Giles Ji Ungpakorn
In response to the junta crack-down on pro-democracy activists who were protesting against the junta’s postponement of elections, one of the female leaders declared in public that she would willingly go to jail if summonses and charges against other people who attended the same protest were dropped.
Despite this being a brave personal sacrifice, the tactic is highly problematic because she rejects the role of ordinary people and mass movements in the struggle for democracy, seeking instead to build herself into the sole embodiment of the fight against the dictatorship.
Not only will this not change the minds of the junta leaders who are hell-bent on using repression against anyone who takes part in anti-junta protests, but it is a reflection of the kind of individualistic politics prevalent among some young activists. In practice it could lead to the demobilisation of any further protests, rather than trying to draw more and more people into a pro-democracy mass movement.
In Burma, this was the same kind of tactic used by Aung San Suu Kyi during the great 8-8-88 uprising, when she addressed the crowds and urged them to return home and put their trust in her leadership and the sincerity of the military. After the mass movement was demobilised, the military made sure that the democratic space remained closed off for decades. When they eventually allowed “Guided Democracy” style elections, Suu Kyi had not only become a semi-dictator in her own party, but she totally compromised with the military. She sank so low that she was complicit in the violence against the Rohingya people. This is what happens when leaders are no longer accountable to a mass movement. They make decisions on behalf of millions and can become egotistical.
Another problematic tactic proposed by a pro-democracy academic is to build a political party like Spain’s Podemos. Dr. Piyabutr Saengkanokkul has suggested that Podemos could be a model for a new political party in Thailand “because it goes beyond the left-right divide which, unlike Europe, does not exist in Thailand.” He also claims that a Podemos-like party could heal the rift between the reds and yellows and would be a “new-style” party.
It is unfortunate that Piyabutr’s analysis is so shallow and out of date. It is simply not true that there is no left-right division in Thailand. The divisions between left-wing and the right-wing politics throughout the world, and over the last 200 years, reflects class and differing class interests in capitalist society. Workers and small farmers in Thailand have and still have profound differences in their class interests with the middle-classes and the business and military elites. What is more, the Red-Yellow conflict reflects this class antagonism with the yellows opposed to using state funds to decrease inequalities of wealth or build a universal health care system. The Yellows are also in favour of limiting the democratic participation by poorer citizens. Pipe-dreams about uniting Reds and Yellows are neither realistic nor desirable and could only result in a limited form of democracy. [See http://bit.ly/2nAiXvZ ]
The last thing Thailand needs right now is a new political party which does not side with workers or poor farmers, but seeks a populist-type fudge between Left and Right. Since the collapse of the Communist Party, there has been an urgent need for workers and peasants to be represented by a political party. Ironically, Taksin’s Thai Rak Thai was actually a populist party run by big business leaders, seeking to bridge the class divide between rich and poor!
In terms of a “new-style” political party, Podemos has become a top-down party, run by Pablo Iglesias, with little internal democracy. One commentator from Ireland wrote that: “a politics that is neither left nor right is almost always linked to a desire for charismatic leaders. Once charismatic leaders are in place, they must develop an extremely hierarchical and centralised organisation. [See http://bit.ly/2sc9VtP ]
Any party that hopes to be a key part of the struggle for democracy in Thailand needs to prioritise building mass movements over standing candidates in the next election, where the rules set by the juntas are going to restrict the functioning of radical or progressive parties. Unfortunately Podemos has become a party which prioritises elections over principles. It is hardly a good example for Thailand.