Thailand: Amid coup, Red Shirt leaders not up to job of democracy struggle

A mass Red Shirt demonstration for democracy in Bangkok in 2009.

A military coup is developing on May 20 in Thailand. The military has stepped in to declare martial law to “restore peace and order while denying it is a coup.

The country’s Constitutional Court had already dismissed the elected government of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra on May 7. It came after months of violent right-wing protests including sabotage of elections aimed to resolve the country’s political crisis.

The military is imposing media ceonsorship and there are reports of soldiers targeting demonstrations by the pro-democracy Red Shirt movement. The Red Shirts launched mass protests against the 2006 coup that overthrew the government of Thaskin Shinawatra (Yingluck’s father). The Red Shirt movement is largely based on the poor, who benefited from some polices of Thaskin’s government.

In an the article below, written before the declaration of a state of emergency, Giles Ji Ungpakorn discusses how Red Shirt leaders have largely demobilised the mass movement after Yingluck was elected in 2011 and have not taken the lead to organise the poor against the pro-elite right-wing attacks.

Ji Ungpakorn is a political commentator and member of the socialist group Left Turn Thailand. In February 2009, he left Thailand for exile in Britain after being charged with lese majeste (“insulting the monarch”). He is a member of the socialist group Left Turn Thailand, a socialist organisation. It is reprinted from Red Thai Socialist.

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One thing that the Thai political crisis over the past eight years has proved is that being in government does not mean controlling the state.

The state is made up of much more than the government. There are the “bodies of armed men”, courts, prisons, top civil servants and elite CEOs of big business. The state is the unofficial, unacknowledged, committee for managing the affairs of the entire ruling capitalist class.

Its pretence at being neutral and law-abiding is a mechanism to win legitimacy among the population. There will be differences of opinion within the state. But its overall aim is to rule over, control and oppress other classes.

In Thailand, its function is to rule over ordinary working people and farmers who make up most of the population. It has not yet faced the power of the organised working class like in Europe. The Thai state has yet to make serious concessions to democracy.

Over the past eight years of political crisis, the Thai state has set its face against democracy and the idea of a free universal franchise. We have had one coup d'etat by the army and three judicial coups.

This repression of democracy is backed up by armed right-wing Democrat Party thugs on the streets who act with impunity. It is backed up by military appointed so-called “independent bodies”, acting under a military drafted constitution.

It is supported by middle-class academics and NGO leaders. They also all claim to be “protecting the monarchy”, although the draconian lese majeste law prevents people from questioning or testing this.

It is obvious that to achieve freedom and democracy, we shall have to pull down all the old structures of the Thai state.

But Thaksin, Yingluk and her Pua Thai party have no intention of doing this. Their aim is to re-join the elite club who now run the state.

They are not pro-democracy out of principle, merely out of convenience. The National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) “Red Shirt” leaders are wedded to Pua Thai. It is incapable of leading the needed fight.

Any defence of democracy must come from the Red Shirt movement. There is no other movement remotely interested in doing this, and no other group that has the potential capabilities.

The Red Shirts are the largest pro-democracy social movement that has ever existed in Thailand. Most Red Shirts still support Thaksin, but at the same time wish to fight for democracy as a matter of principle and in their own interests. They have a contradictory relationship with Thaksin and Pua Thai.

The weakness of the Red Shirt movement comes in two forms: political leadership and power. What is needed is new leaders independent of Pua Thai and Thaksin, with more self -organisation.

There is an urgent need to assess the required task of overthrowing the old state structures and how this can be done. Power needs to come from being more closely allied to the organised working class, especially the private sector unions.

Power also comes from the mass movement being made up of farmers throughout the country. Until this happens, the Red Shirts will not be able to rebuild democracy and expand Thailand’s democratic space.