Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Requiem for the Reds

I wanted so much to celebrate the tens of thousands of red shirts who gathered in Bangkok over the weekend to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and call for new elections. But I fear their effort so far has failed. The protest enters its fifth day this morning with many donating blood which will be flung at the gates of Government House later today in a gory ritual directed at politicians who have blocked the campaign of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) for "true democracy." Drenching the corridors of power in red blood may be a powerful symbol but I doubt that it will dislodge the amatya, the Thai word for the oligarchy of elites -- monarchy, military, bureaucracy and wealthy businessmen -- who control the destiny of this country.

To the powerful in Bangkok, the "Red Menace" (a headline in the Bangkok Post) consists of the poor "rural hordes" (another headline) from the north and northeast marching to the tune of Saint Thaksin, the prime minister who was deposed in a military coup nearly four years ago. And they do it only for the money, twice what they can make on the farm or on construction work in the cities (see one person's denial at left). It's pretty well certain that Thaksin was a crook, but at least he was their crook. He revolutionized party politics in Thailand by appealing directly to the voters rather than just to the provincial political bosses. He made it possible for them to see a doctor for 30 baht a visit (less than $1), and he gave a million baht to each village (Jerry says everyone used it to buy cell phones in his Surin village). This may have simply been a cynical plot to win votes from the electoral majority in the provinces, but it gave people the idea that they could have a say in their destiny, a radical notion, a democratic notion. You can't put that genie back in the bottle.

After the many military coups in Thailand, the defeated politicians usually slink away, with their tails between their legs. But Thaksin will not disappear. He shuttles between Dubai, Montenegro and Cambodia (and who knows what other secret hideouts), urging his followers during video phone links to continue the struggle against the injustice that has silenced their votes and deprived him of much of his fortune. It's a shame that Thaksin is such a powerful symbol for the reds. I suspect he was everything his critics say about him, no real friend of democracy and human rights. The return of Thaksin to power would be a disaster for Thailand, every bit as bad as the current government which remains in office only because of the military coup makers and its shadowy backers.

On Sunday morning, Nan and I crossed Pinklao Bridge to visit the site of the demonstration along Ratchadamnoen, the broad divided boulevard that passes the Democracy Monument which was built to commemorate the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in 1932 (the constitution that keeps getting rewritten). Large public demonstrations in 1973, 1976 and 1992 took place around that monument, each interrupted by violence that has not so far has (thankfully) taken place here in 2010. Red shirts waving flags and flashing the V for victory sign at photographers streamed into the street by us on trucks, motorbikes and tuk tuks while demonstrators on the sidelines cheered them on. It was inspiring. When an old woman accompanied by her grandson greeted me with a handshake and thanked me for coming, I was reduced to tears.

The UDD had hoped to gather a million people in Bangkok after the court decision that confiscated two-thirds of Thaksin's frozen assets, and the numbers were clearly important.Leaders delayed the rally for two weeks to prepare their forces for the final battle to oust the illegal government that had disenfranchised them. This gave the ruling oligarchy time to scare people away with a deluge of warnings in the media about expected violence and allowed the military to set up road blocks which discouraged or delayed convoys of red shirts coming from the provinces. I asked a motorbike taxi driver if he were going to the rally and he looked horrified, miming for me a soldier shooting a gun. I'm sure many local supporters sat on the sidelines. They could be seen cheering the red shirts as they marched through Bangkok to an Army base in a northern suburb yesterday to demonstrate against Abhisit and the generals who were headquartered there. But the prime minister predictably refused to resign and call new elections. He escaped in a helicopter. Most impartial observers seemed to think 100,000, more or less, were attending the weekend demonstration, far fewer than the number organizers had sought.

I last visited a rally of red shirts in April a year ago when an estimated 100,000 gathered around Government House, several days before street violence during Songkran besmirched their anti-government message. Then, as on Sunday, the red shirts were friendly and festive, eating, dancing to music and the speakers onstage, and waving their foot-clappers and bamboo noise-makers; all seemed very happy to see a farang in their midst. But at 10 am on Sunday the crowds on Ratchadamnoen seemed thinner than before, perhaps because people were hiding in the shade from the blistering heat of the sun. Even though the event was not officially to begin until noon and people were still arriving, it was apparent to me that the goal of a million, or even half that, would probably not be reached.

