Curious about Thai Politics?

Then you’ve come to the right place. This is a touchy subject for Peace Corps and one that we’re supposed to generally avoid commenting/giving opinion/taking sides about with our community members. This article was written by fellow Volunteer, Josh Coblentz around the time of the Thai elections, now a little over a month ago. Things have changed a tad, the Peua Thai has won the election and the King has given his blessing to the first female Prime Minister of Thailand, Yingluck Shinawatra.

Josh lives in Isaan (northeast), a much poorer area of Thailand (in comparison to my digs in the northwest-ish) where the Red-Shirts have a lot more support than where I live. The Red Shirts were the source of the demonstrations in Bangkok in May 2010 and have had several rallies since we’ve arrived in Thailand. After reading his article, things made a lot more sense to me regarding the history of Thai politics, the Red Shirts origins/goals, and I think it’s definitely worth a read if you’re interested at all in this subject. I’ve kept it how he’s written it except for the parentheses to explain some of the Thai terms (not to be confused with his parentheses, but you get the picture).

A Recent History of the Thai Left
by Josh Coblentz

The day I was supposed to move into my rental house the Paw’aw (Principal) from my matayum (secondary) school picked me up early in the morning.  “I want to . . . inspection . . . rent house,” he said in broken English, using different tones and emphases with each word.  He had been voicing concerns about the area I’d be living in since told him I had picked a house, but when we arrived there he looked around and was pleasantly surprised by the bars on the windows, the close proximity of good neighbors, and the fact that I was on the main road.  “Okay.  Very safe,” he concluded, which somewhat surprised me.  He’s a very stern, authoritative figure in the community, and unusually loud and critical for a Thai, the type of person I wouldn’t expect to change his stance on anything.  After walking outside we saw across the street a small get-together taking place and invited ourselves over.  We wai-ed (greet them with your hands together and bowing your head) everyone present and the gesture was returned.  At the party there were two Poo-yai-bahns (village leaders), including the one who presided over the district where I was about to live.  I had already been acquainted with both of them in the week that I first moved to the Doonsad, in the amphur (small town) Kra Nuan and the jangwat (province) Khon Kaen.  I told them that I was moving into the house across the street, pointing it out to them.  They asked, in Thai, when my moving-in party was going to be.  I was sort of caught off guard at first, but answered with “How about tonight?” (I tried my best in Thai – Kewn-nee dai mai, krap?).  My Paw’aw wasn’t so sure though.  Diagonally across the street, my future neighbor, who owns a small grocery stand and is always a sort of host at Buddhist-oriented parties was spotted by my Paw’aw.  He went over to ask him if tonight he could host a moving-in party.  My neighbor said he couldn’t that night, but the next night he could.  My Paw’aw then told me I couldn’t move in that day because it would be bad luck to do so without a party.  I had to wait until the next day.

I spent that following day with one of my co-teachers, who was in charge of inviting everyone to the party.  I asked him how many people would show up.  “About 10 people,” he replied.  It was more like 35.  The party was great though.  Three of the 11 Poo-yai-bahns in my village were there, as well as many of my close neighbors in moo 7 (neighborhood) and moo 4, and co-teachers and Paw’aws from both of my schools.  My neighbor who owns the shop led the Buddhist ceremony of lighting candles, feeding me a hard-boiled egg, and tying my first of many blessing bracelets.  It was after this that we ate and almost everyone else started getting drunk.  That’s when the political talk started.

The Poo-yai-bahn from moo 4, sitting next to me, was talking very fast and passionately about something while holding a cigarette in one hand and a glass of Leo and ice in the other.  Others were listening attentively and responding in similarly fast-paced and zealous comments.  Since I didn’t (and still don’t) have an ear for the Issan language I couldn’t tell what he was talking about, but luckily the music teacher at my matayum school, who was also sitting next to me, spoke very good English.  “He is talking about Communists.  About 30 years ago Communists lived in the hills and there was fighting with the army.”  Then the music teacher pointed to one of the administrators of my matayum school, who was involved in the conversation, saying, “He was stabbed by one of the Communists in the stomach during the fighting.”  I had heard brief stories like this since I first came to town.  Upon meeting my Paw’aw for the first time he mentioned something about Communists while pointing out the window of my host family’s house, but I couldn’t fully understand what he was talking about.  One of my co-teachers, who speaks enough English for me to understand told me about Communists living in the woods, and when I went to visit thePoo-yai-bahn from moo 8, he told me the name of his district had the nickname Klongchai(victory) in reference to the defeat of the Communists all those years ago.

