How not to struggle for democracy in Thailand

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

In response to the junta crack-down on pro-democracy activists who were protesting against the junta’s postponement of elections, one of the female leaders declared in public that she would willingly go to jail if summonses and charges against other people who attended the same protest were dropped.

Despite this being a brave personal sacrifice, the tactic is highly problematic because she rejects the role of ordinary people and mass movements in the struggle for democracy, seeking instead to build herself into the sole embodiment of the fight against the dictatorship.


Not only will this not change the minds of the junta leaders who are hell-bent on using repression against anyone who takes part in anti-junta protests, but it is a reflection of the kind of individualistic politics prevalent among some young activists. In practice it could lead to the demobilisation of any further protests, rather than trying to draw more and more people into a pro-democracy mass movement.

In Burma, this was the same kind of tactic used by Aung San Suu Kyi during the great 8-8-88 uprising, when she addressed the crowds and urged them to return home and put their trust in her leadership and the sincerity of the military. After the mass movement was demobilised, the military made sure that the democratic space remained closed off for decades. When they eventually allowed “Guided Democracy” style elections, Suu Kyi had not only become a semi-dictator in her own party, but she totally compromised with the military. She sank so low that she was complicit in the violence against the Rohingya people. This is what happens when leaders are no longer accountable to a mass movement. They make decisions on behalf of millions and can become egotistical.

Another problematic tactic proposed by a pro-democracy academic is to build a political party like Spain’s Podemos. Dr. Piyabutr Saengkanokkul has suggested that Podemos could be a model for a new political party in Thailand “because it goes beyond the left-right divide which, unlike Europe, does not exist in Thailand.” He also claims that a Podemos-like party could heal the rift between the reds and yellows and would be a “new-style” party.

It is unfortunate that Piyabutr’s analysis is so shallow and out of date. It is simply not true that there is no left-right division in Thailand. The divisions between left-wing and the right-wing politics throughout the world, and over the last 200 years, reflects class and differing class interests in capitalist society. Workers and small farmers in Thailand have and still have profound differences in their class interests with the middle-classes and the business and military elites. What is more, the Red-Yellow conflict reflects this class antagonism with the yellows opposed to using state funds to decrease inequalities of wealth or build a universal health care system.  The Yellows are also in favour of limiting the democratic participation by poorer citizens. Pipe-dreams about uniting Reds and Yellows are neither realistic nor desirable and could only result in a limited form of democracy. [See ]

The last thing Thailand needs right now is a new political party which does not side with workers or poor farmers, but seeks a populist-type fudge between Left and Right. Since the collapse of the Communist Party, there has been an urgent need for workers and peasants to be represented by a political party. Ironically, Taksin’s Thai Rak Thai was actually a populist party run by big business leaders, seeking to bridge the class divide between rich and poor!

In terms of a “new-style” political party, Podemos has become a top-down party, run by Pablo Iglesias, with little internal democracy. One commentator from Ireland wrote that: “a politics that is neither left nor right is almost always linked to a desire for charismatic leaders. Once charismatic leaders are in place, they must develop an extremely hierarchical and centralised organisation. [See ]

Any party that hopes to be a key part of the struggle for democracy in Thailand needs to prioritise building mass movements over standing candidates in the next election, where the rules set by the juntas are going to restrict the functioning of radical or progressive parties. Unfortunately Podemos has become a party which prioritises elections over principles. It is hardly a good example for Thailand.

For more on Podemos, see   and .



The militarisation of labour relations

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

As we approach the end of 2017 we are seeing another aspect of the militarisation of Thai society.

The end of the year is traditionally a time when workers look forward to bonuses, which are essential additions to their low wages. Most workers rely on these bonuses as an integral part of their annual wages in order to survive. Since the military overthrew the Yingluk government in 2014, the junta have been forcing down wages by refusing to adequately increase the minimum wage. The Yingluk government had previously made a significant increase to the minimum wage rate, even though this was still not enough to provide ordinary working people with a decent living. The military junta has said that it will carry on the policy of decreeing different minimum wage levels for different provinces, something which is designed to keep down wages in the interests of the bosses.

Immediately after Prayut’s coup, and also after the 2006 coup, military personnel were stationed outside key factories which had strong trade union organisations with reputations for pro-democracy struggles.

Lately there have been two disputes over bonus payments, resulting in mass meetings and factory gate protests. The first one was at Fujikura Electronics factories in a number of different provinces. The second dispute was at Triumph underwear factories. Triumph has a long history of strong trade union activity, although in recent times the union has been weakened by the victimisation of key activists. [See ]

In the case of Triumph, the employers broke an agreement with the union to pay the end of year bonus.

