Thai junta death squads eliminate exiled opponents

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Prayut’s military junta in Thailand have blood on their hands once again. Death squads have crossed the border into neighbouring Lao to abduct and murder exiled opponents and critics of the junta and the monarchy.

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“Pu-Chana”, Surachai Darnwatananusorn and “Kasalong”. Photo from Prachatai.

DNA analysis has confirmed that two of the bodies found in the Mekong River at Nakorn Panom were that of “Pu-Chana” and “Kasalong”, close comrades of Surachai Darnwatananusorn. It is believed by a number of credible journalists that there was also a third body in the river which belonged to Surachai. That body cannot now be located. All three men had been living together in exile in Lao after Prayut’s military coup. They had been missing from their homes for over a month and there were clear signs of abduction.

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The bodies were washed ashore on the Thai side of the Mekong River. The victims had been brutally mutilated, killed, tied up in sacking with concrete weights, and thrown in the river.

There is a history of abductions and killings of dissidents living in Lao. “Ko Tee”, a radio broadcaster and Redshirt activist, was abducted by 10 Thai-speaking men in black in July 2017. A year earlier, Ittipon Sukpaen, aka “DJ Sunho”, disappeared and was never seen again.

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Prayut and the Thai military junta must be held to account for these brutal murders. Naturally, like all governments which use death squads, they will deny any responsibility and any knowledge of how the killings took place and it will be difficult to find e-mail trails or written confirmation of any direct orders.

But the junta has form.

The top generals were involved with killing unarmed red shirt protesters in 2010. The Thai military operates death squads against Muslim Malays in Patani, and since Prayut’s 2014 coup, the junta have increased repression, especially with the use of the lèse-majesté law.

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The junta’s extreme royalism has encouraged rabid and aggressive royalists such as Maj. Gen. Riantong Nanna, leader of the ultra-royalist vigilante group known as the “Rubbish Collection Organisation”. According to an article in the Japan Times by exiled academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun, Riantong once wrote on his Facebook page that he would send a gunman to kill a critic of the monarchy who was living in Paris if he could do so. [See https://bit.ly/2UaJYnq]. Riantong has never been admonished by the military junta for his behaviour and he remains director of Mongkutwattana Hospital in Bangkok.

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Riantong Nanna

It is highly likely that Surachai and his comrades were abducted and murdered by a death squad linked to the Thai military.

Opponents of the junta living in exile in Lao do not have protection from the Lao government as formal refugees. The Lao authorities merely tolerate their presence on an unofficial basis. This means that armed men can cross over the border and hunt them down at will. For this reason many exiles have to constantly move house. Added to this is the fact that up to now Western countries have refused to take these exiles as asylum seekers.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has also been unhelpful, mainly because Lao does not allow the organisation into the country.

Despite the murders being highlighted by Human Rights Watch [https://bit.ly/2FRHjuS], the Thai National Human Rights Commission has so far been silent, preferring instead to publish proclamations condemning violence used by oppressed opponents of the Thai State in Patani. The NGOs and various political parties have not issued any statements either.

It is unlikely that the Lao government will do anything meaningful to investigate this atrocity. Their priority is to maintain good relations with the Thai ruling class. Besides, at least one Lao activist has also disappeared in recent years.

We must hold the Thai junta to account for the deaths of Surachai and his comrades.

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The flawed Thai elections

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Given that elections are due to be held on 24th March 2019, it is worth looking at the extent to which these elections will actually be democratic, the junta’s plans for the future, and the nature of some of the new political actors which are likely to contest the election.

In the years following Prayut’s military coup, the junta have been building a future “Guided Democracy” system under their control. Important elements of this consist of the “National 20 Year Strategy” and various junta-appointed bodies, all designed to fix elections, restrict activities of political parties and control the actions and policies of any future governments.

