by Jacques-chai Chomthongdi*
The key weapons used by Thaksin’s opponents to destroy him are corruption and disloyalty; other issues seem irrelevant in comparison to these.
The disloyalty charge lost steam because of the difficulties in proving it; leaning on the institution is risky for both the leaner and the institution. More importantly, the red shirt and an increasing number of people tend to lose interest in this particular aspect.
The corruption charge has been clearly reinforced by the court verdicts, from hiding assets to using policies to favour vested interests. Thaksin’s defense did not fully fight back against this charge, but focused more on the calculation of the amount to be confiscated and the illegitimacy of the trial process, which was a product of the regime that attained power through a coup that ousted Thaksin.
Thaksin’s camp concentrated in showing that the other cliques, especially the old power or those they call “Ammat” (aristocrats), also cheat. They make use of the “double standard” argument that effectively exposed the bias of the elite. Pointing out what is already known to many and proving that every group of the Thai elite has appropriated public resources for their own personal gains, is probably their great contribution to the society.
Both Thaksin and the aristocrats have abused the system, but the difference is that Thaksin recognized the common people, gave importance to the poor, and has the skills in managing the economy. This is the image that the Thaksin side successfully promoted.
Thaksin and his supporters were also able to claim the populist policies as their inventions and that they can only be attached to Thaksin. This despite the fact that the post-Thaksin governments already adopted similar policies. The people still hark back to the past and have not changed their minds.
After the big mobilization of the Yellows in 2008, which resulted in the closure of the Government House and the airport, quite a number of Bangkok’s middle class population pour their support to the Reds. The violent events in April 2009, however, could have negatively affected their sentiments towards the Reds. At this point, it is not yet clear how many of the middle class and the general public support the Reds not because of their love for Thaksin, but because of the their desire to dismantle the system of privileges that produced so many social injustices in Thai society or because they have questions about the monarchy.
The strength of the Reds lies in its demand for straightforward democracy, i.e. for people to vote for their candidates and only those who win get to govern the country. The government will find it more and more difficult to reject this legitimate and rightful demand. The Reds believe that they will win the election.
Since Thaksin’s struggle concentrates on using the mechanisms of democracy to weaken the traditional power base of the current society (the aristocracy) which is his enemy, and on raising the social injustice issue, he has been able to gain several allies among various progressive groups.
On the one hand, the progressives join the Reds because it gives them an opportunity to get rid of the traditional power base which could pave the way for correcting the unequal structure of the society. On the other, Thaksin and his supporters are using the democracy argument, with Thaksin himself as champion, to boost the legitimacy of their struggle.
At issue here is who will be able to make more use of whom, or whether the alliance can produce real mutual benefits. No one has the answer at this point. What can be anticipated is that if the Reds win, the progressives’ role will be reduced and will likely be marginalized from the political space. What is not known is what plans the progressives have in mind to prevent this from happening.
It cannot be denied that the inequitable social structure that has allowed exploitation of the poor under successive administrations in the past has been the important factor that brought various groups to troop to the Reds’ side, making the movement broad-based and powerful. Nonetheless, Thaksin and the Red leaders themselves have not made any concrete proposals on how this structure could be changed in any way. This makes them no different from the Yellows, who during their demonstrations made no clear policy proposals to deal with the old social problems apart from the elimination of Thaksin.
The big lesson drawn from the Yellows’ mobilization was that the progressives in the core leadership group could not withstand the conservative forces and cannot build up their own agenda within the movement until today. In comparison, the progressives within the Reds are even farther from the leadership than in the Yellow’s case.
Thaksin has never shown any gesture of wanting to build democracy beyond claiming his monopoly right from the ballot boxes. Indeed, during his premiership, there were signs and trends that could be construed as democratic recession with regards to human rights and people’s participation. He has intervened in the system in the same way he accuses the aristocrats of doing now. When he regained power during the Samak and Somchai governments, there were no policies to empower the people that were different from other parties. Many people, however, think that this is still better than the opposition that rejects even the act of dropping the ballots in the boxes.
The third voice has not emerged, and there is no sign that it can. Some of the progressives have joined both the Red and Yellow currents to push for their agenda, with no discernible effect. The rest are too feeble to build an independent movement.
The progressives among the Reds and beyond may point out that Thaksin’s victory can be considered progress in the democratic system. And under the current condition, Thaksin can only win through democratic means. Therefore, whether the Reds win or lose, it would contribute to the democratization process. Plus, the significant number of the Reds and their strength make it difficult for the elites and middle class to continue ignoring the poor and injustice in Thai society.
Nonetheless, it is unclear how the Reds really view their struggle. Can Thaksin’s victory be completely equated as a victory for all the Reds or not? If not, up to which point that Thaksin’s personal success and the progress in Thailand’s democracy could remain united. The risk remain that democracy may only be a temporary tool which will be thrown away as soon as it becomes an obstacle in Thaksin’s path towards his goal of attaining political power.
Various progressive groups may get their satisfaction from seeing the poor from upcountry coming down to challenge the dynastic rich and powerful at their homes in Bangkok, hollering they will not yield any longer. Moreover, people may observe that there are positive signs of class consciousness among the Reds which could indicate a possible class struggle. But it is also not clear whether this is only a mirage. Is this a struggle to genuinely topple the bad old structure, or at least to make it more equitable? Or is it just a struggle to choose a different master, which may end up with a modernized patronage system with Thaksin at the top, which, apart from the lack of progress on the democracy front, could entrench the camouflaged but intensive type of exploitation beyond any future attempt to dismantle it?
*Jacques-chai Chomthongdi is a research associate of the Bangkok-based think tank Focus on the Global South. You may reach him at [email protected]