Thailand is again being shaken by political crisis, with protesters disrupting voting during the recent elections and paralysing Bangkok by blocking major roads and invading government offices.
The government now faces months of paralysis, with parliament unable to make decisions until by-elections are held in seats where voting could not take place. By-elections will not be held until 27 April.
The protesters, however, are right-wing elitists who want to get rid of democracy. They have called on the military to stage a coup and appoint an unelected “people’s council”.
Protest leader and former MP Suthep Thaugsuban told the military, “If you take a decision and choose sides, this matter will be over. If you decide quickly, the people will praise you and you will be a hero.”
The protests are supported by the misnamed Democrat Party. It withdrew all its MPs from parliament and boycotted the recent election. This is because it knew it would lose. The party has consistently failed to win popular support, rarely winning more than a third of the vote in the last 20 years.
But it represents a section of Thailand’s ruling class, and draws support both from members of the urban middle class, who believe ordinary people are “too stupid and uneducated” to deserve the right to vote, as well as rural villages where Sutep’s family control politics through bribery and patronage.
Yellow and red
These are the same “yellow shirts” who have staged protests against elected governments linked to former Prime Minister and business tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra since 2005.
The latest protests were triggered by a proposed amnesty bill that would wipe away Taksin’s conviction for corruption and allow him to return from exile.
Taksin was corrupt, avoiding paying any tax on the $2.5 billion sale of his telecommunications company while in power.
But he and his supporters have won every election in Thailand since 2001. The current Prime Minister, first elected in 2011, is his sister Yingluck Shinawatra. She has made no effort to conceal her party’s links with her brother, campaigning on the slogan “Thaksin Thinks, Pheu Thai [her party] does”.
This popularity comes from policies designed to favour the poor, including universal healthcare and economic development funds for rural villages.
Yingluck has continued with this populist approach, introducing a higher minimum wage and subsidies to give rice growers a higher price for their crop.
Their support is not simply amongst rural peasants in the north of the country, but also extends to many working class people. Forty per cent of Bangkok residents, Thailand’s largest city, voted for Yingluck at the election in 2011.
After Taksin was overthrown by the military in 2006, the Constitutional Court dissolved Taksin’s party and placed the Democrat Party in power. This led “red shirts”, supporters of Taksin, to stage their own protests in 2010 demanding the return of democracy. The army shot them off the streets after they descended on Bangkok, killing 90 people.
But even this repression did not prevent Taksin’s reformed party, Pua Thai, winning the 2011 elections, taking over half the seats in parliament.
After regaining power, Yingluck struck a deal with the military, promising not to prosecute the figures responsible for the deaths of red shirt protesters in 2010.
As a result, the military has so far refused to intervene in the current crisis, declaring itself neutral. The generals no doubt also recognise that another military coup would only run the risk of provoking a renewed round of red shirt protests.
Red shirt leader Krirkmontri Rujsodtirapath told the media, “If there is a coup or a seizure of power from this government, I think our red shirt comrades in large numbers across Thailand will all come out in full force.”
But Pua Thai is playing a dangerous game in refusing to mobilise its supporters on the streets, ceding momentum to its opponents.
There have been some signs that the red shirt movement is developing beyond uncritical support for Thaksin.
Some red shirts rallied against Yingluck’s amnesty law when it was first announced, since it allows the military to get away with the killings in 2010. The bill also refused amnesty for red shirts serving sentences under the lese majeste laws for insulting the king.
Ending the red shirts’ subordination to ruling class figures like Thaksin, and the development of an independent stance, will be necessary to fight consistently for the interests of workers and peasants.
By James Supple