Wednesday, 27 August 2008


Independent working class policies vital

Will the Malaysian government collapse or can it overcome an attempt by the opposition to take power? Could Anwar Ibrahim, the main leader of the opposition, become the next Prime Minister with the Pakatan Rakyat in government? These are the two big questions that have been revolving in the minds of most Malaysians since the 8 March general election.

The ruling Barisan Nasional (BN - National Front) is a coalition of communal and racially based parties dominated by UMNO (United Malay Nationalist Organisation) and is increasingly challenged by an emboldened coalition of opposition parties, the Pakatan Rakyat (PR – People’s Alliance).

The three PR parties are the Malay-led multi-racial Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party), the Chinese-dominated DAP (Democratic Action Party) and the Islamic PAS (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party). They humbled the governing BN coalition with unprecedented gains in the election (See previous articles). Rallied by Anwar, the parties won more than a third of parliamentary seats and five of the 13 states in the general election, delivering BN its worst result in fifty years. Since these unprecedented election setbacks to the rule of the BN government, Malaysian politics have been in continual disarray.

On the one hand, the ruling government of BN, under Abdullah Badawi with its weakest position ever, has been going all out with every opportunity, using the state’s apparatus, to undermine the chances of the PR and its leader Anwar Ibrahim from getting into power. On the other hand, Anwar Ibrahim, with the opposition parties’ strongest parliamentary position ever, has been advocating that the PR would eventually take over the government by mid-September when some of the MPs from the BN jump over into the opposition camp. At present the BN and PR have 140 and 82 MPs respectively and Anwar and Pakatan would only need another 30 MPs to get a simple majority.

Nonetheless, who the ultimate winner will be and how long this political drama will go on very much depend on the economic performance of the country and that is very much determined by circumstances in the global economy.

In reality the ‘powers’ which direct this political drama are none other than the national and the multinational capitalists. The former, mainly comprised of the Malay capitalists and the political elite who have been groomed by crony capitalism, support protectionist economic measures such as the New Economy Policy (NEP), a four-decade-old affirmative-action programme favouring the predominant Malay community. The latter is pushing for a level playing field in winning opportunities to get a share in the Malaysian economic cake. This is only possible if the special advantages accorded through the government’s policies to the Malay capitalists, as well as the Government-linked companies (GLCs), are dismantled. In order to avoid this, the Malay capitalists and political elites are going all out to safeguard their interests by supporting UMNO/BN. Meanwhile, the multinationals and ultra free-market apologists, especially in the Middle East, the US and Europe, are supporting Anwar Ibrahim’s ‘New Economic Agenda’, which promises economic liberalisation and competition in the natural resource-rich economy of Malaysia.

Worsening crisis in UMNO and BN

Although the BN has a majority, with 60% of the parliamentary seats, its historical defeat has demoralised its most ardent supporters who are mainly careerists and privilege-oriented leaders and members. This phenomenon has been weakening it. It has a leadership crisis and internal bickering in almost all of its component parties. The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), GERAKAN (Movement) and the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) - the major components of the BN besides UMNO - have almost lost their grassroots support in the election, and are effectively overshadowed by the opposition parties. Meanwhile, UMNO, which still has significant support in certain states, especially among the Malay rural population because of its Malay supremacy, has been forced to call for Abdullah Badawi to resign the premiership in order to recover from the humiliating defeats and prevent it from losing the political grip of Malay hegemony.

The BN majority was sustained mainly by the victory of its component parties in East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak). Because of that, the government has been pressured by BN component parties in these states to award more goodies and promises to these states to keep them in the BN fold and to prevent them jumping over to the Anwar opposition camp. However, these parties in East Malaysia could cross over to PR if the BN coalition is further weakening.

Food and fuel price hike

Since the political tsunami of March 8, the parties in the ruling BN are trying to consolidate its loosened grip by advocating more reforms to improve its reputation. Some of the reforms announced were in relation to the judiciary, the Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA), and the University/College Act. However these reforms are in a limited form and have not challenged much the government bureaucracy and autocracy. However the reform attempts have been welcomed, especially by some middle class and professional people who wanted more integrity, transparency and democratic rights in the running of the government. But for the majority of working and middle class people, the reforms have been insignificant when set against the increasing inflation due to exorbitant fuel and food price hikes which is severely affecting their day-to-day life; disposable incomes have fallen and many are finding it hard to make ends meet. The number one issue for Malaysians at present is the economy and some say the economic situation today is worse than at the height of the financial crisis in 1997/98.

Obviously, the people’s resentment against the BN government has been further enraged following the deeply unpopular hike in petrol and diesel prices by 41 and 63 per cent respectively in June. The government off-loaded its responsibility by blaming global economic circumstances. The Abdullah Badawi and BN government’s popularity further diminished with this untimely act of slashing the fuel subsidies consumers were entitled to. Many people have questioned the rationale behind the fuel hike, pushed through despite the fact that Malaysia is a net exporter of fuel. Petronas – one of the GLCs - is among the ten most profitable oil multinationals.

In the face of immense pressure from below in society, the government announced early this month that a windfall profits tax will be imposed on oil palm plantation operators and independent power producers (IPPs) who are making huge profits through the increased price of fuel and palm oil. Although the quantity of the tax is not great, these companies have already demanded that the government withdraw the tax, warning that it would affect the overall economy. Socialists support this taxation measure but it should also be implemented to other sectors of the economy such as banking, finance capital, GLCs, multinationals and others who are also making huge profits. However, this should be a first step towards the nationalisation of these assets, to be run as public companies under workers’ control and management, to meet the needs of the majority of society.

Inflation and economic slowdown

According to the recent report of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), “The external economic outlook for emerging East Asia has dimmed amid prospects for slower growth, tighter credit conditions and higher inflation…Heightened inflationary pressures will require more decisive tightening of monetary policies across much of emerging East Asia”.

The Malaysian inflation rate has soared to a 26-year high at 7.7 percent when transport costs and food prices have increased by 41 percent. According to the central bank, the Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM), for the next 12 months the country could risk a further slow-down in growth and higher inflation. It indicates that the Malaysian economy will not be immune to any of the major slowdowns in the regional and global economy.

There are already many signs of global effects on the local economy. For instance the construction industry is facing the impact of the rising price of building materials such as steel bars and cement to an all-time high even with the Price Control Act. The Real Estate Housing and Developers’/Builders’ Association has warned that, “Contractors may be forced to stop work, delay or even abandon projects as a result of the costlier building materials…This will cause a lot of hardship to many people - clients, designers, suppliers, sub-contractors and 140 other related industries, including the financial system”.

At this juncture, the central bank said it would hold its interest rates at 3.5%. This could be due to the low interest rates in America, making it harder for BNM to raise its rates. However, raising interest rates, although it would make Malaysia more attractive for FDI, it could result in rapid appreciation of the Malaysian Ringgit (RM). A stronger RM would lower the cost locally of importing goods but would also reduce the competitiveness of exports “at the time when demand for Asian goods is weakening in the US”. Nevertheless, it is expected that the BNM will have to raise its rates if it cannot stem growing inflation in the same way that India, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan have all raised interest rates this year under the immense pressure of inflation speeding up globally.

All this is happening while the strong demand for commodities such as fuel, palm oil, rubber and tin has to some extent insulated the economy which has been able to grow at the rate of about 5 per cent. However, the demand for these commodities very much depends on the economy of the US, China, Japan, India and Europe, as shown by the recent drop in the price of crude palm oil (CPO) this week. The Business Times has reported that, “A sharp drop in the price of CPO on the international front has raised alarm bells in Malaysia as the government had targeted this vital edible oil to bring in up to RM60 billion in revenue this year…Early this year, CPO fetched up to RM4,000 per tonne…now it is RM3,095 per tonne”.

On the other hand, “Malaysia’s economic prospects have weakened as global demand for the country’s key hi-tech exports falters”. This is mainly because of the slowing down in the US, the main importer of Malaysian electronic goods. In early July, Nikko Electronics, a multinational company operating in Penang for 20 years, had been losing money for last three consecutive years. Increasing operating costs, as well as a slump in demand, forced the company to shut up shop unexpectedly. Nine hundred and fifty employees, mostly over 40, lost their jobs. Turning up at the factory they were met with a surprise - receiving termination letters instead of resuming their duties! This trend could spread to other manufacturing and electronic companies in Malaysia if the slowdown in the US and global economies worsens. The consequent slowdown in economic growth undoubtedly could lead to higher unemployment as currently there are already half a million unemployed.

