Thaksin had tried to break the systemic and entrenched amaat network, which uses bourgeois academics, civil society and media as its tools. It is not hard to see why Thaksin continues to be seen as so important to the grassroots-focused red groups. But, as Tunisia (and now Egypt) set examples in the push toward democratic reform, many feel that all red groups must first come together with both a short and long term vision if there is to be successful change and a new democratic future in Thailand.
Red Shirts around Thailand are saying they won’t be duped any longer by the Democrat Party and its alliance, as they were at the previous two elections.
Even with General Prem Tinsulanonda’s political machinations and his overt support for the Democrat Party, people may rise up across the country, if the right conditions are in place and meaningful reform is not carried out. A likely scenario in coming months, given pressure on the governing regime by a handful of ultra-nationalists, could be the dissolution of Parliament and/or a coup by the military–amaat (aristocracy/elites) who may see Abhisit as past his use-by-date. If the various Red Shirt groups are to take advantage of this, they will need to start talking to each other again, and find a common platform for collective action.
Discontented Red Shirts looking for decisive action and a clear vision for change are turning increasingly to Daeng Siam (“Red Siam”). Meanwhile, the late Saedaeng’s (Khattiya Sawasdipol) own dedicated group is still hostile toward mass movement UDD (United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship) core leaders over his sidelining last year, as are the supporters of Surachai Sae Dan for similar reasons.
These and other groups may come together for protest, but they do not always share the same stage. But, among the Red Shirts, many people seem irritated at the seemingly vacillating and indecisive current UDD leadership which lacks a long term plan. Grassroots UDD supporters and the movement’s centre-based leadership are increasingly diverging in thinking in terms of action as some leaders need to listen and reflect more on the voices of the masses.
All new social movements, and this includes UDD, must be able to respond dynamically to the changing aspirations, feelings and needs of grassroots constituencies; otherwise, they will become little more than an elite driven anti-statist movement.
A key schism is now over the role of political parties and the makeup of a democratic government. Acting Chairperson of the UDD, Tida Tawornsed, advocates a parliamentary style of government, but not political parties, and claims that democracy is not an immediate objective for the UDD.
She sees the UDD as a mass social movement without a role in defining a democratic system. For many grassroots supporters the Phue Thai Party (which is evenly divided between progressives looking to make meaningful structural changes and the usual career politicians) and the UDD are inseparable. In Tida’s thinking just who should represent the people in a new political democracy has not been made clear.
The UDD’s immediate tasks are threefold. First, seeking the release of political prisoners (although it is increasingly clear this will not be possible until regime change is effected); second, it is focused on the pursuit of justice and accountability for the massacres of 2010; third, it seeks the dissolution of Parliament and the current regime.
In particular, supporters of Red Siam are more action oriented than many other red groups and some perceive UDD as focused more on appeasement with the regime and back-door deals than on planning for structural changes. Surachai comes from the south (as with most of the red core leaders) and lives on the move most of the time from invitations around the country.
He sees UDD as a broad based social movement concerned with seeking reforms that he feels may not realistically happen in the current skewed political context. Red Siam is a grassroots social movement that seeks democratic change at all institutional levels. Surachai fears that violence may likely arise from a situation where no public space is allowed for peaceful change or other external factors such as the military or its parastatal groups initiate acts of violence.
Many Red Shirts still believe that it is only Thaksin who has the ability to mobilise all forces and change the feudalistic amaat system because he was close to doing this before he was dumped, and because the social influence of the dominant Thai elite is so pervasive in the shaping of civic attitudes and values. The Thai education system only teaches people how to work under the regime and its dominant cultural value system. There is no focus in Thai education on civic duty, only on self-interest and advancement. In light of this, one may question who government officials and civil servants actually work for? It is certainly not the people, the argument runs.
Neither do the amaat work for the nation, but for self-interest. Getting rid of Thaksin was a means of quelling popular aspirations. Now, as the people are beginning to demand change the amaat need to impose more and more repressive instruments to control society through politics. People at the base are no longer ignorant or ill-informed, a point certainly not lost on Surachai but sadly missed by a civil society (NGOs and media) that maintains its patronage and benefits under the old regime. A reactionary Thai civil society will play no major part in any democratic social revolution as it is out of touch with the grassroots.
Author: Jim Taylor, University of Adelaide
Dr Jim Taylor is a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Adelaide.
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