Thailand's "Protests": Er...democracy, anyone?

Brian Sun, 2014-02-16 19:41

Thailand has been shaken by protests for months now. Observers such as myself can see that soon the military will give in to the demands of the "protesters," and take power from the elected government.

Last November, feigning disgust at the "corruption" of the majority of Thailand's elected representatives, many members of the national legislature, most members of what's laughably called the "Democrat Party," abandoned their elected positions and took to the streets. (I use the word 'feigning' because these guys and gals are no strangers to corruption themselves. They just don't like that the beneficiaries are the wrong people.) Since the national elections of 2011, these legislators have busied themselves "monkey-wrenching" the legislature, rendering it to a great extent ineffective.

Attempts by the government to govern over their disruptions were met with howls of outrage, and the opposition took all manner of complaints to the National Constitution Commission and the National Anti-Corruption Commission over what in normal circumstances would be considered day-to-day business.

It got this silly: when the legislature passed a number of proposed changes to the Constitution of Thailand, changes that they'd made part of their platform for the 2011 election that they won, and changes that couldn't possibly go into effect without going through the procedures in place for changing the Constitution, the "Democrats" took them to the Constitution Commission, claiming that they were violating the Constition, and won!

The Democrats have a good friend in one Tony Cartalucci. He's the main force behind the web-site. A tireless critic of US/NATO/New World Order's machinations in the world's polities and economies, and rightly so, he sees Thailand's politics as in the grip of a ruthless dictator, one Thaksin Shinawatra, currently self-exiled in Dubai in avoidance of a fraud conviction and prison term (likely deserved). Thaksin was twice elected Prime Minister, and twice deposed by military coups. The current Prime Minister is his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra.

Cartalucci seems to think the Thai protesters are the forces of goodness and light, the antithesis of the evil Dr. No.

On the other hand, there's Andre Vltchek. A writer (and poet, photographer, and filmmaker) with impeccable anti-imperialist, anti-fascist credentials, he says the "protesters" are the forces of reaction—the stifling, corrupt elites reasserting themselves after several disasters at the ballot boxes.

They can't both be right. For reasons that will follow, I think Cartalucci is very, very wrong about the crisis in Thailand, despite that (or perhaps because) he lives there. (Vltchek does not.)

The Thai "protests" have produced some very strange phenomena. Has there been another "protest" whose leaders openly call for the overthrow of an elected government; severely disrupt commerce, official government offices, and transport in a city of 10 million; and at the same time complain loudly that they're not getting enough police protection? It's truly weird.

Vltchek's analysis of the situation is far, far superior to that of Cartalucci:

  • Vltchek's analysis is a class analysis, a clearly leftist look at the situation, observing how Thai society works, and how the elites maintain control of it. Cartalucci's is an "evil man" story: somehow Thaksin (who is not in Thailand, but supposedly handles the Thai government by remote control) exerts Hitlerian power over the unwashed masses of northern and northeastern Thailand, solely to advance his private agenda of self-aggrandisement (clearly to some extent true, the self-aggrandisement part anyway) and NeoLiberal World Domination.

    We should all be weary of this "evil man" stuff; it's a staple of the ways by which the 1% get the working classes to do their work for them. (I'm not suggesting Cartalucci is a pawn of the 1%.) Cartalucci is also convinced that, despite the Thaksin government's populist policies (now being undermined by the same civil servants walking the streets in the "protests"), Thaksin's "backed" by Wall Street. There are photos of him shaking hands with such people. Er, that's about it.

