Written after A Coup for the Rich, which landed him with l√®se majest√© charges and forced him to flee Thailand in February 2009, Giles Ungpakorn’s latest book presents an objective and engaging account of Thai politics since the September 2006 military coup.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn, Thailand’s Crisis and the Fight for Democracy (WDPress 2010), 230pp.

It comes at a time when the Red Shirts in Thailand, although temporarily restrained, have mobilised millions of people in favour of what they call ‘real democracy’ and created a mass movement on a scale never seen before in Thai history. The book also exposes several myths: that the Red Shirts are merely tools of former Prime Minister Taksin Shinawat, that Taksin is against the monarchy, that the monarchy has ‘held the country together’ since ancient times, that Thailand is not ‘ready for democracy’ and that the Red Shirts are a mass movement within which there is undifferentiated political opinion.

Ungpakorn argues that the political crisis must be seen in its entirety, including divisions amongst business elites, politicians, the military, civil society and even the royalists, who are in disarray. He writes:

‘What we have been seeing in Thailand since late 2005, is a growing class war between the poor and the conservative elites. Those who started this class war, only intended it to be an inter-elite dispute in order to get rid of Taksin, but they have succeeded in unleashing major class forces’ (p. 55).

He goes on to explain that this isn’t a pure class war because politicians like Taksin – a billionaire media tycoon – still hold much hope for many millions of Thais. There are two main reasons for this: a vacuum on the left and the fact that Taksin, unlike most other prime ministers before him, did actually attempt to put in place a number of genuinely pro-poor policies, the most popular of which was the first Universal Health Care System in the country.

His Thai Rak Thai party adopted a ‘dual track’ policy to stimulate economic growth following the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis – one that favoured both privatisation and free trade, in order to benefit big business, but also aimed to bring the rural and urban poor into the market by boosting private consumption. Thus both external demand in the form of foreign direct investment and domestic demand were promoted – the latter supported by Keynesian policy reforms including increased investment in education, public health and infrastructure, as well as increased access to credit for the poor and small businesses.

For this Taksin became very popular, and the ruling elite – particularly the military and the monarchy – began to worry that he may become the focus for popular anti-government sentiment. The conservative ideas they promoted stood no chance of competition at the polls, and Taksin won repeated elections since coming to power in 2001. Unable to use constitutional means, the military finally ousted Taksin in a coup on 19th September 2006, with the backing of the monarchy, a section of the business elite and the far right People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). It was the latter which was responsible for the closing of Bangkok’s international airports in December 2008.

Ungpakorn paints a complex picture of the ‘mis-named’ PAD. He argues that these ‘Yellow Shirts’ ultimately descended into a fascist type of organisation, with violent tactics, and ultra-nationalist politics. Originally, many NGOs joined the PAD without preconditions: Taksin’s neoliberal policies had to be opposed. But they stuck with the PAD as it continued to drift rightward, deluding themselves that the military could ‘clean up’ Thai politics. The PAD ultimately supported the 2007 Constitution, drafted by the military junta, as an improvement on the previous 1997 Constitution that had been drawn up through mass popular participation. In this respect the movement is very much a reaction against democratic forces.

He is also able to give an account of individuals players in Thai politics, including the PAD, showing how the leadership of individuals has extraordinary influence in shaping the politics of movements and the course of events. For example, he explains that one of the PAD leaders, Somsak Kosaisuk, a retired leader of the Railway Workers’ Union who was influenced by the Maoist ideas of the Communist Party of Thailand, entered into a ‘cross-class alliance’ with the PAD because he was drawn to its nationalist politics, and was not convinced that workers could be mobilised on an independent class basis.

A large part of the book is spent analysing the rightward shift of the NGOs, both within and outside the PAD. By handing over power to business leaders and conservative royalists, the NGOs ended up relying on the urban middle classes that formed the base of the PAD. Ultimately this provided support to the reactionary monarchy, and indeed the military – ‘the real centre of power lurking behind the throne’ (p. 33) – in opposition to the poor.

Although starting out on the side of the poor, there are several reasons cited for why the NGOs sided with the populist PAD. These instincts, argues Ungpakorn, can be found amongst NGOs the world over. First, NGOs have funding pressures that make them vulnerable to the interests of elites, rather than the poor. These funding pressures mean they have a tendency towards opportunism and engage in ‘lobby politics’ in order to work with governments, including authoritarian ones. Rather than building mass movements, they reject politics, especially class politics, and theoretical debate. Finally, they tend to idealise communities, and as such end up aligning themselves with anarchist and/or neoliberal ideologies, both of which tend to promote small states and in some cases ‘traditional’ rural communities.

The NGOs in Thailand are now ‘fearful and contemptuous’ of the Red Shirts, and refuse to recognise workers (or even the peasantry) as potential agents of change, despite the fact that the working class is now the biggest class in Thai society. In contrast, the most inspiring part of the book is the response to the coup: the self-organised Red Shirt movement, which made headlines earlier this year when they took over the streets of Bangkok. The Red Shirts represent the greatest threat to the power of the military and increasing state repression, and also the greatest hope for the vast majority.

Many of the Red Shirts have no illusions in Taksin. They are familiar with his record of human rights abuse, corruption and neoliberal policies. While initially providing the masses with the confidence to confront the PAD, Taksin ignited a movement that is well beyond his control or aspirations. This is a movement that now debates whether reform or revolution is the way forward, a movement that has growing republican leanings, and one that dared to come back out onto the streets last September to protest on the anniversary of the coup, following the killing of ninety demonstrators in the streets in April.

A revival of republicanism, which Thailand last saw in the mid-1970s during the rise of the Communist Party, is dangerous for the ruling elite because it threatens the ‘double act performed by the military and the King’ (p. 96): the military uses the monarchy to legitimise its coercive rule, while the monarchy provides the ideological justification for elite capitalist rule more generally.

The historical chapter, which covers the turmoil from the 1930s, provides the context for understanding the present convergence of elite divisions and popular mobilisation. It also helps to explain the trajectory of the social movements following the collapse of the Communist Party in the 1980s. It was this that created the vacuum on the left that was filled initially by Taksin himself, but now more positively, by the Red Shirt movement. The final substantive chapter describes the war in southern Thailand, including the history of state repression in the region, and calls for a mass movement that pushes for a political and non-military solution and that distances itself from nationalism.

Ungpakorn argues that the most pressing issue today is state repression: in its crusade to defend the status quo, Thai policy is still aimed at a military solution, both in the south and in Bangkok. The only concerted resistance to this repression is the Red Shirt movement. The Red Shirts represent the best hope of radical transformation in Thailand if they move beyond single-issue struggles, take up issues that affect the growing working class and remain ambitious in their demands. This will not happen spontaneously but needs the active intervention of socialists. The book is essential reading for anyone interested in the possibility of social change in Thailand.

Feyzi Ismail

Feyzi Ismail teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is active in UCU