“Red Shirts” in Thailand: The Populists’ Case

Thai elections, February 2nd of this year

Thai elections, February 2nd of this year – courtesy Forbes

You should have seen me this past week, staring at my computer screen, paralyzed by the cascade of philosophical implications of the Thai protests, trying to reach through the deluge of ideas and pick the most relevant out of a thousand possible topics. Occasionally I would make a valiant attempt. I would muster my courage and mount a sortie into one particular field – a Thought Blog version of the Charge of the Light Brigade – only to be rebuffed by the terrifying mound of worms pouring out from the can I had so foolishly opened.

Yet again I had set out to write a blog post, but chosen a topic fit for a thesis. Yet again I had approached what was meant to be an insightful, sincere and light-hearted blog with an academic’s disposition and a philosopher’s obsession with covering every loophole and tangent. And yet again I had emerged with pages full of well-intentioned but off-the-point drivel scarcely interesting even to me, let alone to all the innocent Internet passersby who might be victimized by its banality.

I have come to accept that this is part of the process for me. Anyone who engages me in regular conversations will have noticed my penchant for what I call “philosophical acceleration” – the never-ending tendency to take small comments, extract them to their essence, and project from that essence sweeping principles of existence, consciousness and morality.

I happen to love this part of myself and connect it intimately with my own identity; however, this does not stop me from sympathizing with acquaintances who pop by my flat on Conversation Street hoping for a quick “How d’you do?” and find themselves locked in a soliloquy on the implications of existence.

I do try to limit this tendency as much as possible, but I’m afraid it comes with Jonno territory. We all have our flaws, as the saying goes. Mine just happens to be an exaggerated fondness for ideas and words – a combination whose tediousness is, mercifully, mitigated by a certain lovability. If my pomposity indicts me, I am pardoned by the fact I cannot help it.

Nevertheless, although there is a certain desire to pontificate embedded in the very idea of this blog, you may take me as fully sincere when I say that I have no wish to subject you unwillingly to the e’er expanding trails of my meandering imagination. Some day I may write a full treatise on the reign of Thaksin Shinawatra and its implications for our definitions of justice, but today is not that day. And when I do, it will take the form of a book or lengthy essay, and you will not be subjected to it by innocently clicking on the Though Blog link.

Today is not the day for treatises. It is, rather, the day for speculations, insights and that venerated practice of educated guessing. This is a blog, after all. Not, as I so often seem to think, a term paper.

So then. Off to Thailand.

The last post was dedicated to a brief history of the Thaksin regime that set the foundation for the current protests. Now, after having described to the best of my ability the key issues that gave rise to the current crisis, here is my take on them.1

The first thing that must be acknowledged is that what is happening in Thailand has clearly classist undertones (even overtones). So today I write about class.

I realize this is an uncomfortable topic for many and a sensitive topic for nearly all. But I implore you not to let that keep you from reading. As I said in the foundational post of this blog, the “uncomfortable” topics are often the most important. It does us no good to try to ignore them, for they will not go away. Indeed, the longer we choose to live in willful obliviousness, the longer these problems fester untended in the numbed sinews of our society. It is only through civil (in both meanings of the word) discourse we will ever rise above our squeamish fear of these “unmentionables” and, in so doing, begin to solve the problems that lie beneath.

In Thailand, the class struggle has adopted conveniently symbolic colors. The “yellow shirts” are the current protesters, comprised of mainly urban elites of Bangkok and the middle class of the (minority) Thai south. The “red shirts” are the loyal supporters of first Thaksin and then, after his exile, Yingluck Shinawatra. Though certain advocates of the “yellow shirt” crowd have argued that this is more than a case of urban vs. rural / farmers vs. the middle class, one cannot help but notice that essentially all the protesters are citizens of Bangkok and the south and fall into the merchant/shop owner/financier class, while the “red shirts” defending the Shinawatras are almost exclusively farmers and petty merchants in the north and northeast.

No matter where it manifests itself, class struggle is nothing new. There are a great many conflicting and difficult questions of justice whose intersections meet at the crossroads between socio-economic classes. Throw in a government acting as a sort of referee of unclear jurisdiction and the picture becomes even more convoluted. In countries like America, where Adam Smith is worshipped like a god whose name has been forgotten and socialism is feared like a faceless devil whose name will never be, these questions often pass unvoiced – or, if not that, certainly unacknowledged in the public sphere.

