Theorising the Thai Democracy Movement

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

For outside observers of Thai anti-government street protests, the array of different social movements could be confusing, especially when they all claimed to be movements “for democracy”.

On one side of the political spectrum we saw the “People’s Alliance for Democracy” (PAD) or Yellow Shirts, The multi-coloured shirts or “Salim” which evolved from the PAD, and then the Democrat Party led mobs which eventually wrecked the 2014 election. These mobs, led by Sutep Tueksuban and the fascist monk “Buddha-Isara” called themselves “The People’s Democratic Reform Committee” (PDRC), or on some occasions, “The People’s Committee for Absolute Democracy with the King as Head of State” (PCAD).


Despite their misleading names the above movements sought to shrink the democratic space by calling for a military coup or intervention from the king against elected governments. They claimed that the majority of the electorate were too stupid and uneducated to deserve the right to vote. According to them the lack of education and information of the electorate allowed corrupt governments to “buy votes” by offering pre-election manifestoes which promised pro-poor policies such as universal health care.


These social movements are very good examples of “social movements created from above”, mobilised by the ruling class in order to maintain the status quo in the face of threats to their privileges. Those who are mobilised from above like this are often people from the middle classes or disillusioned unemployed workers. In the case of Thailand today it was the urban middle classes who were mobilised, but in the 1970s semi-fascist gangs like the Krating Daeng and Village Scouts mobilised both the middle classes and disillusioned unemployed workers against the Left.

After the end of the Cold War many academics were quick to announce the end of class struggle and the birth of so-called “New Social Movements”. It was claimed that these movements were atomised movements motivated just by identity politics, not class, and that they were not demanding any changes to state power like the “Old Left”. This was a myopic, fragmented Post-Modern view of social movements which totally ignored the big picture. It ignored all history and any events occurring in other countries. Each movement was viewed in isolation despite the fact that the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Movement and the GLBT Movements were all part of the same wave of protests.

Irrespective of the fact that these academics had proclaimed the end of class struggle, the movements thrown up by the present Thai political crisis are all about class. For Marxists like me “class struggle” is never just some crude and pure struggle of organised workers against the capitalist class. It involves all those who feel aggrieved by the effects of class rule and their grievances can be about a myriad of issues.

Post-modern and autonomist rejection of “politics” and any “big picture” analysis allowed post-communist activists, such as those in the Thai NGOs, to forget about class, the state and political organisation. Their interest was merely in lobbying those in power, whether they be elected or authoritarian. This degeneration of politics explains why many Thai NGO activists, and the movements which they influenced, moved dramatically to the right, ending up supporting military coups and the shrinkage of the democratic space.

A number of middle-class commentators have attempted to categorise the Yellow Shirt-Red Shirt street confrontations in Thailand as merely the clash of different elite supporters, much like a clash between supporters of two football teams.


Some have also tried to claim that the Red Shirts or the “United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship” (UDD) were merely political tools of Taksin Shinawat. Yet this is a fundamental mistake. The Red Shirts cannot be classified as a “social movement created from above” for a number of reasons. Firstly the aims of the Red Shirts were to expand the democratic space against the entrenched conservative structures of the ruling class. They wanted an end to the status quo. Secondly, the Red Shirts were a self-organised movement of working people, both urban and rural. As the movement developed, so did their class consciousness. The Red Shirts started to call themselves “serfs” or “Prai” and many started to question the whole elite political structure, including the monarchy.

The fact that Taksin and the pro-Taksin UDD leadership dominated the political leadership of the Red Shirts raises the important question of leadership in a social movement. Marxists have often described social movements as “continuing fields of argument” where different forces struggle to dominate. The tragedy of the Red Shirts is that most of the left-wing progressive Red Shirts, who had rejected Taksin and the UDD leaders, refused to organise a coherent alternative political organisation. They too were influenced by autonomist ideas.

A Marxist “big picture” view of social movements often describes various movements from below as just one big social movement with many arms and legs, constantly changing through time and always linked to international movements. This allows us to see the Red Shirts as a continuum of past pro-democracy movements such as the People’s Party that overthrew the absolute monarchy in 1932, the pro-democracy uprisings against the military in 1973 and 1992 and the communist inspired civil war in the late 1970s. Many of the key actors in the Red Shirt movements were involved in these previous movements. Of course there were also activists from these movements which switched sides and joined conservative elite mobilisations. But the point is that they switched sides and supported previous enemies like the military or the monarchy. This is merely an example of how people’s ideas change through time.

In addition to this, international factors, such as the dominance of neo-liberal economic policies, which increased inequality, and the oppression from authoritarian regimes, were triggers for both the Arab Spring uprisings and the rise of the Red Shirts. It should be remembered that the rise of Taksin’s popularity was a result of the neo-liberal economic crisis in 1996 and his grass-roots Keynesian response to this. We see little snap-shots of the links between the Red Shirts and the Arab Spring by looking at pictures of some demonstrators holding French bread sticks, Tunisian style, and the large poster which appeared on one Red Shirt demonstration claiming to be from the “Egyptian branch” of the UDD located in the north-eastern province of Chaiyapoom!


Previous links between Thai movements and those in other countries occurred in the late 1960s when the Thai democracy movement was clearly influenced by the 1968 movements in the West. The 1973 uprising against the military in Thailand also acted as a boost for Greek students protesting against their own military dictatorship. Greek students could be heard shouting “Thailand! Thailand!” during the Athens Polytechnic uprising.

Real events in Thailand and elsewhere have a habit of challenging academic political theories. In the past I have written about the myth of the “democratic middle-classes”. The idea of New Social Movements also needs to be deposited in the dustbin of history.


Further Reading

Colin Barker, Laurence Cox, John Krinsky & Alf Gunvald Nilsen (2014) “Marxism and Social Movements” Haymarket Books, Chicago, IL.

Why Thai NGOs supported the military:

Thai links with the Arab Spring:

Links between Thai and international struggles in the 1960s and 1970s:

Thailand’s crisis and shattered political theories: