Erasing the Democracy Deficit in Thailand

Junya Yimprasert

Action for People’s Democracy in Thailand
27 September 2010

During the crackdown on the Red Shirt protest in May this year 88 people were shot dead and nearly 2,000 crippled or wounded – a new record for military violence in the streets of Bangkok.

With black smoke billowing from central Bangkok, Thai TV filmed Bangkokians crying before burning buildings, and the Government announced a public clean-up with “Together we can” , and set-up a council for national reconciliation under emergency law.

The analysis from above

Much of what has been written about the crackdown points the finger of accusation at former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinnawatra and Red Shirt leaders – for leading the people in the wrong direction, for having not agreed to Government proposals for a November Election and for being thus the cause of loss of life and property damage.

The elite and the Democrat Party like to dismiss the Red Shirts as simple villagers who, with a mistaken belief in Thaksin, have been mobilised by the Phua Thai Party, tricked into joining the UDD, become addicted to the flamboyant speech of UDD leaders (United Front Against Dictatorship for Democracy) and been paid to participate in demonstrations.

Never-the-less critics and academics are increasingly aware that ‘the villagers have changed’ and that the political consciousness of many Red Shirts has moved beyond Thaksin – to focus on the issue of democracy.

Much writing is still focused on whether the Red Shirts ‘lost or gained’ during the May crackdown. Critics note that Thaksin’s role in the Red Shirt movement is often unclear and not in tune with the atmosphere of Red Shirt demonstrations. Three key Red Shirt leaders were accused of lacking experience in managing large numbers of protesters, and of not honouring the decision of the majority. All true, but in the end, even if too late, the leaders began to listen more carefully and began stating more clearly that the movement stood for participatory democracy.

Criticism through ‘top-down’ analysis studiously avoids discussing the impact the ‘old-power-gang’ has had on Thai politics – studiously evading all discussion of how it has twisted Thai society for decades.

The influence of the Monarchy on the direction of Thai politics was unusually obvious at the end of 2005 and increasingly obvious since the 19 September military coup in 2006. Equally obvious, fear of the resurgent use of Lese Majeste (Article 112 of the Criminal Code) has been effective (as usual) in ensuring that critics and academics keep their real feelings and opinions about the position, role and impact of the Monarchy to themselves.

The ‘old-power-gang’ – the old Thai elite still wields enormous power in Thai society. In 1947 they organised the military coup that swept aside the Democratic Movement and Government of Pridi Phanomyong. Through smart abuse of power and the sanctioning of 7 military coups, the ‘old-power-gang’ has managed to survive many popular uprisings and is today, once again, concentrating hard on how to retain power and privilege.

It is important to not forget how ugly are the statistics of the last 78 years: 27 Prime Ministers, over 20 either successful or attempted military coups alongside the crushing of popular uprisings by brutal crackdowns in 1949, 1952, 1973, 1976, 1992, 2009 and 2010, and then 18 constitutions – with only one Prime Minister able to complete a full 4-year term before being kicked-out by the military, none other than the vilified Thaksin (2001-2005).

For 60 years the ‘old-power-gang’ has been pumping an amazing vision of nobility: Thailand doesn’t really need elections; too many poor people elect too many bad politicians; military coups are legitimate to get rid of corrupt politicians, ‘Protect the Monarchy’ and allow the good King to appoint ‘good people’ to run the country etc.

Can this fairytale vision of ‘democracy by good people appointed by good people’ really undermine the universal principles of open elections and democratic governance?

Democracy from Below

People need to look more carefully at the reasons why hundreds of thousands of Thai are taking to the streets in red clothes in numbers never seen before. Are all these people protesting just because of Thaksin? Of course not, but even if they were Thailand would still have plenty of questions to ask itself.

The fact of the matter is that, for the best part of 60 years, the development of democracy in Thailand has been consistently robbed by military coups, military regimes and corrupt politicians.

The Thai understand that people have rights but, to survive in Thai society, the poor are obliged to play along with Thailand’s ‘patron-client’ syndrome, obliged to depend on whatever connections they can have to ‘higher people’, obliged to accept bribes from candidates at all levels, and they must of course also pay e.g. bribes to get a son or father out of jail or a daughter into a government job (say 50-100,000 Baht). Through every stage of life, survival in Thailand means paying under-the-table money – ‘coffee-and-tea’ costs, ‘facilitating fees’.

All know the corruption well, and that it takes, primarily, full advantage of the great number of poor people. And the villagers are far from ignorant of the meaning of democracy. The point is they are made powerless, disempowered. As individuals they are unable to stand-up for their rights alone. Attempting to not play along with those in power is mentally and physically too unpleasant, too exhausting, too difficult.