In relation to the current political situation, the Centre for Public Policy Studies has warned that, “Investors are already considering the situation as unstable…They are already reconsidering their options in the country. The new investors are possibly not looking at Malaysia as a viable option, and previous investors would be thinking of extracting their funds to be put in more stable and viable locations".

The Pakatan Rakyat’s performance and reforms

After almost five months administrating the state governments in four states, the PR could claim they have done better in certain areas than the previous BN state governments. Many community and local government issues have been highlighted and brought to the PR state governments. Even in certain cases, some PR MPs and ADUN (State Assembly Representatives) were involved in confronting the BN federal government on ordinary people’s concerns such as the Bandar Mahkota Cheras tolls in which the residents in the areas affected defeated the private company, Grand Saga, from closing the access roads to their residential areas after big struggles. People are also seeing some differences in the approach of some of the MPs and ADUN in PR in dealing with people’s immediate problems. In short, these PR governments have reduced corruption and bureaucracy, as well improving transparency in state administrations to a certain extent. But in most other matters or policies of running the governments there is not much difference.

This is mainly because there is not much participation of ordinary people in the decision-making process. While in certain cases like selecting councilors in district administrations, the top down approach used has caused much dissatisfaction among ordinary people. This has also led to a racial or religious-centered approach practiced by the BN being repeated by the PR for electing people’s representatives or solving people’s issues. In the meantime there is not much idea of elevating the social and economic needs of workers and ordinary people or concrete solutions from PR governments. In most cases these governments are using the same excuses as the BN such as lack of funds and economic uncertainty.

This will be the justification for these governments not challenging the status quo and pro-capitalist system of the BN government. For instance, recently the PR governments in Penang and Perak launched propaganda magazines, just as the previous BN governments had done and which they had earlier criticised. Civil society groups in the two states blasted them saying: “The Pakatan Rakyat governments are no different from the previous ones after all. They are hypocrites by copying BN media policy to serve their cynical self interests…Even if a state government funds and publishes a state magazine, it should be run by an independent editorial board to provide free and fair news coverage”.

Sometimes these Pakatan governments have to go against the wishes of the people under the pressure of capitalism. One such thing was the adamant attitude of the Pakatan Chief Minister of Kedah state, led by PAS, to go on with his plan of logging a forest area in the state to “add more funds to government coffers”. This was despite some 63,000 farmers and environmental groups warning of the impact on the environment and the livelihoods of ordinary people if the plan was implemented. In fact, he was against the BN government when he was in opposition, when they wanted to implement such a plan. One reader of the New Straits Times wrote, “It is shocking how quickly the politicians from PR forget their election manifestos and promises…It is not just that this action goes against the principles of good governance and would cause an environmental disaster, there appears to be a lack of transparency with the MB (Chief Minister) deciding on the awards of the concession without an open tender”.

On the other hand, the methods or approaches used by the PR state governments are not much different in finding solutions to workers or ordinary people’s issues. For instance, there were not any concrete solutions on behalf of workers by the DAP-led Penang government over the closure of Nikko Electronics. They only promised to find alternative jobs for the retrenched workers and not much pressure was given to the employer to save the plant and the jobs of the workers. On the other hand, although the state government of Selangor, led by the PKR, pledged to give the first 20 cubic feet of water free to the people of Selangor, the Chief Minister could not even pressure the private company, SYABAS, to offset the cost from its profits. On the contrary, SYABAS has succeeded in forcing the state government to pay the cost by using the state’s own income.

In short, all these state governments of the PR, have all this while been avoiding collisions with investors or the business community and have been adjusting rather than confronting the needs of these capitalists. These approaches are in line with their pro-capitalist agenda as highlighted in their propaganda - to manage capitalism or the free market system better than the BN governments. Nonetheless, as proven by the way they run the state governments, the PR parties did not have a programme for challenging and mobilising against central government and exposing the exploitative nature of capitalism itself.

Fragile opposition…PAS sidelined

Although, from outside, the PR coalition looks somewhat intact, there are contradictions and disagreements internally between the parties. This is only to be expected, given their different positions and approaches on some issues. The most recent one was when the PAS leaders announced that there have been secret meetings between PAS and UMNO since the General Election to discuss about ‘Malay and Islam’. This attempt by PAS was mainly to indirectly warn the PKR and DAP, which are secular in their approach, to stop sidelining the Islamic agenda of PAS in the state governments of PR. However, this opportunistic act of PAS has enraged non-Malays who voted for PAS in the last general election and some of them who have joined the PAS Supporters Clubs, which were created for non-Muslims. This action shows more clearly that, even though certain social activists considered PAS to have grassroots support or an ability to mobilise people, when it comes to ‘Malay or Islam’, PAS leaders are prepared to abandon the multi-racial wishes or rights of workers and ordinary Malaysians in relation to religion.

Nonetheless, Anwar is the mediator who maintains this coalition intact by promising that the PR has the ability to be brought in as a government. At the same time, this fragile coalition could break up if Anwar’s intention to come into power does not materialise as soon as promised.

Anwar against corruption and cronyism

The main agenda of Anwar is to clean up the system that has been corrupted and to dismantle cronyism in order to get the free market system into better shape. He is also advocating the need to build ‘civil society’ to guarantee more democratic rights. Although some people are still suspicious with his role over 16 years in BN government, his populist agenda such as ‘to reduce the price of oil the day after he becomes prime minister’ has garnered him further support.

At the same time, Anwar is cautious in his statements regarding capitalist policies. In a recent live debate on TV between him and the Information Minister on fuel, Anwar blamed corruption and cronyism for mismanagement of the income the government gains from Petronas but praised the ‘professional’ way that Petronas has invested and managed the billions of profit it has accumulated.

Since the election, Anwar has continually announced that he will come into power by mid-September. This has made the Abdullah and UMNO/BN government nervous and uneasy. Since then, they have been using the PR’s weaknesses and have attempted to frame up accusations against Anwar to tarnish his reputation. Last month an aide to Anwar lodged a police report alleging that he was sodomised by Anwar. Subsequently police arrested Anwar but released him the next day following some international pressure from government leaders and capitalist leaders. Recently a medical report revealed that the sodomy did not happen but the government was still adamant to go on charging Anwar in court. It is expected that the government would use this issue to discredit Anwar politically. But, given that this is an exact repeat of the treatment meted out to him when he posed a threat to Mahathir Mohammed at the head of the BN government in 1998, this attempt will only increase the sympathetic support for Anwar locally and internationally.

The UMNO/BN government is worried about the threat of Anwar because if he managed to take the premiership, Malay hegemony and crony capitalism will be in jeopardy. Furthermore, they are afraid that their past wrongdoings will be brought back into the limelight and this will ultimately destroy their political careers.

Since being released from prison in 2004, Anwar has revealed some of the BN’s political scandals. One of them was that of case-fixing in the judiciary. A businessmen’s son videotaped a government-linked lawyer brokering a deal with a chief judge. The videotape later was widely distributed on the internet and seriously tarnished the image of the judiciary and the government. Following intense pressure from the Bar Council and the public, the government was forced to appoint a commission to investigate the scandal. Subsequently, amongst those implicated by the investigation’s results were chief judges, a billionaire and former Prime Minister, Mahathir.

Recently, Anwar with the help of a private investigator, revealed the involvement of Najib, the Deputy Prime Minister and his wife, in the killing of a Mongolian model who was blown-up by police when she was in Malaysia and the attempt to remove all traces of the body with special explosives. The private investigator also alleged that Najib had an affair with this woman. Anwar has also exposed the involvement of the present Attorney General and Inspector General of Police in the framing-up of cases against him during the conflict with Mahathir in 1998.

Is crossing over from BN possible?

At this juncture, Anwar would have enough MPs from the BN camp to jump over to help form a PR government, abandoning the weakened UMNO/BN coalition. But these MPs are reluctant to publicly announce their intentions until they are certain that this new majority will materialise. Last week Anwar started his by-election campaign to be elected as an MP after five years of suspension from eligibility to stand. If he succeeds, this will further enhance the possibility of fulfilling his ambitions. Although he has a clear chance of winning the by-election, it is expected that the BN/UMNO machinery will go into full swing using every possible fraudulent practice to defeat him.

