Thailand’s Cycles of Struggle
Giles Ji Ungpakorn
A recent editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald begins with the phrase: Let’s stop pretending about Thailand….The evidence of this century is that Thailand is not a democracy at all. It is a good thing that international newspapers come out and clearly denounce the coup. But we need to add important details. In Thailand the democratic space has been fought over for almost a century. It has been a constant struggle between the rulers and the ruled.
The military domination of Thai politics, started soon after the 1932 revolution which overthrew the absolute monarchy. But its consolidation of power came with the Sarit military coup in 1957. The economic development during the years of the highly corrupt military dictatorship in the 50s and 60s, took place in the context of a world economic boom and a localised economic boom created by the Korean and Vietnam wars. This economic growth had a profound impact on the nature of Thai society. The size of the working class increased as factories and businesses were developed. However, under the dictatorship trade union rights were suppressed and wages and conditions of employment were tightly controlled. Illegal strikes had already occurred throughout the period of dictatorship, but strikes increased rapidly due to general economic discontent in the early 1970s.
Economic development also resulted in a massive expansion of student numbers and an increased intake of students from working class backgrounds. The new generation of students, in the early 1970s, were influenced by the revolts and revolutions which occurred throughout the world in that period, May 1968 in Paris being a prime example.
In late 1973 the arrest of 11 academics and students for handing out leaflets demanding a democratic constitution, resulted in hundreds of thousands of students and workers taking to the streets of Bangkok in October. As troops with tanks fired on unarmed demonstrators, the people of Bangkok began to fight-back. Bus passengers spontaneously alighted from their vehicles to join the demonstrators. Government buildings were set on fire. The “Yellow Tigers”, a militant group of students, sent a jet of high-octane gasoline from a captured fire engine into the police station at Parn-Fa bridge, setting it on fire. Earlier they had been fired upon by the police.
The successful 14th October 1973 mass uprising against the military dictatorship shook the Thai ruling class to its foundations. For the next few days, there was a strange new atmosphere in Bangkok. Uniformed officers of the state disappeared from the streets and ordinary people organised themselves to clean up the city. It was the first time that the pu-noi (little people) had actually started a revolution from below. It was not planned and those that took part had only vague notions about what kind of democracy and society they wanted. But the Thai ruling class could not shoot enough demonstrators to protect their regime. It was not just a student uprising to demand a democratic constitution. It involved thousands of ordinary working class people and occurred on the crest of a rising wave of workers’ strikes.
Success in over-throwing the military dictatorship bred increased confidence. Workers, peasants and students began to fight for more than just parliamentary democracy. In the two months following the uprising, the new Royal appointed civilian government faced a total of 300 workers’ strikes. On the 1st May 1975 a quarter of a million workers rallied in Bangkok and a year later half a million workers took part in a general strike against price increases. In the countryside small farmers began to build organisations and they came to Bangkok to make their voices heard. Workers and peasants wanted social justice and an end to long-held privileges. A Triple Alliance between students, workers and small farmers was created. Some activists wanted an end to exploitation and capitalism itself. The influence of the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) increased rapidly, especially among activists in urban areas.
The first democratic elections, since the October 1973 uprising were held in January 1975. Parliament had a Left colouring and government policies reflected a need to deal with pressing social issues. Left-wing parties, such as the New Force Party, the Socialist Party of Thailand and the Socialist Front Party gained 37 seats (out of a total of 269) but did not join any coalition governments.
It was not long before the ruling class and the conservative middle classes fought back.
In the early hours of 6th October 1976, Thai uniformed police, stationed in the grounds of the National Museum, next door to Thammasat University , destroyed a peaceful gathering of students and working people on the university campus under a hail of relentless automatic fire . At the same time a large gang of ultra-right-wing “informal forces”, known as the Village Scouts, Krating-Daeng and Nawapon, indulged in an orgy of violence and brutality towards anyone near the front entrance of the university. Students and their supporters were dragged out of the university and hung from the trees around Sanam Luang; others were burnt alive in front of the Ministry of “Justice” while the mob danced round the flames. Women and men, dead or alive, were subjected to the utmost degrading and violent behaviour.
The actions of the police and right-wing mobs on 6th October were the culmination of attempts by the ruling class to stop the further development of a socialist movement in Thailand. The events at Thammasat University were followed by a military coup which brought to power one of the most right-wing governments Thailand has ever known. In the days that followed, offices and houses of organisations and individuals were raided. Trade unionists were arrested and trade union rights were curtailed. Centre-Left and left-wing newspapers were closed and their offices ransacked.
Thousands of activists joined the armed struggle led by the Communist Party of Thailand in remote rural areas. The struggle was ultimately unsuccessful, but it managed to put a great deal of pressure on the ruling class.
Three years after 1976, the government decreed an “amnesty” for those who had left to fight alongside the communists. This coincided with splits and arguments between the student activists and the conservative CPT leaders. By 1988 the student activists had all returned to the city as the CPT collapsed. Thailand returned to an almost full parliamentary democracy, but with one special condition: it was a parliamentary democracy without the Left or any political parties representing workers or small farmers. But the economic boom helped to damp down discontent.
Three years later the military staged a coup against an elected government which it feared would reduce its role in society. Resistance to the coup took a year to gather momentum, but in May 1992 a mass uprising in Bangkok braved the deadly gunfire from the army and overthrew the junta. Many key activists in this uprising cut their teeth in the struggles from the 1970s.
Four years after this uprising, Thailand experienced a deep economic crisis. Activists pushed for a new, more democratic constitution, in the hope that the country could escape from the cycle of corruption, human rights abuses and military coups.
In the general election of January 2001, Taksin Shinawat’ Thai Rak Thai Party (TRT) won a landslide victory. The election victory was in response to previous government policy under the Democrats, which had totally ignored the plight of the rural and urban poor during the crsisi. TRT also made 3 important promises to the electorate. These were (1) a promise to introduce a Universal Health Care Scheme for all citizens, (2) a promise to provide a 1 million baht loan to each village in order to stimulate economic activity and (3) a promise to introduce a debt moratorium for poor peasants. The policies of TRT arose from a number of factors, mainly the 1997 economic crisis and the influence of both big-business and some ex-student activists from the 1970s within the party.
Read more in my book “Thailand’s Crisis”….at: http://www.scribd.com/doc/47097266/Thailand-s-Crisis-and-the-fight-for-Democracy