Thailand's class revolt against royalist elites

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There is little difficulty choosing sides in the current class war being conducted in Thailand.

Photo: SpecialKRB

On one side we have the Red Shirts, the poor: workers and small farmers from Bangkok and the provinces who are demanding a return to democracy. They want immediate elections and they proudly call themselves "serfs" in the battle against the elites.

They started out as supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai Party. This party won an overall majority in democratic elections in 2005 because it introduced the country's first ever universal healthcare scheme and other pro-poor policies. Thaksin was overthrown in a military coup in 2006. The Red Shirts formed in late 2008. During the prolonged crisis they have become more and more radicalised. They are not yet socialists, but they speak the language of class struggle. Many are now republicans.

On the other side we have the military-installed government of Abhisit Vejjajiva. Abhisit's name actually means "privilege". He was educated at Eton and St John's College, Oxford. His so-called Democrat Party has never won an overall majority in any election because it is against state welfare.

Behind the government is the military which has killed unarmed civilians demanding civil rights and democracy six times in the last 40 years. Last month it once again brought tanks and automatic weapons onto the streets of Bangkok to disperse a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration. The result was 25 deaths and hundreds of injuries. Since becoming prime minister, Abhisit has introduced draconian censorship of the media and internet.

Siding with the military and the government are the fascist Yellow Shirts, a middle class movement which used violence on the streets in 2008 and closed down the international airports that year while the military turned a blind eye. The government, military and Yellow Shirts all claim that they are "fighting for the king". The monarchy has always given legitimacy to dictators and tyrants in Thailand.

As the richest man in the country and the richest monarch in the world, King Pumipon calls on the poor to be "sufficient" in their poverty. He allows people to call him "father" and crawl on the ground in front of him. Stiff "lèse majesté" laws protect him and the military from criticism. Yet the king is old and sick and his son is despised - a recent Australian television programme showed the prince making his wife pose naked during his dog's birthday party.

Despite the obvious nature of the two sides, almost the entire Thai NGO movement, including Focus on Global South, and the so-called liberal academics, have sided with the government, military and Yellow Shirts. Elected "NGO Senator" Rosana Tositrakul has repeatedly called on the government to crack down on the Red Shirts. They oppose early elections because they believe that the poor are too uneducated to be trusted with the vote.

The Red Shirts are resisting. They have been protesting in Bangkok since mid-March and after the 10 April bloodbath they concentrated their protests near luxury hotels and shopping centres in central Bangkok, where they have been confronting armed soldiers. The government has brushed aside all offers of peace and is determined to try to use lethal force against them.

The Red Shirts have used ingenious ways to get round censorship - it has been possible to watch live television broadcasts from the protest site all over the world. In the provinces Red Shirts have surrounded provincial government offices and in the north east they successfully stopped a troop train heading for Bangkok by blocking the rails. Some police stations have been seized and Red Shirt motorcycle squads have surrounded soldiers on the outskirts of Bangkok. There are many attempts to win over the lower ranking soldiers.

At the time of writing it is impossible to predict what will happen next. The Red Shirt movement would be significantly strengthened by expanding agitation into the organised working class. Some trade unionists have shown support for the protests, but to date there have been no strikes.

This is a historic moment in Thai history. Never before have we seen such a large mass movement based on workers and peasants and supported by millions of citizens. The elites are in panic mode. Their old world is collapsing around them. The hegemony of the monarchy has been broken. The elites can shoot hundreds, even thousands, but they will never win over the hearts and minds of the population.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a Thai socialist, currently in exile in Britain. His latest book, Thailand's Crisis and the Fight for Democracy, has just been published.