The UMNO/BN could also mount a desperate fight to ensure its own survival by intensifying its racial and religious rhetoric; too many of its people have got too much to lose. There have been some signs of a move in this direction. The first was last Saturday when a forum organised by Malaysia’s Bar Council to discuss the overlapping jurisdictions of civil and shariah courts was stopped abruptly as some protesters from Muslim organisations barged into the hall. About 1,000 demonstrators, including activists from UMNO and PAS, gathered outside the Bar Council’s building holding placards that read ‘Don't challenge Islam!’, ‘Long live Islam!’ and ‘Bar Council, don't play with fire!’. Racial slurs like ‘Pig!’, ‘Traitor!’ and ‘Go back to China!’ were also thrown about. Following this in another event, hundreds of ethnic Malay students demonstrated at the office of Selangor State Chief Minister, Khalid Ibrahim, a member of the opposition PKR, after he suggested that 10 per cent of the quota for Universitie Technologi Mara (a university that only caters for Malay students) be opened to non-Malay and foreign students. The demonstrations which accused Khalid of selling out the Malay race, were further ignited by UMNO. The incident was used by Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi to threaten the use of the Sedition Act and the draconian Internal Security Act, which allows for detention without trial, on those who discuss ‘sensitive’ matters of race and religion.

It is clear from this that the UMNO/BN machinery, with the support of some of the crony capitalists, will utilise every means to stop Anwar. However, if UMNO is further weakened by internal power struggles or the economy suffers more severely, this in turn could favour Anwar. In that situation, more national capitalists would look to Anwar as a saviour from economic catastrophe. Meanwhile, the international capitalists, among them former IMF and World Bank leaders, and most of the world leaders would lend him support directly or indirectly to advocate liberal capitalism in Malaysia.

Two party system only favours capitalism

The workers and ordinary Malaysians that are facing the heavy burden due to the food and fuel price hike are looking for an alternative to the BN. Intellectuals, NGOs, opposition party leaders as well as some activists are proposing that a two party system is the only way to create a healthy democracy in Malaysia. Some have suggested that workers’ organisations should “ally with the people” to defend the PR as the PR was a phenomenon “created by the people” and have advocated that workers should first support the PR to counter BN/UMNO and only at a second stage fight for implementation of their own programme.

While Anwar and the PR advocate ‘clean’ government, other aspects of their policies are clearly reactionary. They are pro-profit but with an agenda of reducing corruption, red-tape, and cronyism and to increase transparency and democratic space in order to make the system look better. Their populist rhetoric during elections is merely to get themselves elected and they most probably would surrender under the pressure of capitalism for the benefit of the profit system. The few reforms enacted by the PR state governments are limited in form and have not endangered the exploitative system of capitalism. Sometimes they have succumbed to the pressure of capitalism. This shows that reforms under capitalism are unsustainable and can be revoked if they endanger the business class.

On the other hand, the ordinary people and workers were pushed to support this PR when there was not any credible mass workers’ party as an alternative. The populist rhetoric of the PR has given them some illusions. The attitude adopted by ordinary people and workers was not much different from that seen in most countries where there has been no independent mass party of the working class.

It has been ten years since thousands of students and workers ousted Suharto’s autocratic regime, paving the way to turn Indonesia into the world’s third largest ‘democracy’. When Indonesia held its first free election in more than three decades in 1999, some 86% of the population came out to vote, reflecting their euphoria and hopes that democracy would improve their lives. However, since then, four new governments have come into power, but the so-called ‘democratic space’ has not alleviated the suffering of the majority of workers and poor people. According to Azyumardi Azra, professor of history at the State Islamic University, “In the last few years, many people have begun to lose faith in democracy as it has not been able to improve their economic and social lives”. It is expected that the voter turnout for next year’s general election in Indonesia could be 50% or less which symbolises their disillusion with the political system. The people’s disappointment is being exploited by Muslim radicals to push for an Islamic state, arguing that democracy is a Western product which has failed the people. Hasyim Wahid, an opposition politician is predicting that “the people will distrust the civilian government…Indonesia will become a collapsing state and just a step away from anarchy”.

Elsewhere, the Left forces in the Philippines supported a so-called progressive capitalist party which in turn had to be overthrown by another ‘people power’ movement when it became corrupted. Even in advanced countries such as the US, the UK and Australia, the two-party system only safeguards the ruling class. The working class in those countries is also marginalised by the anti-working class policies of these governments.

At this juncture it is crucial for socialists and trade unions in Malaysia to campaign among workers and youth for an independent party of the working class as an alternative to reactionary and pro-capitalist parties. But in reality some who try to act as “an opposition inside the opposition coalitions” have merely disappointed workers and young people. They base themselves on the inadequate idea that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ and do not judge objectively the need for a clear independent working class alternative at this crucial juncture of Malaysian politics. Even now, many ordinary people in ‘Makkal Shakthi’ (a ‘people power’ movement formed by supporters of the Hindu Rights Action Group), the PAS Supporters’ Club and even workers and youth that are disgusted with the ‘political games’ between UMNO/BN and PR are looking for other alternatives.

In this respect, with the unfolding crisis in global capitalism, socialist ideas and the need for a party of the working class will become attractive. Socialists should aim to educate these young people and workers along those lines towards fighting for and achieving a socialist society.

19 OGOS 2008


Pro-Thaksin party’s election triumph creates more uncertainty. Society polarised.

The general election in Thailand of December 23, 2007 was supposed to bring the country back to democratically elected administration after a year of military rule, but it is unlikely to resolve the country’s deep divisions and bitter resentments among its population. It seems that Thailand’s political crisis is leading to another deadlock with deepening polarisation between rural and urban population.

Polarisation of Thai society

The majority - the 60% rural population – have been supporting Thaksin populist programmes, particularly in the country’s north and northeast. These groups were neglected by the traditional political elites before Thaksin came to power in 2001. Under Thaksin, his policies, like cracking down on the drug trade, subsidising healthcare and initiating poverty-reduction programmes, have dramatically lifted incomes in some of Thailand’s poorest regions.

On the other hand, the rural population’s economic contribution, mainly through agricultural activities such as rice cultivation, accounts for around 10% of Thai GDP, but manufacturing, electronic and service industries, concentrated mainly in urban areas such as Bangkok, account for 80% of GDP. This means that the almost 40% - the working class - though in minority, is playing the major role in contributing to Thailand’s economy and generating the huge profits needed by the capitalist class.

However, in 2005, under the blows of rising oil prices and inflation, severe droughts and floods, the increasing Southern Thailand insurgency and the tourism aftershocks of the Tsunami on December 26, 2004, economic growth slumped to 4.5% from 5 - 7% in the previous years. This economic slowdown and the impact of the neo-liberal policies of Thaksin had very much affected the working class and much of the population in the urban areas, especially in Bangkok. This triggered protests and demonstrations against Thaksin that led to his downfall. But because of Thaksin’s populist policies, now the poor, especially the rural population, are hoping that his return to government would bring back the benefits that they enjoyed under him.

The pro-Thaksin People’s Power Party (PPP) was formed by Thaksin supporters to contest elections on December 23 after their former party - Thai Rak Thai (Thais loves Thais) - was dissolved by the country’s Constitutional Tribunal in May 2006. It won 233 out of the 480 lower house seats in the election. The PPP gained the majority of its votes from its northern and north-eastern strongholds where rural populations are concentrated, winning 59 percent and 71 percent of the popular vote, respectively. Its close rival, the Democrat Party, which the military tacitly backed as the alternative to the PPP, only managed to gain 165 seats from its traditional stronghold in the South and Bangkok, where the anti-Thaksin populations live – in the Muslim insurgent areas of the south and the working class and middle class concentrated in the capital.

At the time of writing it is still uncertain whether the PPP with the largest number of seats, could form a coalition government, taking into considerations the persistent hostilities of military and royal advisers over the question of Thaksin. Nonetheless, whether the PPP or the Democrats form a new coalition government with smaller parties, the country is likely to spark into more instability, and possibly another coup.