I was sort of confused, politically, about what was going on in this region, and the country in general.  Issan is typically known for being a Red Shirt area, and nearly everyone I’ve met in town, with the exception of my Paw’aw, my host father, and a monk I frequently talk to, has identified themselves as a Red Shirt (without my asking, of course).  I had always thought of the Red Shirts, since hearing about them, as similar to a Communist movement, or at the very least, a left-of-center one.  They use the typical color and appeal to mostly peasants, laborers, the lower classes, and idealistic college students.  So what’s the deal?  Are the Red Shirts a Communist-sympathising counterpart to the ultra-nationalistic Yellow Shirts?  It wasn’t something that I wanted to go around making conversation about, since it may be a sensitive topic.  But from research and the unprompted stories from co-teachers and villagers, what I’ve gathered about the Communist and Red Shirt movements, as somewhat extending from the same impulse over the past 50 years, and being treated similarly by the forces in power, is a very illuminating story about the Thai government’s ability, so far, to suppress any leftist movement that manifests within its borders.

“I think if the Communists still lived here, there would not be any problems with drugs or fighting,” my Paw’aw‘s geek (mistress) (also my Thai tutor and fellow English teacher) told me while driving me to Kra Nuan, the city.  “Why?” I asked.  “Because whenever someone did anything bad, like steal a water buffalo or sell drugs, they would kill them in the night.”  It seems as though, at least in my town, the Communists that lived in the hills served as a sort of vigilante police force, and night watchmen over the village, ignoring the government and setting down their own rules and forms of justice.  In fact, it was not uncommon in some villages for members of the Communist Party of Thailand, back then, to set up their own government structure within villages.  “Committee members frequently served as heads of Communist Party provincial (changwat) committees, which oversaw CPT district (amphoe) and village (muban or ban) party structures . . . The resulting alternative government structure emerged as a serious clandestine challenge to state authority and legitimacy in outlying areas” (Marks 37).  It was with this type of organization at the village level that the Thai state began to view the Communists as an actual threat.  “In my first year working at the school, the teachers were paid less than other teachers, because we lived in a Communist area,” my Thai tutor added.  The Thai government, aware of the presence of the growing Communist threat, first attempted to economically dissuade the Issan villagers from supporting and identifying with the insurgent movement, not positively by giving them more funding or aid–a reason to rely and trust the government of the 60s and 70s–but negatively by punishing them for being in an already poor region, which further ripened the discontent that Communist recruitment thrives on.

This was not just limited to Doonsad, the town up in the hills of Kra Nuan.  The movement spread all through Issan and was popular in some parts of the north and south as well, with Communist insurgents living in the wooded country side, hiding from and fighting with the Thai government.  But the history of the movement did not start out this way.  The official start, it could be said, began in 1931 with the birth of the Chinese Communist Party of Thailand.  Two years later official Communist parties and the advocation of Communism became illegal, and like modern day America, throwing the word around in political campaigns discredited candidates and provoked fear in the mass public.  Despite this, demonstrations still took place, with a major influence from Vietnamese practitioners leading the rallies.  November of 1936 marked the first massive Communist demonstration, taking place in Khon Kaen, where 79 Vietnamese were arrested, 7 wounded, and 2 killed (Casella 199).

Ten years later, once the threat wasn’t taken as seriously, the anti-Communist law was repealed and the Chinese Communist Party of Thailand came back from the underground.  However, after the success of the Chinese Revolution, it became a threat again, and outlawed once more in 1952.  This led to some distress within the Communist party’s leadership.  Their political power and sway over the masses was barely existent in official politics, evidenced by the fact that the government could silence them whenever they felt necessary, whenever they may have had an advantage in actually seizing power through popular support.  Communism, as an ideology was gaining major support in the rural areas outside the capital, especially in Issan.  The Chinese Communist Party of Thailand, renamed to the Communist Party of Thailand, then set its ideology closer to that of the successful tactics of Mao’s Revolution in China – instigating a bottom-up movement from the masses of poor residing outside Bangkok by aggressively attacking the then current political structure (Casella 200).

