Two pro-democracy youth leaders, Parit Chiwarak “Penguin” and Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul “Rung”, have been on hunger strike for some weeks. Penguin started his two weeks before Rung. They are protesting against the fact that they have repeatedly been denied bail while awaiting trial on lèse-majesté charges. Three other leaders have also been denied bail, while others who are out on bail still face serious charges.
The military junta’s attack on freedom of speech and the pro-democracy protest movement, has been stepped up because Prayut and his gang feel that the large protests, which erupted onto the streets last year, have ceased and the movement is now weaker.
Unlike the heroic protests in neighbouring Burma/Myanmar, Thai activists have not organised workers’ strikes and this is an important factor. [See https://bit.ly/3x4c9ca ].
While I do not believe that hunger strikes are useful strategies in the struggle against the heartless junta and their lackeys in the courts, I disagree with those in the movement who are putting pressure on Penguin and Rung to abandon their hunger strikes. Penguin and Rung are brave and intelligent activists and we should respect their personal decisions to refuse food; not make it harder for them.
There have been daily solidarity gatherings outside courts in Bangkok and Chiang Mai to demand the release of all detained activists and this is vital. But further, more powerful, actions by the organised trade unions need to take place. Unfortunately there is little sign of this right now.
While this is going on, U.S. academic, David Streckfuss, who has written about Thailand’s lèse-majesté law, faces expulsion from Thailand after living in the country for 35 years. The junta’s authorities pressurised Khon Kaen University to sack him. Without his job, his visa has been terminated. He is clearly being victimised for his stance on democracy and his association with activists.
The political situation is just getting worse and the COVID policies of the junta are a cruel farce.
There has been an increase in the number of people testing positive for COVID and this has coincided with the Songkarn water festival, when people travel back to the provinces or go on holiday. Many cases are associated with entertainment establishments. The numbers of infected people are low, as a proportion of the population, compared to Western Europe, the USA, Brazil or Mexico, and fortunately the number of deaths is also low. This is despite the fact that the junta is incapable of organising to protect the population, with the vaccination programme lagging far behind many countries. [See https://bit.ly/3bGCRvc for an analysis of COVID in Thailand last year.]
Yet, what is unbelievable is that the government insists on admitting everyone who tests positive into hospital, regardless of whether or not they have symptoms, and the vast majority do not. This has cause chaos in hospitals and delayed essential treatment for non-COVID patients.
The junta has long been using COVID as a political excuse to crack down on protesters, but in recent days the army have used COVID to whip up racism against Karen refugees who came across the border, fleeing bombardment by the Burmese military. They were pushed back by the Thai army. Then the army organised to spray the open ground near the river where these refugees had been sitting with disinfectant, claiming to stop the spread of COVID. There is absolutely no scientific evidence that this was necessary or would have any effect. Rather it was a disgusting attempt by the army to portray migrants and refugees as vectors of disease!
The people of Burma are waging a heroic fight against the brutal Burmese military. Over three hundred unarmed protesters have so far been murdered in cold blood since the coup at the beginning of February. Yet, every day we see reports of more mass protests up and down the country. The general strike is having an impact on the economy, shaking the junta. In their anger at the strikers, the military have been threatening to throw people out of their workplace accommodation unless they return to work. Many have chosen to move out of their homes rather than submit to the junta.
Railway workers, hospital workers, civil servants, garment workers and bank workers have all joined the general strike. In stepping up the action, workers councils really need to be formed, as they were in the general strike of 1988. These workers councils could then start to organise the distribution of food and essential services to people, thus creating the beginnings of a functioning parallel government controlled by workers. Trade unionists in other countries could also make solidarity donations to help the workers of Myanmar.
In a challenge to the determination of those on strike, a recent article in the Financial Times argued that business leaders in Burma are saying that “protesters are playing a dangerous game with the Myanmar economy” This shows that strikes and civil disobedience are starting to have a real impact and worry the bosses. That is something to be celebrated. Working class strikes which cripple the economy are vital to overthrowing the military dictatorship and are potentially less dangerous than confronting the military and police on the streets. Yet, not surprisingly, bosses in Burma claim that these strikes and the many demonstrations that are occurring “could wipe out a decade of economic gain”. They are only worried by about their profits. In the past, these bosses were quite happy to go along with the military controlled sham democracy before the February coup and have turned a blind eye to gross human rights abuses throughout the country. Western governments were also happy to talk about “progress towards democracy” under the military constitution which allowed the military to hold real power even before the coup. The concerns for the wellbeing of ordinary people because of the strikes and protests expressed by bosses and even the UN are merely crocodile tears. Bosses and the so-called “international community” cannot be relied upon to liberate the people of Myanmar from military rule. And ASEAN certainly cannot be relied upon to do anything to stop the Burmese military. Most ASEAN countries are ruled by authoritarian governments.
