On being middle class progressive

21 02 2013

Nidhi Eowsriwong is a historian who has a considerable audience amongst progressive groups within Thailand. His writings are usually a mixture of liberal political ideas and conservative cultural positions, and it is this that makes him appealing across a pretty wide spectrum of the red-yellow divide. The Bangkok Post reports his address at the “Art for Freedom of Political Prisoners” exhibition launched at the Pridi Phanomyong Institute.Art show PPT has some observations but no real answers to the political challenges identified in Nidhi’s address

Discussing political reform, Nidhi reportedly observed that “[t]he suitable time for adaptation was perhaps gone as the liberal royalists have been reluctant to act on certain moves including supporting the lese majeste and charter amendments…”. PPT understands the thrust of this comment, although the “liberal royalists” is an oxymoron in political terms as the “liberals” amongst them usually turn out to be just plain old conservative reactionaries when political push comes to shove.

Nidhi believes that the “most important thing is that the red-shirt movement has to show that they do not answer to the politicians…”. This is a point that has been made by many “liberal” commentators as well as some of the more radical. It is politically interesting because it has strong connections with a middle-class discourse about “clean politics” that is part of the political argument for the growth of royalism and the political ascendency of the monarchy: politicians are a nasty grasping lot and can’t be trusted, so look for a “white knight” or a charismatic savior (readers will find more on this by opening this PDF).

Observing that “[b]oth the yellow- and red-shirt movements have … [been] spiralling downturns and lost steam,” Nidhi’s liberalism suggests to him that:

The progressive wing of the red-shirt movement must break from the elite-compromising United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) and the ruling Pheu Thai Party to become a push factor in the transitional democracy of Thailand….

Kind of like what political scientists used to call a “pressure group.”

Even though Nidhi admits that “a charter amendment that would create a paradigm shift” is “unlikely” and criticizes that Puea Thai Party-led government for “making compromises with the old elite power,” he argues for a benign reformism. Nidhi believes that “… red-shirt members seem to have the ability and legitimacy to move forward on the unfinished course of democratisation.” He considers the red shirts are characterized by the “lower middle class,” and that this group:Art for Freedom

do not have so many radical political demands such as calling for tax equality which will affect the business sector, so they should and could expand their alliance to include the white collar sector which also wants democracy….

PPT appreciates that this kind of reformism may be a politics of the achievable, yet it does sound very 1980s, when the emergence of middle-class NGOism was seen as a panacea for military dominance and conservative royalism. It seems to us that red shirts are traversing a new path in supporting elections, giving voice to rural and working class supporters, and attempting to push an agenda through the electoral/party system. The Thaksin-Yingluck strategy is conservative, yet the red shirts appear to us to have rejected both royalism and liberal fundamentalism. If this is a transitional political period, then that owes much to rank-and-file red shirts. We think their strategy has been politically more successful than middle-class NGOism. Of course, the struggle is not over.


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