What is noticeable is that the military have been involved in both disputes, blatantly intervening under the age-old excuse of “national security”. Of course the presence of security forces was not to ensure that the employers kept to their agreements or treated their employees fairly.

At Triumph the military were photographed sitting in on negotiations between the union and the employees.

In addition to this, the present minister of Labour is a military general.

Minister of Labour

All this has echoes of the militarisation of labour relations under the Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia. This was carried out under the “dwifungsi” doctrine of the military having a double function of defending the country and also intervening in politics and society.

Vedi Hadiz, wrote in his book, “Workers and the state in new order Indonesia”, that the involvement of security organisations in labour matters was legitimised by the characterisation of industrial disputes as a threat to national stability. This military intervention in labour disputes was supported by law under the Suharto dictatorship. Local military dominated committees in each region were created in order to control labour disputes and the workings of trade unions. The Minister of Manpower was often also a military officer.

The situation in Suharto’s Indonesia was worse than what we currently see in Thailand under Prayut’s dictatorship, but there are significant similarities in terms of the militarisation of society. I have also posted an article on this site comparing the Thai “National Strategy” with the use of Pancasila under Suharto. [See ]. Pancasila was also used as an enforced “guide” to labour relations in order to weaken trade union struggles.

If we do not put a stop to this creeping militarisation of Thai society, there can never be freedom and democracy.

The Thai monarchy has changed many times. It can be abolished.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

This year’s anniversary of the 1932 revolution, which occurred on the 24th June, was an important one. There is a major ideological battle to achieve hegemony over the history of the event. [See ]

The importance of history is in what it can tell us about the present. It is important not to see the present monarchy, even in Pumipon’s time, as an unchanging “left-over” from feudalism. A brief study of Thai history can explain this. But the important conclusion is that it is possible to abolish this parasitic institution once and for all.

Before the major transformation of the Thai state into a centralised capitalist model in the 1870s, “Thailand” as a nation-state did not exist. The back-projection of “Thailand’s history” from the modern era to Sukotai (1270) and Ayuttaya (1350-1782) must therefore be seen as rewritings of history by people such as Luang Wichitwatakarn and Prince Damrong, to serve modern nationalistic ideology.

Before the early Bangkok period the dominant economic and political system in the central and northern region can best be described as the “Sakdina” system. This was a loose political entity based on clusters of powerful cities, such as Sukotai, Ayuttaya, Chiangmai, and Krungtep (Bangkok), whose political power changed over time and also decreased proportionately to the distance from each city. Not only was there no such thing as a centralised nation-state under an all-powerful king, but political power to control surplus production was also decentralised.

In this Sakdina system, control of surplus production, over and above self-sufficiency levels, was based on forced labour and the extraction of tribute. This was a system of direct control over humans, rather than the use of the ownership of the means of production to control labour. Its importance was due to the low population level. The majority of common people (Prai) living near urban centres were forced to perform corvée forced labour for monthly periods. There were also debt slaves (Taht) and war slaves (Chaleay Seuk). This direct control of labour was decentralised under various Moon Nai, nobles and local rulers (Jao Hua Muang) who had powers to mobilise labour. The result was that under the Sakdina system both economic and political power was decentralised away from the king.

Trade also played an important part in the economy. Control of river mouths as export centres became more important as long distance trade increased. Local rulers sought a monopoly on this trade in cooperation with Chinese merchants who ran sailing junks as far as China and the Arab world.

Although the increasing penetration of capitalism and the world market into the region had already increased the importance of money and trade, in the early Bangkok period, it was direct pressure from Western imperialism and class struggle from below that finally pushed and dragged the Bangkok rulers towards a capitalist political transformation. The British imposed the Bowring Treaty of 1855 on the rulers of Bangkok. This treaty established free trade and the freedom for Western capital penetration into the area without the need for direct colonisation. While the monopoly over trade, enjoyed by the Sakdina rulers of Bangkok, was abolished, vast opportunities were created for the capitalist production and trade of rice, sugar, tin, rubber and teak. An opportunity also arose to centralise the state under a powerful ruler. Thailand’s Capitalist Revolution was not carried out by the bourgeoisie in the same style as the English or French revolutions. In Thailand’s case, the ruler of Bangkok, King Rama V or “Chulalongkorn” brought about a revolutionary transformation of the political and economic system in response to pressure from an outside world, which was already dominated by capitalism, political rivalry with the nobles and class struggle from below in the form of people avoiding forced labour.