Incapacity of military rule

The military coup in September 2006, which ousted billionaire prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, was tacitly endorsed by the royal palace advisers close to Thailand’s much-revered king. This coup followed after the political stalemate that originated from a polarisation of Thai society. On the one hand, there were massive street protests of working class and middle class people in Bangkok in early 2006 demanding Thaksin’s removal due to allegations of corruption, nepotism and abuse of power. On the other hand, there was huge support from the urban and rural poor people for Thaksin as a result of his populist policies like low-cost health care, debt forgiveness and the distribution of village funds. So it seems that, although the rural population, which is majority, is decisive in electing the government, the urban population, mainly in Bangkok, with its economic weight, could nevertheless destabilise the government with mass street protests.

After the coup, the military junta, which called itself the ‘Council for Democratic Reform’, insisted that its aim was to rescue Thai democracy from the rampant corruption of the Thaksin government, to end his meddling in the country’s independent institutions and to heal the deep divisions Thaksin had sown among Thais. At that time, Bangkok residents, euphoric at Thaksin’s demise, showered the soldiers with praise and flowers. Since then the military junta has taken every opportunity to sideline Thaksin and his party, especially among rural voters.

At the first attempt, the junta obtained the Constitutional Tribunal ruling to disband the TRT and to bar 111 of the party’s executive members, including Thaksin, from politics for five years, for electoral fraud. Then, the generals justified their seizure of power by bringing corruption cases against Thaksin and his family, but they have made little headway in the courts. However, the fifteen months of propaganda by the military junta has not succeeded in convincing the rural and urban poor to stop supporting Thaksin. Moreover the election on December 23 was held under the firm grip of the military with the pretext of maintaining order to discourage votes for PPP. Around 200,000 police and military personnel were deployed in the name of helping the Election Commission.

Martial law - with which the military can ban political gatherings, detain people without charge and censor the media - is still in operation in 31 of the 76 provinces, including those where Thaksin’s support was significant. Despite all these measures, with support from the poor, the PPP outperformed pollster predictions. Military rule had been undermined by the appointed government of mostly elderly bureaucrats which was regarded as slow-moving and incompetent.

On “Black Tuesday”, 18 December, 2006, the military junta’s capital control measures sent its stock market plunging nearly 15% - the steepest one-day fall in its 31 years. It brought frightening echoes of the 1997 Asian financial crisis and tarnished the competency of the military in being able to maintain the country’s economy. Thailand’s 4.3% economic growth for 2007 is the lowest in the region, and the government's failure to spend heavily in the provinces has left the rural poor longing for Thaksin to return with his populist policies which had been possible in the period of economic boom.

When the military chiefs seized power, many Thais hoped they would bring order and security. However, eight bombs exploding across Bangkok on New Year’s Eve, 2007, shattered any illusions that military rule guarantees security. The Muslim insurgency in the south shows no sign of declining, despite the junta’s efforts to negotiate with the insurgent groups and the release of a group of Muslim prisoners held for years without charge. The insurgency continued when explosives planted by suspected Muslim militants went off at three locations in a southern province near the Malaysian, border wounding 27 people on the eve of this year New Year.

Although the military claims it is keeping its promise by relinquishing its direct control of government administration, in reality it still has immense power to control the government and repress dissidents. The military appointed National Legislative Assembly (NLA) will automatically assuming the role of a Senate or Upper House after the elected Lower House is established. With this arrangement, the government will likely find it difficult to implement any constitutional amendments, including any attempt to reverse any draft laws passed by the NLA.

Moreover the Senate will also have the power, with a three-fifths majority, to impeach the prime minister and any elected members of the Lower House. The NLA also passed the controversial new Internal Security Act (ISA) just two days before the election. This gives the military extensive powers to contain domestic dissent and detain people suspected of being threats to national security for six months without trial.

Undoubtedly, the military in the last 15 months has attempted to reshape its bourgeois democracy to protect the interests of the capitalist class which had been threatened by mass street protests in Bangkok, the hub of investment and business activities. However, the world economic uncertainties and security issues did not favour the military junta and they were unable to find solutions under the capitalist system, even for a short term. The needs of the rural poor and the working class were further ignored and sidelined in that process.
Thaksin and the PPP

Thaksin, the billionaire tycoon, made a fortune in telecomm deals that triggered controversy at the end of 2005. Later in exile in London, he bought Manchester City football club for £84 million as an imaginative strategy to reshape his image and win the support of the Thai masses who are ardent football fans. He has been living in luxury in London without any serious threat of punishment over his past corruption and wrong-doing since the military coup that ousted him.
Furthermore, Thaksin through his proxy, Samak Sundaravej and his reincarnated party, the PPP, has maintained the support of the rural and urban poor through campaigning for his populist policies. Therefore, the election win by the PPP has left open the possibility of Thaksin’s comeback and it is expected that this will be welcomed by the rural population. However, the urban population who had demanded Thaksin’s resignation at a series of street demonstrations could feel disconcerted with his return. Meanwhile the king’s top advisor, Prem Tinsulanonda, as well as military generals who planned the coup to topple Thaksin, will attempt every possible way to block Thaksin from returning to Thai politics.

During the election, the PPP, without disguising its close link with Thaksin, openly campaigned on a platform of bringing Thaksin back from exile and continuing his populist policies. However, a favourable deal between a PPP coalition government, the military, and the king, to allow Thaksin’s return may not be obtained. Then, if he returned the military could use the arrest warrants which were issued by the Supreme Court on corruption and graft charges to arrest him and put him on trial. The arrest and court charges against Thaksin would be welcomed by the urban population and anti-Thaksin groups, but, at the same time, could enrage the rural poor. Although Thaksin has said that he would not get involved in politics, with his influence and immense wealth, he could play a crucial role from behind the scenes in determining the direction and policies of the PPP and its coalition government, if they were able to form one.

The leader of the PPP, Samak Sundaravej, a 72 year old staunch royalist, who is expected to become prime minister under a PPP coalition government, is another controversial figure. He is an ultra-conservative who brands his opponents as ‘communists’ and ‘street gangsters’. In 1976, he was an appointed interior minister when police and right-wing paramilitary mobs invaded Thammasat University, raping, lynching and burning alive scores of student, hunting down leftwing activists who were demonstrating for greater democratic rights. In 1992, when layers of Bangkok’s middle class rose up to demand the resignation of the then coup leader, Suchinda Krapayoon, Samak, who was deputy prime minister, called the demonstrators ‘troublemakers’ and ‘communists’; he said it was acceptable for the government to shoot them. In 2000, when he was Bangkok’s governor, he was under investigation for alleged corruption in the procurement of fire-fighting vehicles. With his past infamous achievements in government, it could not be ruled out that if Samak became prime minister, he could be used by the ruling class to contain future protests and demonstrations in Bangkok in a heavy-handed manner with the support of the military.

The forthcoming Supreme Court cases could lead to the PPP being disbanded or its election achievements being nullified. The Election Commission, appointed by the junta, has suspended 65 of the winning PPP candidates on suspicion of cheating and vote-buying. Another threat will be the Supreme Court case accusing the PPP of being a vehicle for Thaksin, who was banned from politics for five years by the Constitutional Court. However, if the PPP ends up disqualified or its number of MPs are severely depleted, the anti-Thaksin Democrats are likely to form a weak and unstable coalition. It that situation, a Democrat-led government would face the protests from the country’s rural and urban poor, who threw their weight solidly behind the PPP.

It is also doubtful with the current economic performance, that either a PPP or Democrat coalition government would be able to allocate substantial public spending to maintain popular policies for rural and urban poor. The present economic circumstances are not as advantageous as the economic boom periods under Thaksin. Under the economic boom, Thaksin was the country’s first prime minister to be able to complete a four year term. But his increasingly pro-capitalist policies burdened the lower layers of the urban population and which was the cause for his downfall. Moreover, Thailand’s export-dependent economy is very vulnerable to the presently volatile global economy. So, in the next period, the country’s economic state will again be a key factor in determining political stability in Thailand.

The current impasse in Thailand’s politics could also return it to the 1990s situations which were well known for the short lifespan of its coalition governments. In those ten years, Thailand came under the rule of seven different prime ministers - some elected, some appointed. For four years in that decade, there was a parliamentary election every year.

The working class and a workers’ party
Since 2006 and after the downfall of Thaksin, the distrust between the rural population - mostly farmers - and the working class and middle class in the urban areas, mainly in Bangkok, is widening. This is mainly caused by Thaksin’s policies that divided the rural and urban population. His populist policies have been favourable to rural and urban poor but his neo-liberal programmes have very adversely affected the workers and some layers of the middle class in the urban areas.

