Last weeks military coup in Thailand must be opposed by all socialists. For the military and their supporters, including the main opposition party the Democrats, the coup was about better enabling the government to introduce more neo-liberal attacks, including cutting of subsidies and reversing recent improvements to health care.
The talk of the coup being about ‘fighting corruption’ is as false as the idea that the invasion of Iraq was about finding weapons of mass destruction or opposing dictatorship. Socialists also opposed the now deposed Prime Minister Taksin Shinawat, but for very different reasons and using different methods than the military and right-wing opposition.
What’s behind the coup? Prior to 1997 Thailand was one of the ‘Asian Tigers’ with a rapidly growing economy. The 1997 Asian economic meltdown had a devastating impact on the economy. The Democrats, then in power, implemented a wave of neo-liberal attacks on the limited subsidies and social services for the Thai population, as well as stepping up privatization.
This impressed the international markets but led to a big reaction from the poor. In 2001 and again in 2005 Taksin’s newly formed Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thais) political party were elected to power. While a billionaire and corrupt to his toenails, Taksin opportunistically built a base of support amongst the rural poor through the postponement of farmers’ debt and support for rural business and also the introduction of universal health care for the first time in Thai history. On the other hand he continued privatizations and other neo-liberal policies.
His vicious assaults on the illicit drug industry and continued repression of the Muslim minority in the south of the country, saw hundreds dead, but played out well amongst big sections of the Buddhist majority.
Taksin’s privatization policies led to the biggest working class battle in recent Thai history when 200,000 workers struck against electricity privatization in 2004. However there is no independent working class organisation in Thailand and only 2% of workers are in trade unions.
The opposition to Taksin was dominated by rival big business interests (such as rival media tycoon Sondhi Limthongul), who wanted to fast-track economic restructuring. They drew in behind them sections of the ‘Peoples Movement’ in a de facto popular front against Taksin, all on the programme (neo-liberalism dressed up in opposition to corruption) and methods (support for the coup and the King) of big business interests.
In the August elections the opposition boycotted the poll, but Taksin’s party still got 16 million votes to the 10 million that abstained. His base is mainly in the rural areas which explains the lack of street protests against the coup in Bangkok and other big cities.
The new military regime uses the word democracy at every available opportunity and promises to hand power over to a civilian government at some stage. This reflects that the coup leaders have not come to power through a defeat for the working class and rural poor but, rather, on the basis on a political stalemate. Its position is weak. The economy faces the loss of industry to the cheaper labour economy in China. Investment this year is expected to by only 2% compared with 11.5% in 2005. Growth rates dropped from 6.5% in 2004 to 4.5% in 2005 and an expected 4% this year.
While the Tsunami had an obvious negative impact on the economy, the BBC reports that the Asian Development Bank downgraded Thailand’s growth forecast for 2006 and 2007, citing “political uncertainty, higher oil prices and rising interest rates.” The new regime faces these problems as much as Taksin did. The rising oil price (because of international factors plus the cutting of local petrol subsidies) is bumping up inflation, the government is increasing interest rates to stop inflation, leading to a fall in investment. The current account balance is in deficit as the oil price rises. And of all of these facts are from before the coup!
In the South the leaders of the Muslim minority hope that the fact that the coup and Army leader, General Sondhi (no relation to the media tycoon) is Muslim, might lead to a settlement. However this is unlikely as the Bangkok government needs the diversion of an insurgency in the south to divert attention from the effects of its policies. They will not allow the right of self-determination to the Muslims in the south.
The desperate need in Thailand is for a socialist programme and a socialist alternative for the workers, youth and rural poor. By tailending one or other section of the ruling class, the workers and student movement will continue to be betrayed.
On the basis of a socialist programme, a mass movement could be developed to oppose all sections of capitalism and replace this system with a real ‘people’s government’, one that bring into public ownership the key sections of economy allowing a socialist society to begin the task of driving up living standards for all. The CWI encourages all Thais who want to fight for this alternative to contact us now.
By Stephen Jolly