For years nothing happened.  Then, in the 1960s, when, simultaneously all over the globe, movements of the same nature where occurring, the insurgency came to the surface.  “In 1964 an assassination campaign, aimed at decapitating the local administration, was launched.  By 1965 the Communists must have felt that the ground-work for a guerrilla movement had been laid, and that the time was right for them to give active and visible content to the movement and to publicize it” (Castella 202).  In Issan the main cluster began in Sakon Nakhon (where one of my co-teachers was raised, and witnessed the fighting on a daily basis) and spread to Nakhon Phanom and some areas of Ubon Ratchatani.  These were not just protestors, but active aggressors against local police.  By the end of 1966, roughly 50 policemen were said to have been killed from fights with the insurgents.  At about this time, the Thai government decided to send in the army.  This fighting would extend for more than 15 years (Castella 203).

“Every morning when I woke up, I could hear them fighting, shooting,” my co-teacher told me.  “The Communists using Thai guns, the army using American guns.”  Typical of the American government of any generation following the Second World War, it was always willing to lend a helping hand to the eradication of Communism, especially in Southeast Asia, an area of increasing concern during the 1960s.  The Thai American Military Research and Development Center was established in Bangkok around this time to help fight against the Communists, and the U.S Air Force would use its helicopters to fly Thai troops into battle.  In 1965, military leaders also created the Communist Suppression Operations Command (more on this later).  The Accelerated Rural Development Program, which had been in the works for a while – intended to give more help to areas outside of Bangkok – received a higher emphasis by the American advisors to the Thai government.  The program’s new aim was to be one step ahead of the Communists in decentralizing power from Bangkok, but with the intention of claiming this decentralization in the name of Capitalism, in the form of expanding industrialization into the regions of the country with large insurgent presences.  Chaing Mai and Khon Kaen, as major cities in their areas, the north and north-east respectively, owe their accelerated expansion and popularity to this program.  Especially in Khon Kaen, this tactic was meant to give the reverse side of dissuading people from Communism, although executed simultaneously to paying teachers in “Communist areas” less than teachers in other areas, it attempted to win people over to the government’s reasoning by the short term benefits of industrializing previously rural areas:

The emergence of Khon Kaen as a regional city was overseen and directed almost entirely by government planners as part of an overarching regional development initiative begun in the 1960s.  Located in Northeast Thailand, which by income levels and other measures of social welfare is the country’s poorest region, the municipality of Khon Kaen was until this time essentially a large village of several thousand inhabitants.  Throughout the 1960s, the state focused development efforts (primarily road and irrigation system construction) in the region on rural areas due to the concern over insurgency in the countryside, led by the Communist Party of Thailand.  In the logic of this ‘development as counterinsurgency’ campaign, the emphasis was decidedly not on ‘long-term efforts to alleviate the poverty of the rural population’ but on ‘short-term, piecemeal attempts to win the people’s loyalty’ (Glassman “Growth” 103).

In the history of development projects, Khon Kaen’s initiation into a large city was the longest term project in the country’s history (Glasman “Growth” 107).  And one factor of its creation was to counter the insurgency of leftist movements in Issan, and tie the region even more to Bangkok through industry.

By 1967 in Issan alone there were said to be 1,200 guerilla fighters residing in the forests and about 10,000 sympathizers with the movement.  Many of those numbers can be attributed to minority groups who probably would have joined any sort of uprising aimed at overthrowing the then current Thai government.  This, at the same time, strengthened the anti-Communist feelings of most central and socially traditional Thais (Castella 203).  However, student groups were starting to form in the universities of Bangkok during the early 1970s, which staged massive protests against what they claimed were authoritarian elements in the government.  The mid 70s would be the peak of the battle between Communists and the Thai government.

On October 14, 1973 the “first mass popular uprising in modern Thai history” took place, in which protestors in the middle and lower classes overthrew the military dictatorship, although many members of the ruling class maintained their positions (Ungpakorn “Sixties” 571).  A fraction of the discontent among the public was the strong presence of American forces stationed in Thailand, and after demonstrations in March of 1976, many US troops withdrew from the country (Ungpakorn “Sixties” 573).  However, the still established ruling classes of Thailand, the upper echelons, economically, were far from letting the defeat stand.  The events that happened on October 6, 1976 at Thammasart University were the ruling class’s and military’s harsh rebuttal to the 1973 overthrow.  Just as left-wing philosophies were beginning to gain ground again, the people in power felt they needed to use extreme force to get their message across to the public that Communism would not be tolerated.  Mobs of overtly nationalistic and right-wing militants descended on Thammasart University in the early hours of the morning in planned attack.