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Prayut’s election poster

At the same time, as we turn the page towards 2019, Generalissimo Prayut and his junta remain in power with Prayut still ruling by decree using article 44 to dictate the rules of the election. It is increasingly likely that he will be a candidate for Prime Minister if the military party, Palang Pracharat, manage to gain enough parliamentary seats to combine with the votes of the military appointed senate. Prayut and his cronies have been using their positions to electioneer while pro-democracy parties have had their activities restricted. This includes visits to the provinces and promising benefits to the electorate in a “pork barrel” political manner. In one ridiculous incident a poster was erected showing Prayut shaking hands with Britain’s embattled and weak Prime Minister, Theresa May! In addition to this, Palang Pracharat has been accused of illegally raising funds by getting government agencies to buy places at a fund-raising banquet.

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The junta’s Road Map towards “Guided Democracy” and its backward conservative “National Strategy” have been of little concern to the new king. Wachiralongkorn has never expressed any opinions about this road map and he has no interest in such important matters of State. Wachiralongkorn is certainly an odious creature; selfish, nasty and lacking in any respect for others, especially women. But everything that he has done over the last year has been about himself and his quest for pleasure and riches at the expense of the Thai public. [See http://bit.ly/2l63Z1I  ]

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Obsession with the monarchy merely diverts attention away from the real democratic tasks ahead.

The real show in town is the continued grip on power of the military and how the policies of the junta are affecting democracy, human rights, social policy and the state of the economy. The junta represent the conservative, authoritarian, neo-liberal wing of the Thai ruling class. They are dead against rapid modernisation of society, any steps towards basic empowerment of citizens and the use of state funds to address economic inequality. They rely on the support of the anti-democratic middle-classes. This is at the core of their disagreement with Taksin and his allies. They are also totally opposed to young people becoming more politically engaged and to any notions of justice.

I have brought together some of my blog posts from “Ugly Truth Thailand” which go some way towards explaining the present situation. The posts are divided into 3 sections: Guided Democracy, The Political Parties and Dealing with the Military. The collection can be read on my Academia page [See https://bit.ly/2QMrGf9 ].

The coming elections will not solve the long-running political crisis, but they are a chapter in the struggle for democracy, if only because the results will be a kind of referendum on the popularity of the junta. The holding of the elections also shows that the military junta know that they cannot rule by diktat for ever. They have been forced to make some concessions. But these concessions are not enough. There will not be democracy unless the legacy of the junta, including the constitution and the 20 year national strategy are scrapped. Freedom of expression will not exist unless the lèse-majesté law is abolished, but none of the political parties have called for this reform. Participatory democracy will not exist unless something drastic is done about Thailand’s gross inequality. Some pro-democracy parties are mentioning a welfare state in their policies but details are lacking and there are no serious suggestions for a super-tax on the super-rich, including the monarchy.

To break the legacy of the military intervention in politics we need a strong mass movement outside parliamentary politics and we need political parties of the left and the working class. Unfortunately these vital ingredients are yet to materialise.

 

Gender Politics and Thailand’s Political Parties

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Gender politics has always taken a back seat among the policies of Thailand’s political parties. This is because of the weakness of gender social movements and the weakness of the left.

Mainstream pro-democracy parties like Pua Thai (and its sister party “Thai Raksa Chart”) pay lip service to gender equality, but there is little concrete detail about any policies. The Future Forward Party and the Thai Pua Chart Party (another sister party of Pua Thai!) say that there needs to be changes to existing laws. But they tend to add that the issue of gender rights is “sensitive” in society, thus providing themselves with a get out clause. Many parties also admit that there is internal disagreement within the party over gender rights. [See Prachatai https://bit.ly/2DYsbuU ]. Importantly, most parties are not prepared to agitate among the population to achieve changes in people’s attitudes. They prefer to emphasise the need to win votes and follow existing attitudes in society.

This is not surprising, since in capitalist society, progress on gender rights is the result of campaigns by social movements, trade unions and the left and not due to any innate pro-gender rights ideology among main stream parties of the right. Worldwide, increases in women’s participation in the workforce has resulted in greater confidence among women to demand more rights and this has spilled over into the LGBT movement. At the same time, capitalism still requires women to carry out unpaid family work and this is the source of conservative family values which go against gender rights. There is always a tension between these two factors. Thailand is no exception.