A second problem for me was the composition of the crowd. These were primarily Thais dark from the Isaan sun, farmers and small business owners from the provinces who were most impacted by disempowerment. It was not the middle classes from Bangkok who were among the 200,000 in 1992 to demonstrate against a coup general who tried to become prime minister (the bloodshed after that protest was stopped by royal intervention). In his passionate political tract, Thailand Unhinged, Federico Ferrara argues that the red shirts must engage the "key swing constituency — Bangkok’s masses of ordinary people." These are the "army of secretaries, clerks, accountants, computer programmers, and shopkeepers that will ultimately decide the fate of the old order." Only by joining hands can the reds as well as yellows overthrow the retrogressive order of military strongmen and corrupt politicians and businessmen. The reds will have to "throw Thaksin under the bus, embracing the urban electorate’s desire for more transparent, more honest, more responsive government." I think Ferrara's correct. Only a combined movement of Thais, urban and rule, who seek "true democracy" rather than the fraudulent "Thai-style democracy" claimed for years by the elite, will ever succeed in turning things around.

I call this post a "requiem" because I really do honor the movement of Thai people to control and improve their lives, but I think the color-branded politics of Thailand will lead only to disaster. An article in the Telegraph of London last weekend by a retired British diplomat is headlined: "Thailand could be falling apart." Tim Collard writes that "it’s looking like the vast social inequalities in the country are beginning to take their toll on the set of complex social contracts which govern this intricately intertwined society, with Lord Buddha and King Bhumibol reigning benevolently over all." No one seems to be willing to compromise, and isn't that what politics is supposed to be about? Abhisit, the elites of the oligarchy and the urban middle classes focus exclusively on the evils of Thaksin without considering that real grievances exist outside Bangkok. After their Songkran disaster, the UDD held teach-ins around the country on the virtues of democracy and organized smaller scale local rallies. Unfortunately, one red group in Chiang Mai chose to demonize homosexuals and closed down the gay pride day parade. This thuggish activity alienated many potential overseas supporters. I was told the UDD did not want to alienate splinter groups, but I think this policy must be reexamined.

Although hotel rooms are mostly empty now because tourists are notoriously nervous about political strife, the Thai stock market is happy and has been rising for the last four trading sessions. This seems to illustrate Naomi Klein's thesis that global capitalism loves disasters, even potential ones. For Bangkok residents the protests brought welcome relief to weekend traffic. Yesterday was like a holiday, with the streets in my neighborhood relatively empty. Four bored soldiers in riot gear stood duty on the overpass to Tesco Lotus nearby, and a small group of troops sheltered in the shade of the flyover at the Charoensanitwong intersection down the street from my apartment building. On Sunday night Nan and I went to see "Green Zone," an thrilling Iraqi chase movie based on real politics, while outside the theater and across the river the politics of color symbolism continued. This morning the UDD online TV channel is showing red shirt leaders donating blood for the political theater they've planned later this afternoon,. This was followed by a stage full of orange-clad monks giving the donors a blessing, and some of them could be seen giving blood (monks involved in politics bothers Nan very much). Soon the rural participants will need to return to their farms to tend their crops, and the stall keepers, taxi and motorbike drivers will need to resume work. At times the UDD spokespersons speak of a seven-day demonstration, but it's hard to know at this point when they will bring it to an end, and what they will tell their disappointed followers.

In the immortal words of Bob Dylan (and seconded by Jimi Hendrix): "There must be some kind of way out of here."

1 comment:

New Victorian said...

Jerry seems to think that people buying mobile phones is a bad thing. I've heard this before in regards to the Village Fund. People should remember that the Village Funds were supposed to help people start small businesses or to help them in their work. In business telephones and motorbikes are also known as transport and communications. Even in a business as small as a mobile noodle shop transport and communications are vital. The fact that so many people complain that Village Funds were spent on phones and motorbikes says a lot about the people making the complaints. It says that they automatically leap to the conclusion that those things are worthless fripperies rather than important tools. I wonder if they regard their own phones and transport in the same way? Their inability to see that such things are vitally important in the modern world implies that they have reached their conclusions through bias and bigotry rather than by examining the facts.