Thailand's Political Transformation

April 15, 2010

This blog was originally posted on Open Democracy.

The weeks of popular protests by thousands of red-shirted demonstrators in the center of Bangkok reached a critical stage on the late Saturday evening of April 10, 2010. At that point, Thailand’s state-security forces began a crackdown against those who had gathered under the banner of the United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD). A longstanding political crisis that has divided Thais into bitterly opposed camps has now become a national tragedy.

Protestors and military police clash in the streets of Bangkok on April 12, 2010.
Protesters and military police clash in the streets of Bangkok on April 12, 2010.

The immediate crisis had been escalating since mid-March 2010, when tens of thousands of members of the increasingly heterogeneous UDD began their takeover of the streets of Bangkok. The red-bedecked activists from all over Thailand carried their tents, sleeping-mats and food supplies into the area around the high-rent shopping-district of the Rajprasong intersection. The red-shirts‘ political representatives held intermittent talks with the government of Thailand’s prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva; but these broke down in the first days of April, and the protestors then vowed to stay in place until the parliament was dissolved and new elections announced.

The crackdown was launched three days after Abhisit declared a state of emergency, which provided the government with broad powers of arrest, censorship, and suspension of civil liberties. Among the first measures taken was the blocking or closure of independent media, including thirty-six websites; the popular bilingual news-site Prachatai was one of those affected.

This prepared the ground for the more stringent actions on Bangkok’s bloody Saturday night: the use of water-cannons, tear-gas, and ultimately live ammunition to force the red-shirts off the streets. At the time of writing, twenty-one people are reported to have been killed (sixteen protestors, four soldiers, and a Japanese journalist), and over 800 injured. Abhisit Vejjajiva insists that soldiers were permitted to use live bullets only to shoot into the air or in self-defense, though the nature of the deaths and wounds inflicted on many protestors casts some doubt on this statement.

Thus the uneasy peace that had prevailed amid the popular tumult on Bangkok’s streets has been broken. Thailand now peers into the abyss. But whatever the outcome of the clash between people and state, a profound and little-remarked political transformation continues to unfold.

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The arc of crisis

A conventional reading of Thailand’s crisis traces its deeper roots to the mid-2000s with the rise, fall and subsequent exile of Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist leader elected in January 2001 and ousted in a military coup on 19 September 2006.

Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai (TRT) government was seen by many in Thailand’s political elite and among the urban middle-class as a subversive challenge to its traditional political hegemony. In early 2006, Sondhi Limthongkul – like Thaksin, a millionaire businessman – began to mobilize his supporters in an extra-parliamentary campaign to unseat the elected prime minister.

The confrontation between the yellow-shirted activists of Sondhi’s Peoples’ Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and Thaksin Shinawatra’s government accentuated Thailand’s political divisions, amid the gradual retreat and loss of legitimacy of the country’s older political parties. But the military takeover of September 2006 did nothing to stem the crisis. The army-appointed quasi-civilian government under Surayud Chulanont sought to manage the transition to restored civilian rule by dissolving the TRT, but Thaksin’s party reinvented itself as the People Power Party (PPP) – and proceeded to win power in the first post-coup elections in December 2007.

Thaksin himself, facing legal charges over his financial dealings, had been in New York at the time of the coup, and remained outside the country; his proxy in the PPP, Samak Sundaravej, became Thailand’s new prime minister. The political carousel continued when Samak’s appearance on a TV cookery show forced his resignation, and replacement by his PPP colleague Somchai Wongsawat. The PAD’s yellow army then launched further street-protests and in November-December 2008 occupied Bangkok’s Suvarnibhumi international airport, paralyzing travel in and out of Thailand and greatly damaging the country’s vital tourism industry (see “Thailand: the misrule of law”, 1 December 2008).

The political momentum remained with the PAD when soon after the airport seizure, Thailand’s constitutional court ordered the dissolution of the PPP. A realignment within parliament in December 2008 then saw a Democrat Party-led coalition come to power, with Abhisit Vejjajiva at the helm. This might appear to have restored Thailand’s traditional political order – dominated by the military, monarchy, and Bangkok’s middle class – but there was no stabilization. In April 2009, a red tide of protestors now organizing as the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship demanded Abhisit’s resignation, and it took tanks on the streets to force the “Songkhran uprising” to retreat (see “Thailand’s democratic crisis”, 9 April 2009).

The reshaping of politics

This narrative is essential background to the tragedy of 10 April 2010. But it also misses an important dimension that is critical to understanding what is happening in Thailand: the changes in consciousness – the imagining of what is politically possible – which have animated the 2006-10 period.

