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 ].
The youth-led prodemocracy movement that erupted in August has been inspiring. It has made huge strides forward towards getting rid of the conservative and corrupt, military dominated, society. But it is time to take an honest look at what has been achieved while assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the movement.
The movement has successfully rebuilt the pro-democracy movement on the streets in Bangkok and other locations up and down the country. This is after the bloody repression of the Red Shirt movement in 2010 and the following years when only small symbolic protests took place. At its height over 100,000 people have now taken to the streets in recent months. This is a remarkable achievement.
The protest movement has been invigorated by young people who are not afraid to defy the Old Order. Apart from the demands for the resignation of General Prayut as Prime Minister, and the demand to write a new “peoples” constitution, the protesters have dared to demand that the monarchy be reformed. This is long over-due and occurs in the face of a long history of stifling royalist propaganda and draconian laws used to protect the monarchy.
Young women have played key roles in the movement and activists from a wide range of campaigns have join the protests. LGBT and abortion rights issues have been raised. The right to self-determination for the people of Patani has also been flagged up. And the pressing need to reform the conservative and backward education system has also been a feature of protests by school students.
Rank and file organisation of the protests under the slogan “we are all leaders” has meant that demonstrations have continued when the original leaders have been arrested. The flash mobs are clearly well organised and continually use innovative styles of protest.
But there are weaknesses
Symbolism during the protests, for example, the use of rubber ducks, might be very photogenic and excite foreign journalists, but it cannot hide the fact that so far the protest movement has not been able to make the country ungovernable. Without doing this, Prayut’s parliamentary dictatorship cannot be overthrown. Rubber ducks are no substitute for real protest power that comes from strikes and workplace walk-outs. Unfortunately, little is being done to go out and visit worker activists in offices, banks, hospitals and factories in order to argue for strikes. This is mainly due to the appalling weakness of the left and the unwillingness of activists to rebuild a left-wing political organisation which can argue within the movement for an orientation on strikes.
The “we are all leaders” strategy means that it is difficult to have serious and democratic discussions about the way forward because no democratic structures exist within the movement which can encourage participation in decision making. The top protest leaders become de facto unelected leaders. This is not because they wish to be authoritarian, but it is an unintended result of the “we are all leaders” strategy. Instead there could have been mass discussion meetings and elections of a united front leadership committee. The Thai movement is not unique here. The same problem occurred with Podemos in the Spanish State.
If the movement fails to get strike action, we shall end up with a miserable compromise, carried out in the junta dominated parliament. Some sections of the constitution might be amended, but Prayut and the junta will not resign and the monarchy will not be reformed. [See https://bit.ly/3qol8Bl ].
A dozen protest leaders have been charged with lèse-majesté with the prospect of long drawn out court cases ending in draconian prison sentences. There does not seem to be any strategy to defend these leaders and to be able to pressure the regime to drop the charges.
Given the great strides made by the protest movement, it would be a terrible tragedy if very little was achieved in the end and the leaders ended up being isolated.
Thai school students, who have been helping to lead the pro-democracy protests, have refused to wear school uniforms on the first day of term, in a defiant protest to demand individual freedom over their lives and their bodies.
This is another sign that the young generation have had enough of the old conservative order. It is an indication of how far the movement has traveled.
Thai society has remained rigidly trapped in a conservative vice where people must grovel to their so-called elders and “betters”. The compulsory wearing of uniforms is widespread among civilian government officials, from teachers through to local authority employees. Even university students, especially in their first and second years, are often required to wear uniforms and have “behaviour marks” deducted for failing to do so. Uniforms are an attempt to control people in a rigid hierarchy. They are also an attempt to stifle free thought. But this is not working in today’s Thailand.
Those who advocate uniforms for students, both in Thailand and in western countries like Britain, falsely argue that uniforms are great levellers where rich and poor students look alike. They also, very stupidly, argue that uniforms improve academic performance!
The fact of the matter is that students know who is rich or poor even with uniforms. The “cut” and price of school uniforms can often differ.