In the present political climate, both the farmers and the workers are being led by elites with a certain political opportunism. In the absence of a mass party of workers and poor farmers as a credible alternative, they have turned to these elites to highlight their grievances. The elites and politicians in the PPP as well as the Democrats are openly supporting the capitalists as well as the rich landlords who are continuously exploiting the labour and rights of poor farmers and workers. In Thailand, with around 60 million population, less than 2% of the manufacturing and service based industries’ workers are in the trade unions.

The workers, farmers as well as students of Thailand have many times courageously entered into struggle to overthrow repressive governments and military dictatorships since 1932 after the absolute monarchy was abolished. However, the movement and its leadership that fights for democratic rights and for the fundamental needs of poor farmers and workers subsequently handed over power to another regime which supports free market and capitalism. Although workers are a minority, with their collectively organised nature and huge economic power in capitalist Thailand, they should lead in the struggle to establish a government of workers and poor farmers. This would be the force which would fight for a genuine transformation of Thailand’s society that has been suffering under capitalism and feudalism.

Here the struggles for the democratic rights have to be linked to the struggle for a socialist change to fulfil the needs of all. Programmes such as the nationalisation of major industries and large land-holdings under the control and management of workers and poor farmers are necessary. In order to establish this, an independent party of workers and poor farmers with a clear programme should be initiated as a tool to unite workers, poor farmers and students of Thailand in the struggle to achieve a socialist society.

11 JANUARY 2008


Army suppresses democratic rights

On 19 September, Thailand experienced another military coup. This is the 17th coup since a ‘constitutional monarchy’ was established in 1932. The coup led by Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the military’s Commander-in-Chief, ousted the billionaire, telecoms tycoon turned prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. Since 2001, with his government of the ‘Thai Rak Thai’ party (TRT - ‘Thais love Thais’), Thaksin Shinawatra has won two landslide elections, before facing anti-corruption street protests this year. It is widely believed that King Bhumibol gave a ‘green light’ for the military to stage the coup. The armed forces, with the King’s support, capitalised on general hostility against Thaksin, especially from the urban population, in Bangkok, to carry out the coup swiftly, without firing a shot or spilling one drop of blood. The coup was staged, say its leaders, to counter more than a year’s political deadlock.

The fall of Thaksin

Thaksin came to power in 2001 by exploiting the impact of an IMF ‘restructuring’ agenda during the 1997 Asian economic crisis. He gained significant support, especially in rural areas, for his populist programmes for farmers and the poor such as promising cheap health care. At the same time, Thaksin employed protectionist measures to assist his cronies’ economic interests.
Thaksin’s five years in power were characterised by his CEO (Chief Executive Officer) -style administration. Because of global economic pressures, Thaksin resorted to neo-liberal policies, such as privatisations of public utilities (for instance, electricity). He introduced free trade agreements to compete for foreign investment.

These policies caused significant disagreements with local business tycoons and smaller businesses and traders, as well as resentment from the urban population that was engulfed by inflation that hit a six-year high. The urban population was also outraged by Thaksin’s media control and abuse of democratic rights, his constant attempts to pack institutions with his cronies, his brutal ‘war on drug dealers’ (which was a ‘licence’ for extra-judicial killings) and his gross repression against a Muslim insurgency in the south of the country that intensified a separatist uprising.

Urban outrage spilled over when Thaksin’s family sold the controlling shares they held in the telecommunications giant, Shin Corp., to Singapore’s Tamasek Holdings, for $1.88 billion. This made it the largest sale in Thailand’s corporate history. Not a single penny was paid in tax during the sale. This generated protests and demonstrations of thousands in Bangkok during February and March this year made up of the middle class, ‘civil society’ groups, students, intellectuals, opposition parties and religious groups as well as workers. Meanwhile, Thaksin leaned on his popular support in rural areas, where 60% of the population lives. Divisions between the rural and urban areas were taken advantage of by Thaksin to use ‘divide and rule’ tactics to win elections.

However, the tensions between Thaksin and the opposition parties reached a peak over the last few months. Thaksin attempted to defuse protests in Bangkok by calling a snap election for 2 April this year. The opposition parties boycotted the poll and so the result failed to produce a quorate parliament. Consequently, Thaksin promised to step aside after a new cabinet was formed. This was believed to be the outcome that King Bhumibol advised Thaksin to follow, to end the political impasse. But the deadlock continued, which prompted King Bhumibol to tell the country’s judges to sort out the "mess".

The constitutional court swiftly annulled the April election and later, the criminal court jailed three of the election commissioners who organised the polls. The new election commissioners were selected earlier this month. It seemed Thailand was heading towards another election, perhaps as soon as November, in which the opposition parties would readily take part. However, even after the planned November election, the political crisis would not have been resolved, as it was widely expected that Thaksin’s party (TRT) would win the election, due to his significant rural support. Even if Thaksin had resigned as prime minister, as he indicated he would, he would possibly have continued to control the new government’s agenda, through the TRT.

In the meantime, layers of the ruling elite were deeply uneasy about the economic and political consequences of a protracted confrontation between Thaksin and his political opponents. The longer the confrontation persisted, the greater the impact on share prices, on the currency and on investment. Broader layers of the population were also likely to voice their grievances if the economy further deteriorated.

Another cause for the military coup seems to have been Thaksin’s moves against senior army officers, including General Sonthi, who was critical of the prime minister. It is reported that during July, 100 middle-ranking officers loyal to Thaksin were removed from key posts in Bangkok. Recently, Thaksin planned to put two of his supporters into key posts, controlling security in the capital.

Since this week’s coup, the army generals insist that Thaksin, who is in London, at present, is welcome to return home, and even to stand in the next election. At the same time, Reuters reported that two judges and a former central bank chief were likely to be on the new six-person panel to probe Thaksin, his wife, and other relatives, as well as Thaksin’s political colleagues, about their financial affairs. Various court cases are pending against Thaksin, and others seem bound to follow, now that he is out of power.

The King and the military

Thailand, the only South-East Asian country never taken over by a European colonial power, was an absolute monarchy for nearly four centuries, until 1932, when a bloodless coup limited the monarchy’s powers. Yet the king, though a constitutional head, remains highly revered and extremely influential. His endorsement of the military’s coup ended the Thaksin government. For nearly two-thirds of the last century, the dominant role in governing Thailand was carried out by the armed forces. There was a succession of military dictators.

The day after the recent coup, the six-man military junta that seized control appeared before the world’s media to insist that it had no intention of clinging to power. They promised to step aside after two weeks, by which time, they would have chosen a civilian administration to run the country for a year. The generals stressed the new cabinet expected to select a committee to write a new constitution, which would be put to a referendum before an election is held.

Although the country has had 15 constitutions, since 1932, many Thai politicians and academics seem convinced that another rewrite will be a great success. The Economist magazine commented: "When the last constitution was written, in 1997, it was widely seen as having struck a successful balance. On the one hand, it was expected to give Thailand the stronger executive and stronger political parties that the country needed, with its history of weak and short-lived administrations. On the other, it introduced new checks and balances, such as a constitutional court and a powerful anti-corruption body. Yet the 1997 constitution is now blamed for allowing Mr Thaksin to dominate state institutions and abuse prime-ministerial power. Various wish-lists of reforms - such as easing the restrictions on switching party allegiance - have been drawn up; though it seems unlikely they will achieve the miracles expected of them, even if they are enacted."

The military junta, which calls itself the ‘Council for Democratic Reform’, insists its aim is to rescue Thai democracy from the "rampant corruption" of the Thaksin government, to end his meddling in the country’s supposedly ‘independent’ institutions and to heal the deep divisions Thaksin has sown among Thais. Nevertheless, when we examine Thailand’s not-so-distant past, it is clear that military chiefs seizing power does not bring a solution.

This week, after the military took control in Bangkok and surrounding areas, the first action of the generals was to ban all protests and public gatherings of more than five people. The new regime subsequently banned all political parties from holding meetings and engaging in other activities. These repressive measures were made to try and stop a counter-coup from Thaksin supporters in the military and to stop protests amongst the rural population, where Thaksin still has popular support. Assuming legislative powers on Thursday, 21 September, the military banned media reports deemed "negative", tightened restrictions on existing political parties (but gave no indication of how long the clampdown would last), and banned the formation of new parties.