In Thailand, prodemocracy activists look at events in Burma with a mixture of huge respect for the protesters and absolute horror at the actions of the military. Many Thais are really hoping for a victory against the Burmese junta which would invigorate the struggle in Thailand.
But important lessons from Burma are not being learnt by Thai activists. So far there have been no real attempts to build a strike movement against the Thai dictatorship and activists are stuck on a strategy of repeated demonstrations, which are smaller in size than those held in 2020. There have been sectarian comments against a group of more militant protesters calling themselves the REDEM movement. This movement takes internet polls from participants about where and how to organise protests. Their marches have been brutally attacked by police and royalist thugs. Some conservatives are criticising them for being “violent” when they defend themselves. But the violence of self-defence cannot in any way be equated to the violence of the Thai military junta, which uses crowd dispersing weapons, intimidation and kidnapping and the courts and prisons against those calling for freedom and democracy.
The junta has long sensed that the movement is stalling and this has given the military confidence to attack numerous protest leaders using the draconian lèse-majesté law and other undemocratic laws in the junta’s legal arsenal. If the democracy movement does not change tactics and increase pressure on the Thai junta, many leaders will be jailed for merely peacefully expressing themselves during protests. Some are being held in jail anyway after being denied bail.
The protesters are quite right in being critical of the odious King Wachiralongkorn, even if they exaggerate his powers in relation to the military. He has continued with his disgusting behaviour flaunting his wives in public and giving military ranks to his many women. This is going on even when he is engaged in a “charm offensive” to counter all the public criticism by touring the country and spending more time in Thailand instead of Germany.
Meanwhile, the total disregard by the military, for the welfare of Thai citizens in relation to the lack of Covid vaccinations, can be summed up by the news that one of the young princesses received her vaccination ahead of the elderly “because she has to meet lots of people while carrying out her duties”. In addition to this, the head of the army suggested that golf caddies on military golf courses be given the jab as a priority! The generals obviously feel that they can say any old rubbish because they are in power and no one can hold them accountable.
The flawed theory about the so-called power of King Wachiralongkorn, and how he supposedly controls the Thai military junta, has led to idiotic conclusions among some Thais about the struggle for democracy in Burma/Myanmar and Thailand.
Comments on social media claiming that it “easier” for the people in Burma to fight the military “because they have no king” totally ignore the Burmese military’s history of brutality in suppressing unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators. In fact it is likely that the Burmese army has shot down even more civilians in the streets than the Thai army. One academic, who believes in the power of the Thai king, even posted on social media that the British had done the people in Burma a “favour” by removing the monarchy! Hardly a favour when they replaced it with a brutal colonial dictatorship.
The comments also under-estimate the bravery of pro-democracy activists in Burma. They ignore the level of organisation among activists which have allowed the anti-coup protests to spring up in many towns and cities across Burma.
The idea about King Wachiralongkorn’s power, or even Pumipon’s power, was always a myth. Unfortunately it has been used by some as an excuse not to get involved in the struggle against the military. These people see no point in overthrowing the junta since the “all powerful” monarchy, which is “really in charge” will remain. It is a recipe for inaction based on a lie.
So those who are obsessed by the King and the Royal Family prefer the comfort of merely engaging in gossip about the royals on social media. They are not interested in proposing or debating concrete ideas about how to strengthen the mass movement against the military.
In the real world, the fact of the matter is that whether there is a monarchy or not, the military regimes in Thailand and Burma are both capable of using brute force to cling on to power. The issue about the monarchy is irrelevant to any strategy to fight both juntas.
The only difference between the Thai and Burmese militaries is that the Thai military uses the monarchy to justify its repression. But both use “the protection of the nation and religion” as excuses.
On the issue of using the monarchy, the “Move Forward Party” has tabled an amendment to the lèse-majesté law. But it insists that the law must be retained and that a maximum prison sentence of 1 year must also apply to those who insult the monarchy. It justifies this by saying that the monarch and his family must enjoy more protection than ordinary citizens in order to protect the “dignity” of the monarchy! The word “dignity” and the actual nature of the idiot parasite Wachiralongkorn are a contradiction! The Move Forward Party should change its name to the “Standing Still Party”.
