By Dan Waites

Here’s one for you. What do Thailand’s red shirts and the United States’ Tea Party have in common? Answer: both have been derided as “astroturf” political movements – fake grassroots protest groups established to further a hidden corporate or political agenda.

In August last year, The New Yorker published a fascinating article by investigative journalist Jane Mayer on David and Charles Koch, two billionaire industrialists who own the second-largest private company in America, Koch Industries. Before Mayer’s 10,000-word piece appeared, their names were relatively unknown, though their combined fortunes make them the third-richest men in America. Now, they have become the bête noire of the American left because, as Mayer uncovered, they have quietly poured millions of dollars into conservative think-tanks, lobby groups and politicians who support their agenda. Perhaps most importantly, through their Americans for Prosperity foundation, they have arguably been responsible for making the hard-right Tea Party movement the force in American politics it is today. Here’s an excerpt:

The Kochs are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry—especially environmental regulation. These views dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests. In a study released this spring, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute named Koch Industries one of the top ten air polluters in the United States. And Greenpeace issued a report identifying the company as a “kingpin of climate science denial.” The report showed that, from 2005 to 2008, the Kochs vastly outdid ExxonMobil in giving money to organizations fighting legislation related to climate change, underwriting a huge network of foundations, think tanks, and political front groups. Indeed, the brothers have funded opposition campaigns against so many Obama Administration policies—from health-care reform to the economic-stimulus program—that, in political circles, their ideological network is known as the Kochtopus.

Of course, the Kochs deny having anything to do with the Tea Party, a movement loudly demanding the small government and low taxes that are also among the Kochs’ key goals. Here is Mayer again:

In April, 2009, Melissa Cohlmia, a company spokesperson, denied that the Kochs had direct links to the Tea Party, saying that Americans for Prosperity is “an independent organization and Koch companies do not in any way direct their activities.” Later, she issued a statement: “No funding has been provided by Koch companies, the Koch foundations, or Charles Koch or David Koch specifically to support the tea parties.” David Koch told New York, “I’ve never been to a tea-party event. No one representing the tea party has ever even approached me.”

But Mayer musters an impressive array of testimony indicating that, in fact, the billionaires have taken a “covert” but integral role in the development of the movement from day one. Since the publication of the article, the idea that the Tea Party is an astroturf – and therefore illegitimate – movement has gained common currency. Here’s George Monbiot in The Guardian:

An Astroturf campaign is a fake grassroots movement: it purports to be a spontaneous uprising of concerned citizens, but in reality it is founded and funded by elite interests. Some Astroturf campaigns have no grassroots component at all. Others catalyse and direct real mobilisations. The Tea Party belongs in the second category. It is mostly composed of passionate, well-meaning people who think they are fighting elite power, unaware that they have been organised by the very interests they believe they are confronting.

Now, it struck me that if you replaced the words “Tea Party” with “United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship” in the above passage, you could be reading a critique of the red-shirt movement (though most red-shirt critics are less generous than this). The UDD, it is said, are merely pawns of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra – at best naïve, at worst paid for.

Here was Asia Times Online‘s Shawn W Crispin in February 2010:

While UDD leaders claim to be struggling for democracy and the rights of the downtrodden, the mobilization comes conspicuously close to a Supreme Court verdict on February 26 that many expect will result in the state seizure of 76.6 billion baht (US$2.2 billion) worth of ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra’s and his family’s frozen assets.

Thaksin has consistently denied that he funds the red shirt-wearing UDD, but the protest group has previously marched to the populist former leader’s orders, including his call last April from abroad – where he lives in self-imposed exile – for a “social revolution” to overthrow the government. The violence that ensued was put down by military force and saw a temporary surge in popular support for Abhisit’s government.

Some analysts note that the UDD has ever since failed to galvanize significant numbers and has more clearly morphed into a pressure group in pursuit of Thaksin’s interests than an organic grassroots movement pushing for democratic change.

(Crispin’s articles are always peppered with references to “some analysts”, which generally seem to mean himself.) Regardless of whether you agree with Crispin in general, Thaksin’s involvement in the movement is undeniable. In May last year, while the red protests were taking place in Ratchprasong, UDD co-leader Jaran Dithapichai admitted on stage that Thaksin had donated to the organisation, according to the Bangkok Post. And Thaksin’s regular phone-ins to red-shirt rallies need no mention. Yet Thaksin, like the Kochs, has denied having anything to do with the organisation he has at least partly bankrolled.

Here was The Star in January:

Reports from Bangkok last week said a group of Pheu Thai party members were travelling to meet with Thaksin and discuss who should assume the opposition party’s leadership.

Thaksin, a former billionaire businessman, distanced himself Thursday from direct involvement in any political movement.

He insisted he is not advising members of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), the formal name for the Red Shirts, who enjoy wide support among Thailand’s rural poor and working class.

I don’t know them,” he said.

This, to put it lightly, seems unlikely.

So is it fair to call the UDD an astroturf movement? I’m not sure. But writers like Crispin seem to gloss over the fact that the majority of red-shirt supporters genuinely believe in their cause. While many just want to see Thaksin returned to power, others are involved in the movement as a reaction against what they see as the subversion of democracy that has taken place since the 2006 coup. The movement Thaksin has had a key role in building – no doubt for selfish reasons – seems to have resulted in a political awakening among new sections of the population of Thailand.

Sometimes, even astroturf can sprout real shoots…

Dan Waites can be contacted at jamesdanielwaites@gmail.com or followed on Twitter: www.twitter.com/danwaites.