Two Assessments of the situation in Thailand

Coercion and consent from

Operation Ratchaprasong to put an end to the peaceful protest, arguably an act of civil disobedience in a form akin to a sit-in, on 19 May was an act of coercion to impose the will of the government administering the state.

Coercion came in the theatrical form of overwhelming force of arms. Every infantryman carried a rifle with live rounds. Perhaps one-in-four or one-in-five soldiers also carried a shotgun. Many seemed issued only with buckshot ammunition rather than rubber bullets. Such force is disproportionate. Only a handful among the few thousand remaining protesters were armed with rifles. These gunmen appeared to be in the rear. What arms the protesters did have amounted to slingshots, sticks and bang fai, or homemade fireworks. All can cause some pain, but they are rarely deadly. Especially against soldiers sheathed in body armour.

A proportionate response would have been troops well drilled in using shields and batons, plus perhaps an incapacitating agent such as tear gas or pepper spray and possibly a few stun grenades. A handful could have carried shotguns with rubber bullets or riot guns firing plastic baton rounds. In the rear a few marksmen could have stood ready to take down any gunmen who refused to lay down their weapons or were firing at troops. But this was not the response. The response was troops equipped for battle against a similar foe. This was a grand display of coercion. And a deadly one killing a few dozen, perhaps more, around the Rama IV monument and along Ratchadamri. All that can be said is that the death toll could have been much higher and that the troops who reached Ratchaprasong behaved well treating people firmly but respectfully.

The protesters barricades were built by laying one tyre on to of another, topped off with bamboo pikes and in places wire. In the context of the history of Bangkok they were quite shocking. They too were an act of theatre, demonstrating to themselves and the state their belief and determination in what they were doing. In practical terms they were flimsy. The state used armoured-personnel carriers topple the barricades, clearing the way for soldiers and the press to dramatically clamber over. It made for a gripping television and teed with the state’s claim that the Reds were terrorists who could only be dealt with through military might gone hunting.

The barricades could have easily and effectively been cleared by a couple of large bulldozers, either military or leased from a civilian contractor. Troops and the press could then have run through without the drama of clambering over the barricade.

Coercion imposes rule by force, it is the method of autocracy, the antithesis of participatory politics. Coercion implies the state is either unwilling or unable to imagine and create alternatives to win from the people their consent to rule. In participatory politics, typically through the secret ballot of elections, everyone is equal through the right to cast one vote. In doing so they give their consent to the state to rule and to submit to its dictates if they are reasonable including the right to use a proportionate amount of force to keep the peace, usually through civilian policing.

The promulgation in 1997 of a constitution, drafted with public participation, clearly put the power of delivering legitimacy to a government to manage the state into the hands of the people through regular elections on the principle of one man one vote.

Many citizens however withdrew their consent because the principle of one man one vote was arbitrarily annulled by the action of a military coup deposing the elected prime minister in order to protect and preserve the interests of various elites, including the ???????, or amart rendered as approximating the elite/aristocracy or perhaps the powers that be. In taking this step their action sent a message to the citizens of Thailand that some were more equal than others, that the voice and interests of some counted more than others.

In times past this may not have generated a great backlash, certainly nothing the state could not handle with a little brutality. Today is different, partly because ordinary people are more educated and some are more cosmopolitan, but equally, if not more so, because of the power of mobile phones and the internet which totally connect society. Anger, frustration and resentment at the insult that was the coup was multiplied through instant solidarity and it was kept very much alive by mobile phones and the web. Each time the party chosen by the majority was dissolved by the courts the effect was magnified.

Many who disagreed with their disenfranchisement by the coup and the judicial dissolutions of the parties they chose to hand legitimacy to rule came to support or participate in the Red movement, either informally or through groups like the UDD and Siam Daeng. This reaction to resist through social movements is an attempt to regain their power and authority to hand down legitimacy to a government to administer and direct the state in the best interests of society not a select few. Their withdrawal of legitimacy was expressed through public protests and civil disobedience.

This drew a half-hearted response from the government to regain consent in its attempt to dictate and impose a road map for elections which ignored protesters demands for justice for those killed by the state on 10 April at Ratchadamneon and in the government’s tepid reaction to negotiations, even on the evening of 18 May.

Coercion is not going to be cheap. The events of April and May have created instant narrative, through videos and photos distributed by mobile phone and the internet, DVD and CD, newspapers and magazines. Experiences of those who participated in these events have equally become instant myth and lore again due to the tools of telephones and the web for creating and sharing information.

