Thailand: A movement of the poor for democracy

Issue 

On April 10, the Thai military opened fire on unarmed pro-democracy protesters, known as "Red Shirts", who were on the streets of Bangkok to demand the unelected government be dissolved and new elections called.

By April 14, the confirmed death toll from the violent crackdown was 23.

On April 9, Lee Sustar, from the US Socialist Worker, spoke with Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a Thai socialist from Turn Left, about the pro-democracy uprising. The interview is abridged from Socialist Worker. More updates from Ji Ungpakorn can be found at Wdpress.blog.co.uk.

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Can you explain what's taken place in Thailand over the past several years as the backdrop to the current crisis?

In 2006, the Thai military carried out a coup against the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a businessperson who led the Thai Rak Thai Party.

The military regime stayed in power for just over a year, during which time it drafted its own constitution and reduced democratic space. It appointed half the Senate instead of having it fully elected and so on.

Elections were held after a year, but they were won by the same party that had been overthrown by the coup.

The military and the royalists then used the courts to dissolve (twice) the party that won the most votes. In that period, the middle-class royalist movement, the "Yellow Shirts", held street protests, and took over the international airport.

This eventually led to a new government being formed with the backing of the military. This is the present government headed by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

The Red Shirts were originally the people who voted for Thaksin's party, but they have developed into a mass movement that has real roots among the poor, both in rural and urban areas.

It is a class movement of the poor that has become a mass movement for democracy.

Consciousness is developing in such a way that the poor see the enemies of the people and democracy are the military, monarchy and middle class.

So what you have is a mass movement of pro-democracy Red Shirts representing the poor, who are demanding fresh elections.

The regime claims that Thaksin is manipulating all this from exile. What's the truth?

He represents a figurehead to the mass of the Red Shirts, but he's hardly manipulating the movement.

In fact, he didn't build the Red Shirt movement. It was initially built by local politicians from his party, but it mushroomed into a grassroots movement.

People set up their own Red Shirt groups in all sorts of communities. For example, they ran community radio stations because the mainstream media is totally censored and biased toward the government.

The Red Shirts are demanding democracy. They also see the struggle for democracy as a class struggle for the rights of the poor.

Thaksin is a capitalist politician, but he introduced universal health care. He introduced a number of reforms to raise the incomes of poor people.

So he receives support from the Red Shirts. But the Red Shirts are leading themselves as well.

Are media reports right that the decision of the courts to expropriate some of Thaksin's wealth was the trigger for this latest protests?

It was more than that. These mass protests have been taking place at regular intervals ever since the military installed the present government in late 2008.

People were very angry with the way that the courts seized Thaksin's wealth. And to be honest, the corruption charges against him haven't really been proved.

But this is a point where people have decided that they're going to make a stand and get the government to resign.

The government claims that demonstrators are affecting Bangkok shopping centres is very ironic because if you go back to 2008, the royalist Yellow Shirts closed down the international airport and Government House, which had a much greater impact on the economy.

And nobody from the royalist side has ever been charged for committing those crimes.

So far, the Red Shirts have been very resilient and have shown that they actually represent a majority of the electorate.

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