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