When the UDD called on ‘Red throughout the land’, the villagers responded in many provinces, especially those outside state development aid – from the North and Northeast. They began organising support, taking turns between family members, and between villages, to travel to Bangkok to join the Red Shirt protest. The people paid their own costs and donated and collected money and food – that others could go. They did not go ‘just for Thaksin’ – the Red Shirt phenomenon goes much deeper and has long-term implications.

One of the main forces driving Thai from their villages and urban communities – to join the Red Shirt protest – is accumulated revulsion at the injustices that place them under the feet of supreme power. Robbed of democratic rights again and again, the population of Thailand is experiencing an explosion of massive indignation. This is why, when UDD leaders surrendered and began to participate in a government reconciliation plan, the Red Shirt rank-and-file declared: ‘We are not defeatists’ – and continued to fight.

Many villagers in North and Northeast Thailand who participated in the Red Shirt mobilization share similar experiences with people who participated in the October 1973 and May 1992 uprisings. Although many have hurtful memories of poor leaderships, every time there is a call to mobilize for democracy the villagers have responded – and raised commitment from tens to hundreds of thousands, to a million and more.

But, the villagers participating in the Red Shirt demonstrations in 2010 are still, for the most part, not able to mount the platform and share their thoughts with the crowd – on the direction the protest should take.

When asked by the media ‘What is democracy?’ the Red Shirt answer is rhetorical: ‘Why is it so difficult to understand that the people who won in two consecutive General Elections are calling for a new General Election? Why does the Government respond by shooting us?’

Those analysts and academics that still wish to delude themselves that Red Shirt demonstrators are just a democratically naive, politically illiterate rabble that is only capable to conceive of democracy as something ‘eatable’, had best rethink their analyses or step aside.

No matter how much loss and pain the Red Shirts have to face, their ability to stand-up again and again, as they did after the May 2010 crackdown, is attracting wide attention – to the question of what is changing in the rural and urban communities.

In 2006 the ‘old-power-gang’ (what academics call ‘the military and conservative-royalist group’) used the same tactics to rob the people of democracy as they did in 1947. 2006 may yet prove to be the post that marks the start of their final decline.

The citizenry is aware of a feeling of accumulated, collective loss, it is far more educated and able to access information.

From the 1950ies to 1980ies the elite’s tactics for manipulating and suppressing democratic procedure was backed by the USA (the West) to keep Thailand on-side during the Korean and Cold War, but the elite may not be able to catch the same kind of support in the future:

1. With the advance of US-China trade relations, the USA’s need of Thailand has diminished. Cambodia is becoming important as the base of US military operations.

2. The families of those killed or wounded during the March-May crackdown are providing clear evidence that Red Shirt protesters died from military bullets and sniper fire. Their stories and their pain are becoming known in the villages – and globally.

No matter how heavy the propaganda about the ‘road to recovery’, or ‘the magic of Siamese Smiles’, the reality of ‘gunfire, death and black smoke’ will not be easily erased from the hearts and memories of the villagers.

3. If Thailand cannot bring itself to implement a universal system of equal justice and welfare for all, the embedded corruption will continue to grow and bedevil political life, ensuring the country remains stuck in recurring cycles of socio-economic crisis and violent confrontation.

4. In 2010 the Red Shirt movement was able to mobilize the greatest ever number of people so far in the long history of Thailand’s struggle for democracy. When the villagers come out in force to write their ‘letter to the Sky’, as oppressed people do everywhere, the elite had best take heed.

5. After the crackdown of the Red Shirts in May 2010, and after witnessing the pain endured by the Red Shirts under the double-standards of the Royal Thai Police, the Royal Thai Army, the institutions of monarchy and the Democrat Party, many Thai who have never engaged in politics have begun to support the Red Shirts.

6. Free media channels have increased. The Thai government has blocked over 100,000 web pages and continues to try very hard to control internet access, but it has no power to control the international or independent Thai press, who report continuously on government corruption and brutality.

If Thailand wants to remain a member of the global community, the country is going to have to revise the ‘Thai way of Democracy’ and the ideas about ‘Thainess Democracy’ propagated by the elite.

The case of the Yellow Shirt woman who died in a battle with the police and received a royal cremation with the Queen and youngest princes present, exemplifies the nature of the double-standard. The 91 Red Shirts killed, most by bullets of the Royal Thai Army, received almost no attention from the Palace.

Nearly two years have passed since the Yellow Shirts and leaders of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) rampaged through Bangkok, closing-down and occupying Thailand’s main airports. After two years there has been zero legal action against any PAD leaders, whereas UDD leaders have been arrested, put in jail and refused bail. Many have fled from arrest warrants.

