Unions, PAD and the “democratic” royalist elite

1 05 2011

When Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai Party government was first elected, it was on the back of a nationalist rejection of the Democrat Party’s lack of independence from the International Monetary Fund’s demands for the further liberalization of the economy following the 1997-98 economic crisis. At the time, organized labor was pretty much on board with TRT.

However, there was soon grumbling about the government breaking promises. Then, in 2004, when Thaksin’s boisterous threats and popularity had cowed the whining of many middle class NGOs and intellectuals, it was the state enterprise unions that first gave anti-Thaksin opposition some backbone.

These unions waged a protest campaign that demonstrated that that the TRT government could be challenged. The state enterprise unions opposed the privatization of EGAT, and the government backed down. While others got most of the credit in the mainstream media for rolling back privatization, it should not be forgotten that rallies of up to 50,000 opposed TRT policy. In fact, this was not forgotten when the People’s Alliance for Democracy was brought together, with state enterprise unions playing a significant role.

With their one time leader Somsak Kosaisuk installed as one of the PAD leadership, the state enterprise unions signed up for the anti-Thaksin campaign and stayed with it through its domination by the royalists and Sondhi Limthongkul and the Dharma Army-Santi Asoke alliance around Chamlong Srimuang. This curious alliance led to the unions being seen to support the 2006 military coup and the Fascist-like claims that wanted to prevent the lower classes having much participation in politics.

All this seemed a clear betrayal of the years of economic and political struggle by unions which had earlier included anti-monarchy actions associated with the 1932 Revolution.

It seems appropriate the, that this Labor Day, there has been an interesting development. The Bangkok Post reports that the State Enterprise Labour Relations Confederation “is defecting from the movement led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy because PAD leaders have said they support undemocratic political change…”.

SELRC leader Sawit Kaewwan is quoted as saying that “PAD bosses had often suggested the country be ‘shut down’ for national reform despite the fact that a new election was near. They had also expressed a desire to change the political structure to an undemocratic system. Sawit claims that such ideas “were in opposition to the political beliefs of the confederation…”.

Where was Sawit in 2006? The answer seems to be in this statement: “We believe in democracy and we do not agree with the enforcement of any power or any individuals’ power for political changes [coup]. We also oppose all forms of dictatorship…”. We imagine that Sawit would associate Thaksin and TRT with some kind of “dictatorship.” However, as we noted above, it was state enterprise unions that showed that TRT could be successfully opposed.

The significant point now is that Sawit says “the board of directors of the labour confederation had resolved that its leaders should withdraw from the PAD and refrain from joining the PAD on rally stages as well as at other activities. The confederation told the PAD of its intention on Tuesday.”

It is also reported that Somsak Kosaisuk, who remains an adviser to the confederation, has “quit as a PAD core leader, and Mr Sawit himself has resigned from the PAD’s group of second-tier leaders.” In another Bangkok Post story it is noted this move “followed an SELRC resolution on Tuesday demanding Mr Somsak and Mr Sawit quit the PAD because the yellow shirt movement’s campaign was undemocratic.”

Meanwhile, Somsak remains leader of the PAD-aligned New Politics Party while rejecting the PAD leadership’s demand for the party to boycott the general election. He appears to be trying to drag the NPP away from PAD. This would appear futile given the domination of Sondhi and Chamlong. However, the damage to NPP and PAD is potentially very considerable.

Somsak appears to have left a way open for PAD to reconcile with the unions, saying “he and Mr Sawit might join PAD rallies in a personal capacity later if they agreed with the group’s activities and approaches,” and noting that he was not in conflict with Chamlong, Sondhi or other key PAD leaders. Even so, he lambasted PAD leaders for “campaigning for something which is ‘close to a coup d’etat’…”.

Pundits seems ready to write PAD off. In a further report in the Bangkok Post the now “embattled People’s Alliance for Democracy” is said to have “lost another ally, with a former fund-raising group demanding an immediate end to its ‘divisive’ rally.” The group mentioned is the ironically monikered “Thais Love Peace group” that has called on PAD to “end its protest and stop verbally attacking its critics.”

Group leader Kanchanee Wallayasewee said “her group raised money for the PAD during its 193-day protest two years ago against the Samak Sundaravej and Somchai Wongsawat governments.” She claimed that the group included “businessmen, self-styled defenders of the monarchy and online social network activists.” But because PAD speakers were now attacking her members and “distorting” information, her group was jumping ship.

Kanchanee also accused “some alliance co-leaders” of “exploiting the higher institution [monarchy] and trying to foment a pretext for a military coup.” She indicated that many of her wealthy and well-placed supporters were upset when “smeared” by PAD.

She added that her group was ready to support the upcoming election. PPT guesses that this group is already shovelling money into the coffers of the government coalition parties.

This potential loss of support for PAD is seen by several pundits as the beginning of the end for the ultra-nationalist royalists. PAD and Sondhi have been able to mobilize people and this is threatening to the elite and this means that PAD has been tolerated but never fully trusted.

When PAD was necessary for the resurgent royalist elite was in beginning activities that allowed for Thaksin’s huge electoral mandate to be challenged and then to oppose other elected pro-Thaksin governments. In each instance, once the elite had its political path cleared, the result was a military coup and judicial coup. Following that, PAD usually hibernated. Think of how PAD demonstrations ceased in 2006 as Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulanonda took the lead in marshalling forces for the coup.

PAD has been unsuccessful in its current round of rallies, drawing small crowds and becoming desperate and uncontrollable – as witnessed by its attacks on former supporters. That said, it should not be forgotten that PAD did begin this round of bloody border disputes with Cambodia, giving the military further fillip. And yet it now seems clear that the elite strategy is finally coalescing around the idea of an election that it believes the royalist Democrat Party can win. The military has been least convinced of this approach, but the border war and the frantic use of repressive powers to stifle opposition seem to be the approach that has been agreed.

And, quite suddenly, all of the anti-democratic, coup-supporting, royalists and military brass are democrats….


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