The Chronic Problem of Single-Issue Politics

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Single-issue politics has been a chronic problem which has dogged the Thai movements for many years. The root cause of this debilitating disease started with the collapse of the Stalinist communist parties and the rejection of what the Post Modernists and Anarchists called “Grand Political Theories or Narratives”.

When the Communist Party of Thailand collapsed in the mid-1980s, activists turned towards single-issue campaigns along with a rejection of politics and the need to overthrow the repressive state. They may have kidded themselves that they could somehow turn their backs on the state or steer a path round the state, as advocated by people such as John Holloway or Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, but reality they just transformed themselves into NGO lobbyists. These NGO activists were happy to lobby anyone in power, irrespective of whether they were democratically elected or military juntas. They also ignored the politics of the powerful elites and rejected the idea of class.

Therefore Thai NGO activists, who called themselves “the peoples’ movement”, enthusiastically lobbied Taksin’s government. When the Taksin government out-manoeuvred them with its pro-poor policies and also threatened them with mild repression, they became disenchanted with Taksin. As a result they chose to make an alliance with the most backward and conservative elements among the powerful elite, forming the royalist yellow-shirt “Peoples’ Alliance for Democracy”. They celebrated when the military eventually overthrew Taksin in the 2006 military coup. Some members of international NGOs based in Thailand, such as “Focus on Global South”, supported this reactionary position. The Thai NGOs continued along this path, trying to work with or lobby various dictatorships and some even joined with Sutep Tuaksuban’s anti-democratic mob.

Lately the NGOs have become “disappointed” in the junta’s reforms. What a farce!

The NGOs may or may not have learnt a lesson about supporting the destruction of democracy, but most have not given up their single-issue politics. Some of the recent NGO critics of the junta’s draft constitution, especially those concerned with health issues, have merely concentrated on their own single issues in their opposition. Instead they should be combining a general analysis about the destruction of democracy with a multitude of concrete issues to build a big picture criticism of the junta’s plans. This big picture analysis should go beyond the crude listing of all the various single issues in one place, as NGO coordinating networks tend to do. It should explain why all the issues are linked to the political and economic system. In terms of the present draft military constitution links must be made to military rule and the destruction of democracy since 2006.

When I was involved with the Thai Social Forum in Bangkok in 2006 I and my comrades tried to promote the inter-linking of various issues but experienced stiff resistance from most Thai NGOs.

The problem of “single-issue cretinism” is not confined to just some NGOs. On International Workers’ Day this year the “New Democracy Movement” issued an 8 point statement about why workers should reject the constitution. It was a dumbed-down document which merely talked about workers’ bread and butter issues. It failed to mention the attack on the universal health care system, presumably because they thought it was “nothing to do with workers” who have their own national insurance scheme. Yet workers’ families rely on the universal health care system. The worst offence by the “New Democracy Movement” was a failure to mention the problem of prolonging the dictatorship and the destruction of democracy. It was like they assumed that workers were too stupid to understand general big-picture politics.

The labour movement in Thailand contains progressive groups who have a big picture analysis of politics and have already rejected the military junta. Yet the “New Democracy Movement” ignored them and chose instead to take up a position alongside the most backward elements of the labour movement who reject or ignore politics.

This is such a shame because the “New Democracy Movement” has a good record of organising anti-dictatorship events, the latest of which, was the recent march to the democracy monument on the anniversary of Prayut’s coup.

One aspect of the NGO-style single-issue disease is that the former leadership of the railway workers union also supported the yellow-shirts and celebrated the 2006 military coup because they hated Taksin. But now the military have turned on them, threatening sections of the railways with privatisation. Of course, Taksin would have done the same as the military, but there was no excuse for the support given to the reactionaries.

Political theories and strategies have real concrete effects. It is not just an academic debate.

We need a revolutionary Marxist party in Thailand that can act as a bridge to link all the various single bread and butter issues with a class analysis of Thai capitalism in order to agitate for fundamental change. Such a party would also be at the forefront of building a mass social movement to get rid of the military. This is something we are trying to do, but so far the progress is painfully slow.

Further Reading On Thai NGOs and their politics  “Thailand’s Crisis and the Fight for Democracy”