Students and their supporters were dragged out of the university and hung from trees around Sanam Luang; others burnt alive in front of the Ministry of ‘Justice’ while the mob danced around the flames . . . Unarmed female and male students who had fled initial rounds of heavy gunfire to take refuge in the Commerce Faculty building were chased out at gunpoint and made to lie face down on the grass of the football field, without shirts.  Uniformed police fired heavy machine guns over their heads.  The hot spent shells burnt the skin on their bare backs as they lay on the field.  Other students who tried to escape from the campus buildings via the rear entrance to the university, were hunted down and shot without mercy. (Ungpakorn “Sixties” 576)

The events after this slaughter and fear campaign brought back a right-wing military dictatorship in Thailand, a country set apart from its neighbors, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, all who touted Communist governments.

After the shock of the Thammasart University massacre and the military coup, Communist sympathizers fled into the wooded areas, and most definitely out of Bangkok.  This was the era that my co-teacher and the villagers in my town had experienced the fighting, firsthand, between the Thai military and Communist insurgents.  The strategy of the Communist Party of Thailand to go into the woods proved unsuccessful, when, finally in 1988, the party officially collapsed after fighting for over a decade.  Even before this, in 1983, Prime Minister Prem’s strategy at alleviating the Communist threat took a new approach, different from the fight-aggression-with-aggression strategy of the 70s.  His policy was that “insurgents would not be treated as prisoners, but as those returning to the fold.”  This new approach allowed the tiring “Communist guerrillas to lay down their arms” and 4 years before its official dissolution, the Communist Party of Thailand was viewed increasingly as more of “a nuisance rather than a threat” (Marks 48).

Following the collapse of the Communist threat to the ruling class who wanted to channel global Capitalism into the country, Thailand experienced economic growth and expansion throughout the early 1990s, only to have an economic crisis, typical of Capitalism, in the later part of the decade.  Discontent grew again, but not in the form of Communist insurgency this time.  The public, and even the ex-Communist Party of Thailand members accepted the fact that their previous notions of Communism, their ideology would not work in this situation, as it had failed to work in the past.  In fact, many of those ex-CPT members were working for and advising a prominent businessman trying to make his way to the national political stage.  His name: Thaksin Shinawat.

What can be said about this is that the Thai government, or the ruling class proved to be very successful in completely dismantling the once escalating force of Communism in Thai society.  The old members of radical groups of the 60s and 70s either gave up or became a part of the political system, accepting Capitalism, but trying to push it further to the left.  However, when former leftist radicals are in a position further to the right of their previously held beliefs, the compromise is obviously in the favor of the right-wing, giving them even more strength to combat against anything they see as a threat.  The ultra-nationalist right wing elements of Thai society had all the power in their favor (besides actual numbers of citizens), including money and the military.  That is, until Thaksin came to the national stage in a populous movement meant rake in the discontent following the 1997 economic crisis and harvest it in support of his mildly left-of-center political stance.

However, this mildly left-of-center philosophy of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party proved to be too left-of-center for the military elite, escalating to his overthrow in 2006 while he was at a UN summit.  Some of Thaksin’s programs during his time as Prime Minister included a national health care plan, a one million baht fund for every village, a debt relief program for farmers, and small business promotions and incentives.  Although many of these things are leftist in tone, they do very little to obstruct the flow of major capital through the country.  Thaksin is by-and-large a complete Capitalist, but even his minor programs proved too “corrupt” for the people really in charge of the country.  While he was Prime Minister, Thaksin had much support from old business allies, but most have turned their backs on him since the coup, siding with the Yellow Shirt opposition.  Many of his supporters now are probably the same type of people who would have sympathized with or joined the Communist movement all those years ago.  “The red-shirt movement is comprised largely of agrarian . . . workers, many from outside Bangkok, but many from Bangkok’s periurban periphery and even from specific groups of workers in the city–eg, taxi drivers, who disproportionately hail from the country’s northeast and are strongly pro-Thaksin” (Glassman “Reds” 769).

A Thai person who lives in Bangkok told me a few weeks ago that, “Yellow shirt just means that they are more educated.”  I think it’s a little more multifaceted than that, although it’s easy to see how wealthier people have better access to education than the rural poor, and would want to support the cause that allowed them their access to education.  The flip side of this is that the poorer families of peasants and farmers would also like to have access to this education, hence their support for Thaksin, someone promising to alleviate the burden of poverty just a little bit.  And his ousting from office would obviously infuriate the people who saw in him the promise of a better social status and benefits for the lower classes.