As someone who was involved in campaigning against my son’s state school in Oxford becoming an “academy”, I know that the introduction of more and more uniforms, including ridiculous jackets, is all about neo-liberal models of education. It is about “form over content”, emphasising the image of the school rather than child-centred education and education as a process of originality and enquiry. It goes with attempts to centralise the control of the curriculum in order to restrict choice and to teach to “targets”, exam results and league tables. In terms of the U.K. it is part of the process of turning the clock back from the liberating atmosphere of the late sixties.
Thailand never liberalised the education system and the conservative nature of education establishment is closely linked to nationalist and royalist ideology which reinforces class hierarchy and shrinks the democratic space within society. Having to sing the national anthem at the flag raising ceremony at 8am followed by Buddhist prayers in class is an important part of this. Being forced to bow your head when walking past teachers and being forced to use royal language when referring to the monarchy and the royal family help to drill into citizens that they are “low” and must respect the “Pu-yai” or big people.
Therefore the scenes of school students staging the three fingered salute at the flag raising ceremony, arguing with reactionary teachers and government ministers, demanding a revision of the curriculum, or joining mass protests against the junta, and now the “uniform protest” are all to be welcomed as part of the struggle for liberation. This is both a struggle by youth within Thailand and also on an international level.
The Thai dictatorship is once again turning to the use of the draconian and backward lèse majesté law. The dinosaurs in uniform have ordered that a dozen leaders of the youth-led pro-democracy movement be issued with summonses by the police on charges of lèse majesté.
For a couple of years the scandal around this law, and how it brought the Thai monarchy into disrepute in the eyes of many throughout the world, meant that the junta temporarily stopped using the law. Instead they persecuted activists and dissidents with other equally brutal laws, such as the computer crimes law. But now they have returned to using lèse majesté.
The reason for this is that they can see that the tide has turned as a result of the youth-led protests and people are openly criticising Wachiralongkorn. The dim-witted and vicious king hasn’t exactly helped build his popularity by spending his time in Germany with his harem, insisting on changing the constitution in order to make a grab for all of the wealth associated with the monarchy to be placed under his personal control. In the past there was a separation between his personal wealth and the Crown Property Bureau which was owned by the state. At the moment he is on a “charm offensive”, touring various sites in Bangkok and the provinces to meet the people. But in many ways this has just made things worse since he is only welcomed by ageing royalist fanatics and when interviewed by a British Channel 4 journalist, Wachiralongkorn struggled to say a coherent sentence. In addition to this, soldiers have been dressing up as “yellow shirts” to welcome Wachiralongkorn and also use violence against pro-democracy protests.
Lèse majesté in Thailand is used to support military coups and dictatorships. The monarchy is constantly used by authoritarian powers in Thailand to justify their actions and the monarchy has never spoken out against injustice and the cold-blooded killing of civilians. In the past many people, myself included, have been charged under this outdated authoritarian law. One person was charged with lèse majesté for distributing CDs of an Australian Broadcasting Corporation documentary. This documentary showed the severely sexist and abusive behaviour of the Thai Crown Prince. The same person was also charged with distributing a Wikileaks cable which exposed the fact that at least one member of the Privy Council thought that it would be “better” if the Prince Wachiralongkorn died so as to avoid him becoming king. This was while Pumipon was still alive.
The junta are gambling on the possibility that the youth-led movement will lose momentum and that it will be unable to defend its leaders. Both the main opposition Move Forward and Pua Thai Parties have so far refused to criticise the lèse majesté law or to back demands for serious reform of the monarchy. It is vital that the leaders of the pro-democracy movement are not left isolated. Strike action by Thai workers would strengthen their position. International solidarity would also be a boost to morale.
In a genuine democracy, it cannot be a crime to seek to bring the monarchy to account for its behaviour. This is what the protest movement is demanding.
The lèse majesté law cannot be reformed into a democratic law any more than a military dictatorship can be reformed or amended into a “democratic government”. The lèse majesté law is fundamentally against the freedom of expression and democracy. No one should face charges, be punished or be in jail for speaking their mind about Thai political institutions. This is the line that must be drawn in the sand to defend freedom of speech and build democracy in Thailand. It means that lèse majesté must be abolished.
