In Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, he writes: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appears.”
Tyrell Haberkorn revived the quote in her elegiac description of the 2010 red-shirt crackdowns. The bloodletting unleashed by the Abhisit government – with over 90 dead – was one of those morbid symptoms. The subsequent election of Yingluck Shinawatra would do nothing to heal those wounds.
In 2013, we were living in an interregnum. It was poised between an old, inward-looking Democrat Party and an emergent Pheu Thai Party that was too closely tied to its Thai Rak Thai roots. The yellow and red shirt divide was held in tension; Thailand was exhausted.
My family was from the South. I visited our hometown in Thung Song every year, where political discussion revolved around revered names – Surin Pitsuwan, Suthep Thuagsuban. In the summer of 2013, I joined the Democrat Party Internship (DIP) programme.
My time in DIP was brief, as was my involvement in the protests – by the time the protests had morphed into the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), I was already back in high school preparing for my final exams. Even during DIP, the party was coming apart at the seams. They continually talked of reform, as they threw themselves behind the old guard. The classism of the programme itself made it a well-known farce. It also produced among its participants some of the Democrat Party’s fiercest critics.
After my internship, it became profoundly clear that the Democrat Party was not where the future of Thailand lay – but it was equally as clear that it did not lie in the decomposing Pheu Thai Party either, one that had loss trust through the mismanagement of floods, the failed rice subsidy programme and then the amnesty bill. Clearly the new was not being born as promised, while the memory of Thaksin was constantly being resurrected. It was in that morbid interregnum that the military took power.
Protests in summer 2013
While I didn’t believe in DIP or the Democrat Party, I will defend the 2013 protests that took place before the PDRC formalized its platform.
In her powerful 2010 piece, Tyrell Haberkorn wrote “the familiar rendering of Thailand’s political drama…fails to convey the political heterogeneity that has been emerging under these misleadingly unified banners.”
None of that nuance has been afforded to the protestors in the summer of 2013. Benedict Anderson called the Bangkok base of the Democrats “timid, selfish, uncultured, consumerist and without any decent vision of the future of the country.”
Yet, it was a surprisingly multi-generational, cross-class coalition that stood waving flags on the bridge at Chong Nonsi, where I first stood on the protest stage. Organized labour was a core part of this coalition – Thaksin’s attempt to privatize EGAT and Yingluck’s attempt to privatize PTT and Thai Airways International had frustrated labour unions; the government’s disregard of workers’ rights even more so. Staunch union leaders like Sawit Kaewwan and Somsak Kosaisuuk stood by the 2013 protests, with the combined forces of all state enterprise unions behind them.
“The vision of the ruling class has not changed from then until now,” Sawit told me. “No matter where the government comes from – an election, a coup d’état, they have the same principles, which are to destroy the power of workers and the power of labourers.”
It was this sentiment he repeated at a labour rally in 2012. “Whether from the period when the Democrat Party held hands with Khun Newin to form a government,” he said, “or until most recently when Yingluck come to power and held hands with Prem Tinsulanond …these are shifts among the upper class, fundamentally, not conflicts of the lower class. But we’ve been dragged into it.”
Working class solidarity was needed to fight both all forms of anti-labour power, he went on to say.
There were Assembly of the Poor activists, who stood by their long-time ally Somkiat Pongpaiboon in opposing what they saw as mere lip service paid to rural reform. There were rice farmers, who claimed that their rice was rotting away in poor storage facilities and demanded their money. There were Southern rubber farmers congregating on the other side of the city, protesting lack of government intervention amidst the falling price of smoked rubber sheets. Southerners in general were an integral part of the movement, traveling from Nakhon Si Thammarat, Trang, and even from the Deep South.
“Don’t cheat farmers, Yingluck,” farmers would later shout from their loudspeakers, “If you can’t administer the country then get out, because there are plenty of capable people willing to govern.”
The vision of 2013 as the doings of a ‘timid’ Bangkok bourgeoisie is a largely mythical, post-facto creation that erases agrarian and working-class voices. If the red shirt movement can be described as the awakening of the phrai (commoners) against the amatya (elite), those same dynamics were no less present during the 2013 protests.
There was nothing insincere, nothing offhand about the way those people went out to the protests in that morbid period. Indeed, the protests were not radical, but the revolt of an exhausted moderate – an explosion of disillusionment and skepticism that gave birth to a multitude of destructive political ideologies.
As I think back on that summer now, was it so crazy to believe that Thailand was deserving of a democracy where parliament didn’t pass its bills at 1am to avoid political discussion? That our farmers were deserving of more than the failing rice subsidies? That we could aspire to a genuinely inclusive programme of rural reform that didn’t have to come hand in hand with weakening labour rights, human rights abuse, and the cooptation of judicial power?
So many believed that there were democratic, political imaginings that could go far beyond Thaksin.
By the time the Democrat-led protests morphed into the PDRC, however, the moderate revolt had been betrayed. The idea that the people would be somehow better represented by an unelected council stood in fundamental contradiction to any idea of change – rather, it gave in to the disillusionment of the era. It told a weary public: this, this is all you can get.
When organized labour left the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) in 2006, they said, “We oppose all forms of dictatorship.” It was this same sentiment that governed post-PDRC opposition.
I will repeat what I wrote for the Asian Correspondent in 2016: Thai democracy should not be co-opted by necessity.
Democracy had to be better than Thaksin and Yingluck. Democracy had to be better than the PDRC’s ‘royalist council’. I believed – and still believe – that democracy has to be better than a Senate with 250 appointed members of the military.
We, as a nation, can demand a better democracy than anything we have ever been offered.