Some of the same tools and programs used against the Communist Insurgency were also used against Thaksin and his supporters.  A while back, I mentioned the Communist Suppression Operations Command, which was created in 1965.  In the early 1970s, around the time of the popular uprising, the program had its name changed to the Internal Security Operations Command.  It was this program that gained further benefits toward fighting against “internal terrorism” in a recent act called 2008 ISA.  “This act permits top brass to designate what constitutes an internal security threat, allows warrantless arrests and detentions, and prevents the prosecution of soldiers for human rights violations during the times when the act is being enforced” (Chambers 848).  Basically, the the government who overthrew Thaksin can decide to view any of his supporters as a threat to the country’s security.  Simultaneously, every year since the military coup, military funding has gone up incrimentally: $2.3 billion in 2006, $3.3 billion in 2007, $4.1 billion in 2008, $4.5 billion in 2009, and $4.6 billion in 2010, with $5.2 billion proposed for 2011 (Chambers 850).

Despite currently residing in Dubai, Thaksin still has major support all across Thailand.  Although similarities are apparent between the former Communist movement of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, the Red Shirt movement has its specific differences.  The Red Shirts can be seen as an evolution of the Communist impulse, but with many compromises to the Thai ruling class, who still, nonetheless, refuse to compromise with the movement whatsoever.  The rhetoric used by the Peua Thai  party (the current party of the Red Shirt movement) is much more tame than the aggressiveness of the now-defunct Communist Party of Thailand.  Their aim is not to overthrow the Capitalist system in Thailand, but only to reinstate Thaksin as the rightful Prime Minister. Their justification being that  “the ballot box is on Thaksin’s side . . . he is supported by a majority of Thai citizens” (Chambers 854).

One day in April, after a Thai lesson from my tutor, my Paw’aw and I were having lunch and he began talking about politics, as he usually does in his leisure (when he’s not watching cock-fighting or cooking).  “Thaksin . . . very corruption . . . People in this village . . . they do not know.”  My Paw’aw has intentions of retiring early next year to run for Nyoke (a step above the poo-yai-bans) of our village.  I’m not sure how successful he will be, being an outspoken Yellow Shirt amongst a population in which nearly every home has a Peua Thai flag hanging in the front of it.  A few weeks ago, while in Khon Kaen, a Yellow Shirt demonstration marched in front of my co-teacher’s truck as he was driving.  His response was to tell me, while pointing at them, “I hate them.  I think they do not have any ideas.”  The ideological division and vehemence is somewhat startling when the two people just mentioned, when around each other, speak without hesitation to one another, and act as friendly and respectful as possible.  To me it seems as if whatever feelings they have toward each other, politically, are maintained beneath the surface level, never to be acknowledged through direct language.  Either that or most Thai people prefer to place friendliness and general human kindness above partisan politics.  Perhaps it’s a combination of both, but I’d like to think there are more elements of the latter.

On July 3 there will be a national election between Thaksin’s younger sister, Yingluck, against the sitting Prime Minister, Abhisit.  The last time I checked the Bangkok Post, Abhisit was quoted as saying something to the effect of the polls clearly favoring Yingluck, but the race was not over.  In my area I’ve seen many defaced political posters of Abhisit (which my co-teacher likes to point out to me and laugh at every time he sees one, even the same ones we’ve already seen countless times).  Needless to say, it will be interesting to see what happens next in Thai politics and what the cultural reaction will be, regardless of who wins the election.

Casella, Allesandro. “Communism and Insurrection in Thailand.” The World Today 26.5 (May, 1970): 197-208.

Chambers, Paul.  “Thailand on the Brink: Resurgent Military, Eroded Democracy.” Asian Survey 50.5 (September/October 2010): 835-858.

Glassman Jim. “From Reds to Red Shirts: Political Evolution and Devolution in Thailand.”Environment and Planning 42 (2010): 765-770.

 Glassman, Jim and Chris Sneddon.  “Chaing Mai and Khon Kaen as Growth Poles: Regional Industrial Development in Thailand and Its Implications for Urban Sustainability.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 590 (Nov 2003): 93-115.

Ungpakorn, Ji Giles. “The Political Economy of Class Struggle in Modern Thailand.” Historical Materialism 8.1 (2001): 153-183.

Ungpakorn, Giles Ji. “The Impact of the Thai ‘Sixties’ on the Peoples Movement Today.”Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 7.4 (2006): 570-588.


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