The developments in Thailand, leading up to and including the recent mass murder carried out by the regime, perfectly embody the major processes under way in world capitalism of recent decades.
During the Vietnam War and shortly thereafter, the US maintained an important air force base in Thailand. This was mainly to check Chinese communism. With the collapse of Stalinism as a world force, the base was abandoned, but the US military still maintains close ties with its Thai counterpart, including helping train the Thai air force.
Globalization and “Asian Tigers”
Perhaps more important than the military link are the developments of world capitalism, first and foremost its famous “globalization”. No region of the world was more affected and saw more economic changes from this than did the “Asian Tigers” in 1980s and early ‘90s, and Thailand perhaps more so than any of the other “Tigers”. However, the working class did not share in the benefits of this development. “Between 1985 and 1991 the real value of manufacturing production rose by 100%, yet the real value of the minimum wage paid to many factory workers stayed the same.” (Thailand: Class Struggle in an Era of Economic Crisis by Ji Giles Ungpakorn) As is always the case under capitalism, the development of the real economy of the Tigers was accompanied by massive speculation, including land speculation. This speculation led to the financial crisis of all the Tigers in 1997, a collapse which led to political turmoil in Thailand.
Thaksin Shinawatra and “Tais Love Tais” Party to Power
Despite the fact that workers did not receive major benefits from the growth, they were expected to pay for the crisis, and pay they did, as dictated by the International Monetary Fund. The year after the economic collapse, a media billionaire, Thaksin Shinawatra, organized a new political party the Tai Rak Tai (TRT, Tais Love Tais) Party. With massive financial backing from Thaksin, the TRT rocketed to the top and won the elections in 2001. Its program was a mixture of nationalist and economic populism, appealing to prejudices against immigrant workers from Myanmar and Cambodia at the same time as it campaigned against the IMF “reforms”. Thaksin pushed through a national health care system as well as legislation providing cheap credit to small farmers. As such, he built a strong base amongst the rural as well as urban poor.
Thaksin’s program was similar to that of the left populists who were rising to the top in Latin America, and as such must have caused concern to US and world capitalism. Another cause of concern was his closer ties to the Chinese regime – also similar to what is developing in both Latin America and parts of Africa and the Mid East.
Thus it was that when a military coup ousted him, with the backing of the Thai monarchy, in 2006, the US regime uttered not a word of protest. Leading opponents of the coup, such as Ji Giles Ungpakorn, were driven into exile under the threat of 15 year prison sentences for allegedly criticizing the monarchy.
Tai Working Class
Another global trend during these decades has been the shift of industrial production away from the developed capitalist world and to Latin America and Asia. Thailand has been a key recipient of this trend. From a country whose population was mainly rural and where agriculture played the largest role in the economy, Thailand has become a major industrial producer. By 2007, industrial production composed 43.9% of the Thai GDP, while 14% of the work force was employed in industrial production. (This compares with the US where in the same year manufacturing was 12% of the economy and employed 11% of the work force.) Auto, steel, electronics and textile production are all important contributors to the Thai economy.
An important aspect of this development has been the transformation of the role of millions of Thai women. Newly introduced into the work force, they are finding a new independence and their social attitudes are changing along with this.
The rise of industrial production in Thailand swept tens of thousands of workers out of the country side and into the cities as new members of the industrial proletariat. In the United States, it was just such a layer – fresh from the largely rural South – who formed the backbone of the sit down strike wave of 1937 as powerful industrial unions were built. Yet in Thailand, no such movement has developed. In fact, a bare 5% of the workforce in Thailand is unionized.
State and employer repression is part of the explanation for this state of affairs, but only part. Workers in the US and elsewhere were able to overcome similar repression. In the US, however, an important role in the industrial unionization drive was played by the Communist and Socialist Parties – that is, an organized anti-capitalist force. In Thailand, the left was dominated by the Thai Communist Party (CPT), a party strongly influenced by Maoism. On the one hand, they had a semi guerrilla strategy, rather than focusing on organizing workers as workers. In any case, such a campaign would have been impossible since they hued strictly to the line that there is a “progressive” wing of the Thai capitalist class – as exemplified by Thaksin – and these supposedly progressive capitalists must lead the national struggle.
Certain non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) have also played an important role in the Thai workers’ movement. Several of the main ones of these are financed by German Social Democracy. Others are financed by the US’s AFL-CIO (almost certainly in conjunction with the CIA). These NGO’s seek to channel the workers’ movement into the safe, legal channels that have been so disastrous for the workers’ movement in the US. As Ungpakorn reports: “A pamphlet on “trade unions”, issued in Thai, by the American Center For International Labor Solidarity, manages to completely avoid mentioning strike action.” He further explains that the “activities (of the NGOs) can also act to demobilise the Left by pulling activists away from traditional class struggle organisations towards social reform. In Thailand the NGO movement has inherited the mantle of radicalism after the demise of CPT insurgency.” He describes their role and behavior as follows: “N.G.O. activists are known as “Pi-lieng” (older siblings or nannies). These nannies or elder siblings, help child-like workers to organise unions, to know their rights under the labour laws and to conduct themselves properly in labour disputes. When a dispute arises at a workplace, various N.G.O. nannies will be sent out to stay with the workers’ “mob” in their picket tents. On some occasions, more rebellious workers will be scolded like children and if they still do not listen to their N.G.O. nannies, they may be abandoned or worse still, sidelined and allowed to be victimised by management, while the N.G.O.s concentrate on more obedient workers.”