Increased participation by women in the workplace has resulted in trade unions pushing for maternity leave, child care and abortion rights. But the women’s movement is very weak and dominated by middle-class women who are only interested in equality for women in managerial and elite political roles. Many members of the women’s movement also supported the destruction of democracy.

Thailand, along with other South-East Asian societies, has a long history of transgender people being tolerated, though not respected. There have never been any law which criminalise gay men, lesbians or transgender people. The LGBT movement tended to grow out of NGO activity.

LGBT activists have been commenting on the draft bill on Civil Partnerships which was initiated under the Yingluk government before Prayut’s military coup. Recently the BBC Thai website published a discussion about this [see https://bbc.in/2P5xn1T ].

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Photo by WASAWAT LUKHARANG/BBC THAI

Although LGBT activist say that this draft bill is a step forward, many say it does not go far enough. This is because Civil Partnership gives less rights to the partners than marriage between men and women. For example, there is no provision for adoption of children, tax reduction,  or the use of a partner’s surname. One activist suggested that the way to solve this problem is to change the marriage law and make it concerned with marriage between “people” rather than just men and women.

Transgender and non-binary activists also criticise the draft law for doing nothing to improve the rights of transgender and non-binary people. They have no choice regarding their gender preferences and no rights as transgender and non-binary people.

The weakness of the LGBT movement is reflected in their use of many English terms. Given that ordinary people hardly speak any English, their activism is rooted among the middle-classes, leaving working class people unorganised. This needs to be addressed.

What is needed is a socialist party of the working class which would campaign on concrete gender issues such as LGBT rights to marry or have children and to choose their own gender classifications, including the right not to be classified. Such a party would also have to campaign for abortion rights and state subsidised child care. These gender issues need to be linked to other demands in society such as the demand for real democratic rights, freedom of expression, the right to self-determination for the people of Patani and labour rights. This could be done by building mass social movements and linking them up in solidarity networks. Yet the political parties which will be taking part in the next election have no such agenda.

Thailand’s appalling record on migrants, refugees and asylum seekers

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

While all those who believe in basic human rights are appalled by the racist anti-refugee policies of Donald Trump in the USA and similar policies in the European Union, where over 9 thousand people have drowned in the Mediterranean since 2016, it is worth also looking at Thailand’s appalling record on this subject.

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Amnesty International issued a report in September 2018 which outlined abuses committed by the Thailand’s military government [see https://bit.ly/2BBLc4O ]. These included the arrest in August 2018 of nearly 200 asylum seekers and refugees, which included persecuted minorities from Cambodia and Vietnam. There were 63 children and two pregnant women included in this number and many had UNHCR recognised refugee status. Children were separated from their parents. Some were transferred to the notoriously over-crowded Suan Plu Immigration Detention Centre in Bangkok, where there is a lack of medical assistance and poor sanitary conditions. Many others were taken to court and ended up in jail.

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Thailand’s governments have refused to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol. This means that asylum seekers and refugees are treated as illegal migrants and face deportation back to countries where there is a grave danger of them being subjected to violence and persecution. Dissidents from Turkey, Cambodia and China have been sent back to face imprisonment and worse.

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Rath Rott Mony

In February 2018, Sam Sokha, a Cambodian political dissident was forcibly sent back to Cambodia and then imprisoned despite being recognised as a refugee by UNHCR. This week the Thai junta arrested construction union activist Rath Rott Mony while he was trying to claim asylum at a Dutch visa office. His so-called “crime” was to be involved in making a documentary exposing sex trafficking in Cambodia.

Chinese activists Jiang Yefei and Dong Guangping were deported to China in November 2015 as they awaited resettlement as refugees. In China they were sentenced to six and a half years and three and a half years in jail, respectively.

