Many people may wonder why Yingluck Shinawatra's Pheu Thai Party’s government, which came to power supported by the poor-based Red Shirt mass movement, seems to be paralysed in the face of violent and criminal actions by Sutep Tuaksuban's Democrat Party mob.
It is not due to “invisible hands” from the throne or covert military support for Sutep. In fact, the top elites regard Sutep and his acolytes as lowly street gangsters.
But these disturbances are useful to the military and conservatives because they can push Pheu Thai into further compromises. That is why the military is sitting on its hands with a smug smile.
Naturally, Sutep is getting support from the backwoodsmen in the Constitutional Court and the election commission, but the street mobs are doing all the work. They are also backed by reactionary doctors, academics and NGOs who represent the middle class.
The real reason why Pheu Thai appears to be paralysed is they face a choice. Either they order the sacking of the top generals and reactionary judges, and the arrest of the violent protest leaders, mobilising the support of millions of Red Shirts on the streets, or they go for a grubby compromise with the conservatives.
Either Pheu Thai mobilise their Red Shirt supporters to tear down the old order, or they make peace with their conservative elite rivals. Given that Yingluk, her brother and former PM Thaksin and other Pua Thai figures are basically “big business politicians”, they choose peace with the elite.
This is not to avoid civil war, but revolution from below.
Thailand’s “old order” is a modern capitalist semi-dictatorship controlled by the military, the business class and the top civil servants. They are united in their royalism, but Thailand is not an absolute monarchy.
Until the election victory of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party in 2001, the old way of conducting politics was for different elite parties to compete on the basis of personalities and patronage. Thaksin introduced the central importance of policies to the electoral process.
Before this, the laissez-faire policies of Thai governments resulted in unplanned and chaotic public infrastructure, and total lack of welfare. The elites and middle classes enriched themselves on the backs of the poor.
On an economic and social level, the Thai economy's rapid growth through the 1980s and early 1990s meant more ordinary people became urbanised, educated and self-confident. People wanted to see change and they wanted a share in the fruits of development.
Growing conflict was emerging between the realities on the ground and the old political structures that had a stranglehold on society. Thaksin played a part in heightening this conflict by proposing modernisation.
Yet Thaksin’s aim was not to pull down the old order, but gently to modernise it. Today, Yingluck, Pheu Thai and Thaksin are still determined to protect the main pillars of the old order. They fear revolt from below more than competition from the conservatives.
Given the weak state of independent Red Shirt and left-wing organisation on the ground, the best we can hope for right now is to build a movement from below that pushes against authoritarianism and to criticise any nasty compromises Pheu Thai seek to make.
But ultimately, this movement will have to pull down the structures dominated by the military, big business and conservative officials.
[Abridged from Giles Ji Ungpakorn's website Red Thai Socialist. He is an activist and writer from socialist group Turn Left Thailand. In 2009 he was forced into exile after being charged with lese majeste. You can read more about Thailand at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]