  • Vltchek does not require the reader to adopt the world view of the protesters in Thailand, that is, that the people who vote for the Pheu Thai party are too stupid to be allowed to vote. (Pheu Thai, which Thaksin leads, is the party which under various guises—since the Thailand powers-that-be keep outlawing them—has won every election in the last 20 years.) In the alternative, if they're allowed to vote, you can't attach equal weight to their votes, as opposed to, say, the votes of smart, sophisticated, fashionably-dressed people like the ones on the streets of Bangkok. Vltchek does not require us to conclude that the people of the north and northeast, areas whose inhabitants tend to be very, very poor, and who have been neglected by the centres of power in Bangkok for almost all time, are incapable of voting in their own interest. Instead, Thaksin "buys" their votes for about USD$15 (THB500) apiece. (Never mind that any party in Thailand that wanted to, if it were true, could just offer THB600, and Bob's your uncle.)
  • Vltchek's writings don't discuss "free and fair" "elections" in Thailand, quote-unquote, the way Cartalucci does. Vltchek talks about elections, no quote marks. As far as Cartalucci is concerned, "elections" in Thailand are just a ruse by which the Thaksin forces maintain power, and should not be taken seriously by the left. He maintains this view despite that the election in 2011, which he derides as an "election," was clearly freely and fairly conducted. It was conducted entirely in accordance with the Constitution that was promulgated by the government that had been placed in power under military rule (with a real quote-unquote "election"), a government whose representatives now style themselves as "rebels" in the streets of Bangkok.

    That Constitution was approved by the voters of Thailand in a referendum conducted by those very same self-declared rulers. Note that in that referendum (which was okay because it produced the desired result) the votes of the voters who are now too stupid to vote were counted). In short, Vltchek doesn't require us to do democratic mental gymnastics to explain ourselves.

  • Vltchek sees Thailand's armed forces, the folks who the "protesters" are begging to carry out a coup, as what they are, a reactionary segment of the Thailand elites, a segment that benefits from the way Thailand works, and whose actions can be expected to further their own ends (at least at the higher ranks, where the serious corruption vectors reach the beneficiaries). Cartalucci has actually written (see Thailand’s Military – An Important Independent Institution) and published, the astonishing thesis that the armed forces are an "independent" element of Thai governance, who, should they enact yet another coup, can be "trusted" to keep Thailand on an even keel. As if a country's military being "independent" were a good thing. Evidence? Well, according to a poll, that's what Thais think. Mind you, if we're to take seriously their opinion on that, then why don't the elections of 2011 adequately express the views of Thai voters? To Cartalucci, they are "elections," while the poll he writes about is not a "poll."

  • Cartalucci wants us to see the progressive elements of the Thaksin/Pheu Thai program—the socialized medicine, the rice-subsidization scheme for rice farmers, etc.—as gimmicky vote-buying schemes, pandering to poor voters. Well, sorry, I'm Canadian, I don't see universal health care or helping farmers as gimmicky at all. I see them as important elements of responsible governance in a country where many—including the backbone of the system by which Thais feed themselves—just manage to scrape by. (The Thai non-poor don't necessarily value socialized medicine. Healthcare is relatively cheap in Thailand, and only the poor can't afford it. So "socialized" medicine is apparently just a sop to the poor.)

  • Interestingly, at a time when there's much concern over the rice-subsidization scheme, with the government way behind in its subsidies, poor farmers objecting and taking to the streets, and traditional economics types agog that it's "bankrupting the country," I've yet to see a comparison of it with another subsidy, the one all Thais enjoy when they buy ethanol-spiked gasoline. A litre of ethanol costs THB32 to 40 (USD0.90 to 1.22) while unspiked gas costs around THB48 (USD1.47). Why isn't that "bankrupting" the country? Why no economists complaining? Could it be because the wealthy owners of big ugly SUVs benefit the most? Hmmm?

  • At a time when there's a great deal of concern that "voter suppression" is a major plank in the US lunatic right's strategy for staying in power, and our own comprador Stephen Harper has just introduced the Fair Elections Act, Cartalucci expects us to support what is clearly a massive, open voter-suppression drive in Thailand. The poor and stupid can't be trusted to vote in Thailand, because look what they do! They elect somebody we don't like! Never mind there are some 12 million of them. That's some suppression!