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In 2015 more than 100 Muslim Uighurs, who are persecuted in China, were sent back, sparking an outcry from human rights groups. Understandably, Uighurs living in Turkey responded angrily by smashing windows at the Thai consulate in Istanbul.

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Hakeem al-Araibi

One of the latest outrages concerns Hakeem al-Araibi, a political refugee from Bahrain who has refugee status in Australia. He was arrested by Thai police as he traveled to spend a holiday in Thailand. The junta are threatening to send him back to Bahrain, where he faces torture. The Australian government are complicit in his arrest in Thailand. The New York Times wrote that his case is a window into how vulnerable foreigners are treated in Thailand, a country with a history of deporting asylum seekers. [See https://nyti.ms/2RN0JnK ].

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Nearly 130,000 refugees have crossed the border from Burma, seeking to flee violence and persecution. Those refugees who are allowed to stay in Thailand do not have access to healthcare, employment, education or any government support. They are confined to refugee camps without the right to leave the camps. Those desperate enough to seek employment are easy prey to abuse by employers because they are deemed to be “illegal”. The military and the Internal Security Operations Command have a record of pushing back desperate Rohingya refugees who arrive by boat.

Migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam are vulnerable to physical abuses, indefinite detention, and extortion by Thai authorities. Recently 14 Burmese migrant workers were brought to court on criminal defamation charges after they filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand alleging that their employer had violated their rights. [Further reading https://bit.ly/2vNcwry ].

Unfortunately, due to rampant racism and ultra-nationalism in Thai society, such abuses are not confined to Thai military governments, but have taken place under elected civilian governments. [See http://bit.ly/1JaeTJY , http://bit.ly/1ZEwTnj ].

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With various political parties jockeying for votes in the so-called general election, expected early in 2018, it is shameful that none of the progressive pro-democracy parties have any serious alternative policies towards asylum seekers and refugees. The Future Forward Party has raised the issue of helping Rohingya refugees by not pushing them back and holding talks with the Burmese government, but there is no policy to ratifying the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol and no promise to change the way that refugees inside the country are treated by the government. The party’s policy towards migrant labour is to promise them the minimal rights under the law which Thai workers have, which is a step forward, but does not deal with thousands of migrant workers who are deemed to be illegal.

Muddling along towards the flawed Thai elections

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The Thai Junta’s party: Palang Pracharat Party, is going to nominate dictator Prayut for Prime Minister if it wins enough votes at the general election, which is scheduled for early 2019. Given that the junta has appointed the entire senate and given that the senate and lower house can vote on the Prime Minister together, Palang Pracharat does not even need a majority of elected MPs for Paryut to continue his authoritarian rule.

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But just in case this scenario does not happen, the junta’s servants have been gerrymandering the constituencies to help ensure an advantage for the junta’s Palang Pracharat. [See https://bit.ly/2EbX685 ].

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Then there is the 20 year National Strategy, which I have previously written about, which will tie the hands of any elected government which is opposed to the military junta.

Taksin’s Pua Thai Party has budded off into at least 3 sister parties to try to get round the ridiculous voting regulations which will give smaller parties an advantage in terms of the number of seats they gain from the party list system.

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So all in all the elections are likely to be a farce. That is, if they aren’t postponed under some pretext!

The only positive thing to be said about this period before elections is that it has raised interest among the population about alternative policies to the junta and it has exposed a number of politicians for being opportunist mercenaries who have switched allegiance to join up with the junta. No doubt there have been financial incentives promised to them.

In addition to this, when the elections are finally held, the total number of votes for pro-democracy, anti-junta parties, will be of interest in terms of measuring the political pulse of the nation.

Meanwhile the Future Forward Party has been shaken by an internal dispute between the leadership and the youth wing (NGN). Committee members of the youth wing were suspended. The official reason is that they are supposed to have spent money inappropriately. But no details have been given and no real explanation has been offered either. This does not bode well for transparency and internal democracy.