The counter-reaction against consistent coercion may not come immediately. The backlash against the coup took a few years to build. Nevertheless a reaction seems more likely than not. The trends appear set. The government and its masters have opted time and again for coercion. Disenfranchised voters across social classes, and their elite cheerleaders and donors, have demonstrated their determination and courage to stand up to the state’s coercion. Unless the government changes tack matters seem set for a downward spiral into a dark and deadly place.

Here is a more in-depth analysis of the class dynamics of the protests and their repression, via Tiziana Terranova:

Social dimensions of the Thai conflict

This is a short summary with a possible explanation of the underlying dynamics of the present Thai conflict, focusing on its social, i.e. class, dimensions. It won’t offer anything new to seasoned observers but might be useful to those that only started to get interested in Thailand because of the current crisis.
This is first of all a conflict within the Thai elite itself, though I’m not sure I understand correctly which faction(s) is ‘exactly’ represented by Thak sin Shinawatra. But in any case, here is the hypothesis based on my reading of English-language material on Thai history. I would welcome any details on this particular aspect however.
When the Thai ‘feudal’ system modernized, it had to do so fairly quickly under threat of a possible western colonization that had already engulfed the neighboring states. This was done by modernizing the state as of the mid-19th century through the creation of a territorial bureaucracy, by the eventual freeing of the serfs and slaves in the early 20th century, and by transforming the once absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy in 1932. The old feudal class therefore essentially became the lead of the new state, while the former serfs and slaves became either free farmers or went to the cities to find subordinate work as wage earners.
However, the former feudal mentality had little time to adapt to industrial and commercial capitalist practices, and this role was taken by Chinese immigrants, which however intermarried successfully. Nevertheless, it would seem that while the state was ruled by the indigenous thai elite; commerce was in the hands of the Chinese-Thai conglomerates. (but of course, the traditional elite also invests in the new capitalist enterprises). It seems that the underlying social contract was that state power would remain in the hands of the traditional Thai elite families, united around the monarchy network, while the Chinese-Thai conglomerates would be politically subordinated to that system of political power. (an article in the Wall Street Journal did make the point that the Thaksin government bailed out the Chinese-Thai conglomerates soon after taking power, to account for the effects of the financial crisis of 1998). No appointment to any high position was possible without the fiat of that network. The system was highly unstable, i.e. the many military regimes that ruled Thailand until the economic/financial crisis of 1997-1998, but nevertheless ‘worked’, both because it was accompanied by steady growth, and because a large part of the surplus value is distributed through corruption depending on state power.
This system is highly destabilized in the 1997-1998 financial crisis, sending hundreds of thousands of workers back to the countryside, temporarily decimating and shocking the middle class, etc.. It is in this conjuncture that Thaksin appears, a successful Chinese-Thai entrepreneur, who creates the first modern mass party (instead of the traditional patron-client system), and wants to ‘modernize’ Thailand.
An essential part of his strategy is to base himself on the support of the Thai countryside, which though it had been progressing in absolute terms, was losing out in relative terms, i.e. receiving less and less of the wealth being created, as compared to the cities, especially Bangkok. Thaksin achieves this by what his enemies call populist measures (but where really structural reforms), i.e. free medicine (the 30 baht scheme), infrastructural investment for the Thai villages (one million baht per village), forcing state banks to lend money to rural and poor entrepreneurs (inspired by Hernando de Soto), the OTOP scheme to stimulate a handicraft based economy, scholarships for poor students, and many more measures in the same vein. None of this fit the handout charge, they are pro-capitalist structural reforms aimed at bringing the rural world in the market economy. His policies were a mix of neoliberalism, keynesianism and social-democratic redistribution. These were real social advances and they happened to coincide with the post 2001 growth cycle of the world capitalist economy. Thaksin also successfully allied himself with important parts of progressive social organizers, some of them tracing back their activity to the old Communist Party revolts of the 1970s. (the latter explains why conservative military factions formed in the Cold War see him as a ‘communist’).
A word about the urban working class: Thailand has a two-tiered work system. On the one hand, middle-class salaried jobs, in air-conditioned offices, 8 hours per day, with free weekends and annual holidays, and at home with access to low-paid nannies and other forms of personal assistance. On the other hand, unskilled labour working 10 or more likely 12 hours per day, often in the blazing sun, for very low wages and often only one holiday per month, often forced to abandon their children in the countryside in the care of grandparents. Only this second segment favours the red shirts.
