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Behind the Red Shirt uprising

The uprising of the poor and peasant farmers is continuing across Thailand, in spite of yesterday’s violent break-up of the Red Shirt camp in central Bangkok.

Since the democracy protests began in March, about 80 people have been killed, 40 of them this week and possibly more. Shootings took place last night in a Buddhist temple where protesters took refuge as yesterday’s army assault began.

The Red Shirt movement – the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship – began in support of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, but has now gone far beyond simply demanding the recall of the exiled elected Prime Minister.

Shinawatra, now in exile accused of fraud and corruption, enriching his family and friends, was a populist politician and billionaire telecommunications tycoon who introduced reforms to help the rural poor.

He improved education, introduced a free basic universal healthcare system and suspended repayments on farmers’ loans. During his period in office from 2001 to 2007, the number of people living below the poverty line in Thailand halved.

When he was re-elected for an unprecedented second term, his tenure was ended by a military coup, but his party used their parliamentary majority to continue in office. Spurred on by the army and the monarchy, the opposition People’s Alliance for Democracy, went into revolt against the election result, denouncing a democracy where the poor uneducated majority could select the nation’s government.

Their ‘yellow shirt’ revolt was an extra-parliamentary coup against the democratic system. These representatives of the élite were not shot down or accused of terrorism however, quite the opposite: the current Foreign Minister was one of them. The courts dissolved Shinawatra’s party, and the army bullied other MPs into joining a new coalition.

A mass movement demanding a restoration of democracy began and there has been a rolling uprising since March. Prime Minister Abhisit's offer of a new election was a fraud and he would not agree to the protesters’ demand to put on trial those who ordered the shootings. When the army opened fire, the Red Shirt leaders gave themselves up to face terrorism charges.

But a huge banner in the Red Shirt camp proclaimed throughout: “We are not terrorists”. After the army assault, the protesters dispersed and in the course of the day set fire to the stock exchange, several banks and the city’s biggest shopping mall. Throughout it has been not only the government but also the banks and other institutions representing global capital who have been the Red Shirt targets.

When news of the arrests and killings in the capital filtered out, there were protests across the country.

There has been an attempt to present the conflict as between the old feudal countryside and modernising urban dynamism. Others claim it is orchestrated from a distance by Shinawatra. All of this is nonsense. The feudal monarch supports the government and feudalism in Thailand – as everywhere else – is being actively broken up by globalisation and industrialisation.

The Red Shirt movement attracted many young city workers in a country where trade union rights are ignored and poverty wages prevail. But in the end this was not a movement solely about economy, or poverty, but about democratic rights.

It is an important lesson because the issue of democratic rights will galvanise movements against the global capitalist class and their undemocratic rule in every country. The kind of leadership that will enable democratic movements to transform society is top of the agenda for the Taking the Revolutionary Road conference on Saturday.

Penny Cole
20 May 2010

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