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9 Jan, 2014 12:54

Thailand's political crisis: The inside story

Thailand's political crisis: The inside story

A classic struggle between social classes is being played out in the streets of Bangkok, Thailand, as hundreds of thousands of so-called 'yellow shirt' middle-class demonstrators seek to overthrow the current democratically-elected government.

Throughout the country Thais are glued to their TV sets, watching the unfolding Bangkok drama. But they watch on different channels. The social groups that support the government watch live coverage on their own national television channel, dubbed 'Red TV' after their 'red-shirt' identity; meanwhile, the opposition have their own channel and watch coverage on 'yellow shirt' TV .

The sharp class divisions in this country are frequently portrayed in western media as a struggle between 'the Bangkok middle class and the rural poor'. But in fact matters are not at all that simple; both rural and urban workers and farmers are also key actors in this drama, and this is a struggle taking place on two levels.

At the 'top level' there are two small, wealthy, and powerful groups contending with each other for power. One group we can loosely call ‘the King’s men’; the other we can call ‘the new money’.

A Thai anti-government protester waves a national flag as he stands on a truck during a protest march through the streets of Bangkok on January 9, 2014 (AFP Photo / Christophe Archambault)

The King’s men are, to a great extent, clustered around the King and his allies. Yes, Thailand has a king, and this king has tremendous social, political and economic power. Don't confuse him with royalty like Queen Elizabeth of England, whose power is largely ceremonial these days. The Thai king has real power – the kind possessed by kings in days of old, including power within the Thai military whose leaders’ first loyalty is arguably to him.

It is a criminal offense, punishable with a jail sentence of up to ten years to criticize the king in any way in Thailand. And this law is enforced. So Thai people seldom discuss the King’s real role, preferring to let pass in silence the public claim that the King is a 'politically neutral and beloved figure', as is also frequently repeated in western media.

Allied with the king and his circle is a network of traditionalist and neo-traditionalist elites, including most of the large land owners; parts of the top echelons of the military and government bureaucracy; and the owners of most of the industry, banks, and other large enterprises in Thailand.

This 'King’s group', though economically and politically powerful, is numerically quite small. It is therefore compelled to mobilize another more populated social class if it wants to enforce its interests and views on Thai society. Its instrument in this regard is the Thai upper-middle class, comprising of professionals, small and medium sized business owners and the like.

These are the people (the 'Yellow Shirts') who are currently demonstrating in large numbers in the streets of Bangkok for the overthrow of the present elected government. The principal strategist for their street actions is not, however, a middle-class person. It is Suthep Thaugsuban, whose cherubic face, and comments, now appear constantly in world media.

What is missing from the accounts of this 'middle-class’ hero is his truly horrifying - and corrupt - record as a member of the traditionalist elite. Thaugsuban has previously been accused of corrupt distribution of government land to wealthy families; forced to surrender his seat in parliament to avoid being disqualified for corruption involving his media holdings; and is currently indicted for mass murder.

The murder charge stems from court findings that Thaugsubans' direct orders - given when he was vice-president of a non-elected, military-supported government - led in 2010 to the brutal killing by the military of 80 red-shirt pro-democracy demonstrators, and the injury of 2000, most of them farmers and workers.

One might well wonder why a person charged with mass murder is free to organize mass demonstrations in Bangkok, and is frequently written up favorably in media. The explanation is simple: The 'traditionalist elite', which includes Thaugsuban, wields tremendous power over the economy, bureaucracies and the courts of Thailand.

Now we come to the other elite group, which we may call ‘the new money’ - whose supporters are known in Thailand as the 'red shirts' - who stand opposed to the 'yellow-shirt' traditionalists.

This group is headed by the self-made mobile phone and media billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, a Thai business mogul, who founded the Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party in 1998. Based on democratic elections, he served as prime minister from 2001 until 2006 when he was overthrown in a military coup supported by the traditionalists.

Thai protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban (C) clinches his fist as he leads a protest march through the streets of Bangkok on January 9, 2014 (AFP Photo / Christophe Archambault)

Since then, Thaksin has been in exile, and was convicted in absentia of abusing his position as prime minister when he co-signed a land buying agreement with his wife, though no evidence of unjust enrichment or profit on his part was shown.

Nevertheless, Thaksin has continued to exercise enormous influence in Thailand. First, through a government led by his brother, elected on a 'Thaksin program' but overthrown by another military coup. And now through the democratically elected government of the Pheu Thai party with his sister Yingluck Shinawatra as prime minister, a government again under traditionalist threat.

It is evident from the string of overthrows that Thaksin’s group enjoys much weaker support than its opponents in the traditional sources of power in Thailand, and that the mass demonstrations in Bangkok may again force out a Thaksin government, or trigger yet another military coup.

But Thaksin’s group holds one key trump card. Like the ‘king’s party’, Thaksin’s group is small and must mobilize another and more numerous social class to defend its interests and program. But the class on which it relies happens to be the vast majority of the 80 million Thai people, the workers and farmers of Thailand.

To win their support, Thaksin’s governments have brought in a series of powerful social reforms. These reforms are generally glossed-over in current media reports as 'handouts to farmers', 'populist policies', and the like, without any concrete description of what they are.

In reality, Thaksin’s progressive reforms go far beyond anything introduced, even in relatively wealthy countries like the US or Britain in recent years.

To begin with, Thaksin’s government brought universal health care to all Thailand's' farmers and workers. Any Thai citizen can visit any hospital and receive medical care, including serious operations, by paying just 30 bht (about $1 US).

Thai anti-government protesters wave clappers and national flags as they line up the streets during a march led by protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban (unseen) in Bangkok on January 9, 2014 (AFP Photo / Christophe Archambault)

In addition, large tracts of unused land were taken away from wealthy Thais, some belonging to traditional elites, and distributed to poor and landless farmers who had no jobs or little income. What's more, a student loan program was introduced, which for the first time allows students from villages or working class families to go to university and pay the money back later.

Also introduced was a program of easy micro-loans for people wanting to open small businesses. Taxi drivers, who previously had to rent their taxis, could now make long-term monthly payments to buy and eventually own their own taxis. Taxi drivers are a significant part of the workforce and the economy in tourist-oriented Thailand.

These reforms, which have changed the lives of tens of millions, are the real reason that Thaksin’s group has won every election it has contested, the last with a landslide win for his sisters' party. The reforms are also the reason that mass resistance and red-shirt demonstrations of workers and farmers erupted after each of the anti-Thaksin military coups.

Middle-class anti-government demonstrators are often thought to be pro-democracy demonstrators. But in Thailand that coin is reversed. The goals of the middle-class demonstrators, and their traditionalist backers, in Bangkok are crystal clear. First, they have blocked candidate registration sites to try to block the upcoming election because the votes of workers and farmers will vastly outnumber the votes of the upper middle class and the traditionalist elites. Second, they have demanded that the present elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra be replaced by an (unelected) so-called 'neutral committee', which would in reality serve as the front for the traditionalists and be backed by the iron hand of force. Third, if all else fails, they would like to instigate either a military coup by 'royalist officers' and yet another round of military dictatorship.

Whatever happens in Bangkok, Thailand's workers and farmers are highly unlikely to surrender their hard-won rights to free elections, medical care, land, and a better life. Any attempt to roll-back those rights will in all probability be met with un-ending resistance.

David Marx for RT

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.