Meanwhile scores of youth activists now face lèse-majesté charges and some are in jail because they have not been granted bail.
The organisation among activists in Burma is also seen in the number of strikes and protests by workers. We have seen action in the hospitals, schools, universities, civil service offices, the central bank, the railways, the courts and in at least one copper mine.
Workers in Burma are continuing a tradition of working class action from the past. The great uprising in 1988 started with a dock strike and expanded to a general strike against the military dictatorship.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said for Thailand. Workers did join last year’s youth protests, but only one protest on the Eastern seaboard was organised by trade unions. Strikes did not occur. When asked if worker activists were discussing building for strikes, a long standing activist from Rungsit replied that workers could hardly feed themselves, so they could not strike. Yet, Burmese workers are poorer than Thai workers and have equally been affected financially by Covid. So we see yet another excuse to not attempt to use the potential power of workers in Thailand.
We do not know if the people of Burma will manage to overthrow the junta there. But so far they are doing as much as they can to achieve this. If they are successful, the hope is that it will inspire renewed struggle in Thailand and an interest in building strikes.
The military coup in Burma/Myanmar is being opposed by tens of thousands of activists in towns and cities throughout the country.
These protests show a glimpse of what needs to be done to overthrow the military. The most important actions have involved organise workers. They are important because workers have the potential economic power to bring the military to its knees.
There are reports that hospital workers at up to 70 hospitals have been taking action against the coup. In the southern city of Dawei and at Dagon University, on the outskirts of Yangon, students have held protests. Teachers, academics and civil servants have also been protesting. There are also reports of railway workers joining protests in Mandalay and according to “The Irrawaddy”, hundreds of workers at the Chinese owned Kyisintaung copper mines in Sagaing Region have joined the civil disobedience movement. In addition to this, residents in Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Rakhine, Mon and Shan States have joined anti-coup nationwide rallies, temporarily putting aside their differences with Burmese politicians.
The coup is an attack on freedom, despite the fact that Burma only had a sham democracy. The Burmese military’s own constitution allowed them to take total power in any so-called “emergency” and the military retained many oppressive powers, a monopoly of key ministerial posts, together with a guarantee of 25% of seats in parliament. Opposition to the coup also means opposition to this fake democracy.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi remains a popular figure inside the country, but she is not the kind of leader who is willing to overthrow the dictatorship. She has been cooperating with the military for the last 5 or more years under their sham democratic system. She is also an islamophobe and a Buddhist Burmese nationalist. This is why she refused to condemn the atrocities carried out by the army against the Muslim Rohingya. Within her party (the National League for Democracy) she has shown increasing authoritarian tendencies towards her opponents and tried to ban Muslims from holding important posts. During Suu Kyi’s time in office, there were over 200 political prisoners and her government continued to allow the junta’s laws to restrict free speech and assembly. Yet, despite this, we must stand with all those who demand her release from detention and an end to military rule. But this is not the same as supporting Suu Kyi’s leadership.
The demands of the democratic movement cannot just be confined to ending military rule. Self-determination for the various ethnic nations within Burma has been a key issue since British rule. The British encouraged ethnic divisions along the lines of the empire’s “divide and rule” policies. There can be no peace or genuine democracy without addressing the ethnic question. Yet, most Burmese nationalist politicians since independence have opposed full self-determination for all ethnic groups, favouring a unified country, which has often involved “unity by military force”. There has been continuous armed conflict between separatists and the central government in various parts of the country since independence. At one point Burmese pro-democracy students also tried to use armed struggle against the regime after being brutally repressed in 1988. In no case has armed struggle resulted in victory.
Despite talking about freedoms for ethnic groups, in general, Aung San Suu Kyi has a condescending attitude towards the non-Burmese who make up a significant proportion of the country. She opposes the right to full self-determination. Suu Kyi once wrote in her book “Freedom From Fear” that the Karen “made good nannies”, the Chins were just a “tribe” and the Kachins, while being “handsome people” only worship spirits. She contrasted this to the “highly cultured” Buddhist Burmese, Mons and Shans. It is no wonder that many ethnic groups do not trust her!
Between 1962 and 1988 Burma was ruled by the military dictator General Ne Win, who claimed that he was a socialist. Yet in reality his regime was a nationalist “State Capitalist” regime modelled on the various Stalinist regimes throughout the world. This had an effect on the stifling the development of a genuine socialist movement.
