The Thai military marked its second month in power by unilaterally imposing an Interim Charter that gave the military chieftain heading up the junta, euphemistically named the “National Council for Peace and Order” (NCPO), the power to issue any decree to “preserve public peace and order.”
The military reigns supreme at present, having crushed the spontaneous demonstrations that met its seizure of power as well as individual protests against its rule, like reading George Orwell’s 1984, flashing the three-finger sign of resistance from the Hunger Games, or appropriating and disseminating the MacDonald’s logo as a symbol of democracy. Scores of political activists have been summoned for intensive questioning, and those who have not heeded the order have been issued arrest warrants.
“Returning happiness to the people” is the theme cultivated by Army Chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha, and what the Bangkok Post describes as the junta’s “happiness extravaganza” is meant to exorcise the bitter political conflict that engulfed Thailand over the last decade. Free haircuts, free concerts, free FIFA World Cup telecasts, and free movie tickets have been part of the NCPO’s charm offensive.
The royalist establishment and the Bangkok middle class are very pleased with the coup. After all, the establishment plotted the coup and the middle class served as the willing mob that created the political paralysis and civil disorder that led to the judicial ouster of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the military takeover shortly thereafter. In an extraordinarily frank admission that military intervention to quell civil disorder was the aim of the civil protests that began in late October of last year, the chief protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban said that he had been closely advising the army chief on how to root out the influence of the Redshirt movement headed by the exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck’s older brother, since 2010. “Before martial law was declared, Gen Prayuth told me,” the opposition leader revealed, “‘Mr, Suthep and your masses of PDRC supporters are too exhausted. It’s now the duty of the army to take over the task.’”
The high point of the anti-Thaksin protest movement was the disruption of the elections of February 2 that Yingluck ‘s government called in response to the middle-class protests in Bangkok. The strong-arm methods used by middle class activists and thugs to prevent people from voting was justified by the slogan “reform before elections.” The elite and middle class opposition had not been able to win an election since 2001, with the pro-Thaksin forces delivering thumping majorities whenever elections were held. Thus the slogan “reform before elections” was a sanitized codeword for devising constitutional arrangements that would prevent the Redshirts from ever coming to power again.
The Interim Charter is a mechanism to devise such arrangements. Gen Prayuth, as head of the NCPO, will appoint members of a National Reform Council and a National Legislative Assembly, which will in turn appoint 36 members of a Constitution Drafting Commission. In effect, the constitution that will emerge from this process will be drafted under the close supervision of the military junta. It is expected to come up with anti-majoritarian constitutional mechanisms. One plan that is supposedly under consideration is for 50 per cent of legislative seats to be filled by appointment rather than by election, making it near to impossible for a Redshirt coalition to form a parliamentary majority.
The Redshirt Coalition
The target of this constitutional tinkering is the formidable electoral alliance headed by Thaksin Shinawatra, a man who has revolutionized Thai politics. For the royalist establishment, Thaksin, who is currently in exile in Dubai, is the greatest threat to their longstanding political and ideological hegemony. To the middle class, he is the epitome of corruption.
There is no doubt that Thaksin bought many of his political alliances with elite politicians, but the main reason he was able to carve out such massive popularity among the rural and urban poor of Thailand was because he ended the enormously harmful policy straitjacket that the International Monetary Fund imposed on Thailand following the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and promoted programs that directly addressed the needs of the marginalized sectors. The most important of these were a universal health care program which gave people medical treatment for all diseases for the equivalent of 35 baht (slightly over a dollar as today’s exchange rate), the so-called “One Million Baht per Village Fund” that went to localities for them to invest in productive activities of their choice, and a moratorium on the debt of farmers.
The Thai political and intellectual elites, resorting to corruption discourse, were able to define these programs in the middle-class mind as but other forms of vote buying or corruption. The real issue, however, was the empowerment of the poor that Thaksin’s programs brought about, which led to creation of a massive electoral majority that, in the eyes of the elite and the middle class, threatened a fundamental and permanent redistribution of political and economic power.
The current constitutional maneuvering is a rearguard action against the electoral pressure from the organized and mobilized lower class rural and urban majority. This is not to say that the Thaksin coalition is monolithic. It is a marriage of diverse and potentially conflicting interests. While for Thaksin the aim of this coalition might be the cornering or monopolization of elite power, for the social sectors he has mobilized, the goal is the redistribution of wealth and power from the elites to the masses and, equally important, extracting respect for people that had been scorned as “country bumpkins” or “buffaloes.” For the moment, however, these forces are united. In a very real sense, however much the Redshirt movement may be derided by its foes as a coalition between corrupt politicians and the “greedy poor,” it has become the vehicle for the acquisition of full citizenship rights by Thailand’s marginalized classes.
The Reactionary Middle
The middle class has been a central actor in the struggle between Thaksin’s populist coalition and the royalist establishment. Faced with the organized electoral power of the previously unorganized, the Bangkok middle class that had spearheaded the anti-dictatorship movements in the 1980’s and 1990’s increasingly felt threatened and politically isolated. The middle class became vulnerable to the to the blandishments of the royalist elite, which found in anti-corruption discourse a winning formula to mobilize them against Thaksin’s populist coalition. With their support for the May 22 coup, the Thai middle class came full circle, from being a force against a military dictatorship to being the military’s mass base.
The ideological transformation of the middle class into an anti-democratic force is reflected in the denigration of the principle of one-person/one-vote that one encounters even among academics. A classic example of this anti-democratic discourse is the comment made to be by a Thai social scientist otherwise known as a liberal: “For me, democracy is not the best regime. I’m in this sense an elitist. If there are people who are more capable, why not give them more weight. Why should they not come ahead of everybody else? You may call me a Nietzschean.”
In brief, what is now occurring in Thailand is simple: to borrow from Mao, it’s class war, with Thai characteristics.
A Brief Interregnum?
It is unlikely that the current quiescence of the Redshirts signifies their resignation to political marginalization. More likely, they are keeping their heads down, waiting for the military to make mistakes and become unpopular from the usual overreach that military regimes are tempted to engage in. Already, Abhisit Vejjaviva, leader of the pro-coup Democratic Party, has voiced concern over Section 44 of the Interim Charter, which gives the junta supreme power over the executive, legislature, and the judiciary. Others who were willing to give the junta a chance, have come out against its recent move to unilaterally give itself the power to issue any decree it deems necessary for public order.
The junta has issued a statement that the soldiers will return to the barracks in 15 months. Many think that the military will wear out its welcome well before then, and the class warfare that has been temporarily frozen will resume in all its intensity.
Walden Bello, an expert in East Asian politics and economics, represents Akbayan (Citizens’ Action Party) in the House of Representatives of the Republic of the Philippines.