At the time of writing the streets of Bankok in Thailand give all the appearance of a civil war. Thousands of protestors, organised in the ‘Red Shirt' movement, have set up a barricaded camp and are now being besieged by the army, who have declared parts of the city to be ‘live fire zones', with the aim of intimidating the protestors and preventing the arrival of any reinforcements. The government's troops killed at least 16 people on 14 May alone. They have claimed to be acting in self-defence and following strict rules of engagement, but the Red Shirts are armed mainly with sticks and stones. What's more the troops have clearly been using snipers against specific targets: a dissident general who had joined the Red Shirts and was advising them on security was shot in the head from long distance and is unlikely to survive.
There is little doubt that the bulk of the Red Shirts are made up of Thailand's poor and dispossessed. Many of those in the camp are from the peasant areas of the north and northwest of the country, but they also seem to be gaining support from the urban poor. According to an article in Time magazine cited on the World Socialist Website (‘Ten dead as Thai military lays siege to protesters', 15/5/10), during the clashes "the soldiers also came under attack from behind after hundreds of slum dwellers from the port neighbourhood of Klong Toey spilled onto the streets to fire rockets and sling shots at the troops... When the Klong Toey mob kept advancing, the soldiers opened fire with rubber bullets. Hundreds of people turned, ducked and ran in a panic, streaming into side streets. At least three people were injured."
There is no doubt about the courage of the protestors, nor about the fact that what has driven them into the streets is the impoverishment heaped on them not only by the current world crisis, but also by the impact of the downfall of the far eastern ‘Tigers' and ‘Dragons' in 1997 and of decades of ‘underdevelopment' before that. But the Red Shirt movement is not a movement of the exploited and the oppressed fighting for their own independent interests. Rather it is an example of deep popular discontent being chanelled in a false direction - the struggle to replace the current clique of militarists and millionaires running Thailand with another bourgeois faction. The principal demand of the Red Shirts is for new, fairer elections and the reinstatment of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who gained a good deal of popularity among the rural poor after he came into office in 2001 by offering farmers easy credit and subsidies and keeping crop prices high; there were also ‘reforms' aimed at the urban masses in the shape of access to healthcare. These changes created a backlash from some of the more well-established parts of the ruling class and parts of the middle class (who sometimes parade around as the ‘Yellow Shirt Movement') and in particular the military, who ousted Thaksin in 2006. But the main objection to Thaksin was less his ‘support' for the peasants or prolearians than the fact that he was beginning to run Thailand as his own personal corporation. Thaksin was a ‘new money' media billionaire and his style of government was cutting across traditional lines of influence and privilege that unite the state bureacuracy and the army.
There have been statements coming from elements within the Red Shirt movement about ‘getting rid of the elite', attempts to appeal to the soldiers to join them, interviews with supporters for whom the return of Thaksin is not really a priority. These are indications that a movement raising real class demands could emerge in Thailand in the future. But the Red Shirt campaign - whose official title is the ‘National United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship' - is an obstacle to the development of such a movement because it is geared towards the installation of a ‘proper' bourgeois democracy in Thailand, and such a goal has long ceased to have any use to the working class. As we wrote in the conclusion to a recent online article, ‘Kyrgyzstan and Thailand: Are revolutions going on ?':
"The ‘Red Shirt' movement is basically one of the urban and rural poor, mobilised behind the new bourgeoisie, who are opposed to the ‘old' military and monarchist factions. It is not a movement of, or controlled by, the working class. The only workers' action during this period, a strike of 8,000 workers at the Camera maker Nikon, emerged completely independently of the ‘Red Shirt' movement.
And here lies the central point of our argument. These so-called ‘revolutions', like the ‘Green movement' in Iran recently, are not movements of the working class. Yes, there are many workers involved in them, and probably in the case of Kyrgyzstan a majority of the participants were workers, but they take part in these actions as individuals not as workers. The movement of the working class is one that can only be based upon class struggle of workers for their own interests, not cross-class alliances and populist movements. It is only within a massive movement of strikes that the working class can develop its own organs, mass meetings, strike committees and ultimately workers' councils, that can assert working class control over the movement, and develop a struggle for working class interests. Outside of this perspective is only the possibility of workers being used as cannon-fodder for different political factions. In Greece, perhaps, we can see the very start of the long slow development towards this process. In Kyrgyzstan, and Thailand, we only see workers getting shot down in the streets on behalf of those who want to be the new bosses". Amos 15/5/10