Right-wingers try to argue that deals done at the top, with the help of foreign powers, can gradually bring about democratic change. This is a dangerous myth. The so-called “Burmese Road Map to Democracy”, applauded by the West, merely allowed for a façade of democracy while the military held real power. Aung San Suu Kyi was only allowed to take part in elections because she was prepared to compromise. This façade of democracy was enough for the West and mainstream commentators to declare that Burma was returning to “democracy”.
The so-called “international community” will blow hot air over the coup and threaten sanctions, but this will achieve very little. Apartheid in South Africa was not ended by sanctions. It was ended by mass uprisings of youth and militant strikes by the black working class. The Arab revolts ten years ago managed to overthrow repressive leaders through mass uprisings. The dictators Suharto and Marcos were overthrown in Indonesia and the Philippines by mass revolts, not by international pressure. In fact the international community are only interested in ensuring stability and “business as usual” despite their meaningless words about democracy and human rights.
It is likely that the military staged their coup as a pre-emptive warning against those who might have had ideas that the military could have its power and business interests reduced through parliamentary measures. The Burmese military has huge economic interests and behaves like an armed mega business corporation.
There is a rich history of mass uprisings from below in Burma. On 8th August 1988 a great uprising took place against the military, led by workers, monks and students. This was met with terrible brutality from the security forces who fired live ammunition directly into the crowds. But the defiance continued. On 22nd August a general strike was announced, with strike centres in most towns and cities. The regime began to wobble and the ruling class party disintegrated. This was the window of opportunity to seize power and overthrow the military. Yet on 25th August Aung San Suu Kyi addressed 500,000 people at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon and urged protesters to forget what had taken place and not to lose their “affection for the army”!! Thus Suu Kyi helped to demobilise the movement, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
A further mass uprising led by monks took place in 2007 in response to economic hardship and students demonstrated against the military in 2015. Both these revolts were crushed by the army. Monks have a history of radical politics in Burma and this was strengthened when students entered the monasteries after the 1988 revolt was crushed. The monasteries provided an opportunity for education and some freedoms for political debate when the universities were shut down or tightly controlled.
Over the last 30 years, Aung San Suu Kyi has moved to divert radical movements towards parliamentary politics. Every time a revolt takes place she attempts to place herself as the figure-head or personification of Burmese democracy, rather than encouraging mass action from below. This has only protected the military’s power. While opposing the military dictatorship run by the generals, she often expresses admiration for the army, which her father Aung San established after independence.
The real hope for democracy in Burma is that the new generation of young people, independent of Aung San Suu Kyi, will rise up, taking lessons from Thailand and Hong Kong, but also teaching and inspiring activists in those countries. Success in overthrowing the military will depend on involving the working class, both inside the country and also the millions of migrants working in neighbouring Thailand.
The recent military coup in Burma/Myanmar has quite rightly shocked and angered many ordinary people. Protests by Burmese expats and Thai democracy activists were immediately held outside the Burmese embassy in Bangkok. True to form and true to their shared interests with the Burmese military, the Thai junta ordered the police to attack this demonstration under the pretence that it was against emergency Covid laws. Two Thai activists were arrested.
The solidarity between Thai and Burmese pro-democracy activists is a beacon of hope. This is because the real hope for Burmese democracy does not lie with Aung San Suu Kyi or the West. The so-called “international community” will blow meaningless hot air over the coup, but nothing of substance will change. International sanctions have never brought about democracy. It was mass working class and youth uprisings which ended apartheid in South Africa. The same can be said about the collapse of the Stalinist states in Eastern Europe.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been cooperating with the military for the last 5 or more years under their half democracy system. In addition to this, in the 8-8-88 mass uprising against the military, she demobilised the student and workers’ movement, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and diverting the movement into a base for her electoral hopes. Burma then remained a military dictatorship for the next three decades.
Suu Kyi is also a racist, an islamophobe and a Buddhist Burmese nationalist. She cannot be trusted to lead a genuine movement for democracy.
The hope is that the new generation of young people in Burma will rise up, taking inspiration from Thailand, Hong Kong and Nigeria.
One good sign is that there are reports that hospital workers inside Burma have been taking action to protest against the coup.
The coup is an attack on freedom, despite the fact that Burma only had a sham democracy; the Burmese military’s own constitution allowed them to take total power in any so-called “emergency” and the military retained a monopoly of key ministerial posts, together with a guarantee of 25% of seats in parliament and other oppressive measures.
Right-wing political views try to push the false idea that deals by important top people and foreign powers can gradually bring about democratic change. A recent article in the New York Times implied that the development of Burmese democracy was seriously damaged because Aung San Suu Kyi failed to cooperate and compromise enough with the military [See http://nyti.ms/3cPanUD ]. In fact she spent the last five or more years compromising too much with the army.
