Published online by Cambridge University Press: 21 October 2015
It is easy to understand the plausibility of the case that the principal struggle unfolding in Thailand today pits democracy against authoritarianism. The events of the past five years seem to speak for themselves: the 2006 coup against the “pro-poor” Thaksin government, the manipulated pro-military constitutional referendum of 2007, the judicial dissolution of the Thai Rak Thai (2007) and its successor People's Power (2008) parties, and the subsequent military-supported installation of a Democrat-led coalition government in late 2008. Then of course comes the spilling of blood that feeds the democracy-authoritarianism narrative: the bloody crackdown in April–May 2010 against Red Shirt protestors and the imposition of a draconian state of emergency, human rights violations, and the suspension of due process for hundreds of political detainees.
The “democratic versus authoritarian” narrative, connected to the idea of a popular struggle against a rich establishment, has captured international attention. It is also at the heart of the self-presentation of the National United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), so brilliantly exemplified by the etching of the word phrai (commoner, bondsman) onto red tee-shirts. There are elements of truth in this formulation. But the same general tension — democracy versus authoritarianism — could just as easily substitute for a short history of human society, with one problem: it explains everything generally, but nothing particularly. In recent times the formulation has led to skewed analysis of Thailand's crisis, and to a cheer-squad mentality that fails to capture intra-class/intra-state conflict and inter-class/inter-state-agency cooperation. It obscures the nature of Thailand's recent past and its likely future trajectory. Moving beyond such a simplistic analysis makes possible a more serious probing of the specific nature of the conflict and of the possibilities for its resolution. Early-twentieth-century Marxist Antonio Gramsci offers the best argument against simplistic representation: “A given socio-historical moment is never homogeneous; on the contrary, it is rich in contradictions.” To understand Thailand's rich contradictions, it is better to drop the catch-all explanation and to come to grips with the specificity of the crisis at hand.