Old-style leftists have become a rare breed in Thailand

opinion August 29, 2018 01:00

By Tulsathit Taptim
The Nation

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Haters and fans of Somsak Jeamteerasakul can at least agree on one thing: a raw leftist like him is hard to come by these days. In a world where billionaires can be “champions of the poor” and activists fighting “the elite” attend glitzy parties flowing with champagne and whisky, the line between ideologies has been crossed back and forth so many times that it is practically invisible.

Defying that trend, Somsak has held firmly to his principles.

The social critic and academic moved to Paris soon after the 2014 coup, and it was here that he collapsed over the weekend. The stroke paralysed half his body, but the true extent of the damage will not be known for at least a few days. Sympathy has flowed, coming largely from those who are supposedly “on the same side” as him but probably not as genuine. Somsak is a hardcore leftist, and “hardcore” means uncompromising, which rules him out of politics, especially in Thailand where anything goes.

Like most other places, our country has produced the kind of politics that makes a mockery of ideologies. “Pro-democracy” activists can be intolerant of criticism and seek to stifle concepts they don’t agree with. “Dictatorship” is a term generally used to describe opponents, when it might apply just as well to those who mouth it. “Liberals” can be narrow-minded to the point of violence when facing opinions that make their blood boil.

In other words, hypocrisy plays a big role in Thai politics. Whether Somsak realises that or not, he has been critical of key people that supposedly wear the same political colours as he does. In a Facebook outburst just a few days ago before his stroke, he attacked the leader of a new political party that portrays itself as “anti-military dictatorship”. “If voters give me a chance,” declared Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the Future Forward Party, “there will be no more coups.”

It was a brave announcement, but not brave enough for Somsak, who insisted that Thanathorn must commit his party to more than mere “rhetoric”. The Paris exile noted that Thanathorn had toned down his criticism of Article 112, a stance which had set the new face of politics apart from his mainstream counterparts, who are vocal in their support of rigorous legal protection for the monarchy.

“The leader of the new party has not encountered any big trouble yet, but he is dropping the case from his party’s agenda,” wrote Somsak. “This is inconsistency of the highest order. You used to say that it was a problem, but now you have entered fully into politics, you are doing nothing. What kind of a leftist are you?”

Somsak’s earlier targets included the supreme leader of the red-shirt movement himself. That Thaksin Shinawatra is an “elite” who is better than most at hiding behind the poor is not a new accusation, but when Somsak levelled it, the criticism stood out. The activist noted that whenever the Shinawatras’ political and personal interests take a direct hit from opponents, a “call to arms” to defend the “red” ideology follows.

The fierce criticism came in 2015 following the guilty verdict for Yingluck Shinawatra over her government’s mismanagement of rice subsidies. After Thaksin’s son responded to his aunt’s downfall with a rallying cry, Somsak wrote: “Are you really prepared to fight? Where have you been since the coup?”

Somsak’s frustration was understandable. The Shinawatras have repeatedly been accused of tax transgressions, land grabs, and unfair protection of their business empire. Those are matters that leftists normally frown upon. The largest red-shirt uprising, in 2010, took place just weeks after the Constitution Court ruled in favour of seizing part of Thaksin’s enormous wealth. Somsak must have wished that the uprising by the poor had been motivated by more genuine principles.

The activist may have spotted one thing that many have failed to see – that the political rift in Thailand is not actually an ideological battle, which is merely a smokescreen for an old-fashioned power struggle. Although some genuinely ideological people are involved, they are usually manipulated by those who couldn’t care less about liberty and freedom.

The challenge to Thaksin’s son Panthongtae sounded like it came from a man who had just been disillusioned. The attack on Thanathorn seemed to be borne of scepticism that follows such a rude awakening.

Somsak remained a critic of Article 112 until the day he collapsed. The majority of those in the same camp have chosen to skirt the issue. The Shinawatras, leaders of the movement against the royal-defamation law, would never say the same thing. Nor would the politicians working under them. Compromise is the name of the game at the highest political level.

The stroke will severely limit, if not end, Somsak’s political activities. His haters are cheering while his supporters are expressing sympathy. What it really means, though, is that a rare breed will likely become even rarer.