It may be that after Suu Kyi’s landslide victory in the recent elections, the military staged their coup as a pre-emptive warning against those who might have had ideas that the military could have its power and business interests reduced through parliamentary measures.
Back in 2016 I wrote a post about mainstream views on democratisation. I wrote that:
“Recently I had a conversation with a researcher associated with the British Foreign Ministry and I was surprised and shocked to hear him say: “Burma is the most democratic country in South-east Asia”. He went on to say that the worrying thing about Burma was that Aung San Suu Kyi might be too inflexible to work with the military.” [See http://bit.ly/3jc3VrI ]
I then posed the question: “So what accounts for this absurd idea about Burma?”
“The views about democratisation among mainstream officials and politicians close to Western governments are heavily influenced by right-wing “comparative politics” theories associated with academics like Guillermo O’Donnell. For these people, democratic transition is all about the behaviour of elite factions and how they manage a stable transition to so-called democracy. In fact they are not really interested in freedom, democratic rights and social justice for the majority of the population. They are blind to and terrified of the prospect of mass movements of the working class and the poor rising up to overthrow authoritarian regimes.
Reading through political science literature about democratic transitions in the days before the overthrow of Suharto in Indonesia or before the overthrow of Marcos in the Philippines, you can see that the idea that these dictators might be overthrown by mass movements from below is totally lacking. But this is in fact, exactly what happened. The same can be said of the Arab Spring uprisings and uprisings against the military in Thailand in 1973 and 1992. And the most important social force which can push forward and develop democratisation in all these countries, including Thailand, remains mass movements of workers and the poor.”
The fact that a generalised mass uprising, involving workers, of the kind that we saw in Burma in 1988, did not get rid of the military junta in recent years, means that the military were still in control of the levers of power. Without destroying this power, the tough and poisonous vines of a full dictatorship could easily grow back.
In Thailand the military are still in control because the mass movement has not yet harnessed the power of the working class. [See “Rubber ducks cannot defeat the military” http://bit.ly/3tmU5YB ].
Both in Thailand and in Burma, we still need mass movements of young people, allied to the organised working class, in order to achieve a democratic transition. Military regimes don’t just gradually dissolve by polite negotiation.
The Thai military junta is ramping up the use of the draconian lèse-majesté law against critics, opposition politicians and dissidents.
The latest person to be charged with this authoritarian law is opposition politician Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. His “crime” was to question the Covid vaccine policy of the junta, which has approved a contract between Siam Bioscience and AstraZeneca for the Thai company to produce the Oxford- AstraZeneca vaccine for sale in Thailand and South-East Asia. Siam Bioscience is 100% owned by King Wachiralongkorn and so far has had a poor financial record and no experience of vaccine production. The junta is also buying a small amount of the Chinese Sinovac vaccine.
Thanathorn estimates that most Thais will not begin to be vaccinated until the end of the year, unlike in neighbouring countries. In addition to this there will not be enough of the vaccine to cover the whole population.
Cutting down Thanathorn is part of a long process of destroying the official parliamentary opposition to the junta, which installed itself through a military coup, followed by sham elections. Thanathorn’s Future Forward Party was forced to disband by the junta’s courts and Thanathorn himself banned as an MP, mainly because his party enjoyed significantly popularity, especially among young people. This is at a time when Taksin’s opposition Pua Thai Party has shrunk to a shadow of itself after a war of attrition waged upon it by the military and the conservatives, which used coups and their courts to try to reduce Taksin’s influence among the electorate. The present junta hopes to stay in power for 25 years! [See https://bit.ly/3731MIZ ].
To add insult to injury, the vaccine produced by Siam Bioscience is being called “the gift from the King”, which it certainly is not.
Wachiralongkorn is the richest person in Thailand, but this has absolutely nothing to do with his abilities in any field. He is an intellectually challenged brutal playboy.
So lèse-majesté is being used to stop Thais questioning Covid policies. It is also being used to prevent discussion about reforming the scandal-ridden monarchy and campaigning for democracy. Scores of young people who led the recent protests against the junta have now been charged under this law. This is hardly surprising, as retired academic Thak Chaloemtiarana recently commented that the demand to reform the monarchy is a serious challenge to the legitimacy of the military.
I have argued for a long time that the monarchy is an important tool for the military in attempting to legitimise their rule and the lèse-majesté law is designed to protect this so-called legitimacy. The target of protests must be the military junta rather than the idiot king Wachiralongkorn. [See the myth of Wachiralongkorn’s so called power https://bit.ly/2EOjsNL ].