This revolution involved destroying the economic and political power of Chulalongkorn’s Sakdina rivals, the Moon Nai, nobles and local Jao Hua Muang. Politically this was done by appointing a civil service bureaucracy to rule outer regions and economically, by abolishing their power to control forced labour and hence surplus value. Forced labour was abolished.

The Absolute Monarchy of Rama V was a thoroughly modern centralised institution, created in order to serve the interests of the ruler of Bangkok in an emerging capitalist “Thai” nation. It is this modern form of capitalist monarchy which was overthrown only sixty years later in 1932. The further transformation of the monarchy into a Constitutional Monarchy, as a result of the 1932, revolution was a contested area. Radicals wanted a republic, moderates wanted a Western-style Constitutional Monarchy and the ultra-conservative among the military wanted to create a false image of a god-like and powerful monarchy which they could manipulate for their own purposes. The ultra-conservatives were the ultimate victors with the help of the royalist old guard who had now given up any hope of restoring the Absolute Monarchy.

With Wachiralongkorn on the throne the importance of the monarchy will be reduced as he is not fit for purpose. [See]

The monarchy today is a mere puppet of the military with a falsely created image of “power”. But “power” is always concrete and political power cannot be separated from the power to determine state policies on social and economic issues or international relations. Today that concrete power lies with the military. [See   ]

The thugs that rule Thailand

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

There has been a spate of scandals concerning the level of bullying and physical abuse, leading to a number of deaths and serious injuries, among young military recruits and those in military training schools. The viciousness and violence associated with this abuse shows the general thuggish culture of the Thai military.

The top generals’ standard response to these events is firstly to lie and deny any wrong doing, and then, when they cannot sustain the lies, it is to justify the harsh life for young recruits or students in the army by claiming that this was designed to make sure that only the strong were moulded into soldiers.

In response to one recent death, Deputy Prime Minster General Pig-face Prawit said that he had been through the same training and it didn’t do him any long term harm.

However, this has nothing to do with genuine physical training but is a culture designed to create violent thugs who obey those above them and oppress subordinates or those who are weaker. It is training so that soldiers in the Thai army learn to abuse members of the general public and kill any citizens who oppose the political power of the military without the slightest remorse.

This killing of citizens can also be done with total impunity. No single soldier has ever been charged with killing unarmed protesters who were calling for democracy, in 1973, 1976, 1992 or 2010. No single soldier or policeman has ever been charged with the continuing killing and torturing of innocent civilians in Patani. No soldier or policeman has been charged with extra-judicial killings in Taksin’s “war on drugs”.

Officers in the Thai military are socialised to believe that they have a God-given right to intervene in politics and enjoy rich pickings from their political power. This only encourages them to stage military coups on a continuous basis. They arrogantly strut about claiming that they are the true defenders of the monarchy as though that excused everything. The present king is also an arrogant thug, beholden to the military.

Not only are the leading members of the junta guilty of ordering the shooting of innocent civilians, they also do not know how to talk to the public in a polite and respectful manner. Both General Pig-Face Prawit and Generalissimo Prayut regularly swear at, use obscenities and threaten reporters or members of the public who ask them difficult questions.

These are the thugs who rule Thailand and refer to themselves as “good people”, unlike the “bad” elected politicians!! Yet they claim that they are “reforming” Thai politics with a road map towards elections and democracy.

Zimbabwe, Thailand, Egypt & Portugal: No such thing as a coup for democracy

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The lessons from the military intervention in politics in Thailand are highly relevant to what is going on in Zimbabwe today, despite some of the differences.

Over the last few weeks and days we have seen jubilant crowds in Harare celebrating the military coup which overthrew the dictator Mugabe.

In Thailand in 2006 and 2014 we saw middle-class crowds urging the military to overthrow governments controlled by Taksin Shinawat. Despite the fact that these middle-class crowds were dominated by reactionary elements, who felt that democracy was not suitable for Thailand, there were many deluded fools, especially among the NGOs, who welcomed the intervention of the army to overthrow what they considered a “parliamentary dictatorship”. Of course Taksin abused human rights, but the governments which were controlled by him were not dictatorships. However, the point I wish to discuss is the belief among many people that a military coup can somehow bring about freedom and democracy.

Now the crowds celebrating in Harare were not mainly deluded fools. There was genuine elation at the overthrowing of a brutal dictator. Some, however, were indeed deluded fools believing that Mugabe’s former “enforcer” Mnangagwa was somehow a democrat and because he was a businessman he would restore the economy. Businessmen restore economies on their own class terms, on the backs of the working class and the poor.

The common idea held by those who believe that military coups can bring about democracy is the feeling that ordinary people, especially workers, can never change society and bring about freedom and democracy. That is why NGO types suspend their intellect and cheer the military. They believe that ordinary poor people need to be “helped” and can never act collectively to change society.