It seems that Army Commander-in-Chief, Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who was officially sworn in on Friday, 22 September, as head of the new ruling junta, does not fit the common profile of past coup leaders. Previous military or police generals who ruled Thailand were usually arrogant, egotistical characters - descriptions that, so far, do not apply to Sonthi. "In my dealings with General Sonthi, I’ve found him to be genuine, to be humble, to be polite and to be professional," said Surin Pitsuwan, a former Thai foreign minister and a leader of the ‘Democrat Party’. Sonthi will try to use his ‘moderate’ image to assure both the Thai population and international big business that under his rule life will be peaceful and prosperous. But if the political and economic situation does not recover or becomes worse, Commander-in-Chief Sonthi Boonyaratglin, and the ruling military junta, can take sterner measures against popular opposition.

Thailand’s military coup leaders will most probably assign an interim prime minister who could mollify the multinationals and national ‘business community’. The intention would be to send out a message that Thailand’s export-dependent economy is in ‘safe hands’. Speculation on who will be appointed to the government’s senior posts centres on former World Trade Organisation chief, Supachai Panitchpakdi and Central Bank boss, Pridiyathorn Devakula. Whoever the prime minister is, it is widely expected the military junta, as well as the king, will direct the policies of new interim cabinets.

The multinationals and business conglomerates that, since 2001, benefited very much from former Prime Minister Thaksin’s neo-liberal policies, would also welcome this week’s coup, if it helps resolve a long and debilitating political crisis that has hit economic growth. Economists say they expected little immediate impact on the Thai economy, so long as the political situation remains calm and the country moved quickly back to civilian rule. Political science professor, Somjai Phagaphasvivat, from Bangkok’s Thammasat University, commented, "I don’t see much impact on the overall economy, which ironically could be further affected if Thaksin remained in power. Up until now, it has been battered by a seriously divided society and the political crisis this year…How the situation will deteriorate or improve depends on how coup leaders handle it and whether they will make good their pledge to hold fair elections quickly".

Although the major Western powers, like the US and Britain, issued statements to express their ‘concern’ at the ending of democracy in Thailand, there were no serious condemnations of the military coup. These powers are quite content to see democracy overturned, and the rule of the generals take over, if it is the general interests of big business and imperialism and if it sees off popular protests. So much for the idea of ‘democratic revolutions’ which Bush and other Western capitalist leaders called for in the Middle East and throughout the neo-colonial world!

Thailand’s opposition parties, the urban population and ‘civil society’ groups that staged protests and demonstrations over the last few months to a certain extent, welcomed the intervention of the military. They believe the generals’ action can end the political uncertainty brought about by the Thaksin regime. The leaderships of these organisations do not have a programme to end political and economic crises. This would entail ending the profit system.

Urban and rural populations

On many occasions, Thailand’s history has demonstrated that whenever there is an intense political or economic crisis, the ruling class will utilise either the monarchy, the military or, when it can, the parliamentary system, as a tool to curtail popular revolt and to mould the state in favour of the profit needs of the capitalist class. This week’s military coup was enacted for similar ends. The intervention of the army was intended to end the year-long political turmoil that adversely hit industry and the entire economy, particularly in Bangkok, which is the hub of Thailand’s economy.

Under the military, there could be some reforms to appease sections of the population, such as the rural poor. But reforms are not sustainable under the profit system, whether presided over by civilian governments or military rulers. Capitalism is unable to meet the fundamental needs of workers and poor farmers. The Thai working class and poor farmers will face more uncertainties and attacks on living standards in the next few years, which will lead to political instability triggering new mass struggles.

During two previous mass uprisings in Thailand, there were illusions in the so-called ‘progressive’ bourgeoisie (capitalist class), particularly amongst the middle classes, students and farmers, who hoped to gain some democratic rights during struggles against military rule. On 14 October 1973, a student-led mass protest toppled a military dictatorship and brought a short-lived period of democratic rule. This lasted until 1976, when right wing and military forces violently suppressed the student movement. In May 1992, another military dictator, Suchinda Kraprayoon, was driven out of office by protesting Thai civilians. They were angered by his anti-democratic measures. But Suchinda Kraprayoon was replaced with a right wing government that was unable to solve the social and economic hardships of the Thai people.

These events illustrate that Thai workers and small farmers can have no illusions in the so-called ‘progressive’ and ‘democratic’ wings of the capitalist class. All the various sections of the ruling class and their political parties will act primarily for Thai big business, including sweeping away democratic rights if they conflict with their class interests.

This year’s deep political crisis revealed the different agendas of the organisations which make up the opposition, including political parties, students, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), unions and others, which united under the ‘People’s Alliance for Democracy’ (PAD). They closed ranks after Thaksin was accused of abusing power, in particular, of enriching himself in a huge telecommunications business deal. But the forces that make up PAD differed over the fate of Thaksin and his party, over the nature of constitutional reform and over ‘free trade’ negotiations with the United States.

Opposition right wing parties like the Democrat Party, which carried out attacks on the working class and poor farmers when they were in government, now mainly concentrate on undermining Thaksin’s party. The Democrat Party’s demand for ‘constitutional reform’ is political rhetoric to try and widen their electoral support. Unions, ‘pressure groups’, and student organisations want more fundamental changes, demanding an end to privatisations and other neo-liberal attacks on workers. But this is not on the agenda of the PAD and Democrat Party leaderships.

Most political parties and mass organisations publicly put hope in the king calming the situation and helping to change the lives of Thais for the better. But the history of the many coups in Thailand shows that the king always gave backstage support to military juntas, such as the Shonthi regime. It illustrates that the monarchy aids capitalist tycoons such as Thaksin to come to power. The king legitimises coups and new anti-working class and anti-poor farmer regimes.

A big cause of instability in Thailand – the Muslim insurgencies and separatist demands in the south of the country– cannot be solved on the basis of capitalism. Only united working class action, in a struggle for democratic rights, for social and economic reforms and for socialism can win real rights for this oppressed community.

Past experiences of mass struggles in Thailand have clearly demonstrated that, despite their heroism and sacrifice, neither the farmers, the students nor the middle class, given their heterogeneous character, can lead the fight to overthrow capitalism. At present, it seems that the rural population (mostly farmers), which is the majority in Thailand, are inclined to support leaders such as Thaksin.

The working class is the only class which could lead the overthrow of capitalism and which could draw behind it the support of the rural poor, the students and the middle class, as well as the Muslim poor in the south. To accomplish these tasks, it is crucial to initiate building a workers’ party. Such a party, with mass support on the basis of a socialist programme, would give confidence to the working class to take the lead in opposition struggles.

A workers and small farmers’ party needs to link the demand for democratic rights and social and economic reforms to the need to establish a workers’ state. A socialist Thailand would appeal for support from workers throughout Southeast Asia and worldwide.

CWI demands:

Total opposition to the military coup

No to the rule of generals and the rule of corrupt, millionaire politicians

No to suppression of democratic rights and clamp-downs on the media

For a mass struggle to win full democratic rights, including workers’ rights to organise, to protest, and to strike

For independent, fighting, democratic unions and small farmers’ organisations

Trade union rights for the armed forces rank and file – win poor soldiers to the struggles of working people

For a the building of a mass workers’ and small farmers’ party

For a united struggle of workers and small farmers to overthrow the military and its puppet government

For a genuine, representative Constituent Assembly

Abolish the monarchy

For a majority workers’ and poor farmers’ government

Full rights for the oppressed Muslim population and all other minorities

No to neo-liberal policies of privatisation and de-regulation

Take into public ownership big business enterprises, major industries, large private land-holdings and banks

For an economy planned to meet the needs of the working people and poor farmers, under the democratic control and management of elected committees from the working class and small farmers

For a socialist Thailand, as part of a socialist federation throughout South East Asia

23 September 2006
Ravichandren, CWI Malaysia


But political crisis persists

There is political turmoil in Thailand in the wake of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s resignation. Far from resolving the conflict, the 2 April snap election threatened to plunge the country into a protracted crisis.

