Thailand is experiencing a “Thailand Spring.” No one knows how the anti-government demonstrations will play out, but never before have so many diverse sectors of society come together for a single cause. That cause is to overthrow the Pheua Thai Party-led government.
The story begins in 2000, when the Thai Rak Thai Party, led by telecommunications billionaire Police Capt. Thaksin Shinawatra, won the national election in a landslide. Thaksin created and financed this party, which also received important political marketing assistance from the George H.W. Bush campaign team. Thaksin served on the Carlyle Group Board of Advisors along with Bush, former Phillipine President Fidel Ramos, former British Prime Minister John Major and other international neoliberal leaders. Thaksin resigned from the Carlyle Board after he was elected prime minister of Thailand.
The Thai Rak Thai Party platform was populist, promising more and cheaper access to health care; million-baht aid to tambons (villages); university scholarships for economically disadvantaged students; low-interest loans to farmers to pay off previous debts; and creation of a One Tambon One Product (OTOP) program to encourage production of local products to sell nationwide. These projects greatly increased Thaksin’s popularity, especially the health care program, which has assumed the cost of the initial diagnosis of a health problem. Along with increased his popularity, Thaksin became intolerant to any criticism, leading to government attacks against those who were critical of him. Freedom of the press was endangered.
His famous war on drugs was another immensely popular initiative, especially in the rural areas, which were witnessing a meth epidemic. However, after more than 2,500 people were extra-judicially murdered in a three-month period in 2003, people began to question his style of governing. Those killed were never charged with a drug crime or allowed to challenge an accusation in court. They were summarily murdered. At the same time, Thaksin oversaw a crackdown on Thai Malay Muslims in the southern part of Thailand, resulting in two massacres of local residents.
Thaksin’s problem was he could never be satisfied with having billions of dollars. He always wanted more, as did members of his political party. Corruption was rampant, but his populist policies served to protect him amongst his base, the poorest of the poor in Thailand.
Finally, in 2006, Thaksin sold his telecommunications firm to a group from Singapore for more than $2 billion. Just before the sale, he was able to change the tax law in Thailand so that he incurred absolutely no tax liability for his huge windfall.
This resulted in the so-called yellow-shirt revolt against the Thaksin government. The yellow-shirt protests culminated in a long-term occupation and closure of the new international airport in Bangkok. While Thaksin was attending the opening session of the United Nations in New York in 2006, a military coup removed him from power. Ironically, the night before the coup, Thaksin had delivered an address to the Council of Foreign Relations in his role as an international leader of neoliberal policies.
Shortly after the coup, he was charged and convicted with corruption involving a sale of prime real estate in downtown Bangkok to his wife. He was sentenced to two years in prison but fled the country to escape jail.
Subsequently, his good deeds to the poor were not forgotten, and he was able to organize the poor to engage in a massive violent demonstration against the government of Democrat Party Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in 2010. Tens of thousands of red-shirted supporters of Thaksin rallied on the streets of Bangkok demanding Abhisit step down and Thaksin be cleared of his conviction and all pending charges of corruption so he could return to Thailand from his refuge in Dubai.
These demonstrations ended when the red-shirts refused to disperse and the Thai army used force to end the occupation. During the occupation, 99 people were killed and many were injured. These included red-shirts killed by the army, soldiers killed by the red-shirts and other demonstrators opposing the red-shirts killed by red-shirts. Following the violent end of the occupation, the Abhisit government dissolved Parliament, ordering new elections. Thaksin created and financed a new party called the Pheua Thai Party as his proxy – even writing the campaign slogan of “Thaksin Thinks; Pheua Thai Acts.”
Pheua Thai won a landslide victory in 2011 behind another populist campaign promising computer tablets for students in first through eighth grade; a rice crop price support scheme; low-interest loans for first-time new car buyers; and low-interest loans for first-time new home buyers. Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was his choice for prime minister even though she had no previous political experience.
Once again, populist policies served as a distraction for massive corruption – especially in the rice price support pledging plan, in which the government paid medium and large rice farmers above the international price for their rice. The other populist policies also provided ripe opportunities for sticky-fingered Pheua Thai politicians.
Yingluck was hampered from the start by her lack of political experience – particularly telling, given that she was swimming in the shark-infested waters of Thai politics. It soon became apparent that Thaksin was micromanaging the Thai government from his fugitive headquarters in Dubai (The Obama-Clinton State Department granted Thaksin a visa even though he was a fugitive from Thai justice).