We have to say a word about the social conditions of the middle class as well, which includes the white-collar salaried workers described above, and in particular how its living standards are dependent on the cheap labour of urban service workers, and hence, indirectly on the depressed conditions of the countryside. While, compared to western standards, the wage levels are quite low, that doesn’t take into account the very cheap access to service workers, which dramatically increases the standard of living of the middle classes. Through this mechanism, many members of the middle class enjoy a standard of living unattainable to western middle classes, such as for example a live-in nanny. My point is that this, next to the dislike about taxation being used for redistribution purposes, it also explains why they feel wedded to the status quo regarding the rural economy. A sign of the underlying tension produced by these social inequalities is the part taken in jobs involving wealth protection. Guards are ubiquitous in the visual field . However, as has been said in recent studies, the problem of the urban-rural divide is not one of absolute poverty, but of relative poverty, i.e. the growing imbalance between the part of the growth pie that goes into each sector.
Thaksin also had many dark sides, which would lead to his downfall. His policies exacerbated the issues in the Malay south to the point of civil war, his disdain for human rights was evident in the indiscriminate killing of a few thousands presumed drug dealers, many of them likely innocent. More serious in terms of political fall-out and loss of support was the increase in substantial policy corruption, and the undermining of democratic institutions. It was also very clear that Thaksin was building his own power base, in competition with the monarchy network. He made the very imprudent remark that his ideal was Singapore. There is little doubt that Thaksin wanted an authoritarian and managed democracy himself, that he would become a Thai version of Peron, and probably institute some kind of ‘Bonapartist’ regime.
This led to growing opposition:
– From the royalist elite, who was threatened by 1) losing its share of the surplus value which is generated by the control of the state (including the proceeds of corruption); 2) losing its monopoly of power through the nomination process; 3) losing in relative weight as compared to the more purely commercial class interests represented by Thaksin. This is in my view how the anti-royalist charge against Thaksin and the red shirts should be read, not as formal opposition but because of their intent to create a rival power structure.
– From the middle class, who resented its tax money being used to support the rural world (neither the poor nor the very rich pay taxes); and for the democratic faction of it, the undermining of democracy was a motivating factor. However, it is clear that in this conjuncture, more democracy, i.e. free elections and a government reflecting a majority party, is the last thing they want. There are of course democrats, but these are not the voices being heard in this crisis.
Apart from the structural and ‘objective’ conditions described above, the Thai middle class reaction is also largely determined by its ‘subjective’ racial, spatial, and hygienic disdain for the rural population. These are seen as the ‘great unwashed’, uneducated, and hence, the only possible reason for Thaksin’s popularity is believed to be the buying of the votes, and the paying of red shirt protesters. It is inconceivable for them that the rural population would independently know what is good for them, and that there could be a genuine social movement representing their interests.
This combined opposition of the traditional elite and urban middle classes was the basis of the creation of the yellow shirt movement, conservative royalists who wanted Thaksin out, united by a visceral hatred of his person, and who aim to permanently disenfranchise the rural vote. The inability of each side to win in 2005, is what led to the 2006 coup. Once the new constitution was accepted, and the majority of the thai population kept voting for the parties close to Thaksin, the nature of the new political system became clear. It had as effect to permanently undermine electoral results. Basically, the workings of administrative and judicial institutions are now geared to keeping the Thaksin proxy parties out of the political game. This made the emergence of the extra-parliamentary movement known as the red shirts inevitable, since no institutional mediation was possible to defend the rural interests. The state form serves to mediate opposing social interests, when it fails to do so, it looses its basic functionality. The relative undoing of pro-rural policies by the new governments, coupled with the effects of the global economic crisis, cemented the opposition of the rural world against the new system of power. It led to a fatal loss of legitimacy against a system of obvious ‘double standards’. There is an underlying loss of faith in the electoral process, not for fears of fraud, but from the sense that its results cannot be reflected under the current constitutional order. An extra dimension to the crisis has been the one-sidedness of the media, almost indistinguishable for being mouthpieces of the government, including the English-language press, while censorship blocked the representation of the oppositional points of view. The amounts of disinformation and hate-based reporting, coupled with the inability for alternatives to be heard, is largely responsible for the demonization of the opposition, setting the stage for substantial physical elimination. It explains why so many of the urban middle classes are convinced that red shirt deaths are of their own doing, and not of the army who shot them.
The red shirt movement asks for new elections, but this is also a means to an end, to prepare the return of Thaksin and his redistributive measures (at least that is the underlying majoritarian hope of its supporters). It is a fusion of the elite financial interests of the Thaksin faction, the interests of the new rural entrepreneurs which were energized through Thaksin’s policies, and the urban and rural poor who also benefitted from these policies. Typically, on the visual level, one will see red shirt demonstrations typified by the presence of pick-ups, the favourite transportation method of the rural entrepreneurs, while ‘yellow’ and ‘multicolour’ demonstrations are typically accompanied by neatly parked Honda’s and Toyota’s, the favourite cars of the gated village dwellers. As in the U.S., the spread of gated villages has created an increasing social split between the middle class and the poor, who come less and less in contact with each other, thereby creating prejudice and envy, instead of the traditionally mixed urbanism that was typical of the country. As in the U.S., it feeds a tax revolt, i.e. why should “we” pay for “them”.