  • For Cartalucci, every act of violence committed by a red-shirt (a supporter of the Pheu Thai party) is part of an organized campaign carried out by thuggish, brown-shirt-like hooligans operating by remote control from Dubai (where Thaksin hides), hell-bent on creating havoc for the "good" people of Thailand, that is, the "hi-so" (high society), well-dressed "rebels" of Bangkok.
    In fact, both sides have their "enforcers." It's not a pretty picture. While Cartalucci bemoans the violence of the "red shirts," one might also notice that, despite a three-month campaign the essence of which is loud public statements that half of Thai voters are too stupid and brainwashed to vote, and that the government they've voted into power isn't legitimate, there's been not-so-much violence. I know if I were a red shirt, vilified every day by the mouthpieces of the "protests," and a rabble of them were standing between me and voting, I'd have a shorter fuse than that.

  • Cartalucci refers to the "Thaksin regime" as a "US-backed proxy government." Left unexplained is how the US, whose tentacles in Thailand, unless they are unlike those in almost every other of its "allies," are strongest in the military and intelligence "communities," (hence the "black sites" everybody knows are in Thailand), managed to let things get so out of hand.

  • While I haven't seen or heard this mentioned in public by any party, including by Cartalucci or Vltchek, there's an element in all this. Just so happens that many of the people of Isaan, the northeast of Thailand, a bedrock of Pheu Thai support, are of Lao ethnicity, and speak a dialect of Lao referred to as "Isaan." (Since they are Thai citizens, and are looked down upon by "real" Thais, they are reluctant to have their language described as "Lao.") There are also many descendents of the old Khmer empires. The people of the north, which includes Thaksin's home base of Chiangmai, also speak a dialect of Thai, not central Thai, which marks them as descendants of the Lanna Kingdom, not the Kingdom of Siam, and so maybe they're not really Thai either. So, though it's very sotto voce, Why are we letting those not-really-Thais vote?

  • And finally, in Thailand, where the Royal Family is involved, no honest discussion can take place, because it can land you in jail. But the Royal Family is involved, even if only as proxies, given their place in Thai society. See this Zenjournalist article for a lot of detail on this. Cartalucci can mention none of this, because he lives in Bangkok.

There's no party in Thailand for progressive people to support in any of this. It's not a revolutionary situation, and the demands of the "protesters" aren't revolutionary, they're reactionary. If these weren't reactionary forces, the armed forces would have no problem in smashing them to bits. (As the Thai armed forces did to the Communists in 1973, very brutally; there's still no recognizable socialist party in Thailand politics.)

Most of the leaders involved are scoundrels, and if one party replaces another, it'll do diddly-squat to deal with Thailand's very real, fundamental, paralyzing corruption problem.

And since when would the left take the side of the elites over a country's poor?

It seems to me that the only thing worth supporting in this situation is the right of all citizens of Thailand to vote, to have their votes counted equally, and for the governments they elect not to be subject to such agitation from the elites.

If the "Democrats" would actually like to pursue power democratically, there's always the traditional way: formulate and pursue policies that enjoy popular support, and win a few votes. In 2011, 12 million people voted Pheu Thai, while around nine million voted Democrat (the party whose MLAs quit in a huff to go cavort in the streets of Bangkok), and some 5 million for other parties. It shouldn't be that hard to generate some votes with some policies that meet people's needs and interests. You can't do that by calling them stupid, though.

Cartalucci's astonishing output on and demonstrate that, at least in the case of Thailand, he's not a journalist, he's a propagandist. (Not that I have a problem with that. It's just important to recognize the difference.) See, for example, landdestroyer's Shut Down Bangkok sidebars.

Though a coup is clearly on the way, very little good will come of it, except for Thailand's traditional elites.


Here's Vltchek:
Down and out in Thailand
How the West Manufactures “Opposition Movements”
Andre's web-site
(Endnote: In January, 2014, I moved from Thailand to Cambodia. I'm freer now to criticize Thailand. I'm not anxious to live in a country where the military rules by decree, and I suspect they won't be all that upset that I've gone. I drafted this post in February, 2014, but let it sit. It's now well after the coup. I cleaned it up a bit for posting it, but dated it by when I'd drafted it. It reflects my thoughts at the time.)

Protest, Thailand, 2013