In the eyes of the junta, criticism of the monarchy and the military is a much more serious “crime” than murder, rape or terrorism. A few days ago a 63 year old woman was sentenced to 87 years in jail (reduced to 43 years and 6 months) for sharing video clips criticising the monarchy!! She has already spent 3 years in prison awaiting trial.
The Thai junta and ruling class are truly a bunch of barbarians.
Yet the impressive youth protest movement seems to be stuck in a rut and unable to move forward to respond to these attacks on liberties by the military. Unless the movement regroups and takes a turn towards the working class by attempting to organise strike action and civil disobedience, it will lack the power to overthrow the junta. [See https://bit.ly/3p3LlnI ].
Since Generalissimo Prayut announced emergency powers banning demonstrations and after the paramilitary riot police used chemical water cannon on crowds, protesters have continued to gather in their thousands to call for his resignation. The use of water cannon against young school students angered many ordinary people, thus swelling the protests.
On Saturday, because the junta ordered the closure of all mass transit train lines in a futile attempt to stop the protests, demonstrators assembled at different spots in Bangkok. Large demonstrations also took place in lots of provincial cities, mainly on university campuses. The protests are now involving hundreds of thousands of people up and down the country.
At Lard Prao, in Bangkok, where on of the largest protest took place, tens of thousands of defiant protesters assembled. The organisers managed to get a truck load of crash helmets, masks and raincoats distributed to the crowd in case the police attacked. In the event they decided to disperse by 8pm without the feared attack happening.
Reports from many areas tell of the impressive organisation managed by rank and file activists. Some of the key activists had been arrested in previous days, but this seems to have had little effect. This shows the strength of the movement.
On the 18th October protests were again held in many locations in Bangkok and provincial cities.
One worker activist reported that at Rungsit, a primary school student asked to make a speech!
There were also reports of thousands of factory workers protesting in Chonbury, along the Eastern Seaboard industrial area (see below). The Rungsit protest was also made up of some factory workers.
The success of the protests are an important and clear symbolic victory. But the struggle will be long and hard. Prayut and his gang of military thugs are not about to go easily. They have spent the years since their coup in 2014 putting in place measures to maintain their power, including writing a constitution, appointing the senate, designing the National Strategy and fixing last year’s elections. They already have blood on their hand from the murder of pro-democracy redshirts ten years ago and the use of death squads against dissidents.
The movement is at a junction. Organising flash mobs over and over again risks tiring out protesters and these actions are not enough to make the country ungovernable. Either they move forward to organise more militant and powerful action such as strikes, or the momentum will be lost. Given the level of public support for the protests it is important to seize the moment and try to build for workplace stoppages.
The impressive demonstration against the junta and the monarchy on 14th October 2020 shows how far the movement has developed and it has raised the level of struggle for democracy.
Large youth-led pro-democracy protests have hit the Thai military junta from August this year. Crowds of up to 50,000 gathered around the Democracy Monument in the centre of Bangkok on 16th August. On 19th September, an important anniversary of a military coup against an elected government in 2006, crowds swelled to over 100,000. On the 14th October, on the 47th anniversary of a mass uprising against a military dictatorship, crowds gathered in similar numbers and marched to Government House to demand the resignation of the dictator Prayut Chan-ocha. They also demanded the writing of a new constitution and the reform of the Monarchy.
This time the stakes had been raised by the military government, which insisted that the protest should be cancelled because the king had decided to visit a nearby temple. Protesters ignored the government and the numbers swelled to 100,000 by nightfall, when people joined after work. The government conscripted state municipal employees and soldiers to line the roads wearing yellow royalist shirts in order to welcome the royal cavalcade. The Thai ruling class treated the civilian conscripts like dirt as many were transported in open trucks and some even had to sit in dust carts. Many voiced their displeasure and some were seen making the 3 fingered salute used by the pro-democracy protesters.
Police allowed the queen to be driven through the demonstrating crowds and she was met with the 3 fingered salute and even a few middle finger gestures. The crowd shouted “my taxes!” at her.
The protests were organised by a group of mainly young people and university students, initially calling themselves the “Free People” organisation. They have now created a coalition calling itself the “Peoples’ Party” after the movement that led the 1932 revolution that successfully toppled the Absolute Monarchy. The new generation leading the protest movement has become acutely aware of the importance of the historical struggle for democracy. What marks this latest movement out from the previous Red Shirt movement for democracy ten years ago is that they are independent of any political parties. In fact the main stream opposition parties cannot keep up with the movement.