It is the first time a democratically elected Thai prime minister – with his party holding three-quarters of the parliamentary seats - has been ousted by the means of months of street protests and a boycott of the polling. Elected to a second-term in a landslide victory just last year, Thaksin won the controversial snap election he called in a bid to end the political standoff. But the outcome revealed an erosion of support in the crucial Bangkok area because of an opposition boycott and millions of abstentions being seen as protest votes against him. Subsequently, it was believed that the King had advised Thaksin to resign to end the political impasse, which could be detrimental for industrial and economic developments especially in Bangkok, which has been regarded as the centre for Thailand’s capitalist activities.

A few days afterwards, Thaksin appointed his deputy prime minister, a close colleague, as acting prime minister to carry out his caretaker duties while he took leave of absence. According to the Thai legal system, parliament has to meet within a month after an election to install the next government. But with control of Parliament assured following the snap election, the ‘Thai Rak Thai’ (‘Thais Love Thais’) party of Thaksin still gets to name the next prime minister.

Thaksin's critics say they believe he will still hold power behind the scenes to control the political direction of the TRT party and will continue pursuing policies promoting privatisation, free trade agreements and a CEO-style administration that characterised his five years in power. In a television interview given the day before his resignation speech, Thaksin appointed Somkid Jatusripitak, the commerce minister who is a career technocrat with a business doctorate from an American university, as his possible successor preferred by businesses and the financial markets.

On the other hand, the Thai legal system requires all parliamentary seats to be filled before parliament can be summoned and a new government installed. Thailand is facing a constitutional crisis after around 38 seats were unfilled when Thaksin party candidates failed to gain the legally required minimum vote of 20 percent.A re-run for these seats might produce the same results after the opposition party announced they would also boycott it unless a royally appointed government is installed to bring about political reform. If the by-elections are indecisive, the Election Commission could ask the Constitutional Court to allow parliament to meet while more polls are held. But that could trigger protests against the court, which has handed Thaksin two favourable rulings in the past. Whether the Constitutional Court - the unwilling power adviser in the present political situation - would play along with the TRT remains to be seen.

At the same time, Thaksin’s resignation as prime minister has revealed the differing agendas of the groups which make up the opposition - parties, students, civil society, unions and others that have united under the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) to oust him. They closed ranks after Thaksin was accused of abusing power, in particular of enriching himself in a telecommunications deal. But differences over the fate of Thaksin and his party, over constitutional reform and even over the free trade negotiations with the United States now threaten to splinter PAD.

Sondhi Limthongkul, the media magnate who ignited the anti-Thaksin protests, told reporters at last Friday’s victory celebration that the rallies would be suspended until the beginning of May. If there were no substantive political change by then, he said, the demonstrations would resume and continue through the month. Meanwhile, another protest leader, Chamlong Srimuang, initially declared his mission accomplished, signalling that the Dharma Army (Buddhist movement) that he led would stay away from further protests. But he reappeared on Friday without his followers, telling the crowd: “Thaksin's regime still exists. We will fight, and we will definitely win” On the other hand, the opposition right wing parties like the Democrat Party, who carried through attacks on the working class and poor farmers when they were in government, focus their energy merely to undermine the Thaksin party and demand constitutional reform as political rhetoric in order to widen their electoral support. Meanwhile, other groups like the unions, pressure groups and students want more fundamental changes with the demand to end privatisation and other neo-liberal attacks on workers. But this is not the focus of the PAD leadership. Clearly, PAD for the time being is controlled merely by reactionary elements and leaderships with an agenda that has crystallised around opposition to Thaksin and his policies.

Defender of the free market

On the other hand, the right wing governments in the neighbouring countries have been threatened by Thaksin’s resignation through mass protest - an elected prime minister compelled to leave office by the use of street power which discredited capitalist parliamentary democracy. It is obvious, as one of the right wing news analysts (Hindustan Times) stated, that, “Thailand perhaps needs to see whether its system has some institutional weakness that led to this impasse which is not healthy for a democracy. The political developments in Bangkok could have repercussions not only in the neighbouring Philippines, where pressure could increase for the embattled President Gloria Arroyo to step down, but across the region”.

In the meantime the military has warned activist-protesters to back off and drop demands that Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra leave politics altogether. Defence Minister General Thammarak Isarangura Na Ayutthaya said some military officers are thinking about taking action over the issue and he had told the military to be patient, as he knew that soldiers were thinking of making moves against the PAD and its allies. This means that the military could use the Thaksin resignation to hold back further street protests in the future by using repression.

Since 2001, multinational corporations and local industrialists had regarded Thaksin Shinawatra as the best defender of the free market in Thailand, given that he was elected as prime minister with a larger popular mandate than any Thai prime minister had ever had in the freely elected National Assembly of 2001. Soon after, Thaksin presided over the rapid recovery of the Thai economy from the 1997 regional economic disaster. He then encouraged domestic demand and export growth. He emphasised domestic consumption through which growth was spurred. Fanned by domestic consumption, growth was assisted by low-cost loans and tax breaks. These stimulated foreign investment.

Thailand’s US$184 billion economy has expanded 44 percent since 2001 and foreign investment has more than doubled to US$2.7 billion in the three years to 2005. Furthermore, his populist programmes among the majority rural population and the poor had strengthened to a certain extent the political stability of the country. All those characteristics have strengthened the ruling class to further exploit the labour and resources in Thailand, implementing further neo-liberal agendas. It is also obvious that since 2001, the capitalists have established a strong base in Thailand. This means that they would definitely prefer a government that could continue and uphold the policies of Thaksin.

The division between the rural and urban populations will be another advantage for the ruling class to employ divide and rule tactics in favour of themselves. The majority - the 60% rural population - are supporting Thaksin and the TRT populist programmes, particularly in the country’s north and northeast. These groups were neglected by the traditional political elites and Thaksin’s policies, like cracking down on the drug trade, subsidising healthcare and initiating poverty-reduction programmes, have dramatically lifted incomes in some of Thailand’s poorest regions. It was apparent that the Thaksin government was able to make those concessions because of favourable economic developments, especially in the manufacturing and services industry since 2001. This tactic has given him the upper hand to maintain the crucial electoral support from them. But it has been the norm of the free market system to claw back the concessions gained by slashing public spending once the economy is in crisis.

On the other hand, the rural population’s economic contribution, mainly through agricultural activities, accounts for around 10% of Thai GDP, but manufacturing, electronic and service industries, concentrated mainly in urban areas such as Bangkok, account for 80% of GDP. This means that almost 40% of the working class is playing the major role in contributing to Thailand’s economy and generating the huge profits needed by the capitalist class.

Organise for a socialist fight

Meanwhile, only around 2% of workers are unionised at present. The fragmentation and division in the trade unions, which are the norm today, are the direct consequence of this massive repression, during and after the 1970s, when anti-communist hysteria provided every pretext for political repression. The Communist Party of Thailand, which at one time organised a peasant guerrilla movement, was convinced that armed revolution was the only option to carry out the “capitalist democratic revolution”. They mistakenly believed that Thailand was a semi-feudal colony of the United States though it was already capitalist. This was the typically Stalinist and Maoist policy of the CPT. It attempted to make a ‘democratic, capitalist revolution’ and the organisation collapsed by the late 1980s. As well as repression against their organisations, workers are also facing daily exploitation from the employers. Thailand and its neighbouring countries have a surplus labour force. They engage in intensive competition, based on cheap labour, in order to attract multinational companies. As a result, the standard of living of the population is stagnating at a relatively low level with minimum monthly wages at about 500 bahts (108 euros). Workers are forced to accept long working hours – a practice which is completely within the law. In the factories of the massive industrial area around Bangkok, it is common for workers, mainly very young, to work for eight hours - the normal working day - plus two or three extra hours after a minimal break of 20 minutes. The working week is six days, but Sundays can be worked if the companies want them to be. Since the basic wage is so low, the workers do overtime, even working up to 60 or 70 hours a week.

Although the economy has demonstrated moderate positive growth since 1999, future performance very much depends on continued reform of the financial sector, corporate debt restructuring, attracting foreign investment and increasing exports. Meanwhile telecommunications, roadways, electricity generation, and ports have shown increasing strain during the period of sustained economic growth; massive privatisations may be posed in the coming years. All these governmnet experiments will further burden the whole population of Thailand. But since last year, Thaksin’s policies have begun to show some glitches. Household debt has risen 53 percent between 2001 and 2004. Last year in July, as oil prices skyrocketed, inflation hit a six-year high. This led to costs for oil, food and medical care increasing at a faster pace.