Yet this does not mean these questions do not exist. They are very real. They are, in fact, inevitable, and for the simplest reasons. The interests of the different classes in such dramatically stratified society will always conflict. It is in the very nature of society and the very essence of material life. The conditions that allow the elite to prosper are those most onerous to the common person: cheap labor, long hours, small-scale social programs, etc. The former party wishes nothing more than the perpetuation of these conditions. The latter wishes nothing more than their transformation. Hence the inevitable conflict.

Still, as inherent and persistent as these conflicts may be, like a tear in one’s clothes they may be ignored. Life may be carried on with, and for a time it may even seem that this small blemish will have no great effect on the management of day-to-day existence.

Yet although we may derive some small comfort from our intentional ignorance, the tear needs not our acknowledgement to do its work. It is perfectly happy to and perfectly capable of persisting in its slow sabotage regardless of whether we pay it any heed. The greater the gap in lifestyle and daily reality between the classes, the more volatile the conflict becomes. The larger the tear becomes, and the harder to ignore.

When a populist leader like Thaksin Shinawatra comes into power, all the underlying conflicts of interest, latent resentments and differing goals inherent in class division come to the fore. The tear in society’s fabric is exposed. This is necessarily so because the very center of a populist’s platform is a rectification of justice for the majority – which is, in nearly every society throughout history, the poor and suffering. To the affluent and flourishing, however, a “rectification” for the masses is by definition antithetical toward their own interests and could scarcely be otherwise. After all, it was on the status quo they rose to their privileged and comfortable position. The countermanding of that status quo is a countermanding of their privilege.

Worse, the systematic ignorance of the rift between the classes – that ever-widening tear in society’s fabric which by default benefits the privileged – is blatantly, flagrantly exposed by the populist leader. Illuminated by his words, the lingering arguments and long-entrenched rifts between the wealthy and the poor, having previously been only partially voiced with little chance of adjudication now find themselves not only at the center of public debate but attached to the possibility of redress through the power of the vote.

Suddenly, the comparatively poor have two things they previously had not: a vivid, publicly acknowledged awareness of their struggles, and the possibility of what they view as rectification. The former ignites the latent conflicts as kerosine to hot embers. The latter sparks activity on the side of the formerly docile. And fear in the hearts of the elite.

In Thailand, the rural farmers of the north were until the Thaksin regime as Roman farmers were before the ascension of Julius Caesar: subsistence agriculturalists at best; landed peasants at worst. A democracy they may have lived in, but they had not the education to be conscious of their power as voting citizens nor the luxury of candidates who showed even the slightest regard for their plight. Politics was a thing for the middle and upper classes, and especially for the bustling capital of Bangkok, whose population is a full thirty times larger than the next-largest metropolis in the country.

The chief way in which “developing” countries like Thailand (though it has been growing quite rapidly for some time now) differ from what we call “developed” nations is not in the affluence of the rich. A rich man such as Thaksin Shinawatra would be as exorbitantly rich in America as he is in his home nation.

No, it is not the situation of the rich but that of the poor that marks a “developing” nation for what it is. A poor man in the United States is likely to be on welfare, live in a run-down house in a dodgy neighborhood and eat food of poor quality, but most are able to get by. Though for most of those reading this blog this would not an enviable life, it is a mark of our privilege that this is the case. For the so-called “third-world” poor – literally billions of people throughout the world – a ramshackle house in a shoddy Milwaukee neighborhood with the luxury of food stamps, welfare and medicaid would be an unimaginable step up from their current condition.

The struggles of the “developing” (which I put in quotes in acknowledgment of its faintly pretentious, subjective irony) are struggles that have plagued humanity from its earliest days: hunger, severe malnourishment, not the faintest access to reliable health care, dirty or infected water, severe under-education and – always, as surely as the rising sun – abuse from their fellow humans, be they landlords threatening to possess their property or criminals threatening to take it by force. While there are instances of all of these in the first world, as well, they are much rarer and generally less severe. In the third world, they are common. The expression “first-world problem” did not earn its name unjustly.

Thus, when we talk about the struggles of the “poor” and “rural” in Thailand, we must not fall into the trap of embodying them in the comparatively tame images to which we of the first world are accustomed to attaching the words “poor” and “rural.” To be a “poor, rural farmer” in Thailand has historically meant being isolated, impoverished and marginalized in a way we of more affluent nations associate with bygone times like the dark ages or – in the best-case scenario – the Great Depression.

