In Thailand, a political crisis with global implications

  • August 23, 2014

Movement & Mobilization

The social upheaval and military coup in Thailand reveal a crisis of democracy that may have implications for the future of democracies everywhere.

On May 20, the Thai army declared a state of martial law, deposing and arresting the democratically elected Prime Minister. General Prayuth Chan-ocha took the stage to announce the coup (which he initially denied was a coup), declaring his leadership and the rule of the new “National Council for Peace and Order” (NCPO). According to Prayuth, the move was necessary to end escalating protests that were part of a decade-long feud between opposing social movements. In order to save the country from civil war, Prayuth said, democracy must be suspended indefinitely.

Over the past eight years, two social movements in Thailand have organized spectacular mass mobilizations and aggressive direct actions that rival the most iconic events of the world’s 21st century revolutions. One side occupied and shut down both international airports in Bangkok in 2008; the other side shut down central Bangkok for months in 2010, at one point setting fire to the stock exchange and one of the largest malls in Asia. Both sides have occupied Bangkok parks and streets multiple times.

Yet the international media have been curiously inattentive to this struggle. The recent coup propelled Thailand into the international limelight, but as with the previous flare-ups, the attention quickly faded. General Prayuth’s military government suffered almost no international flak whatsoever for his seizure of power. Discussion and analysis of the movements in Thailand have been scarce from the left as well.

One reason why Thailand may be largely neglected by the left is the confusion generated by the unique scenario of having two powerful, popular, opposing social movements, neither of which represents the left. However, the confusion in many ways reflects a complex, changing global political environment that is easy to misjudge. The recent coup in Thailand has implications far beyond the country’s borders. It has a great deal to teach us about organizing, mobilizing, and identifying allies, and it may even have implications for the evolution of liberal democracy around the world.

Political Context

Thailand has been in and out of crisis since 2006, when a military coup ousted popular Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin is a billionaire media mogul who now lives in Dubai to escape post-coup corruption charges. The leaders of two competing social movements, one supporting Thaksin and one opposing him, have taken turns running Thailand’s government and overthrowing it since then.

Despite the back-and-forth, one side is in the clear national majority. The United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), dubbed “red shirts,” supports Thaksin and his sister Yingluck, who was elected prime minister in 2011 and was deposed in the latest coup. The Shinawatra family’s populist platform, including subsidies for small farmers and near-free public healthcare schemes, has consistently and decisively won elections since 2001.

Their opponents, who hail largely from the Democrat Party, originally called themselves “yellow shirts,” after the color of the king, and conveniently distinguishing them from their red shirt opponents. They have since abandoned the yellow in favor of the symbolism — and sometimes name — of “Occupy Bangkok,” and they now use the official title People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC).

The Democrat Party is overwhelmingly popular in Bangkok and much of the tourist-centered south, but has proven incapable of winning national elections. Their numerical inferiority combined with their intolerance of the Shinawatra family in office has led the Democrat Party and PDRC to abandon democracy, paradoxically in the name of democracy — boycotting elections and advocating an unelected government to rule Thailand for the foreseeable future.

In the past decade, they have managed to topple three democratic governments with mass mobilization backed by army coups. The first two times the red shirts used mass protests, occupations and riots to force elections that brought their side back to power. In the latest coup, the NCPO claimed to be neutral to the struggle between red and yellow, and at first made a show of arresting leaders of both sides. However, it is clear which side got their way in the aftermath of the coup. The military’s actions have conformed almost perfectly to the demands of the PDRC — the removal of the entire Shinawatra government and the indefinite suspension of democracy. Like Egypt in 2013, street protests cleared the way for the tanks to roll in, as the army claimed to save the country from imminent collapse. In this case, though, it was precisely what the protesters were asking for.

The military has since appointed a 197-member legislative body to enact laws, more than half of whom are military or police officers, and the NCPO has made it clear that they retain ultimate legal authority. The new legislature, called the National Legislative Assembly, has selected Pornpetch Wichitcholchai as their new president; Pornpetch is a judge from the former Supreme Court – a body that had repeatedly sided with anti-Thaksin forces.

Since its takeover, the military government has engaged in an unprecedented PR campaign, sponsoring festivals, concerts, and free movies. General Prayuth himself wrote a song called “Return Happiness to Thailand,” which is now played on Thai radio, TV, and in public concerts. However, Prayuth’s “happiness” has gone hand in hand with ruthless suppression of dissent. Red shirt leaders, protesters, journalists and opposition politicians have remained in custody without charge.