But Thailand’s history on many occasions has demonstrated that whenever the ruling class is in crisis, they tend to utilise either the monarchy, the military or the parliamentary system as a tool to curtail the people’s rebellions and to mould the state in favour of the needs of the capitalists. The present political turmoil could lead to something of a similar nature.

Meanwhile PAD has seemed to be volatile, with narrow programmes and a reactionary leadership. It is mainly concentrated on the urban middle class population. The Thai working class at this moment has no political party to express and defend its interests. Nevertheless, Thailand workers and farmers are not lagging in relation to struggles. Many struggles take place but they are fragmented, isolated and do not find expression in the political sphere.

Seeing the future direction that will be taken by Thailand’s ruling class, there will be more difficulties for the working class and poor farmers and in that case, more struggles could emerge. This would expose the necessity for a party that represents the interests of ordinary people and puts forward the need for a united struggle – the need for a working class leadership, allied to the rural poor, the students and the middle class to demand democratic rights and reforms and to fight to throw off the yoke of capitalism, leading towards establishing a socialist society.

12 April 2006
Ravichandren, CWI Malaysia


Corruption and cronyism have driven thousands onto the streets

A year after his government was re-elected to power with an unprecedented mandate, the business tycoon-turned-politician, Thai Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, is facing a political hurricane that has the potential of bringing about his government’s downfall. In recent weeks, tens of thousands of protesters under the banner of People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a coalition of anti-Thaksin groups including students, academics, unions and civil society have been demanding Thaksin’s resignation in regular weekend rallies. Last Sunday there were up to 150,000 involved.

The protesters accuse him of corruption, abuse of power, mishandling a Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand, gutting democratic institutions and allowing cronies to reap gains from state policies. This recent crisis is considered as the country’s biggest political crisis since 1992, when street protests forced the ouster of a military-backed government.

The massive resentment mainly among the urban population was triggered when Thaksin’s family was getting away without having to pay any taxes following a financial deal that has made them nearly two billion U.S. dollars richer. On January 23, the Shinawatras sold the controlling shares they held in the telecommunications giant, Shin Corp, to Singapore’s Tamasek Holdings for $1.88 billion, making it the largest sale in Thailand’s corporate history. On the other hand, ordinary Thais are being compelled to pay more taxes and tax collection has become more stringent.

The cronyism practiced by Thaksin has irked a local business tycoon named Sondhi Limthongkul, a one-time friend of Thaksin. Now, in the name of fighting for freedom of the press and political reform, he has joined the chorus with many middle class, urban Thais to demand Mr Thaksin’s resignation. Sondhi and others have used various allegations of corruption to oppose a further loosening of protectionist measures and market reforms. These include accusations of bribery in the purchase of equipment for Bangkok’s new Suvarnabhumi airport and conflicts of interest involving business interests owned by Mr Thaksin's family. The defection of business tycoons such as Sondhi from the Thaksin camp is a clear sign that the prime minister’s support in the country’s ruling elite is waning.

In the meantime, the growth rate of the Thai economy, which has previously been sustained by exports of components and raw materials to China, is now slowing from 6.5 percent in 2004 to 4.5 percent in 2005. Thaksin has been under considerable international pressure to open up Thailand to foreign investment. Washington in particular has insisted that a Thai-US free trade agreement be finalised shortly. In those circumstances, small businessmen have joined the protests, fearful of the economic impact of a US-Thai trade pact.

Those numerous pressures have pushed Thaksin to dissolve the national parliament and call a snap election for April 2. His ruling party is widely expected to win the election because of its massive financial resources and solid support among rural voters. This has further intensified the political difficulties confronting his government. The main right wing opposition parties – Democrat, Chart Thai and Mahachon – say they will boycott the election because Thaksin has refused to consider their proposals for constitutional reform. (One of the proposals called for the prime minister to step down from office until the elections are held).

During this apparent political crisis within the ruling class, the Thai people are still divided between the rural and urban populations. The former is giving full backing to the Thaksin government, while the latter – comprising the working class and middle class – are opposed to his political agenda but without clear leadership. Among the demonstrators, there is active participation from workers, such as electricity workers who are opposed to the privatisation of the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) and teachers protesting against government plans to transfer the control of state schools to local authorities. But there is no mass revolutionary workers’ party that could wield the working class leadership in urban area and campaign for the support of the rural poor and middle class with a demand for a workers’ and poor farmers’ government.

In the two previous mass uprisings in Thailand, there have been illusions in the so-called ‘progressive’ bourgeoisie among the middle class, students and farmers who have hoped to gain some democratic rights against military hegemony. On 14 October 1973, the student-led mass protest toppled the military dictatorship and brought a short-lived democratic period until 1976, when right wing and military forces violently suppressed the student movement. In May 1992, Suchinda Kraprayoon, another military dictator was driven out of office by protesting Thai civilians, angered by his anti-democratic measures. But then he was replaced with a right wing government that was unable to solve the Thais social and economic hardships.

Meanwhile, the urbanisation and industrialisation in the 1990s pressured the rural populations especially farmers into struggles for their rights but without linking their struggle with the working class in urban areas. The Assembly of the Poor was Thailand’s largest grassroots network and coalition of rural villagers mainly from the poorest region in northeast and some urban slum dwellers. It staged a mass demonstration for almost three months demanding their rights. They finally managed to win some impressive concessions from the Chavalit Yongchaiyudh government in 1997. Later when the Chavilit regime succumbed to the economic crisis, the Chuan Leepak government which replaced him recanted on previous agreements and set out to undermine the political influence and legitimacy of the Assembly.

Then in January 2001, the same rural population, with their huge support, elevated Thaksin Shinawatra to the premiership. Since then, his populist politics among the rural poor has provided him widespread support among the country’s rural poor, where the majority of Thailand’s 64 million people live. “In the provinces they feel it is important to have close contact with the prime minister. They still pin their hopes on him because he has promised them a lot”, said Bantorn Ondam, an advisor to the Assembly of the Poor.

With all the criticism against him, last week Mr Thaksin showed his deceitful tactics and retreated to the northeastern province. He even started living in a tent in the garden of a local villager, concentrating on a policy of poverty alleviation in order to neutralise the opposition critics. But, with the support of this rural population, he was able to draw a crowd of some 150,000 supporters on Friday as he kicked off his campaign for the April 2 snap election.

Thaksin could win the election if his large vote in the rural north and east held up as it did in 2001 and 2005. But such an outcome would not end the political crisis. As political analyst Sunai Phusuk told the Financial Times: “If the Thai Rak Thai (Thai Love Thai-Thaksin Party) goes solo with this election, you will have an elected government that totally lacks legitimacy from the urban, educated population. Then the government will really be under siege.”

Layers of the ruling elite would be unhappy about the economic and political consequences of a protracted confrontation between Thaksin and his dissidents. The longer the confrontation persists, the greater the impact on share prices, the currency and investment. Broad layers of the population are also likely to begin to voice their grievances. In such circumstances, the military or the king or both could intervene, as they have done in the past, to prevent the crisis from spreading out of control.

Meanwhile Suriyasai Katasila, one of the leaders of PAD, has said, “The mass rally will go on and we won’t stop unless we win”. What is obvious is the win that Katasila also desires is to get rid of Thaksin but it is certain that either another right wing government or a military regime would replace him.

The previous experiences of Thais’ struggles clearly has demonstrated that, despite the heroism and sacrifice of their struggles, neither the farmers, the students or the middle class, with their heterogenous character, is able to play the progressive role of leading the struggles to overthrow capitalism. At present, it seems that the rural population (mostly farmers), which is the majority in Thailand, and the middle class are inclined to support leaders such as Thaksin and Sondhi respectively, who are utter apologists of capitalism.

Meanwhile, the working class is the only class which could lead the overthrow of capitalism and could draw behind it the support of the rural poor, students and middle class. In order to accomplish this there is a crucial need to initiate the building of a revolutionary workers’ party that could give confidence to the working class to take the lead and at the same time campaign for the support of the rural poor, students or middle class. On the other hand, such a party also needs to link the demand for the democratic rights and reforms to the need to transform the system to establish a workers’ state and appeal for the support of the workers in Southeast Asia and worldwide towards building a socialist society.

7 March 2006
Ravichandren, CWI Malaysia