In this perspective, the familiar rendering of Thailand’s political drama – put simply, as a confrontation between red-shirted pro-Thaksin republicans with a political base in the rural poor versus yellow-shirted royalist conservatives backed by the urban middle and upper-classes – fails to convey the political heterogeneity that has been emerging under these misleadingly unified banners. Such shorthand references do account for some of the members of each movement, but they also elide their evolving dynamics: in particular, the cross-class, cross-space, and contingent formation of the red-shirted alliance in the streets of Bangkok, as well as those writing, posting, and otherwise supporting them elsewhere in Thailand and abroad.

The point can be made by referring to the Thai word phrai, which has become an ubiquitous reference-point by red-shirt members of the UDD and in broader Thai political discourse (and in media discourse about the Thai events). Phrai can be rendered in English as “commoner”: it is a direct reference to the feudal era, which officially ended in 1932 with the transformation of Thailand from an absolute to constitutional monarchy.

Thomas Fuller, the New York Times’ Bangkok correspondent, criticized a popular red-shirt bumper-sticker which reads: “The blood of the phrai is worth nothing”. This may be “overblown rhetoric”, says Fuller. “There are many stories of upward mobility in Thailand and, despite the presence of tens of thousands of protesters, the anger has not translated into personal attacks on the wealthy. The main target of the protesters’ ire seems to be the system: the perception that bureaucrats and the military serve the elite at the expense of the poor” (see “Thai Protesters Shed Culture of Restraint”, New York Times, 31 March 2010).

But to see the red-shirt choice of the term phrai as a misperception of reality is flawed. The UDD side is seeking not merely to rearrange Thailand’s political rhetoric but to redefine its political reality. To do this they position the phrai in opposition to the amatya (bureaucratic elite) – and by implication to the jao (lords) which traditionally and by definition the phrai could neither become nor even challenge (see “The class divide fuels red-shirt anger against the established elite”, The Nation, 26 March 2010).

It’s true that the publicized images of these weeks of drama – such as the ubiquitous red glow cast by the demonstrators and reflected in the windows of the Bangkok elite’s luxury outlets – can seem to confirm the picture of a popular insurgency by Thailand’s rural poor against its urban rich. But it is so much more interesting and complicated than that. For as the protests have continued, the links of the red protestors with Thaksin Shinawatra have become more and more irrelevant. Instead, what has emerged are new forms and actors of politics in Thailand.

The old and the new

The dimension of class is indeed a key component of these events. Nattawut Saikua, one of the UDD leaders, declared as the red-shirts streamed into Bangkok from every direction on 18 March 2010 that the protest was the beginning of a “class war”. This was echoed by Thanet Aphornsuvan of Thammasat University as the state’s violence was unleashed on the evening of 10 April: “The battle [is] between the army that supports the establishment, government and Bangkok’s urban elite against the people from the provinces … It is a real class war. Saturday’s crackdown confirms this.”

Yet the events in and beyond Bangkok’s streets extend the traditional meanings of “class war”, and indeed perhaps even of “revolution”. The red-shirt movement in Thailand is redefining the terrain of politics, in a way reminiscent of the autonomist struggles in Italy in the late 1970s and the Zapatistas in Mexico in the late 1990s. For like these earlier movements, the UDD is seeking both to contest an ancien regime (and in Thai terms, the amatya and jao who populate it) and to change the terms of engagement through which politics is conducted.

The red-shirts are, after all, seeking far more than merely a seat at the decision-making table for the marginalized majority. In their refusals, demonstrations and demands to reshape politics, they are agents of a deeper transformation in Thailand.

The state’s use of violence to repress the red shirts has not succeeded; they remain in key locations throughout Bangkok, defying Abhisit Vejjajiva’s demand that they evacuate the city’s streets. The red shirts continue to call for the immediate resignation of the prime minister, the dissolution of parliament, and plans for new elections. Moreover, the official attempts to constrain independent media – which long predate the state of emergency – have themselves been widely reported through a host of new-media outlets; and scholars and activists raise their voices in favor of renewed efforts to broker peace.

During the Songkhran uprising in April 2009, I wrote an article for Open Democracy in which I quoted Antonio Gramsci’s famous line from The Prison Notebooks: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appears.” A year later, the counter-revolutionary violence of 10 April 2010 seeks to keep the new at bay, and carries the potential for even greater loss of life. Thailand’s crisis continues.

Please help us ensure that no excessive force is used against protesters in Thailand.

This post was contributed by Tyrell Haberkorn, AIUSA’s Thailand country specialist.