The military has also warned against incendiary language on social media, harassing and detaining those who post disagreeable content. Most recently, the editor of a popular magazine was arrested for making critical comments on his Facebook page. The Orwellian character of the military government’s seamless combination of “happiness” and repression has sparked a spontaneous wave of micro-dissent in which Thais show off their copies of 1984 in public. The red shirt leadership has been driven underground for the time being, but if the escalation of the past decade has been any guide, the calm will not last long.

One particularly volatile aspect of the Thai situation is the monarchy. Thailand is (was) a constitutional monarchy, governed democratically under the “moral leadership” of the king. This particular king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, is widely adored in Thailand. At 86, he is the longest-reigning monarch in the world, and Thais credit him with all kinds of incredible career feats. While a full exploration of the role of the monarchy is beyond the scope of this article, it is worth noting that the king is in poor health, has not appeared in public since the coup, and his succession is not entirely clear. Some have even claimed that this coup is really about who will be in power when the next monarch is chosen. One way or another, the king’s eventual death will not be a stabilizing factor.

The Mask of the Left

Both movements are capable of organizing themselves in ways traditionally associated with the left, but neither is, strictly speaking, left-wing. The PDRC is fairly straightforward in its right-wing character, and they seek traditionally reactionary outcomes: stability, economic growth, and concentration of decision-making among educated, urban professionals. They are fighting for the leadership of the Thai elite, and their rhetoric is filled with condescension for the uneducated rabble they see as composing the red shirt ranks. They also align themselves with the royal family and the moral quality of the king’s leadership, attached to a nationalistic history of the Thai monarchy that stretches back many centuries.

Beyond the left-associated direct action tactics they have employed, the PDRC has also adopted the look of the anti-authoritarian left. Despite being against democracy, the PDRC, Democrat Party, and their allies all claim the word “democracy” as their own. At a glance, PDRC actions look a lot like anarchist ones. They wear bandanas and Guy Fawkes masks on their faces and flaunt slogans like “liberate Thailand” and “time for change.”

Whether they took on this look organically as a result of PDRC members being inspired by the popularity of the Occupy movements, or whether it was a more conscious appropriation for the sake of media coverage is unclear, but the look has confused more than a few international observers, and led some on the left into supporting “Occupy Bangkok.” It is worth remarking that PDRC support appears to have found wide appeal in Bangkok and the south, including among workers, and many of their corruption allegations against the Shinawatra family are probably accurate. Nevertheless, underneath the mask is unambiguous proto-fascism.

The red shirts are in some ways closer to the left, and have been ascribed leftist potential by some analysts. However, they have sometimes been mistaken as wholly left by more casual onlookers due to their class composition and the color of their shirts. In fact, their singular goal is the leadership of a political party led by the country’s richest man, and their rhetoric completely lacks ideological vision. Meanwhile, credible rumors claim Thaksin single-handedly finances the red shirts’ operations and incentivizes participation in rural areas with cash.

At the same time, red shirt support appears to be genuinely rooted in communities in central, north and northeast Thailand, and their narrative is one of the marginalized poor seeking a piece of the economic and political pie, while holding up the figurehead of Thaksin as the one who can deliver. Finding a category for the red shirts on the increasingly problematic left-right spectrum is difficult. Whether or not those interested in social justice choose to support the red shirts, making the decision with an understanding of the complex political context is crucial.

With multiple, conflicting reports of both sides having decentralized decision-making versus obeying orders from their leadership, it is largely unclear how unified or authentic either side is. Putting it crudely, the red shirts represent the “business right” supported by the genuine aspirations of the rural poor, while the PDRC represents the “military/monarchist right” and cultural elite, supported by urban professionals and workers.

The Future of Electoral Democracy

Internationally, the left has been debating how to, or whether to, engage with electoral democracy for generations. Liberal democracy is imbued with a tension between the primacy of democracy as a method for choosing governments and the desire to see one’s political side govern. That tension reaches a critical point when a democratic actor cannot have both.

In Thailand, we see the Democrat Party and a host of allied protest groups, their names littered with the D-word, fighting for a non-democratic government in the name of democracy. This phenomenon is a product of national winner-takes-all elections in which everyone in a certain area can share a political opinion, making them feel as though their opinion is popular and valid, despite representing a minority in the whole country.

Perpetual losses at the polls generate a dilemma for those minority-position groups that also claim to believe in democracy where the question becomes: which is more important, your political goals or the practice of democracy? The situation in Thailand represents an acute example of this dilemma. The Democrats believe the Shinawatra family is corrupt and is bleeding the country, but found themselves unable to win elections to fix the problem. They fell back on a common argument — that their opponents win elections on the ballots of ignorant “takers” and poor, bribed voters. If the Shinawatras and their influence were purged and the poor were better educated, democracy would have a chance, they say. The Democrat Party’s solution: abandon democracy to achieve their political goals, a move they ultimately frame as saving democracy.

