March 31, 2009

Country Needs Change, So He Wants to Make History

This piece appeared in the Bangkok Post on 2nd April "Country Needs Change, So He Wants to Make History"

Going for History

Having long hoped for an intra-elite solution to his circumstance, and having failed dismally, Thaksin Shinawatra has now opted for history making. And he’s inviting the people to make it with him, to bring back “true democracy”.

“Thailand Needs Change”, read the banner behind the ex-prime minister as he delivered his address from an unknown location to his red-shirted supporters gathered around Government House in Bangkok on Monday night (30th March).

On screen he attacked the Privy Council and the military. Having promised to name his opponents when he fled to England last year, it has taken visa revocation, further legal stings and the termination of two crony governments by the courts to untie his tongue.

The will to take on a system fully and in name is a watershed moment, but Thaksin is only half there, reserving his fatal revelations only for the Privy Council. Thaksin has rarely looked like the bourgeois revolutionary that others have hoped him to be. His pledges of loyalty to the monarchy, his prostration before a picture of the king while in exile in Hong Kong, and his government’s genuflection to sufficiency economy while in office do not suggest a republican sentiment. Ideologically speaking, Thaksin never had a republic in mind, and his continued public declaration of loyalty to the monarchy should not be taken as a ruse.

But now, with all the fervour and emotion of focus-group demographics, he is striding forth as the symbol of that promiscuous variable – democracy. This, even as some in the pro-Thaksin Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD) have long believed that Thaksin uses the popular movement for his own ends. They too are willing to use him.

The question to ask is why does a self-declared democratic movement fall back on someone like Thaksin, a gifted but impulsive political operator so frightfully contradictory that any popular movement that returned him to power would need to watch its back.

The answer to that question, and to progressive acquiesce to rival elite camps more broadly, lies in organization and politics. As long argued by Ji Giles Ungpakorn, there is a lack of independent pro-democratic and leftwing forces of sufficient size and clarity to intervene in struggles in such a way as to advance a progressive agenda. In such organizational absence, individual leftists and progressives have joined both the yellow and red camps, seeking a free ride through history for their more radical politics.

In doing so, they have momentarily ironed out contradictions, refused to reveal their politics, and failed to come to terms with the limits of their influence. This strategy of simplification reveals itself as a politics of alliance, silence and accusation; alliance with the “lesser evil”; silence on the former and on their own politics; accusations directed at the “greater evil”.

They have surrendered in part the responsibility to offer criticism publicly (necessarily circumspect) of things they criticize privately. Both red and yellow movements are partly led by phrase-coiners and image-makers who deliberately, on message, manage and distort, seeking to win support by insincere argument and selective truth.

This raises the question of the place of honesty and openness in social change. And it raises the issue of political adventurism, for a failure to fully appreciate the social forces at play in street politics is prone to dangerous consequences.

The People’s Alliance for Democracy may be episode one in this scenario, the DAAD episode two.

Since the coup of 2006, each incident has been grist for the mill of partisan interpretation. Countervailing facts are not to get in the way of propaganda, winning an argument, or making the case for the anti or pro-Thaksin forces. Moreover, there has been moral and peer compulsion to take sides, with people’s commitment to democracy questioned depending on the perspective of the judge and executioner.

“Democracy lovers” the world over have rallied hard and long for the pro-Thaksin forces (red-shirts, politicos and an amorphous mass), while painting the anti-Thaksin forces as reactionary and under the control of conspiratorial elements in the military, palace and privy council. There is little recognition of the democratic and liberal impulse that mobilized thousands of people against Thaksin. Moreover, Pro-Thaksinites or pro-redshirts have painted NGOs as stooges and out of touch, long-time human rights activists are maligned by those who judge their work to be tainted by political bias, and one time pro-democracy heroes are denounced as fascist demagogues.

Given the events of the last three years, it’s not hard to see how a plausible case can be made that the principle struggle now unfolding is between democracy and authoritarianism (with pro-Thaksin forces awkwardly assuming the democracy mantle). The facts seem to speak for themselves: coup, contested constitutional referendum, party annulment of TRT and PPP, and the recent installation of a Democrat-led coalition as government.

To that case, the famous Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci has the best response: “A given socio-historical moment is never homogeneous; on the contrary, it is rich in contradictions.” The “democratic versus authoritarian” narrative that has captured international attention is as misconceived as it is overbearingly homogenous.

Little attention has been given to the contradictions that exist in Thailand today, with political discourse captured by yellow/red-coloured politics of illusion/delusion, and their respective cheer squads.

The struggle has multiple dimensions, no doubt, but a dominant feature of recent events has been the pacting of statist conservatives and elite liberals against the emergent competitive authoritarianism that Thaksin represented before his fall from office. The politics of the recent past have not been a war of the rich against the poor – a view that has oddly become popular - but of regime type against regime type.

The statist-liberal pact is a historical compromise of some weight, with various institutional and ideological mechanisms in place (including network monarchy/royal liberalism). Since the 1980s liberals and statists have co-operated and contested regime form. After May 1992 and successive defeats, statist conservatives and liberals moved to an uneasy compromise represented in the 1997 constitution. As history now records, that attempt to politically engineer the emergence of liberal democracy with a “strong executive” partly assisted Thaksin’s authoritarian rise.

And so now it is back to the future, with the current situation being one of liberals and statists occupying a complex political terrain of contest and cooperation (something short of an alliance). They seek to return Thailand to a path that is mutually acceptable, some form of elite liberal-conservative hybrid democracy.

They may not succeed in this.

Protests led by the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship may intensify and develop the infrastructure required for long term political mobilization. Open sentiment against aristocratic privilege and bureaucratic/ military power may become a political force. The shoddy ambitions of a one-time authoritarian leader might well morph into a more enduring egalitarian ethos that comes to challenge the historical pact of statists and liberals.

But where such politics will end in the absence of principled political leadership which can speak openly about the failings of its chosen symbol, and which acknowledges the democratic malaise (2001-2006) under the man who now promises to return Thailand to a “true democracy”, no one knows.