The domination of the left by wings of the NGO’s plus former CPT elements contributed to the rise of a form of left nationalism in the face of the economic crisis of the ‘90s. The idea was that the Thai economy should and could produce for Thai people. This was madness considering that it was especially Thailand that had seen such massive economic development exactly due to the globalization of the economy. How could the Thai auto or textile industry survive producing strictly for Thai people?
It was exactly this failure of the left that has partially demobilized the Thai working class and left an enormous political vacuum that was filled by the opportunist demagogue Thaksin. Ousted by a coup and driven into exile in 2006, his party came back to power in 2007, only to be driven out again in 2008 by the “Yellow Shirts.” This movement of the middle class and wealthy is reported to have received some of its ideology from classical fascism. Certain key capitalists were the driving force behind the Yellow Shirts, along with “military men who did not accept seeing their grip on society reduced since 1992; members of the Democrat Party, the traditional ally of the royalty and army and rejected by the business periphery; judges from the various high courts; intellectuals and members of the middle class tired of corruption and scandals; monks belonging to reactionary Buddhist sects.” (http://links.org.au/node/1696) Foremost amongst their ideas is that ordinary working class people are not educated enough to participate in running society; that must be left to their “betters”.
Thaksin, however, was not content to spend his time in exile on such hobbies as the ownership of the Manchester City football team (the poor cousin of Manchester United). Thus it was that he financed in whole or in part a renewed opposition to the new Yellow Shirt-installed regime and the new Red Shirt movement was reborn and paralyzed the nation. While the Red Shirt movement is composed of the rural and urban poor, it seems that the working class, as a class, has not stamped its mark on the Red Shirt movement. During the time they were on the streets, for instance, there was no noticeable call for a general strike, for full union rights, etc. Instead, on the one hand, illusions were fostered in “democracy” – that is, capitalist (or bourgeois) democracy - as the cure-all. There is no doubt that capitalist democracy would be a step forward, but if it cannot resolve the problems for workers in the developed capitalist world, how can it in Thailand? Even here, there did not appear to be any attempt to defy the undemocratic law that makes it illegal to criticize the monarchy on pain of a 15 year prison sentence. On the other hand, there were all sorts of verbal attacks on immigrant groups in Thailand (including Burmese and Vietnamese), appeals to prejudice against gay people, etc.
These weaknesses were their ultimate undoing. There are reports that layers of the military rank and file sympathized with the Reds. This was reflected by splits starting to open up at the top echelons. Had the Red Shirts based themselves on a clear class appeal, with calls for land redistribution, full union rights and higher pay, etc., then the rank and file soldiers would have become a completely unreliable force for the present regime. Under those circumstances, they never would have dared to sweep them off the streets and to shoot down hundreds of them in cold blood.
Even with all its weaknesses and reactionary appeals, there is little doubt that the majority of Thai workers supported the Red Shirts, at least passively. This is because they understood the forces aligned against the Reds. As well, if the Reds had managed to push the present regime out of power, or to force elections soon, this would have opened up a wide space for the working class.
In this confused period, with the decline of almost all traditional socialist forces in the workers’ movement, we can expect even more accidental leaders like Thaksin to come to the fore in other parts of the world.
As for Thailand itself, the monarchy along with the military elite, as the leadership of the Thai capitalist class, may have achieved a bit of a respite, but it is only temporary. The turmoil in Thai society almost certainly is having its affect on the heavy battalions of the Thai working class. Once that layer starts to move, then all the NGO’s, all the state repression, all the populist demagogues, will be unable to hold them back. Among the items on their agenda will have to be the building of powerful industrial unions in Thailand. As well, the issue of who speaks for the workers politically will have to be taken up, meaning the building of a mass workers’ party.
But where will such a party head? As is clear in the European Union today, capitalism’s economic crisis is not disappearing. Not only that, but capitalism today is dominated by its financial sector, the most predatory sector of all. It was this sector’s domination that played such a great role in the Southeast Asian crisis of 1997. The formation of a mass workers’ party in Thailand would be a huge step forward and would send shock waves throughout the region, no less the world. Ultimately, however, in order for such a party to prevent finance capital from once again controlling the fate of Thailand and the entire region, a mass Thai workers’ party would have to take the commanding heights of the economy – including finance capital – out of private hands. Given the Thai integration into the economy of Southeast Asia, and given the large immigrant population in Thailand itself, such a revolutionary change would inevitably sweep into the entire region and beyond.
From a rural, completely underdeveloped nation, Thailand has become an industrial center. In doing so, a mass industrial proletariat has been built there. It is this proletariat that can lead the way in the transformation of the Thailand, Southeast Asia and the world.