Differing perspectives on the crisis

4 05 2010

There are two recent articles in regional online magazines worth comparing and contrasting.

The first is by Democrat Party member and deputy leader Kraisak Choonhavan in The Irrawaddy (1 May 2010). Kraisak once considered himself a leftist and with the people. He was well-connected with a range of NGOs and civil society organizations and was and is a bitter opponent of Thaksin Shinawatra.

In this article, he is ticked off that the “international media has largely portrayed the protracted protests in Bangkok this past month as a class struggle between rich urban elites and a poor, neglected rural mass.”  He thinks this is some kind of “clever marketing slogan” that he seems convinced is the work of the ever evil and devious Thaksin: “this discourse of class struggle is a … rather abstract message to propel the real strategy, which is the struggle for Thaksin’s return to power.”

Perhaps a little miffed that his own efforts to promote class struggle in an earlier period were rejected, like numerous pundits he makes the appallingly obvious point that the “political struggle in Thailand … is not so easily pigeon-holed as an ideological battle between rich and poor.” Perhaps he should have also recognized that a class struggle is not simply an “ideological battle between rich and poor,” but something infinitely deeper and messier.

Kraisak tells his readers that a “true class war” is about having a “clear policy of promoting the participation in government of people from every level.” He’s wrong. For one thing, in the Marxist sense, class is about a relationship to the production process and the ownership of the means of production rather than some kind of sociological definition of rich and poor. As the Communist Manifest  had it, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another…”.

Kraisak notes correctly that the red shirts want to return “power to the people through elections…”. He seems to dismiss elections as useful or a means of participation – an odd admission for a parliamentarian who is elected – and argues that the red shirts have no “clear program of social and political reform to follow.” He appears to confuse a political party and the red shirts, who initially came together to oppose the 2006 military coup that Kraisak supported. For PPT, the red shirts should be seen as a vehicle for the expression of opposition to oppression.

Kraisak then embarks on a discussion that is meant to show that his Democrat Party is really the party of the people. He denigrates Thaksin’s government for exclusing “people’s participation in the process of decision- making in government, or the scrutinizing of big projects and whom they benefited.” Instead, he says, Thaksin’s “government adopted policies that showered poor people with money and easier access to services…”.

He makes the same PAD case that was made in 2005 and 2006 even to the extent of claiming that “Thaksin’s government deployed populist policies to gain popularity among the people.”  That’s not to diminish his point, but to indicate that the case ignores many of the changes in participation that did come at the local level and which have been the subject of several academic papers over a number of years.

Oddly, he then argues that the Democrat Party is doing a better job of showering people with money and access to services. He says that: “Before accusing the current government of ignoring the poor and calling for class war, it is necessary to point out that this government did not abandon Thaksin’s policy of direct budget allocation to villages throughout the country.”

In essence, Kraisak’s appeal is to a logic that many red shirts find insulting and which epitomizes the “old elite’s” thinking. The people who benefited from Thaksin’s time in government amongst the working and farming classes were duped or bought. Meanwhile, those in the capitalist class who recovered and benefited from Thaksin’s policies are now deriving benefit from the party of business, the Democrat Party.

Kraisak ignores all of the hierarchy, judicial double standards, and unrepresentativeness that has been enhanced under his party, including its use of extreme censorship to protect the monarchy.

The second is by a political risk analyst based in Hong Kong, with Allan & Associates, G.M. Greenwood and in Asia Sentinel (4 May 2010), who begins, appropriately enough, by noting the complexity of the current crisis and pointing to “widely differing and frequently opposed expectations, grievances and fears that underpin the motives and issues driving the country’s protracted political instability.”

Greenwood points out that “Thailand is not simply experiencing a binary struggle between pro- and anti-government forces but is in the midst of a complex series of revolts that now involve much of the population and most institutions. The depth and force of commitment may vary, but disentangling the now exposed divisions between classes, regions and within key organisation cannot be dealt with through a superficial compromise between already discredited political leaders…”.

Greenwood is correct to note that this crisis “began for the more perceptive members of the country’s traditional elite in January 2001 with Thaksin Shinawatra’s first election victory, now defines Thailand’s political and social system.” This is perceptive and is often overlooked. The palace went into action immediately against Thaksin, recruiting people like Kraisak to a long-term struggle against Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai.

With “Thaksin’s massive popular reaffirmation in the February 2005 polls, an existential threat to Thailand’s established order, ignited a series of revolts that now engulf the country. These … rebellions are largely concealed by the noisier narrative that Thailand’s crisis is a simple struggle between the impoverished, neglected and marginalised countryside seeking redress from the wealthy, distant and disdainful city.” Greenwood looks at how these tensions underpin the strugglesgoing on in several institutions, including the military, police, monarchy and the sangha.

Greenwood argues that the red shirt appeal, particularly in the rural northern and northeastern provinces “reflects economic, class, social and even ethnic divisions between the hardscrabble lives most lead, in contrast to the reality and perceptions of those in distant Bangkok. Ideological mobilisation may be evolving, but the principal catalysts for revolt are for improved personal outcomes based on more stable income, affordable health and education provision and freedom from usury and indebtedness.”

Such expectations being achieved would be a way to resolution of the current crisis, “but opposition to such largesse from the country’s still narrow tax base stirs counter- revolts.” And, as Kraisak’s plea shows, even if the Democrat Party has been doling out the dough, there is something else missing: respect and perceptions of fairness, equality and so on.



2 responses

11 05 2010
What we want you to believe « Political Prisoners in Thailand

[…] economic and social disparities” and that all Thai governments face this problem. Mirroring Kraisak Choonhavan‘s recent line, the ambassador says a “more thorough study of its welfare-oriented […]

16 10 2010
On class and political struggle « Political Prisoners in Thailand

[…] Kraisak Choonhavan, famously argued against the red shirts having anything to do with class. Writing in May, he was ticked off that the “international media has largely portrayed the protracted protests in […]

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