The fantastic mass movement against the Thai junta 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; a necessary condition for victory.
There are ominous signs that the junta is seeking to pressure the movement into a shoddy compromise with the help of the political parties. The aim is to merely amend some parts of the constitution via a parliamentary process. This will fall well short of the three demands of the movement: the resignation of Prayut, a complete re-write of the constitution by ordinary people, and the reform of the scandal-ridden monarchy.
The government has also been trying to divide the protesters by holding talks with some secondary school students about conditions in schools. The aim would be to get the school students to drop out of the movement.
Let us remember how far the movement has come. Since August 2020 large youth-led pro-democracy protests of up to 100,000 people have targeted the Thai military junta and even dared to criticise the monarchy. These protests have been organised up and down the country and have inspired millions of people in Thailand and other countries who are desperate for change. The energy and bravery of young people has been breath-taking.
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.
The reasons why students have managed to enliven and expand the pro-democracy protests, which have occurred sporadically since the last military coup in 2014, is that this new generation have seen that pushing for reforms within the military controlled parliamentary system has not worked. They are fed up with the entrenched conservatism in society, especially in the education system. The economy is a mess due to the Covid crisis and youth see little to be hopeful for the future. In fact they share all these feelings of anger and frustration with over half the adult population who voted against the military party in 2019. A recent poll, conducted by Bangkok University, found that more than 40% of the population are struggling to make ends meet.
As with all mass protests, the demands of the movement have expanded. LGBT and pro-abortion rights activists have joined in, along with activists campaigning for self-determination in the Muslim Malay region of Patani.
Hopes have been raised.
A miserable compromise with the military junta, only agreeing to amend certain sections of the constitution, would do nothing to solve the issues which have led to the protests in the first place. Therefore there is an urgency to add new tactics in order to increase pressure on the junta.
The movement’s emphasis on devolved leadership, without clear organisational structures, contains both a strength and a weakness. The strength can be seen in the way the protests have continued despite the ongoing arrests of key activists, many of whom face multiple charges. But the weakness is that, in practice, strategy is determined by a group of non-elected key activists without the possibility of much face to face debate on the ground within the wider movement. This is something we saw in Spain with Podemos.
What is needed is an urgent and open debate about the way forward.
Either the protest movement pushes 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 which would add power to the movement.
Many active Thai trade unionists have turned up to support the youth-led pro-democracy demonstrations as individuals and also in trade union groups. The Thai working class is much more than factory workers in the textiles and auto industries. There are white collar workers in offices, banks, schools, universities and hospitals. To build for strike action against the junta, youth activists need to link up with worker activists and visit workplaces to discuss how to get rid of the dictatorship. The lack of a significant organisation of the Left will make the task of mobilising workers more difficult, but it is hoped that militants will step forward to try and achieve this.
The key role of the working class is due to its economic power. This is an issue for all the present day movements such as Black Lives Matter, the Climate Strikes, and the struggles in Nigeria or Latin America. The important role of the working class has been well described in a recent book about the Hong Kong youth-led uprising (Au Loong-Yu, “Hong Kong in Revolt”).
It is a shame that some commentators who have influence on the movement seem to have been content with merely criticising the monarchy while not discussing the way forward for the movement. Perhaps this is no coincidence. If people believe that the idiot king Wachiralongkorn, who finds it hard to string a complete sentence together, is the real power in Thai society, rather than the military, it may lead to pessimism about the chance of victory because of the king’s “invisible power”. But the real enemy of democracy is the military junta.
The real people with power prostrate themselves on the ground and pay homage to this king. Yet, this is an ideological play, acted out for the benefit of fooling the public and creating fear. 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. What all modern monarchies throughout the world have in common is their ideological role in supporting the status quo. Thailand is no exception.
We must criticise the monarchy and call for a democratic republic, but in order to achieve that, the military need to be overthrown and there needs to be a serious discussion about how to achieve this aim.