers Democracy Group / Left Turn Thailand, which was headed by academic Giles Ji Unpakorn until he fled Thailand before his trail over lese majeste charges for his book on the 2006 coup. While Thaksin is trying to gain ground for his re-entry into Thai politics using the protests, many of the protestors are calling for fresh elections rather than a imposition of Thaksin from above. Further the motivation for their support for the UDD is in part a misguided support for Thaksin stemming from the social policies he adopted.

Despite the bravery shown by the UDD and the clear mass support for its demands, its failures lies in a lack of independent working class politics. Thaksin and his party Puea Thai will not use the methods necessary to defeat the military – a general strike and the building of a strong trade union and peasants movement, due to their own class interests. Despite Thaksin's call for a "peaceful revolution", his supporters have had to use increasingly violent methods of struggle just to defend their right to protest.

It would be a defeat for the social and economic aspirations of the thousands of protestors if it ended with the return to power of a populist politician like Thaksin. He will inevitably disappoint the hopes of his supporters and unload on them the price of puling Thailand out of the world capitalist crisis. If the workers and poor peasants are able to carry through a successful revolution against the army high command and the royal court clique then they must not be deprived of its fruits. This will inevitably occur unless the working class breaks from Thaksim and creates its own revolutionary workers party, pledged to a strategy of establishing a workers and poor farmers government.

In the immediate future the working class organisations, including the several trade union federations, must call their members out on strike and to join the protests. Workers’ peasants and soldiers councils, with recallable delegates, must be built to mobilize to defeat the ruling class and disintegrate the repressive machinery of the Thai state. The unwillingness of some rank and file soldiers to fire on the protestors has already been demonstrated. Rank and file soldiers must be encouraged to form committees, demand the election of their officers, and the right to refuse any orders hostile to interests of the people.

Today socialists in Thailand should be fighting for the immediate convening - by the trade unions and peasant organisations - of a sovereign Constituent Assembly. A revolutionary assembly would abolish the monarchy and drive the army high command from Thai politics for good. The Assembly should abolish landlordism and hand over the distribution of the large land holdings to the poor peasantry. It should replace the parliamentary bodies with the power of the working class and poor peasantry, represented by councils of their delegates.

In short revolutionaries in Thailand needs to follow the strategy of permanent revolution, whereby the struggle for democracy against the monarchy, the army chiefs and the landlords grows uninterruptedly into the struggle for working class power and the construction of a socialist Thailand. At the same time this revolution must spread throughout South East Asia - presently hard hit by the world crisis and suffering undemocratic or dictatorial regimes; establishing a socialist federation of the entire region.