In the days following the August protest, secondary school students up and down the country staged “3 finger salute” protests during the compulsory flag raising ceremony before start of school. Often it was young women who were the most militant. The playing of the 8 am National Anthem at a number of mass transit rail stations was temporarily stopped for fear that people would raise the 3 finger salute. [See more about this in a previous post on this site.]
In the late evening of 14th October, the protest leaders decided it was safer to disband and regroup the next day at Rartprasong intersection, the site of Red Shirt protests in 2010. The junta talked tough, announced emergency powers, banned all protest and arrested some of the protest leaders. However, on 15th October thousands gathered at Rartprasong to defy the government. Prominent among the demonstrators were school students in their uniforms. Again women students were some of the most militant.
The next day (16th October) protesters gathered further down the road from the previous day because the police had blocked off Rartprasong. See below. As night fell the paramilitary riot police moved in, using water cannon, spraying the young people with water mixed with a liquid irritant. Many people were arrested. At time of writing, the movement is at a junction. Either they increase the pressure on the junta or they step back and risk losing momentum. One way to increase pressure is to try to get working people to take strike action.
The 3 fingered salute was borrowed from Hunger Games, and became a symbol of opposition to the military dictatorship during anti-coup protests in 2014. The present junta came to power through a middle-class backed coup in 2014. Elections were eventually held in 2019, but under anti-democratic rules and a reactionary constitution drawn up by the military. Despite losing the popular vote to anti-junta parties, the military appointed senate helped to propel the junta back into government with the dictator Prayut Chan-ocha as Prime Minister.
People are scandalised and fed-up by the behaviour of the new king, Wachiralongkorn, who spends his life with his harem in Germany and has changed the constitution in order to allow this life style and in order to amass even more wealth. It is the first time in decades that people have had the confidence to criticise the king in public, despite the fact that there are draconian laws against this.
The powerful military has traditionally used the weak monarchy as a tool to justify authoritarian rule. Many ordinary activists in Thailand believe that there is an Absolute Monarchy. But nothing could be further from the truth. The movement should not over-estimate the power of the king.
Since 1932, the Monarchy has had very little power in itself and is a willing tool of the military and the conservatives. Although the much welcomed criticism of the monarchy can weaken the junta and hasten the long over-due day that Thailand becomes a republic, the military and its parliamentary dictatorship remain the main enemy of Thai democracy and a strong mass movement to topple the military is still needed.
The real people with power among the Thai elites are the army, high-ranking state officials and business leaders. They prostrate themselves on the ground and pay homage to the king on TV, while exercising the real power in the land and enriching themselves. This is an ideological play, acted out for the benefit of fooling the public. The fact that it is in any way believable by many is a great example of what Marx called “alienation”. It is when we are feeling powerless that we are more likely to believe the nonsense fed to us by the ruling class.
The Thai Absolute Monarchy was overthrown in the 1932 revolution and for a period the country was rule by anti-Monarchy civilians and generals. In the 1950s, during the Cold War, the Monarchy was revived and promoted by military dictatorships. The “return” of the Monarchy reminds me of what the historian Christopher Hill wrote about the restoration of Charles II after the English Revolution. He wrote that “Charles was called King by the Grace of God, but he was really King by the grace of the merchants and squires”. One could say that the Thai king is king by the grace of the military generals and capitalists.
At time of writing it is difficult to predict what will happen next. However, lessons from the 1970s and from the defeated Red Shirt protests ten years ago show that what is needed urgently is to expand the movement into the organised working class. The working class is the main location of our side’s power. The workplace is where the ruling class’ power is potentially weak. The lack of a significant organisation of the Left makes the task of mobilising workers more difficult, but it is hoped that militants will step forward to try and achieve this. Unfortunately a call for a “General Strike” on 14th October was made without any concrete work being done among the working class and it never happened. Socialists know that it is far easier to make abstract calls for General Strikes rather than to actually do the necessary organisational work to bring one about in practice.
Socialists do exist in Thailand and it is the job of such people, no matter how small in number, to encourage the spread of radical ideas into the working class and to strengthen trade union struggles. This is best carried out if we attempt to build the beginnings of a revolutionary socialist party.
The protest at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok on 16th August 2020 was a great success with crowds of up to 50,000 people coming to show their anger at the continued parliamentary dictatorship of Generalissimo Prayut and the behaviour of king Wachiralongkorn. A month later, on 19th September, the anniversary of the military coup against the elected Taksin government in 2006, over 100, 000 filled Sanam Luang.
