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Getting Real on Strategies: learning from the past

Accepting the status quo, while at the same time claiming to fight against it, comes with some contradictions for UDD/Phue Thai Party. This will not appease all factions of the red shirts. Despite rhetoric of resistance and lots of emotive and expressive language at mass gatherings, there is little indication of a combined longer term vision or even of an ideology on which to achieve democracy. Neither has there been any intellectual discussion about what form that “democracy” should take, other than an assumption that it must come from the ballot box; that it must be built on the aspirations of the majority electorate. But an election under the current “rules of the game” established post 19 September 2006 can at best only be a means of redistributing political and economic benefits and in establishing new power sharing arrangements.

We can learn lessons from elsewhere, “Tunisia, Egypt, Libya” [quote Nuttawut], and now ...Yemen, Syria and Jordan. But we should be cautious about the dangers of social and political mimicry; of bringing these experiences directly into the Thai context without critical analysis. So what lessons can we learn closer to Thailand? The failure of the Nepalese Maoist/People’s revolution in 2010 may be one case study. Secret US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks on March 15 (http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/47237) show that former US ambassador to Nepal, James Moriarty, actively sought to destabilise Nepal’s peace process in order to prevent a Maoist rise to power, such intervention is outrageous — especially as it is for the purpose of suppressing the people and their just demands. As well, behind the scenes, the US was opposing democratic change in Nepal — and seeking out political forces that could continue the king’s repression. Moriarty also encouraged the US government to prepare further large arms shipments to suppress the revolutionary movement. This begs the question: Has the US been doing anything in Thailand to suppress the people’s democratic movement?

Here are some points for reflection:

1. As the saying goes, “old wine in new bottles”: Assuming there will be an election, changing government but not the regime which controls financial and cultural capital and the distribution of network benefits, is not going to make an iota of difference to democratising Thailand’s institutions. But if UDD want to go down this track, getting off at the next station - then so be it. They will find out later on. But, UDD must also take the initiative to coordinate with other red shirt groups who have chosen to take other horizontal revolutionary lines. But in fact, in terms of achieving democracy based on historical factors this is a short sighted venture by UDD in the hope for immediate and incremental gains. Accepting the “rules of the game” assumes ipso facto acceptance of the regime that wrote the rules and can change the rules whenever it suits them. In any case while winning elections may change the music, it will not change those orchestrating or conducting the ensemble. Even given the massive electoral result of Samak and Somchai the regime would not allow them a space to govern. Red shirts need a strategy to weaken the entrenched power of the regime; they need to know how to identify targets within the bureaucracy which controls and dominates the state economy and those hardcore cultural reactionaries among the elites. The democracy movement needs to understand the functions of the military and work on fault lines.

2. Centre-Nation dominance; elites control centres. Now, we should learn that the use of mass demonstrations at single sites only wearies local resident bourgeoisie and makes it tactically easy for the regime to “encircle” demonstrators from three directions and shoot them at will. The Abhisit regime lied to the nation and to the world saying that it wanted to simply “disperse” people at the protest site. Raacha’prasong was a sniper’s paradise. Single sites of mass protest are always vulnerable to a neo-fascist (Thai falange) regime.

3. Rhizomes are best. We must learn from the “rhizome” metaphor (deployed creatively by the late European radical philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari) as a modality of resistance. It is best to use coordinated multiple sites; a dispersed network of focused groups that can appear and disappear simultaneously at various sites. If one site is destroyed, then another can maintain its local control. This confuses the regime. Encouraging the masses to come in from the periphery to the centre over a sustained period of time last year was a mistake in the situation of dealing with a (then) desperate, cornered military, elite regime. It also created financial hardship and burden on small farmers. Here we should also learn from the South Korean Kwangju student uprising, 18 May, 2008: students occupied a single strategic site and were in the end simply sitting targets for the fascist guns.

4. Lack of innovation: The Red Shirt core leaders did not (do not?) have any innovative models for the demonstrations to be used under various conditions. A strategic “Assemble-Action-Disperse” (AAD) model would have been more effective at multiple sites such as Raacha’prasong and even, in retrospect, saved lives. UDD leaders had only their passion, trust and rhetorical skills, not strategic experience. They should have therefore listened more to two experienced red shirt strategists: Khattiya Sawasdipol “Saedaeng” and Surachai “Sae Dan” Danwattananusorn.

5. “No 112” red shirt groups: The other mass red-shirt concerns now relate to “112” which have been shunned by UDD, which indicates that the movement’s leaders need some fine tuning. Indeed, if not careful, the UDD core leaders may be seen as “grandstanding”, impervious to criticism or ideas from the base. New leaders (even some of the students on smaller stages recently) need to be encouraged to come forward and work with more experienced core leaders learning to listen to the grassroots, reflect, and take the democracy process forward through collective action.

6. A weak international network in the Thai diaspora meant that the red shirts were not able to generate support at the time easily outside Thailand. But then neither of course can red shirts talk in agreement among themselves in terms of a joint action plan. A starting point (not an end point) must be 112 because it is the heart; otherwise the movement will lose credibility at home and abroad. The red shirt movement must somehow re-present itself to the international community and media as the “prodemocracy” movement instead of being seen as “anti-government” (CNN, BBC, etc.), otherwise it will not generate international sympathy/support as we see in North Africa.

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8. The use of snipers against unarmed demonstrators has not generated a great deal of wrath or condemnation outside Thailand because of the effective counter-propaganda. Anti-colonial movements after WWII and liberation campaigns in Eastern Europe and more recently in North Africa cannot be a measuring device for the Thai context: “Tunisia, Egypt, Libya” (!) This is especially where structural contradictions and the nature of social fragmentation need to be well understood before action considered. In this regard, Surachai Sae Dan has tried to enlighten people around the country at the cost of incarceration and his isolation by UDD core leaders. The masses are told to keep it all in their heads – not “paak sawaang”! So much for moving forward; knowledge shared is inextricably connected to empowerment. But it all needs an organisation and leadership otherwise, as one early revolutionary noted: “the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box...” (Leon Trotsky 1934, The history of the Russian revolution).

9. The last as the most despised: The Thai media has a lot to account for in generating the current crisis and its persistence over the past five or six years in distorting truths for self-interest, personal and network aggrandisement and in consolidating political and economic allegiances. Morality, sadly, plays no part in today’s elite constructed media conflict. Maintaining alternative media channels is essential for the red shirts. Boycott mainstream Thai media. As the media lose business then it will come round eventually.

In summary, it is time for red shirts to start getting strategic and coordinate properly for effective action. Take a lesson from the failure last year, reflect and identify an innovative action model to achieve a mutually desired outcome. Democracy does not come through compromise; neither does it comes from the top-down. It comes from the bottom and when all factors are united.

Jim Taylor
Anthropology,
The University of Adelaide

3 April 2011