For the red shirts, Thaksin’s corruption is less problematic as in their experience, corruption is endemic but the difference was that under Thaksin the proceeds of wealth creation where more distributed. For their prevailing sense of democratic realism (i.e. the realization of the corruption in this electoral process and in the political system generally) , his authoritarian ways are the price to pay for their social progress. For the more democratic faction of the red shirt leadership, the pre-2006 constitution and democratic process should have been left alone and the coup remains unacceptable. This was initially a very minoritarian postion, but as the undemocratic nature of the new military-installed constitution became clear, it became the accepted credo of the disenfranchised majority. Ironically, the red shirts, certainly on the left spectrum of Thai politics, want a ‘free capitalist state’, i.e. rural entrepreneurial possibilities, while on the other side of the spectrum, a re-feudalisation (i.e. a return to traditional norms and structures) is the social ideal, including sympathy for agrarian communism and self-sufficiency economics.
For a western observer, it is confusing that some factions of the yellow shirts advocate rural communism, and count labour and NGO leaders, as well as those former Communist Party leaders who were employed by the Royal Foundations; while the other leftists who are part of the red shirt movement paradoxically want ‘more capitalism’. But in the context of a still largely feudalized state, this makes quite a bit of sense. (it is similar to the claim of the Nepalese Maoists for a ‘bourgeois democratic state) and the Chavez/Morales/Correa’s push for “Andean capitalism”. In other words, a convinction by part of the left that the capitalist revolution needs to be carried out first to fully take their countries out of feudality).
Despite the alliance with the elite faction of Thaksin, it is also a genuine social movement, though b oth aspects are mutually dependent on each other. The capacity of self-organisation, heroism and sacrifice of the red shirt movement would probably be very difficult to sustain for such a long time without the substantial financing available to them. A few analogies come to mind: the 19th century chartist movement in the UK, who had to fight against the refusal of universal suffrage, with the elites using the same arguments of democratic immaturity against English workers; the civil rights movement in the U.S. South, which had to fight against the post-slavery racial prejudices of the Southern whites; the Islamic movement and parties in Turkey, similarly electorally disenfranchised a number of times, but whose coming to power was inevitable since they represented the rural majority outside of Istanbul, driven by a new breed of Anatolian entrepreneurs, as well as the new immigrant poor in the capital city itself. But the Turkish Islamic movement may have been much more successful in attracting middle class support in Istanbul.
What is feared by the conservatives, is that a return of Thaksin would mean a similar dismantling as what happened to the secular-militarty power system in Turkey, and hence a fatal loss in their control of that part of surplus value that is dependent on state power.
The other real difficulty in Thailand, making compromise so unlikely or at least very difficult, has been the inability of the red shirts to create alliances with the Bangkok middle class. It’s paradoxically the overconfidence of the new rurals that creates an existential panic in the gated villages and middle class Facebook forums. It is experienced as a real loss of privilege and status vis a vis a despised underclass. The side-taking of the traditional leading infrastructure has made impossible its former mediating role. Finally, I wonder if deep cultural effects are not at play, i.e. that Thai culture is so steeped in conflict avoidance, that it lacks the basic skills of conflict resolution.
Here though is a possible ‘objectivist’ hypothesis: is the part of surplus value that is realized through control of the thai state so substantial, that any change in factional state power would substantially impoverish and break the control of the current dominant faction of the thai state? If this were to be the case, it could explain the radical refusal of the elite to entertain the return to power of Thaksin.
However, given the substantial compromise offered by Abhisit, and given that the red shirts would most certainly have won the elections in November through the Puey Thai party, the intransigeance for the recent compromise by the red shirt leaders, may turn out to be a serious tactical and strategic blunder.
The problem for Thailand is that repression is unlikely to work without the creation of a serious dictatorship that can suppress any resurgence of social discontent for a substantial amount of time, and would lead to significant loss of life. The traditional elite seems about the make the possibly same fatal mistake as that of the slaveholding class in the U.S. south. Failure to compromise on reasonable redistribution may end up costing them a lot more.
Thailand needs a new and improved social contract, based on democratization, a better balance between the urban and the rural, and a respect for electoral results. It is rich enough, with enough space to grow for a number of years, to afford this kind of compromise. Even a defeat of the red shirts will not obviate that necessity, it would just postpone it.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.