Since the beginning of the year Thailand has witnessed growing protests. This article, written by Danielle Sabai and Jean Sanukon on 20 March in Bangkok and abridged from International Viewpoint, explains the background.
Thaksin Shinawatra, Prime Minister of Thailand and one of the country’s most important businessmen, is at the centre of the storm. He came to power with his new party in the elections that followed the major economic crisis of 1997.
Under his authority, the big businessmen of the capital succeeded in dominating the political life of the country, running it in the service of their economic interests, favouring corruption, nepotism, and clientelism.
His five years in power were largely utilised to enrich himself and favour friendly businesses, to such an extent that one university study demonstrated that on the Bangkok Stock Exchange the shares of companies considered to be close to the government had increased by more than the average because all the speculators anticipated that they were going to win all the public contracts.
It is in this context of corruption and repeated scandals that Thaksin decided at the beginning of 2006 to sell his industrial empire Shin Corp. to the telecommunications holding company Temasek.
Shin Corp, valued at 73 billion bahts (£1 billion) comprises several television channels and the leading mobile telephone company in Thailand, the satellite operator iTV. This sale, which was to the advantage of the Temasek company, controlled by the state of Singapore, was immediately seen as “selling the nation”. Through the intermediary of a fictitious company clandestinely set up in a tax haven, Thaksin managed to get round the Thai tax authorities and not pay a single penny in taxes!
This brought together against him intellectuals, the political opposition and civil society, who were united by a common desire to kick him out. The protest has been so strong and ongoing (a mass rally every week since the middle of January in the centre of Bangkok) that Thaksin decided to dissolve the assembly and call fresh elections on 2 April.
The parliamentary political opposition really consists of a clique of Bangkok politicians. They are so inconsistent that they decided to boycott the election called for 2 April, and it is not thanks to them that we have seen this big protest movement developing.
It includes Sondhi Limthongkul, a press magnate and former accomplice and business partner of Thaksin, who was abandoned by him in the rout that followed the financial collapse of 1997. Sundhi was able to mobilise the fairly well-educated, essentially urban middle classes, who were shocked by the scale of corruption and shady deals... and who wanted Thailand to have a more attractive image abroad.
Among the main forces who joined the protest movement there was also the very nationalistic Buddhist monk Luangta Mahabua, who has a reputation for being honest and ascetic and who was at one time a supporter of Thaksin. This legitimacy was reinforced by a declaration by the senior academics of the University of Thammasat, one of the two most important in the country, who denounced the absence of legitimacy of the Prime Minister.
However, the movement is now so powerful that people are joining it on all sides and, something that is new and very significant in Thailand, the activists of the social movement have rallied to the anti-Thaksin cause.
The Thai workers movement no longer has a political party to express and defend its interests. Everything needs to be rebuilt from scratch, starting from the defensive struggles of trade unions and associations. These struggles exist. but they are fragmented, isolated and do not find expression in the political sphere.
The social demands concern essentially wages (the minimum monthly wage is about 500 bahts, the equivalent of 108 euros). To increase their income, workers are forced to accept extraordinarily long working hours, which is completely within the law, because there is no legal limit.
In the factories of the immense industrial zone around Bangkok, it is not unusual for workers, often very young, to work for eight hours, the normal working day, plus two or three extra hours after a minimal pause of 20 minutes. Some of them sleep on the floor between the machines during the pause. The working week is six days, but Sundays can be worked if the companies want them to be. Since the basic wage is so low, the workers want to do overtime, even working up to 60 or 70 hours a week.