19 June 2011

Leftists and the Red Shirts: This relationship could write a bad romance.

Note: Pure opinion, strictly unresearched.

So by the fourth of July we should see if Pheu Thai [sic] does score a landslide majority in the upcoming general elections. It should also be interesting to see where those disillusioned with Abhisit take their votes (though I doubt they'd make a real impact). What really matters, though, is what happens next: How long until the PAD (so-called People's Alliance for Democracy) stage their next protest? Will they regain any of the supporters they lost, the anti-Thaksin sentiment which originally formed their core agenda having been overtaken by zealous ultranationalism, and their leadership having confirmed the irony of their chosen name by directly opposing the electoral system? What about the Red Shirts? How will their movement hold out in the long term, given their hodgepodge membership of Thaksin-lovers, intellectuals and fanatics? How will the Pheu Thai, if elected, set about bringing Thaksin home, and when?

It probably is really too early to be asking these questions, given that we're still two weeks ahead of election day, but the composition of the Red Shirt movement is something worth discussing nevertheless.

Main question: How did leftists come to be part of the Red Shirts anyway, let alone assuming major roles in their leadership?

Actually, any presence at all of the left in the politics of Thailand is something, although not new, rarely heard of. Anti-absolutist sentiment leading up to the 1932 revolution achieved civilian government, but that didn't last long against competing military powers. While the post-World War II era saw the spread of Marxist ideologies and the toppling of military government in the 1973 uprising, the social polarity that followed, marked by the 1976 massacre, drove the left out of mainstream politics for good, and the movement waned as the Communist Party dissolved. Although talk of social and political reform followed 1992's Black May and the military withdrew from politics, no strong left movement emerged, even with the 1997 constitution.

I earlier observed that the problem with calling the PAD "right-wing" is that it incorrectly implies the opposite for their rivals. Now despite all the left-wing presence and grassroots participation among the Red Shirts, this plainly is not the case. At its core the Red Shirts (UDD if you will) was, and is, a pro-Thaksin movement, and Thaksin is about as right-wing one can get without being downright fascist. The populist social welfare policies that earned his followers' devotion conveniently served to firmly cement his power. The system's checks and balances were ultimately undermined, civil rights and government accountability thrown into the wind. It is therefore rather amazing that several "October persons" (a term referring to members of the 1973 and 1976 movements) have aligned themselves with his supporters.

Amazing though perhaps understandable. Against the military which ousted Thaksin, this alliance could be seen as a united struggle against a common foe, and Thaksin does have the legitimate claim of popular support through elections. Also important, though unspoken (or rather, unspeakable), is the shared republican agenda formally denied but not-so-secretly known to be harboured by Thaksin, which also serves as a rallying flag for the self-proclaimed royalist PAD, and the antagonism helps keep the alliance alive. (Now how Thaksin managed to undermine generations-old royalist propaganda is rather perplexing.) Abhisit's handling of the May 2010 military crackdown further prompted sympathisers to the Red Shirts' cause, and since no one is currently blocking the streets of Bangkok, the anger of undecided middle-class Bangkokians seems to have eased somewhat.

Once Thaksin is back in the spotlight, though, the movement's integrity might start shaking. It is unlikely that the left-wing intellectuals among the Red Shirts would continue supporting Thaksin if he resumes his pursuit of autocratic power, and how long his rural supporters will continue supporting him is also open to question. One thing the combined Red Shirt movement has achieved, however, is the mobilization of the rural population, having made them realise that their voices do matter, that they do have a say in the country's politics. This alone is unprecedented; during the 1973 uprising it was the students who campaigned in the name of the people. Now the people are beginning to do so themselves. For now they may still be driven by a leadership that is not of their own, but once they gain momentum, they will be a force to be reckoned with.

And we shall see on whose side they are.