Thailand: A Confused Response to Corruption

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In the past few weeks over 100,000 people have demonstrated in the Thai capital Bangkok and in other provincial cities calling for the resignation of the prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.

The issue which unites this opposition is disgust at Thaksin's vast wealth, and the fact that he is part of a system of "money politics" in Thailand. Thaksin recently sold his shares in the Shin Corporation, a vast telecoms company, for 70 billion baht (over a billion pounds) - and he did not pay a single baht in tax. This may not be illegal but many people here see corruption as a moral issue, rather than legal one.

The anti-government movement was sparked by a fallout within the business class. Sondhi Limthongkul, a media tycoon and one-time friend of Thaksin, started a campaign to oust the prime minister and return power to the king - Thailand has had a constitutional monarchy since 1932. Sondhi's supporters attended rallies in yellow T-shirts, waving yellow monarchist flags. Despite the reactionary nature of his politics, Sondhi has been able to tap into the anger against the government among people who might not share his conservative views.

Nevertheless, Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai party do enjoy significant support among the urban and rural poor. His government is the first in decades that has sought to improve the welfare and incomes of the poor. Thaksin introduced a universal healthcare system and measures to stimulate the economy at a grass roots level - all of which were attacked by neo-liberal academics and the opposition parties. Of course, these populist policies were not paid for by progressive taxation of the rich, and they were designed to benefit big business by buying social peace. While he pursued some pro-poor policies, Thaksin also pushed ahead with privatisation and free trade agreements.

The opposition movement's concentration on the issue of corruption directs popular sentiment towards reform from above and avoids the broader questions about growing class inequality. Unfortunately, a coalition of some trade union and social movement leaders have decided to attach themselves to this conservative royalist movement, claiming that they were creating a new and more radical organisation, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD).

General election

The principle reason for this alliance with the conservatives is that PAD's leaders have no faith in the independent strength of the people's movement, and are therefore looking for "more powerful" allies. But the problem with all such cross-class popular fronts is that the social movements participating have to drop their more radical demands. This means that PAD leaders can only talk about Thaksin's corruption and must ignore all the other valid reasons for getting rid of his government - which include the gross human rights abuses in the south and his support for neo-liberal policies.

In the face of this opposition Thaksin dissolved parliament and called a general election on 2 April. The opposition parties have called for a boycott of the election because they know that they don't have enough popular support to win. Thaksin has responded by declaring that if abstentions are higher than the vote for his party, he will step down.

Rather than attempting to develop a progressive anti-government movement - one which can go beyond Thaksin's populism - PAD has denounced the election on the basis that the vast majority of the electorate are too badly educated to understand democracy. This has given Thaksin the chance to claim to be a true democrat and a friend of the poor.

These events have caused splits within the people's movement. The more progressive sections are unhappy with PAD's calls for a royal-appointed government. Some have reluctantly joined PAD's demonstrations, while others have stayed at home.

We in the People's Coalition Party are calling for people to choose the abstention box on their ballot paper. Together with sections of the student movement, the Assembly of the Poor (a rural movement) and the Thai Labour Solidarity Committee we have set ourselves the difficult task of pushing for a progressive political reform agenda - rather than simply concentrating on getting rid of Thaksin.


Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a member of the Workers Democracy group in Thailand, and the People's Coalition Party (www.pcpthai.org).