Thailand: Behind the protests

September 6, 2008

On September 2, Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej declared a state of emergency in response to the political crisis brought about by ongoing demonstrations and government buildings organised by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which has called on Sundaravej to resign.

Sundaravej, who was elected in January as leader of the People's Power Party (PPP), has refused, stating, "I will never resign in response to these threats. I will not dissolve the House. I will meet the king today to report what's going on."

The PAD, along with large sections of the military, overthrew the elected Thai Unity Party (TRT) government, led by former PM Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2006. The coup was justified as an attempt to end political corruption.

However, it was about much more than corruption.

The TRT was formed in 1998, in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis, on a platform of supporting universal access to health care, a three-year debt moratorium for farmers and Thai Baht micro credit development funds for all Thai Villages.

The party included the billionaire Shinawatra, but also some of the central leaders of the 1970s student movement, who were a part of the Thai Communist Party, which fought for democracy.

The TRT platform was popular with large sections of the rural population, who make up 70% of the population, as well as the working class, which had very little or no access to health care.

In the 2001 general elections, the TRT received 248 seats out of 500, with by far the largest vote. In 2005, its vote increased, winning 375 seats.

This growth in support can be partly explained by the deliverance of aspects of the TRT platform.

Universal health care, something that the United States does not have, was delivered. Under Shinawantra, health care access improved from 76 to 96% coverage, while low-cost universal access to anti-retroviral HIV medication was also provided.

The government also allowed for village-managed micro credit development, provided low interest loans for agricultural projects and injected cash into village development funds, as well as providing infrastructure for rural areas.

According to a 2005 World Bank report, nation-wide poverty fell from 21.3% to 11.3% in five years, while in the poorest section of Thailand, the north-east, average income increased by 40%.

Political corrution did decrease, and the 2005 election of the TRT involved the largest voter turnout in voter history, as well as a massive reduction in vote-buying".

However, Shinawantra's government was also guilty of widespread human rights abuses. Washington-based Human Rights Watch described Shinawatra as "a human rights abuser of the worst kind", particular for his role in prosecuting the "war on drugs".

In 2003, 2500 people were extra-judicially executed, over half of whom had no links to the drugs trade, according to a November 2007 report in the Nation magazine.

The government was also carried out brutal suppression in Pattini, a majority Muslim area, where people have been struggling for cultural and religious freedom. The worst incident came in the town of Tak Bai, were hundreds of local people were arrested at a demonstration by the military.

They were stacked in trucks, up to six deep, with 78 people suffocating to death.

Shinawantra defended the military, claiming people had died "because they were already weak from fasting during the month of Ramadan".

Discontent over these abuses, as well as over neoliberal economic policies — including signing free trade agreements with Australia and the US — led to the growth of an anti-government protest movement. Hundreds of thousands of workers mobilised against Shinawatra's plan to privatise the electricity industry in 2004 and defeated the attempt.

In the absence of a mass left-wing party that could lead the movement, the conservative wealthy elite opposed to some of the TRT reforms, as well as royalist forces (marginalised since the 2001 elections), saw this as an opportunity to re-assert themselves.

The PAD began to organise. The PAD included some of the wealthiest people in Thailand and they immediately threw themselves into agitation against the Shinawatra government — leading major protests throughout 2006.

While speaking of wanting to get rid of corruption and to "restore democracy", the intention was to get rid of the democratically elected government through profoundly undemocratic means and restore power to the monarchy.

The slogan of the PAD-led protests in 2006 was: "We will fight for the King". After the PAD helped create the political crisis, royalist forces within the military staged a bloodless coup on September 19, 2006 while Shinawatra was in New York.

The coup plotters called themselves the "Council for democratic reform under the constitutional monarchy". The cabinet, parliament and constitutional court were dissolved, and elections delayed.

Two days after the coup, the king gave his approval while the PAD — its goal accomplished — dissolved itself. The TRT was dissolved by order of the constitutional tribunal for violation of election laws in May 2007.

Former members of the TRT regrouped with other forces to form the PPP to contest the December 2007 elections, while pledging to continue the welfare policies of the deposed TRT government.

The PPP was became the largest party in the elections, forming government in alliance with other parties, with Sundaravej as prime minister.

Soon after the PPP won government, the PAD re-established itself and in May began its push to have Sundaravej resign, citing his links to Shinawatra, as well as unsubstantiated accusations that the PPP engaged in vote-buying.

The protests escalated and culminated on August 26 with the storming of parliament by PAD activists, who have stated they will not leave until Sundaravej resigns.

Just like the 2006 coup, the PAD has made it clear that it has no desire to respect democracy. A PAD leader told Time magazine, "It's taken for granted in the West that democracy is the best system. But all we are getting in Thailand is the same vicious cycle of corrupt, power-hungry leaders. This system is not working."

PAD proposed a system, known as "new politics", where 70% of parliamentarians would be appointed by various groups, including the military, and only 30% directly elected.

Thanet Charoenmaung, a political science lecturer at Chiang Mai University stated: "The majority of Thais, especially in the rural areas, will suffer the most because they will lose their voices and the bargaining power given to them by the 1997 constitution".

The difference between the 2006 and 2008 crises is the role of the military. The 2006 political crisis lead to a military coup, while so far the military has ruled out a coup, with General Anupong Paochinda stating: "The army will not stage a coup. The political crisis should be resolved by political means."

The military, also, has refused to side with Sundaravej, refusing to use extraordinary powers granted to it during the state of emergency to disperse PAD protesters in the Government House.

PAD's attempt to broaden out the anti-government movement to include organised sections of the working class has mostly failed, which is again different to 2006.

Associated Press reported on September 3: "The Federation of State Enterprises, comprising 43 unions, had said it would lead 200,000 workers in strikes to crimp the supplies of power and water to government offices and disrupt telecommunications and rail, road and air transport. But few, if any, services were affected."

As a way out of the crisis, on September 4, the cabinet agreed to hold a national referendum. Early indications are that this referendum will be held in October.

When asked about the referendum, cultural minister Somsak Kiatsuranont said that questions in the referendum would include whether the government should resign, whether parliament should be dissolved and what people think of the anti-government protests.

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