The last straw for Thai people was a Thaksin-engineered amnesty bill that would clear all people charged with crimes related to politics from 2004-13. The Yingluck-led government previously had charged Abhisit and Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban with murder related to the army crackdown on the red-shirt protests. The bill would provide amnesty to Abhisit and Suthep, but – to their credit – they opposed the bill from the beginning. The amnesty would have cleared the decks for any red-shirt involved in murder, arson or other terror-related actions. Most important to Thaksin, the bill would wipe out his conviction; return money confiscated because of the corruption charge and clear him of all pending corruption charges. The Thai Anti-Corruption Commission estimated that more than 25,000 corruption cases would have to be dropped.
This bill deeply split an already-divided country, so much that hard-core red-shirt supporters of Thaksin opposed the bill – because of its applicability to Abhisit and Suthep. In addition, strong opposition to the bill came from such diverse sectors as the Thai Chamber of Commerce, the finance sector, employees of the Thai Central Bank, doctors and nurses, many government workers, rectors from universities, colleges and vocational institutes, office workers, artists and intellectuals, farmers, students and many others from all 77 provinces. It appears no one is neutral.
The rush to satisfy Thaksin at the expense of the country resulted in Parliament embarrassing itself by passing the bill on November 1, 2013, at 4 AM, when most of the nation was asleep. The above-mentioned groups then intensified their protests and even the opposition Democrat Party organized a protest site at Democracy Monument, the site of massacres of pro-democracy students in 1973 and 1976. The bill was forwarded to the Senate, and the protesters demanded the Senate reject the bill, which it did, sending it back to Parliament. Pheua Thai leaders, excluding Prime Minister Yingluck, appeared on Thai television promising in writing not to resurrect the amnesty bill.
By this time, all trust had been destroyed, and the demand to get rid of the amnesty bill changed to a demand for the Pheua Thai government to step down. At this point, only the conservative corporate groups backed away from endorsing the ongoing protests.
Currently, three groups are holding daily protests against the government. The opposition Democrats hold forth at Democracy Monument on Ratchadamnoen Road, which leads to Government House, which houses the Parliament and Senate. Suthep resigned his seat in Parliament to lead this protest, which begins in early evening each day and stops in the early morning. There is no round-the-clock presence here, and traffic flows, except for the evening rally.
From the Democracy Monument and traveling toward Government House, there are two round-the-clock occupations. The first is that of the People’s Democratic Force to Overthrow Thakinism (Perfot) and the Dhamma Army. These two groups have been demonstrating with the same demand for several months.
They recently joined forces with the network of students representing university and vocational students. Even though their encampments are separate, they are right next to each other. All have vowed to continue their protests until the government is gone. All draw sizable crowds, with the Democrat Party drawing the largest crowds.
Thus, we see Thai society terribly divided again – essentially over the welfare of one person, Thaksin Shinawatra. Historically, what we could expect next is a military coup at minimum or outright civil war – which, at this point, is unlikely. Unfortunately, a coup solves nothing, leaves the same power actors in place and keeps the 99% on the outside looking in.
The courts still have a role to play, as several changes to the Constitution passed by the Pheua Thai majority have been challenged. It is expected the Constitution Court will issue decisions on some of the challenges this week. A ruling against the changes will fuel the anger of the red-shirt supporters of Thaksin. A ruling against the challenge will fuel the anger of those now opposing the Phuea Thai majority.
What seems to be hurting Thai society is the status quo. Until Thaksin’s 2000 campaign, political parties paid little or no attention to the entrenched problems of the nation’s poor. It is now clear that Thaksin’s populist policies served as political cover for enriching himself. Nonetheless, the poor are able to forgive and ignore the corruption and focus entirely on the populist policies of the neoliberal Thaksin.
The opposition Democrat Party has failed to articulate any policies that appeal to the poor in Thailand. Now some in the Democrat Party are advocating a more open candidate selection process, thus moving closer to the grass roots. This will prove difficult because the major funders of the Democrats will oppose such a move.
The current demonstrations – much like the “Egyptian Spring,” “Occupy” and others – are driven by social media. There is no question social media are effective in drawing crowds around a simple message, thus creating the illusion of a larger movement. The Thai people can draw a lesson from the above-mentioned actions and not make the mistake of confusing large crowds with a movement. After Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was brought down, only the Muslim Brotherhood had the organization necessary to win an election. The users of social media were left behind – unable to mount the effort needed to create an alternative politics. It is one thing to say the government must go, and it is another thing to be prepared to mount the campaign necessary to change society.
The Thai people now have that opportunity, but it will not grow from large demonstrations. A new movement can grow only where its roots can take hold, and that is at the local level. Otherwise, we are left with the owners of political parties telling us what we want and expecting us to support them. We need to develop to the point where we tell those who want our support what they must do to receive our support. It is hard work; it involves respecting all others, and there are no shortcuts.