Of course, there are other ways of defining and performing democracy apart from national winner-take-all elections, but parliamentary and winner-take-all systems are the validated types of political democracy in the world today. The upheaval in Thailand reveals a crisis in liberal democracy that is not particular to Thailand. Indeed, the crisis of democracy in Thailand may have implications for the future of democracies everywhere. Economic stagnation, political impasse and ecological destruction create a sense of urgency that is driving political opinions away from the center. The further people’s political positions diverge and the more intolerant they become of one another’s, the less likely they are to passively accept their opponents in national office. At the same time, the more divergent political opinions get, the harder it becomes to win national elections.

For example, the rise of the “Tea Party” faction within (and increasingly without) the Republican Party may be the embryo of a Thai-style crisis in the US. Tea Partiers have political views that are extreme enough to dis-align them with mainstream Republicans, but those same extreme views foreclose on their chances of winning a national election. (Demographic trends indicate the entire Republican Party may face this problem before long.)

The Tea Party continues to walk the line between political party and social movement, but they have powerful funders and allies in the country’s business elite, who find themselves less and less tolerant of moderate government policies. The US right’s defense and ownership of the term “democracy” as a truly “American” principle of the founding fathers — while nevertheless attacking the democratically elected president for being, among other things, a fascist, a socialist, and a tyrant — is eerily similar to the floating meaning of democracy in Thailand. Perhaps tellingly, a Thai NDRC protestor quoted by The New York Times in January compared the anti-government “shutdown” of Bangkok to the Tea Party-sponsored US “government shutdown” of October 2013.

Meanwhile, many around the world were startled by the spectacular success of neo-fascist right-wing parties in the 2014 European Parliament elections. While some analysts have argued that this episode is a facet of European elections, where turnout is low, right-wing parties have been increasingly successful in national elections in Europe as well, using populist rhetoric and supporting good jobs and social welfare for nationals. Increased success at the polls will whet right-wingers’ appetites for state power, but fortunately their ability to win national majorities is still dubious. However, this might exacerbate the same tension driving the Thai crisis of democracy, where the right feels popular, but must either settle for perpetual marginalization or abandon democracy outright.

In and of itself, the potential of the radical right to abandon liberal democracy to achieve its own goals is nothing new. But when they hit the streets in mass mobilizations, brandishing left symbols and shouting about democracy, we can’t be fooled into thinking we are all on the same team. Electoral democracy seems increasingly unable to handle the widening and hardening political views of citizens. The less voting is a satisfactory outlet for people’s frustrations, the more those on all sides will turn to social movements and direct action to obtain their political objectives.

Building Power, Not Just Fighting It

Among other lessons, Thailand serves as a reminder that the left is not the only side opposing the status quo. As the military state crumbled Egypt in 2011, the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood was able to take advantage of the vacuum, and the pushback to their short-lived regime set the stage for the return of the military to power. In Thailand, the red shirts have had an enormous capacity for mobilizing and direct action, but their success has been limited by their single-minded support for Thaksin. The red shirts’ focus on putting one family in office has hamstrung possible attempts to build power in communities in a way that could sustain their power in the face of a countermovement backed by the military. For them, the ability to mobilize to topple the government in an acute moment of crisis has not been sufficient to push their agenda and achieve their goals of a better standard of living for the rural poor.

On the left, we sometimes view the far-right as being allied with the state, and of course in many cases they are. But there are groups seeking the fall of the state, as well as groups that would take advantage of a sudden collapse, which have an entirely different vision of a future society. As with Thailand, the side the military falls on matters, and that rarely bodes well for the left. In the absence of strong, interconnected, prefigurative organizing, the collapse of the current system is an invitation to better organized – and much better armed – forces on the right, especially as their tactics, rhetoric and style look more and more like ours.

Organizing is essential, and our organizing must be based in our communities and our workplaces, connected to each other through active solidarity, and staunchly based in principles of egalitarianism, freedom, and liberation from all forms of oppression. Without it, our mobilization alone runs the grave risk of opening the door to even more authoritarian forces, or worse, losing sight of which side is which in the exhilarating fog of a revolution.

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Ben Case

Ben Case is an organizer from New Jersey. He is a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, where he studies social movement strategy, and is a member of Organization for a Free Society.

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