A similar event to Zimbabwe and Thailand took place in Egypt. There were mass protests when the elected President Mohamed Morsi started to betray the revolution. A majority among the crowds were under the illusion that the Egyptian military were the friends of the people. Only the radical Left warned that the military could not be trusted. Events showed that the military encouraged these protests and then hijacked them in order to come to power and roll back the revolution.

In Zimbabwe a significant number of people celebrating in Harare, had deep reservations about the military and Mnangagwa. The make up of the “new” military-civilian government shows they were right. The radical Left is encouraging workers and students to organise independently in order to bring about real change. The working class of Zimbabwe is capable of this if there is strong enough political organisation. Workers in neighbouring South Africa also have significant power and could provide solidarity. But it is the events in Portugal in 1975 which show the importance of working class self-organisation following a military coup. Chris Harman’s wonderful book “The Fire Last Time: 1968 and after” makes the point clearly.

On the 25th April 1975 General Spinola, an old fascist, headed a military coup which overthrew the dictator Caetano. Spinola’s aim was to run an authoritarian regime. It was planned as a Palace Coup. Yet the massive upsurge in working class struggle, which immediately followed his coup, split the military and prevented Spinola from achieving his goal. The fact that the Portuguese revolution could have moved society further along towards socialist freedom and democracy is a tragedy, but the lesson from Portugal for Zimbabwe, Thailand and Egypt is the vital role of independent working class struggle.

23 Nov 1975, Lisbon, Portugal — Portugal after Carnation Revolution — Image by © Alain Keler/Sygma/Corbis

Unfortunately those who understand this are a tiny minority among pro-democracy Thais. The hope in Zimbabwe is that this will not be the case.

Lies, more lies and even more lies

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

On the day when student activist Pai Daodin was refused bail once again by a military court because he held a banner opposing the military junta, Generalissimo Prayut stood up and spouted a tissue of lies about human rights. It was also a few days after leaders of rubber growers in the south had been detained in a military camp for complaining about the low price of rubber.

In the same week the junta also announced that it was strengthening the powers of the Internal Security Operations Command. Commentators have explained that this is yet another weapon for the army to control politics and elected governments in the future.

Without any sense of shame Prayut claimed that the junta was making “human rights part of the national agenda”, under a modernisation programme put forward by the so-called Ministry of Justice. Prayut’s lies were supported by two government spokes people, both military officers.

Prayut’s lies included the following bullet points:

  1. “Raising standards of human rights to international levels”. He probably meant the kind of international standards exhibited in Burma with regard to the Rohingya or the standards seen in Cambodia or even Saudi Arabia.
  2. “Encouraging businesses to respect human rights and human dignity in order to build stability and sustainability”. But the junta has prevented trade unions from staging protests and strikes and also capped pay rises for already low paid workers. It has also allowed large extraction companies to ride roughshod over the rights of local communities.
  3. The Generalissimo stated that he had no fear in proudly announcing Thailand’s human rights record to the world! This is when all reliable surveys put Thailand among the worst countries for rights and freedoms. Basically this man has no fear or shame of telling bare-faced lies to the world, probably because world leaders like Donald Trump, Xi Jinping and the leaders of the EU, don’t give a damn about human rights anyway.
  4. The wise General warned against nasty academics who just taught about democracy and human rights without being interested in the junta’s crafted laws. Such laws were drafted after the junta took power in an illegal military coup, overthrowing an elected government!
  5. Prayut promised to make speeches to bodies like the United Nations to explain the development of sustainable human rights.

Prayut also claimed that the junta would promote “a culture of respecting human rights in society”, no doubt by dragging those who do not understand the definition of the junta’s “human rights” into military re-education camps.

The fact of the matter is that Prayut’s military dictatorship has one of the worst human rights records of any Thai government. For the first time since the end of the Cold War Thailand has a large number of political prisoners and activists forced into exile. The use of the lèse majesté law has sky-rocketed and numerous opponents of the junta have been subjected to “attitude changing” detentions in military camps. Not only did Prayut stage an illegal coup to destroy democracy, but he is also guilty of mass murder for his role in shooting down redshirt pro-democracy demonstrators in the streets. His government has significantly militarised Thai society and is busy designing a system of sham democracy with fixed elections so that the influence of the junta can be extended for decades. The so-called National Human Rights Commission is also stuffed full of military and police officers.

Every time Prayut and other members of the junta open their foul mouths we just hear lies, lies and more lies.


Latest: Junta’s security forces break up protest against Teppa coal-fired power station and arrest leading activists in late November 2017.

Thai politics