It was to these people Thaksin Shinawatra appealed in his political campaigns. And while presumably there had been benevolent dictators from time to time in the kingdom of Thailand’s history – which is to say, men who paid comparatively more attention to the toiling masses than privileged monarchs are generally wont to do – it can be credibly said that his doing so represented the very first time in the people’s entire history that a democratic leader offered the poor three things: an affirmation of their dignity, an awareness of the needlessness of their suffering, and the power to have a voice in their own governance.

When a group of people have been marginalized for a long time, even the fact of their own marginalization becomes but a dimly sensed suspicion lingering dully at the recesses of their consciousness. Born into poverty and helplessness and taught since birth that the monarch had a divine right to the throne and that it was their sacred duty to toil in squalor and poverty in “this life,” the peasants of feudal Europe labored slavishly for centuries. But the fact of their servitude is less surprising than their pitiful embrace of it. Not only did they submit to the authority of the lords – an act which, were it born of fear, we might grudgingly understand – but they did more. They believed themselves to be inherently inferior to the nobles and royals. They accepted their confinement with the docility only ingrained indoctrination can achieve.

It is only when we understand this – the unconscionable and revolting sickness of enslaving a people and telling them their slavery is part of the natural order; the atrocity of having children growing up believing this deprecating and dehumanizing lie – that we may begin to understand the rage that drove events like the French Revolution. Bloody and terrifying as it was, I cannot begin to imagine the flood of hatred and revulsion that would well up in me if, having spent the prime of my life in degrading toil and the belief I was not worthy of even basic human dignity, I suddenly realized I was made of the same essential stuff as the lord I had served until my back became crooked, my form wretched, my hands gnarled and stiff.

What might a man not be tempted to do in the face of such appalling and inexcusable injustice? What would he not give, upon realization, for even the slightest chance at rectifying the untold centuries of oppression and exploitation?

This – the boundless desire for a rectification that aligns with our internal sense of justice – is the power granted a populist leader, such as Thaksin Shinawatra, who appeals to a previously-oppressed populace for the strength of his campaign. In doing so he does not simply gain votes and momentum. He unlocks something powerful, something latent, something buried deep within all of us. It is the part of us called “dignity,” the part that knows I, base as I am, am as worthy of consideration as the most hallowed and sanctified ruler of any religion or nation.

Nothing could be more dangerous for the entrenched elite who, by definition, benefit from the continued destitution of the poor, than for them to become aware of their own worth. From that day of illumination they will never again yield to conditions that run counter to their own sense of dignity. If the people of the “developing world” but knew the wealth of this world and the magnitude of their own worth, they would not settle to be kept in disease-infested slums next to the factories in which they and their children must work for fourteen hours a day, even as their teeth fall out from malnutrition and they are forced to pay rent to the very company that keeps them locked in oppression for the privilege of sleeping in mean little hovels. They would not suffer themselves to be driven into fields from sunup to sundown at the behest of a whip to harvest produce for their landlord to sell in order to expand his own mansion and breakfast table while the workers languish in misery. They would not let themselves or their fellows be locked in dingy mills and worked to the bone in low light and constant stress, just so that they could put a pitiful “meal” on the table whose meagerness only serves to further wound their broken pride when they see the hollow eyes of their still-hungry children in the fading light when all the food is gone.

Thus sparks the conflict between the newly-empowered poor and the entrenched elite. The poor, now suddenly aware of the plenty of the world and the depth of their own value, begin to demand not – as might be expected – reparations, but the far more modest goal of rectification. Possessing as yet the limited imagination of those who have never experienced true wealth or comfort, they request only those things that accord with the sense of dignity we all carry inside us. Such demands generally include the guarantee of succor in times of trouble; access to basic services such as health care; equal protection under the law; and working conditions that demand only as much as ought reasonably to be requested of a single body and a diligent mind. In addition to these things, the now-dignified destitute request but a little leisure to enjoy the simple human blessings of family and creativity.

Yet the affluent, having grown complacently accustomed to the comforts of life afforded them by the submissive toil of the poor, are unwilling to give up the excesses they, through process of acclimatization, have come to view as necessities.

Nothing is fiercer or more ugly than a human being faced with the specter of giving up something he covets. He will hold to it with insensible tenacity for no other reason than that he is used to having it. It matters not whether it is a plastic toy hammer in the hands of a three year-old or a taxable capital gains form in the hands of an investment banker, a human forced to suddenly share something he once considered his exclusive property will exhibit all of the ugliest and most deplorable behaviors available to our bipedal species in order to maintain his monopoly.

