LESS THAN a year after elections that ended military rule, yet another political crisis has gripped Thailand. The military initially ruled out a further coup but now general Somjet Boonthanom has threatened: "If the problems cannot be resolved by democratic means and the country is caught in a deadlock, a coup may be necessary". This would be the 18th military coup in Thailand's history!
Exactly two years ago, with the support of the monarch, the military carried out a coup to oust the billionaire tycoon-turned prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. This was after Thailand's opposition parties, the urban population and 'civil society' groups, unions, students and others united under the 'People's Alliance for Democracy' (PAD), and staged protests and demonstrations over several months.
This resulted from a deep political crisis that had divided the rural and urban populations. The majority - the 60% rural population, (mostly poor farmers, particularly in the country's north and northeast) had been supporting Thaksin's populist programmes like subsidising healthcare and initiating poverty-reduction programmes which dramatically lifted their incomes.
On the other hand, Thaksin's neo-liberal policies had very much affected the working and middle classes and much of the population in the urban areas, especially in Bangkok, the capital city. PAD at that time welcomed the intervention of the military with the illusion that the generals' action could end the political uncertainty brought about by the Thaksin regime.
The military in their 15 months rule attempted to reshape Thailand's 'democracy' to protect the interests of the capitalist class which had been threatened by mass street protests in Bangkok. However, the military's failure to manage the economy, further undermined the position of the capitalists.
Subsequently, the December 2007 general election which was supposed to bring the country back to a democratically elected administration after military rule, could not resolve the country's deep divisions and bitter resentments among its population.
The pro-Thaksin People's Power Party (PPP) which won December's election (the majority of its votes coming from its rural strongholds), has maintained Thaksin's populist agenda. However, since winning the elections, Thaksin's proxy, prime minister Samak Sundaravej, has been unable to fulfil the needs of the urban population. He merely has followed Thaksin's neo-liberal policies and crony capitalism. This has once again enraged the working and middle classes in Bangkok.
The PAD's main leaders, media mogul Sondhi Limthongkul and ex-general Chamlong Srimuang, (a former Bangkok governor, who played a key role in the anti-government protests of 1992) are connected to the conservative sections of the military, state bureaucracy and royalist establishment.
The PAD first emerged in September 2005. At the time it was a largely personal crusade by Sondhi, once a passionate Thaksin supporter who turned on his former mentor after feeling abandoned when his business went bankrupt.
The populist programmes advocated by Thaksin for rural populations sparked fears in the country's elites and conservatives that the wealth gap that gave them their privileges could evaporate. Sondhi and other national capitalists have used various allegations of corruption to oppose a further loosening of protectionist measures and market reforms that threatened their pursuit of wealth.
Since May, PAD - which consists of middle and upper-class Bangkokians and Southerners, supported by the conservative elite as well as factions of the monarchy and Thai army - has been trying to use the discontent of the working and middle classes in Bangkok to overthrow Samak's government.
PAD has railed against "the democracy with one-man, one-vote [that] gives too much weight to Thailand's rural majority". Instead, as "parliamentarian democracy is not working in Thailand", they propose to re-enact "the post-1973 dictatorship era to make Parliament a body in which most lawmakers are appointed and only 30% elected."
In August, PAD members seized Government House and later were joined by tens of thousands of members, including the PAD's paramilitary force, who barricaded themselves in with barbed wire, bamboo spikes, and an electric fence.
PAD members and allies seized airports in Phuket and elsewhere, blocked off major roads, and stopped train operations, which severely affected especially the tourist industry. They also seized a television broadcaster as well as several government ministries to undermine Samak's government.
It is clear that the opportunist PAD leadership is getting support from a faction of the military and utilising the "we love the king" slogan to realise its pro-business agenda.
In order to strengthen its position and attract the working and middle classes, PAD has advocated nationalistic and democratic demands such as dropping the government's attempt to amend the constitution, a halt to large infrastructure projects, commitment to political reform and accepting a Thai court ruling in a dispute with Cambodia over an ancient temple.
"The right-wing PAD leadership has not the slightest concern for the jobs and conditions of working people, nor, despite its name, for the defence of basic democratic rights," says Janya Yimprasert, a labour activist.
However, the reactionary and bureaucratic trade union leaders have thrown their uncritical support to the yellow-shirted anti-government protesters from PAD who welcome military rule with royal patronage!
Somsak Kosaisook, the Chairman of SRUT, the State Railway Workers' Union of Thailand (affiliated to the International Transport Workers Federation - ITF) is one of the key leaders of the PAD.
Other ITF affiliates under the umbrella of SERC (State Enterprise Workers Relations Confederation) including TG Union (Thai Airways International State Employees Union), AOT-SWU (airport), LU-PAT (port) and LU-ETA (expressway), have all been playing an active and important role in PAD.
The trade union leaders are using the concerns among government workers that Samak will continue Thaksin's economic restructuring (which involved the privatisation of state enterprises and job losses), to advocate support for PAD.
This is despite neglecting serious attacks on trade unions and the working class by the government with its pro-business laws and policies. Only now are they prepared to call for strike action when they know that their actions are supported by pro-business elites and conservatives and their positions and privileges won't be harmed by the government.
However the union bureaucrats' role in PAD and its calls for the replacement of democracy with military dictatorship have lost them much support among workers. This was apparent when most workers generally ignored the call for strikes on 3 September. This also undercut the attempt by PAD to paralyse the government.
On the other hand PAD actions have irked the rural populations that supported Thaksin and Samak and this has further divided Thai society. Red-shirted pro-government supporters from the Democratic Alliance against Dictatorship confronted PAD supporters in Bangkok which led to the death of one PAD supporter and many injured.
Although the PAD is not as strong as in 2006 when it ousted Thaksin, with its support from a faction of the military and monarchy, they could continuously cause serious problems for Samak's government.
At the same time, Thailand's ruling class is facing immense pressure from international capitalists to avert this conflict, which has been distressing the already volatile economy. This conflict has also affected tourism, one of the country's main economic contributors.
At this juncture Samak is still adamant that he will not resign as prime minister and he has proposed a referendum in October to determine his government's fate. It is expected that the referendum as well as a snap election could favour Samak.
However, neither measure can end the conflict. With further pressures from the business class, ultimately either Samak has to resign and be replaced by another candidate from his coalition, or the royalist and conservative Democrats, the main opposition party, will form a new government as PAD would "accept anyone as an interim leader as long as Samak left".
Mass workers' party
Neither this nor a military takeover, will resolve the current crisis as long as the social and economic needs of the rural and urban population are not met. However, this is unattainable under the profit-oriented market economy that has been supported by the monarchy, military and the ruling and opposition political parties.
Only a democratic socialist planned economy that is based on the fundamental needs of all could find permanent solutions to the economic and social needs of Thai society.
The trade unions and other working class organisations have to act independently as a class to oppose the hypocritical policies and capitalist agenda of the ruling class and reactionaries that divide Thai society.
Building a mass party of the working class and poor peasants is crucial in order to genuinely unite the rural and urban populations. Such a party also needs to link the demand for 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.
Ravichandren, CWI Malaysia