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Some commentators have explained that it is a dispute over policy, with the youth wing wishing to engage in more militant activities than the leadership. According to this explanation, the youth wing were trying to emphasise progressive policies while the mainstream of the party was relying more on the personal charisma of business tycoon and party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. The Future Forward Party has tended to stress that it is “New” without bothering too much about detail. It also seems to have attracted a diverse group of people with different political stand-points who want to oppose the dictatorship and are disillusioned with Taksin’s parties.

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Another explanation put forward by observers is that the youth wing are “left-leaning”, whereas the top leadership are pro-business liberals. The fact that the party has tried to create an image of “moving beyond left and right” may account for left-leaning youth joining a pro-business liberal party. Sooner or later tensions arising from this contradiction and the emphasis on Thanathorn, with its associated imbalance of power between the leadership and the rank and file, were bound to cause problems. Similar tensions may arise between the handful of trade union members and the pro-business leadership. [See https://bit.ly/2IpUUJa ].

It is difficult to see how the democratic space can be significantly expanded if people remain mesmerised by these flawed elections.

 

“Critical thinkers have to either pretend to be asleep or go to jail or leave the country”

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

This is one of many sharp critiques contained in the “My Country has this” (#ประเทศกูมี) rap sung by the group “Rap Against Dictatorship”, in late October.

Much has been written about this rap, but it is worth roughly summarising the content. The music video is set against a re-created background of the state-sponsored barbaric events at Thammasat University on 6th October 1976. [See http://bit.ly/1TKgv02    or   http://bit.ly/2d1iZbj ]. It shows that discussion about 6th October is not just about “history” but it is highly relevant to the political situation in Thailand today.

The “My Country has this” rap outlines almost everything that is wrong with Thailand today. This includes the impunity enjoyed by the rich when they break the law or the impunity enjoyed by junta leaders when they are accused of corruption. It mentions the hypocrisy promoted by the junta and suit-wearing elites who talk endlessly about “good people” and the need to “respect the law” while they engage in corruption and the creation of immoral laws. It describes how Bangkok has often been turned into a killing field, for example in 1973, 1976, 1992 and 2010. It talks about the present “parliament” which is just a lounge for soldiers and various constitutions which are written and then rubbed out by the military jack-boots, where a gun is held to our throats while claiming that we all have “freedom”. It criticised suppression of dissent and state surveillance, but also the fact that many so-called dissenters line up to follow the dictatorship like ants.

When the music video was first released it had a few hundred thousand views. But when the junta’s police threatened to prosecute the artists and production team the number of views shot up to over 55 million by the first week of November. Hundreds of people on social media “thanked the police” for promoting the video. After the junta realised that their response to the video had made them a laughing stock in society, the prosecution threats were withdrawn.

The Military dictatorship have affirmed that a general election will be held around February 2019, but it will hardly be democratic. Continuing threats against dissenters continue unabated. Last week a former whistle-blowing campaigner, who was part of the mob which opposed the 2014 elections and welcomed General Prayut’s military coup, stated that he felt that he had been “used” by both the military and mob leader Sutep Taugsuban. He was paid a visit by a group of soldiers. Around the same time people with calendars bearing the photos of former Prime Ministers Taksin Shinawat and Yingluck Shinawat were taken into military camps for “attitude changing” sessions. Trials of pro-democracy activists, accused of breaking the law by peaceful protests, are still being held in military courts. Political prisoners remain in prison, including those accused of lèse majesté. Some prisoners have not yet been tried in court because the prosecution witnesses “fail to turn up”. Yet they are refused bail. This is the kind of atmosphere in which the so-called elections will be held.

The military’s constitution and their 20 year National Strategy mean that any elected government will be severely constrained within the military’s policy agenda and the powerful military-appointed senate and judiciary are there to police this agenda. New election laws have been designed to discriminate against parties which are supported by the majority of the electorate ie. Taksin’s parties.

