On Thailand, what would Trotsky say?

If the Thai Red Shirts want real change, they could do with reading History of the Russian Revolution.

Bill Durodié
Academic

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According to some sources, recent publications circulated by the organisational arm of the Red Shirts in Thailand – the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) – ‘offer history lessons on the French and the Russian revolutions’. According to their detractors, such references to past revolutions demonstrate the republican leanings of the UDD leaders, despite the fact that the Red Shirts have been demanding free elections and the resignation of prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva rather than an overthrow of the monarchy. In a country where expressing anti-monarchy views is still indictable under archaic lèse majesté laws, recently backed up by draconian Internal Security Act provisions, these are serious charges.

But the publication that both sides of the current political impasse in Thailand really could do with reading carefully is Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. In this magisterial work, Trotsky laid no claim to impartiality, but rather sought to expose ‘the actual process of the revolution’. As the insurrection in Thailand develops, considering how Trotsky’s analysis can be used as a ‘playbook’ of the way in which such events unfold is really eye-opening.

One trend that Trotsky identified was the use of ‘conspiracy’ as one of the prime accusations made by the ruling class – consciously or not – in their attempts to demobilise the masses at a time of insurrection. Members of the elite are unable to understand through their ‘police mind’ that periods of rapid change stem, not from ‘the activities of “demagogues”’, but from the precise opposite – the ‘deep conservatism’ of the masses, whose views lag chronically ‘behind new objective conditions’. As a result, the elite focuses narrowly on ‘the deliberate undertaking of the minority’, whilst ignoring ‘the spontaneous movement of the majority’. Trotsky adds: ‘Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box… But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.’

The reality on the ground in Bangkok confirms this insight. Far from threatening Thailand’s royalty, the Red Shirts maintain an overly deferential position towards the monarchy. In response to allegations of a plot to overthrow King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Red Shirt leaders have put great store behind proving otherwise by holding up portraits of the Thai King and Queen at recent rallies. Whether such displays of loyalty are merely tactical remains to be seen, but they point to the possible chronic contradictions that exist within the Red Shirt movement. The King himself did not comment on the situation during his public appearance for Coronation Day yesterday.

Two weeks ago, possibly with a view to encouraging loose talk or even stealing the moral high-ground from the Red Shirts, the Thai foreign minister, Kasit Piromya, controversially mooted the need to re-examine the role of the monarchy. As Trotsky recorded, conspiracies, apparent policy U-turns, divisions and intrigue abound, but these frequently originate from within the government camp.

Understanding how a situation changes and develops is crucial. For example, some within the media – and within the Red Shirt movement itself – have only belatedly understood that support for the deposed former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, may not have been central to developments in Thailand.

Another example is the proposal by the Election Commission – an unelected group of officials charged with managing and overseeing elections in Thailand – that the Constitutional Court be asked to dissolve the ruling party for failing to report donations and misuse of funds. This seems to have confused many, on all sides. Indeed, the Red Shirt leaders now appear to view the commission as some kind of neutral body. In reality, like many other bodies with little authority other than that vested in them by statute, the commissioners most probably had their eye on their own survival.

In a period of insurrection, there is a big difference between official power and real support, something the Thai prime minister is only now starting to learn. Three weeks ago, after the first bloody clashes in the capital, which left over 20 dead and many hundreds more injured, it looked as if the tensions within the elites might come to a head. Vejjajiva was accused by supporters of his own regime of being too weak, and he handed direct control over security matters from his defence minister, Prawit Wongsuwan, to the chief of the army, General Anupong Paochinda.

But General Paochinda’s resolve has also been called into question. He is on record as stating that the current situation is a political problem that ‘must be solved by political means’, and that he is not inclined to intervene. There followed a protracted discussion about army people being possible ‘water melons’ (green on the outside, but red at the core). Accusations have flown that Red Shirt leaders received advance warnings of army and police raids to arrest them and that they escaped, in the full glare of media publicity, as the forces charged with their capture stood idly by.

Such possibilities should hardly come as a surprise. Already in 1930 Trotsky noted: ‘If an army as a whole is a copy of society, then when society openly splits, both armies are copies of the two warring camps.’ He continued: ‘The army of the possessors contained the wormholes of isolation and decay.’ In October 1917, many in the Russian army joined the Bolsheviks, while their commanders either stood aside or pretended in their own turn to have swapped sides. Likewise, in Thailand today, it would seem as if there are many, aside from some in elite squadrons, who would be unlikely to turn on the multitude of middle-aged ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ from the north of the country and beyond, who constitute much of this new, if unlikely, fledgling red army.