The protest was organised by the organisation “Free People”. It has 3 major demands: stop intimidating activists, re-write the constitution and dissolve parliament. People are fed up with the fixed elections, the appointed senators and the military designed “Guided Democracy” system in general. In addition to these demands, student activists and the lawyer Anon Numpa are now openly demanding the reform of the monarchy. People are angry about laws which prevent the monarchy being subjected to criticism and accountability. They are angry that he spends his time with his harem in Germany and changed the constitution to allow him to do this more easily. They are angry that he changed the constitution to bring all wealth associated with the monarchy under his centralised control. They want to curtail his privileges and power.
For the first time since the military and the Democrat Party murdered pro-democracy Red Shirts in cold blood in 2010, Red Shirt activists and older people joined the students in protesting. The Red Shirts had been specifically invited to come along at a student rally a few days earlier at Chulalongkorn University.
The movement needs to keep up the momentum and spread to all sections of the population, especially organised workers. Progressive trade unionists were on the protest, but organised workers need to come out it their thousands and be prepared to take strike action if necessary.
Many activist leaders face prosecution and the movement must insist that all charges are dropped immediately.
On the Monday after the huge protest on 16th August, secondary school students at hundreds of schools up and down the country defied teachers to staged “3 finger” protests against the dictatorship during the compulsory singing of the national anthem and flag raising before classes.
On Wednesday 19th, hundreds of school students demonstrated outside the education ministry after the minister had threatened them. He made an attempt to address the crowd of students but was prevented from doing so by shouts of “lackey of the dictatorship!” and loud whistle blowing. This particular minister was part of a reactionary whistle-blowing mob who helped the present junta come to power.
How did it start? The reasons why students started to revive the pro-democracy protests are that this new generation have seen that pushing for reforms within the parliamentary system has not worked. Opposition parties and politicians have been cut down by the military controlled courts. The junta were and still are blatantly using Covid as an excuse to try to ban protests. Anyone who speaks out is being intimidated by security officers and political exiles in neighbouring countries have been murdered by military death squads. The economy is a mess and youth see little to be hopeful for the future. In fact they share these feelings of anger and frustration with over half the adult population who voted against the military party in the last flawed elections. The difference is that the youth do not share the fear which is common among older activists who have been through military crack-downs.
It is not just university students. Secondary school students, often from more elite schools are joining in. LGBT activists have also taken part as open LGBT activists against the junta.
It is best to see the continuum of the pro-democracy social movement from after the 2006 coup with different groups popping up to take the lead. The youth are now taking the lead. [See “Role of Thai Social Movements in Democratisation” https://bit.ly/2aDzest ].
So far the most significant development is the establishment of the organisation “Free People”. The aim is to expand the movement to ordinary working people beyond students and youth. It has 3 major demands: stop intimidating activists, re-write the constitution and dissolve parliament. People are fed up with the fixed elections, the appointed senators and the military designed “Guided Democracy” system in general. [See Guided Democracy after the Flawed 2019 Election https://bit.ly/2Wm6bzI ].
Since the activist lawyer Anon Numpa stood up and raised a number of criticisms of king Wachiralongkorn, the underlying anger about the behaviour and arrogance of the new idiot king has come out into the open. People are angry about laws which prevent the monarchy being subjected to criticism and accountability. They are angry that he spends his time with his harem in Germany and changed the constitution to allow him to do this more easily. They are angry that he changed the constitution to bring all wealth associated with the monarchy under his centralised control. The extra demands from the Thammasart University mass protest on 10th August reflect a feeling that the monarchy should be reformed and its privileges cut back. These developments are to be welcomed.
Some political exiles abroad encourage the view that Thailand is an “Absolute Monarchy”. Nothing could be further from the truth. The movement should not over-estimate the power of the king. He has very little power and is a willing tool of the military and the conservatives, more so even than his weak father. Therefore suggestions that boycotting royal degree ceremonies would be enough to topple the regime are diversions. [See: “Absolutism” https://bit.ly/2teiOzQ and Can an absolute ruler hold power from abroad? https://bit.ly/3hxGFCv ].
Although the much welcomed criticism of the monarchy can weaken the junta and hasten the long over-due day that Thailand becomes a republic, the military and its parliamentary dictatorship remain the main enemy of Thai democracy and a strong mass movement to topple the military still needs to be built. Workers need to be involved. Events after the Second World War show that Thai military dictatorships can hold power without using the monarchy. We need a socialist republic in Thailand.