With the overwhelming win of the Pheu Thai Party in the July 3 elections and as Yingluck Shinawatra is headed to become the first ever female Prime Minister in Thailand, it is eerie to see the parallels between the recent developments in Thailand’s political history centered around the figure of Thaksin Shinawatra and the period of the late General Juan Domingo Peron’s influence in Argentina, particularly during the 1960’s and 70’s.
Both leaders were close to the political power elite (the army in Peron’s case and the police and big business in Thaksin’s) before coming to power with the vast support of their people by offering populist policies that truly addressed the needs of the poor and the working class during a period of rapid industrialization in their respective countries (Peron in 1946 and Thaksin in 2001).
Peron was aided by his charismatic wife, ‘Evita’, and Thaksin exploited his personal and cultural ties with the people of the North and Northeast of Thailand. Similarly, both were thrown out of government by military coups after sectors of the Army and the reactionary conservative forces took advantage of political and economic crises (Peron in 1955 and Thaksin in 2006).
Like Thaksin in Dubai, for nearly twenty years Peron staged his comeback from his exile in Spain. He assumed a revolutionary persona and a father figure role to the different grassroots movements and armed organizations such as the Montoneros and met with his militants in their frequent visits to his villa giving them advise and orders. Likewise, since 2008 Thaksin has been conducting a very successful and intelligent strategy to continue asserting his power from abroad with the hopes of one day returning to Thailand.
In 1973, as the Argentine military dictatorship’s grasp on power was waning due to the mass movements, the ban on the Peronist party was lifted on the condition that Peron would be prohibited to run. Hector Jose Campora, Peron’s substitute and close aid, won the presidency. This opened the doors for Peron’s return. The slogan during this campaign was ‘Campora to office, Peron to power’ which sounds strangely similar to the motto ‘Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai does’ that appeared in the most recent 2011 elections. One of Campora’s first acts as president was to rightly grant amnesty to all political prisoners from the previous repressive governments.
If history repeats itself, Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s youngest sister, now the new Prime Minister of Thailand would be playing Campora’s role. Unless Thaksin honestly leaves politics as he has stated in recent interviews or Yingluck shows a real capacity for independence, we can possibly anticipate something similar to or a variation of what happened in Argentina.
Peron returned to Argentina in June of 1973. Campora resigned, and Peron was elected president for a third time in October. Finally, the Argentine people had democratically chosen their leader. After assuming power however, he threw out his radical revolutionary facade and aligned himself with the right wing fascist forces within his movement and the Army while ostracizing the masses of Peronist youth and workers who had long fought for his comeback and dreamed of a ‘Socialist Fatherland’.
After the death of Peron in 1974, his third wife Isabel assumed power until a military coup two years later took control of the country, setting off the darkest period in modern Argentine history called the Dirty War that ended in 1983. Nowadays, the ‘Peronists’ who run Argentina follow the same model of piecemeal populist redistribution while helping maintain the status quo of the power elite only after abandoning the outright neoliberal socioeconomic policies of another ‘Peronist’ president, Carlos Menem during the 90’s.
The ‘lesson’ to be grasped here is not to simply assume that this will be a repeat scenario of Argentina’s political past. History is contingent on people’s choices and actions. For those of us who want to see true democracy in Thailand and around the world, this should serve as a warning to our brothers and sisters in Thailand of the dangers of a cult of personality.
The red shirts have legitimate demands for political equality and economic justice, and their struggle is a correct one. However, putting all their faith on one man and feeding Thaksin’s apetite for power, as many (but not all) of the leaders and masses of the Pheu Thai Party and Red Shirt movement have shown by constantly consulting with him, obeying his orders and cheering his speeches sent via skype on mass rallies, can only lead to expected outcomes. After all, he is a big media and corporate mogul who favors neoliberalism and has used military and authoritarian methods, particularly on the people of the South.
If Argentina’s recent history can provide any lessons, it is that the exploited and oppressed people of Thailand must break the top down and opportunistic model of organizing of many factions of the red shirts and continue developing an independent grassroots movement that will fight for their real self-interests and beyond the piecemeal programs offered by all sides these days. Otherwise, we are heading down the road to Argentina’s past mistakes.
Juan Kim is a university instructor who teaches Latin American literature and film in the United States.