Writing in a more despairing tone for a regional paper recently, Kraisak Choonhavan, the deputy leader of Vejjajiva’s incumbent Democrat Party, lambasted those in the international media who have portrayed the protests in Bangkok as some kind of ‘class struggle between rich urban elites and the poor rural mass’. His complaint was that the Red Shirt platform is ‘without a clear programme of social and political reform to follow’. He, too, could do with reading Trotsky, who wrote that ‘the masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old régime’.

Whether or not that ‘sharp feeling’ is constructively channelled will, of course, depend greatly on the skill and political acumen of political leaders. These, as in 1917, ‘were little known to anybody when the year began’, and indeed, a cursory glance through the list of 24 arrest warrants issued for Red Shirt leaders by the Thai authorities confirms that none has much of a profile, save for what has recently been reported about them in the media.

Trotsky also understood that the middle classes can be crucial at breaking-point periods. The middle classes in Thailand are extremely unnerved by the current situation. Like those in the media, academia, the government and the ‘international community’ who express concern about the economic impact of the protests, they are particularly ill-suited to handling the impact of uncertainty upon their immediate, narrow and privatised concerns. The finance minister, Korn Chatikavanij, recently suggested that the Red Shirt protests could reduce the growth rate by two per cent if continued to the end of the year, while there has been much discussion of the supposed wider ramifications for the reputation of Thailand vis-à-vis the ‘international community’.

For the middle classes, making profit today is more vital to them than achieving democracy and freedom tomorrow – even for their own children. So much for the long-term, social view of business.

The key element now is timing. In his chapter on ‘The Art of Insurrection’, Trotsky explored the difficulties of, and political nous required for, knowing just when to initiate action. The more conscious elements of the movement would be chomping at the bit, fearing that the moment has passed, while other social layers would only just be waking up to the possibilities of the situation.

In Thailand, the media, and others, have accused the Red Shirts of overstepping the line through their recent takeover and occupation of a hospital. This was done to ensure that army forces were not in hiding there. But Weng Tojirakorn, one of the Red Shirt leaders, has now apologised for this act. In fact, it is this apology that suggests that those who earlier had organised such galvanising activities as a mass collection of blood from their supporters – to daub over the streets – may now have gone somewhat on the defensive.

The insurrection may be undone by tactical errors. For example, some Red Shirt leaders have agreed publicly to hand themselves in to the authorities on 15 May, come what may, while asking various international organisations and institutions to send observers to Bangkok. Martyrdom and handing the initiative to external busy-bodies have never been successful strategies.

Such moves have allowed the cabinet, holed-up for months in the eleventh Infantry Regiment’s barracks in the capital, to reassert a modicum of control. They have robustly declined offers of assistance from outside, despite the shrill and irrelevant voices predicting civil war and demanding mediation emanating from the likes of the International Crisis Group in Brussels and Human Rights Watch in New York.

This week, the prime minister offered to hold elections in November and to commence a process of ‘reconciliation’, so long as the protesters went home and observed a set of other conditions. The Red Shirt leaders, in turn, indicated their inclination to accept the deal, so long as a date for the dissolution of parliament was announced and the Election Commission appointed to handle the process. The ruling party have now tentatively put September forward as the date for this but, as some have pointed out, by then they may be disbanded as a party by the Constitutional Court. Such a situation would allow the possibility for any interim establishment to renege on such commitments.

This is a crucial moment for the Thai insurrection. Following Trotsky’s metaphor, it may be time for the steam to reassert its primacy over the piston. Certainly, it is now the response of the ordinary Red Shirts to the so-called ‘roadmap’, and their own leaders’ willingness to accept it, that will determine whether real change is achieved or whether Thailand continues – as the locals say – to be ‘same, same, but different’.

Bill Durodié is a senior fellow in the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Bill Durodié argued that the Red Shirts could potentially reinvent democracy in Thailand. Brendan O’Neill asked why the calls for democracy in Nepal were met with ambivalence in the West and said it is time we, like Nepal, called for the abolition of the monarchy. Mick Hume said Burma needs democratic revolution, not intervention. Kirk Leech witnessed a deluge of moral posturing over Burma. Or read more at spiked issue Asia.

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