Pro-democracy students throw down a challenge to all of us and themselves

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The brave young pro-democracy student activists, who call themselves the “New Democracy Movement” and the “Dao-Din” students, have thrown down a challenge to all of us and also to themselves. In a statement read out the day before they were arrested and sent to a military court for just peacefully demanding freedom and democracy, they made the following call to all of us who want an end to this vile military dictatorship.

“We understand very well that you may not feel ready to come out and fight in the open. We understand if you have fear in your hearts. We also harbour that fear. But you can no long remain silent and inactive because by doing that in the face of the junta’s illegitimate use of power, you end up condoning the regime by your silence. Our struggle today will be meaningless if you remain passive. You might not feel that the state of affairs has had a negative impact on you right now, but we all know that this cannot remain the case forever. Do not wait until it is too late and there is no one left who is prepared to fight.”

One thing is clear: it is no longer enough to praise these young activists and wish them well. If we remain as mere spectators, viewing some symbolic defiance of the junta by the students, the dictatorship can never be overthrown.

But merely making a call for action, in the way that these activists have done, does not automatically result in a mass uprising against the military. The act of merely writing this short article which you are now reading is also not going to result in an uprising.

We need to learn from the lessons of the 14th October 1973 uprising against the dictatorship, when half a million students and working people came out on to the streets of Bangkok and faced down tanks and guns and beat the military. That uprising was sparked by the arrests of pro-democracy activists. But there are some crucial differences.

We can obviously ignore the infantile stupidity of Generalissimo Prayut when he said that “today is not like the 16th October”. In Thailand, people who refer to the “16th of October” show a total ignorance of Thai history. The uprising against the military in the 1970s took place of the 14th October BE2516. The repressive back-lash that destroyed those hard won freedoms took place three years later on 6th October BE 2519. The “16th of October” therefore has no meaning. For all his Thai nationalism, Prayut knows nothing of Thai history.

But we must take seriously a mistaken view among some of the student activists today who believe that the difference between 1973 and today is the power of the media and the internet. Certainly there was no internet in those days, but people still knew what was going on.

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One of the most important lessons from the 14th October 1973 uprising was that it did not just arise out of thin air. Students and workers in those days had mass organisations and the anger at the military repression fed into those mass organisations and resulted in half a millions people being pulled on to the streets. Added to this was the political influence of the Communist Party in building a clear and unified critique of society, even though the party played little role in organising the uprising itself.

What we urgently need is mass organisation. The Red Shirts were a mass movement, but the UDD leadership has placed the Red Shirt Movement in cold storage. It is up to all of us to step up to the challenge and rebuild a democracy movement which can eventually respond to the call by today’s students.

The absence of a Left political party has also created difficulties. The idiot generals may claim that “they know who is backing the students”, but this is just a routine lie. Unfortunately there is no organisation backing the students. If we look around Thai society we see that the so-called NGO-led “Peoples Movement” is blinded by its post-communist adherence to single-issues. Many even support the junta. The Labour Solidarity Committee can make a futile call to Prayut to raise the minimum wage, while refusing to oppose the junta. Many other single issue campaigners are doing the same.

But the “Dao Din” students have gone beyond single issues. They campaign for land rights and against the dictatorship at the same time. Such an approach is of vital importance. The 14th October 1973 uprising linked discontent with social and economic issues in with the struggle against the military. That was why it was so powerful.

Today the challenge for us all, but also for the active students, is whether we can all help to rebuild a mass movement for democracy which weaves together all the pressing issues of society.

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