Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Coup in Thailand.

As per usual, the coup in Thailand is about restoring democracy. That's what the army claims at any rate: Thaksin Shinawatra is accused of making incursions into the country's democratic structures and so the army, with their long and distinguished concern for the people, have overthrown a government that won two landslide election victories, the first time in 2001 in the most open, corruption free election in Thai history. That election was fought under the 1997 People's Constitution, the result of massive public uprisings against the provisional constitution imposed by a military coup in 1991, which urged that the Senate would be appointed by the military (the National Peace Keeping Council, they called themselves), who would in turn override the elected Congress, and that non-elected officials could be made cabinet ministers (so that an acting military leader might become Premier). That coup administration was brought down by huge revolts in 1992, and a subsequent prolonged fight between the working class and peasants, and the army and ruling class opened up. The 1997 constitution was a classically liberal one, with all sorts of human rights guaranteed, proportional representation introduced, the executive branch strengthened (more in guard against the subventions of political supporters of the military than anything else), and an electoral commission established.

If voting made a difference, they'd ban it: it did make a difference. The government pursued a 'populist' programme of redistributing wealth to the poor by providing universal health care, debt relief for farmers, and development funds for villages. Poverty was massively reduced right across the country, and the economy recovered considerably from the 1997 crash thanks to this Keynesian demand-management.

However, let's not go nuts with admiration: it was a pragmatic concession to the working class and rural poor. The government also implemented an extremely harsh drugs policy, continued to privatise the energy sector, and continued the nepotistic policies that have marked previous governments. The repression of the insurgency in the south of Thailand by Malay Muslim groups was every bit as brutal as before, including a notorious massacre at Tai Bak where the army responded to a local protest by shooting at the crowd, using tear gas and arresting hundreds of local young men. Aside from those killed in the shooting, the army forced the arrested men to lie, stacked on top of one another in trucks, and 78 suffocated to death. However, eventually the government stopped screaming that the insurgency was all Al Qaeda's doing and actually started to try to meet some of the demands through negotiation. The National Reconciliation Commission was set up, and it recommended establishing autonomous 'Islamic' law for the region, allowing Malay-Patani to be the official language, and setting up an unarmed 'peacekeeping' force for the region. The government promised to implement these, but the King's Privy Council opposed the policies vehemently.

This coup has established a military government loyal to the King in advance of the coming elections for the House of Representatives. The 1997 constitution has been quoshed, and reforms such as healthcare, opposed by the medical elite, will likely to be overturned if they can get away with it. The Malays in the Patani province will get no autonomy, and you can look forward to more brutal repression there. The coup was aimed not at the Prime Minister but at the population. There is, predictably, an imperialist history here. Thailand's pro-Axis military government, which had declared war on the US and Britain, kissed and made up with the successful imperial powers afterwards. The US gradually increased its support for the military faction in Thailand so that, eventually, various forms of 'constitutional' rule were supplanted by restoration of Phibun Songkhram, who rapidly got to work suppressing various Red Threats, and US aid became the primary source of the dictator's domestic power in Thailand. Mimicking a pattern seen right across South East Asia, the US military establishment became thoroughly imbricated with the Thai military. The military elite, equipped with billions of US aid dollars, quickly became a crony capitalist elite as well, and military leaders were able to rake off huge monopoly incomes from banks, as well as private and public corporations. This tiny elite was able to take a staggering 12% of national income. Thailand was, of course, a useful aircraft carrier and mercenary supply-chain during the Vietnam War. Popular uprisings coincided with the decline of the US presence in the area, particularly with the prospect of a massive military defeat. In 1973, some 250,000 people massed in Bangkok and forced the temporary retreat of the comprador military-police establishment. During the next three years of moderate reformist government, the far right military opposition that built up was led by General Rojanawisut and Colonel Hatsadinthon, both men with close connections to the US military establishment. The CIA helped the latter to organise a counterrevolutionary force called the Red Gaurs, whose happy vocation it was to organise assassinations, beatings, strike-breaking, media intimidation. Eventually, the left was destroyed and by 1976, the US-sponsored military elite was able to resume control with the assistance of $89.6 million of US arms, more than had been sold to Thailand in the previous 25 years. The King and General Prem Tinsulanonda ruled together for the next fifteen years, and Prem was even able to win a couple of elections with the opposition more or less destroyed. During the 1980s, Thailand collaborated with the US & UK in supporting the restoration of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and - while prosecuting brutal 'wars' on drugs - helped ram American tobacco down Thai throats.

Well, as with Indonesia and the Phillipines and practically everywhere else that the US has crushed democracy, the American government would presumably like to see a managed process of neoliberal reform, with or without the appearance of democracy. This has been happening anyway, and the decades of corrupt autocracy have ensured that capital has a fairly easy time of it, with sweatshops bringing the dictatorship right down to the local and day to day experience of the Thai working class. The US no longer needs Thailand as much as it did during the Cold War and was therefore unwilling to bail out the country during and after the 1997 crisis. However, they had been banking on a 'free trade' agreement with the regime, and are now hoping that when the military 'restores democracy', it can be resuscitated. The military indicates that it will return to a democracy 'loyal to the King', but the King happens to be bearer of class power that has been revived, supplied and protected by the US government for fifty years. I think that 'free trade' agreement will go ahead in short order.

The big concern on the news this morning is what will happen to Thailand's tourist industry.