Giles Ji Ungpakorn
Forty years ago left-wing political parties in Thailand managed to win 14.4% of the vote or 2.5 million votes in the General Election of 1975. Three main “Left” parties were represented in parliament. They were the Socialist Party, the Socialist Front and Palang Mai (New Force). These parties won many seats in the north and north-east of the country. Outside the arena of legal politics, the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) had enormous influence among student and worker activists and the CPT set the ideological agenda for the legal socialist parties in parliament.
Many people are aware of the uprisings around the world in 1968. The struggles by Thai activists also formed part of this wave of radicalism, leading to the 1973 uprising which overthrew the Tanom Kittikajorn military dictatorship. On 14th October 1973 half a million people, mainly young school and university students, but also ordinary working people, protested around the Democracy Monument. The wave of student revolts and the activism among young people in Western Europe and the United States were the inspiration which ignited the left-wing struggles in the early 1970s in Thailand. Libertarian left-wing ideas from the Western movements entered Thai society by way of news reports, articles, books, music and the return of Thai students from the West, especially art students in the first instance. The victory of Communist Parties in Indochina, after the USA began to lose the war in Vietnam, and Mao’s Cultural Revolution, also had a massive impact in igniting struggles for a new society in Thailand.
As always, the Thai ruling class reacted with violence against the rising left-wing movement, using armed thugs, soldiers and police. The height of this violence was the massacre at Thammasart University on 6th October 1976. This destroyed the democratic space created by the 1973 uprising and led directly to an intensification of the armed struggle in the countryside led by the CPT. Thousands of urban activists and students travelled to the CPT bases.
But the problem with the CPT’s Maoist strategy was that it more or less abandoned the city and the working class. The CPT argued that since the cities were the centre of ruling class power, a communist victory in Thailand would only come about by surrounding the cities with “liberated zones”. Their Maoist strategy meant that they never at any time planned to resist the right-wing backlash in Bangkok. Yet, since 1932, all significant social changes have taken place due to struggles in urban areas, especially in Bangkok. The CPT was also an authoritarian “top-down” Stalinist party and this did not sit well with the libertarian views of many students. In addition to this, the struggle by small farmers, which the Maoists favoured, was fundamentally a defensive and conservative struggle to survive, not a struggle for a future society.
What was missing from the CPT’s strategy in the late 1970s was trying to build the party among urban workers so that it could organise mass strikes. Previously the CPT had some influence among unions and large strikes had taken place. However, the turn to Maoism changed the party’s emphasis.
This disinterest in the working class was also apparent with the UDD Red Shirt strategy to beat the dictatorship in 2010. At no point was there any attempt to build an organisation among democratic workers which could stage strikes to stop the military from shooting street protesters.
Both the CPT and the Red Shirts were defeated because of this weakness.
The CPT’s rural armed struggle failed by the mid-1980s and the party fell apart when international events began to undermine Stalinism and Maoism as a world current.
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.
The collapse of the CPT resulted in a shift in ideology among activists towards autonomist ideas and the lobby politics of the NGOs. Worker activists who were left-wing, turned to syndicalism and rejected the need to build a party. . Taksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party was then able to monopolise political leadership of the poor through his populist policies and through the UDD red shirt leadership. This meant that new generations of activists did not try to build a political party of the working class and small farmers. Autonomist ideas dominate among the new student activists who oppose the junta.
We are paying the price today, given that Taksin and the UDD leadership have capitulated to the military.
From Athens and Madrid to Bangkok the important questions for activists are how to build independent revolutionary parties, how to relate to the working class and how to place the struggle of social movements above purely electoral politics.