Some new parties such as the Future Forward Party and the Commoners Party have announced that they will oppose the legacy of the dictatorship. But even if they manage to win enough seats in parliament, which is unlikely, they will not have the power to over-rule the National Strategy, the senate and the judiciary. Only a powerful pro-democracy social movement outside parliament could do that. Such movements have been built in Thailand in the past, and it would be possible to do so again. The fact that millions of Thais were able to identify with the “My Country has this” rap is a ray of hope for the future. But there is a danger of people being mesmerised by the prospects of the election without properly thinking about the issue of entrenched military power.

Thais are not the only ones mesmerised by the election. Western governments cannot wait to re-establish “business as usual” with Thailand, irrespective of whether the elections are democratic or not.

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Prayut’s election poster

 

Thailand needs a socialist party of the working class

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

In a recent article in Thai on the Turn Left Thailand blog site [https://turnleftthai.wordpress.com/], I argued that trade union activists should not put their faith in business tycoon Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit’s Future Forward Party. This is because it is a middle class party in the interests of business. This is despite the fact that it has a clear anti-dictatorship position, some abstract statement about building a welfare state, and has been busy trying to recruit some trade union activists to create an image that it supports workers. In reality, the party has no commitment to raising the minimum wage to significant levels which would eradicate poverty, or to scrap and rewrite labour laws which restrict the right to strike and build free trade unions. What is really needed, I argued, is a party of the working class. [See the importance of class in Thailand here: https://bit.ly/2qG1Ytl ].

The article received much interest and some criticism. A former high paid finance worker who claims to be a “Marxist” dismissed the idea of a workers’ party by saying that the working class had shrunk and was no longer a majority in society. The opposite is actually true, with formerly middle class professions like teaching and nursing seeing unionisation. There have also been active trade unions among white collar bank workers for some time. Unionisation levels may be low, but that is a political problem rather than a structural one. Part of the political problem is a lack of a socialist party of the working class. Among the most radical sections of the Thai labour movement, “revolutionary syndicalism” is a dominant current, although very small in proportion to the whole of the movement. These anti-capitalist, anti-junta, activists do not see the need to build a party, but see their trade unions as the main vehicle for struggle.

Some Maoists from the defunct Communist Party of Thailand have also criticised my article, claiming that workers need to build cross-class alliances with capitalists because “the time is not right for a workers’ party”. For them, the time will never be right!

Another criticism of my article came from a former trade union activist who stated that Thai workers do not have a culture of political struggle. She accused me of not knowing Thai workers. Both statements are untrue.

The “cultural” argument has a long right-wing tradition among commentators. Western conservative academics used to pontificate about a Thai “lack of political culture”, ignoring repeated cycles of mass struggle for democracy. Even today this finds an echo among NGO activists in the Commoners’ Party. It fits nicely with the patronising attitude that claimed that the rural poor who voted for Taksin were ill-educated, ignorant of politics and sold their votes. It also seems to have an echo among demoralised former labour activists.

In the late 1990’s I was involved in re-establishing a Marxist and Trotskyist current among small groups of students and trade unionists. We managed to establish a presence for about ten years. But our organisation was not strong enough to withstand the repression and use of lèse-majesté following the two recent military coups. Never the less, interest in Marxism and Socialism, especially among some young people, has been on the rise recently, with some left-wing seminars being held. Unfortunately, serious party builders are yet to emerge.

To build a socialist party of the working class today, activists need to refrain from being mesmerised by elections, especially those held under the rules set down by the junta. There is no need to create a registered party to fight elections right now. What is needed is to build an activist party among workers with the involvement of young students. The activists need to train and educate themselves in theory while engaging in day to day struggles alongside other social activists. People need to learn from the successes of the illegal Communist Party of Thailand while rejecting its Stalinism and Maoism. The CPT had many activists who recruited students and workers in the early days.

One of the most important tasks is for a socialist party to bring together a big picture political analysis to counter single issue lobbying which has long been promoted by the NGOs and the trade unions.

History tells us that without a socialist party of the working class it is difficult to make serious advances on building a welfare state, reducing inequality and expanding the democratic space by promoting participatory democracy in society.

Thai politics