The rise of a populist leader, by awakening the downtrodden to their own worth and giving them political voice, and in doing so triggering the latent fear that always lives in the hearts of the affluent – that of some day being forced by an awakened majority to give up some of the advantages they unconsciously know are unfair – sets off the dormant volatility inherent in all class divides. The same is true of all populist leaders throughout history, from Julius Caesar to Vladimir Lenin to Hugo Chavez to Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thus, the universally contentious and almost inevitably violent conflict brought on by populist leaders owes not so much to these leaders’ charismatic idiosyncrasies as to the intrinsic features of inequality itself. The innate, indomitable sense we all have that it is fundamentally unjust for one group to have much while others have not – though it may be placated at times by religion or smoothed over by the erosive forces of acclimatization – is never fully eradicable. It is a base-line tenet of our morality, and the triggering of the feeling of “wrongness” that elicits so much outrage in class struggles is an innate and unavoidable by-product of social inequality itself. One cannot simultaneously have great inequality and justice. Past a certain level of fluctuation in affluence justifiable by disparities in work ethic and canniness, the wider the gap between rich and poor, the greater the magnitude of injustice.

Yet, even in the egregiously named “communist” states, humanity has always had great inequality. Because of this, the ingredients for class struggle have always been present. Society, even when, as in many parts of the “developed” world, it rests in states of calm, has always held within it the latent forces of sensed-but-not-articulated injustice. In times of peace and harmony, these may become invisible but they do not dissolve. Rather, they lie in a dormant state until either the injustice becomes so oppressive as to be intolerable (and history shows is that much can be tolerated, if the proper indoctrination is in place), or until populist leaders come as catalysts to the class divide – injustice chemical reaction, and the public erupts into turmoil.

This, undoubtedly, is a major part of what has happened in Thailand. In reading the interviews of activists on the “red shirts” side, the farmers of the north and northeast continually voice the sentiment that before the reign of Thaksin they had always been ignored and marginalized politically, despite being the majority of the population and the source of its agricultural sustenance. Having slaved (forgive the euphemism; the word is not meant to be hyperbolic) more or less willingly for centuries, they have had the hope of a fairer life awakened in them by a leader and begun to believe in their own dignity. They clearly see Thaksin Shinawatra as their champion and view the efforts of the “yellow shirts” as attempts by the abusive elite to quell the uprising of a formerly docile and servile lower class.

I very much believe everything I have written about the inherent injustice of class divides and the systematic exploitation of the affluent in Thailand of the rural (and urban) poor. In this sense, it is impossible for me to fail to take their side in insisting on the implementation of social programs like socialized health care, universal education access, and many of the other populist policies the Thaksin government put in place. Though economic factors may limit the scope of such programs, their existence, to my view, is unquestionable from the standpoint of justice.

However, although my sympathies lie strongly on the side of the “red shirts,” the situation in Thailand, like all situations in life, is not black-and-white. As seen in the French Revolution and in Caesar’s ruthless military putdown of Pompey’s “army of the republic,” even a repressed populace bucking off the bonds of oppression is capable of committing grave atrocities in its own right. Even an uprising founded on the strongest imperatives of justice may mistake the justness of its underlying cause for a mandate of impunity. Nothing is more common. Few mass movements have been as idealistic as the communist revolutions of the 20th century, and few were more inclined to use the “sacred license” of their just cause to commit more appalling acts of terror.

Surely the animosity toward Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra is more than just the indignation of an amoral “one percent” throwing tantrums at having some of their toys taken away from them. There are too many people in the streets. There aren’t enough true elites to constitute such crowds, for one thing, and for another we all know true elites would die before subjecting their physical bodies to contact with such a jostling rabble.

If, then, the heart of the “red shirt” movement in Thailand arises from the age-old struggle of the working class to gain some acknowledgment and dignity, whence arises the movement of the “yellow shirts?” Can we find in their case, as we did with the “red shirts,” some proper grievances in genuine need of redress? In the next episode of the Thought Blog we’ll tackle that question head-on.

Stay tuned. Stay foolish. Go Reds. (Double-meaning. Spring training starts soon 🙂 )

1Yes, this means all the following is “just” my opinion. And if you should ask me why you should listen to my opinion, I should simply answer, “The same reason anyone bothers to read any editorial. Because it’s well articulated.”

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