When, in April, two former Prime Ministers (from the Thaksin camp) attempted to appeal to the King they were bombarded by the Democrat Party and the right-wing media for ‘inappropriate behaviour’ and ‘disrespect’ for the King – and threatened with lese majeste.

If two ex-Prime Ministers are prevented from reaching the King, how can the King know anything of the truth about the Red Shirt massacre?

During the past five years three Prime Minister (from the Thai Rak Thai, People Power and  Phua Thai Parties) have been kicked from their Premiership by a military coup and decision of the Constitutional Court.

Advancing the uprising, building solidarity

In 1947, just 15 years after the first green shoots had begun to appear in 1932, the democracy movement in Thailand was crushed by a military coup – along with the Government of the father of our democracy, Pridi Phanomyong.

The Cown Property Bureau was returned to the Monarchy, and the King was furbished with a Privy Council, the right to appointed 100 senators, declare martial law and other powers.

Many popular uprising to bring democracy back to the people have been crushed by the same gang that kicked-out Pridi, the same gang that kicked out Thaksin Shinnawatra in 2006 for ‘disrespect to the Monarchy’. Since 1947 many leaders of the democracy movement have had to flee the country.

The Monarchy today may not wield absolute power, but it has enormous power. Thaksin spent much of the state budget supporting the activities of the Monarchy – with vague ideas perhaps of becoming able to place himself, in relation to power and the ‘old gang’, on the same footing as the Democrat Party.

Thaksin’s overall mistake was to underestimate the relations between the members of the old power gang – the Democrat Party, nationalist capitalists, army chiefs, Monarchy and blue blood families, and to not make proper use of the parliamentary system as a legitimate means to break their power-hold on Thai society. Also he made no attempt to control the use of, and did also himself use, the lese majeste law – one of the most effective weapons in the arsenal of the elite.

Because Thaksin and the Red Shirt leaders underestimated the cohesion of the Old-power-gang, the Red Shirts also lacked a clear agenda – a long term vision for the future of their country as a democracy.

The 90 people who died are the latest victims in what has become known as the ‘Siamese Tragedy’. Since 2001 the number of people that have met a violent death as a result of the mistaken policies of the Thaksin and Abhisit is around 8,000.

When Thaksin twittered on September 19 that he would like to participate in the Government’s  reconciliation plan, the day when tens of thousands of Red Shirts had arranged to commemorate the four years since the death of comrades in 2006 Military Coup, his words came not as magic but as gasoline to the fire and caused much anger amongst Red Shirts..

We leave Thaksin behind.


The Red Shirts are struggling against the most influential political block – against 60 years of experience in blocking the will of the people. The Red Shirts do not need to feel failure if they cannot solve Thailand’s problems. Responsibility for solving Thailand’s problems is not theirs alone. To move forward all need reconciliation, and there needs to be further sacrifice, but the sacrifice must come from the ‘old-power-gang’ itself.

For there to be peace and happiness in the country the elite must repeal their ignoble Lese Majeste law, stop listening only to themselves and pay attention to the people.

The way forward will not be easy. From the chaos of today, establishing a mature democratic order in Thailand will take time, but the last 70 years of Thai history has shown that the more short-cuts the greater the loss of direction, the greater the confusion, the greater the pain.

Different but complimentary strategies for struggle will be required – not just street actions, with wider, general recognition of the need for networking, decentralisation and coordination between support groups in Thailand and overseas. Red Shirts must learn to light their candles in every corner of every village – around the planet.

All active groups must be sensitised to solidarity building – to learning how to link-up and cooperate with others, by giving respect to each other’s space and overall choice of tactics.

The Red Shirt movement must open-up to Freedom of Speech and the contributions and creativity of different groups.

Amongst the support groups there can be centralised and horizontal and vertical organisation models, and there is need for central organisation to coordinate joint-actions and statements, but top-down authority models must be avoided.

On the same note, the Thaksin and the Phua Thai Party should stop attempting to own all Red Shirts and start regarding themselves as one amongst others.

There is need for educational materials for empowerment, for handbooks for villagers and protesters about human rights, democracy and legal issues. Building up legal aid and medical teams is important. Groups dealing with catering and hygiene must be properly established.

Groups should be encouraged to elect their own representatives – to discuss direction and strategy, and to promote equal participation of men and women in leadership / coordinating teams.

For struggle for democracy to be successful there must be understanding there are and must be different strategies and tactics, different ways and means, to meet specific goals and objectives.

Villagers throughout the country need to be assured of their right to stand-up for democracy, and be reassured that they must monitor the authorities in their own communities – to make sure they do not abuse and misuse power, or engage in bribery and corruption.

If we want democracy we have to build and promote democratic ways and customs at all levels  of society, from family life, through our communities and administrations, to the highest level of governance.

You want to talk about reconciliation?

Ask a Red Shirt first.


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