Giles Ji Ungpakorn
Both Thailand and Turkey have experiences of long periods of brutal military rule. In both countries the conservative elites have opposed democratically elected governments that have enjoyed the support of the poor. The judiciaries of both countries have tried to subvert the election process. In Turkey the Western-leaning middle-classes have usually allied themselves with the military, supporting “Kemalism” which is used in an attempt to suppress those who dare to criticise the old order. In Thailand the royalist middle-classes have allied themselves with the military, supporting the oppressive lèse majesté law, used against dissidents. In both countries the democratically elected governments had support from the poorer sections of society. But these government were not bastions of freedom and democracy and were prepared to use violence to oppress sections of society outside the mainstream. In Turkey the elected government oppressed the Kurds, dissident youth, journalists and the left. In Thailand the elected government oppressed the Muslim Malays in the south and waged an extra-judicial campaign of murder against drug users and small time drug dealers.
But one thing that stands out in stark relief today is the manner in which mass action by ordinary people in Turkey prevented the military coup on the night of the 15th July 2016. This should be compared to the almost laughable symbolic gestures of the New Democracy Movement in Thailand. (see picture below)
However, the actions of the New Democracy Movement are not really laughable for two reasons. Firstly it is a tragedy that they sincerely believe that by making the news or by staging personal sacrifices, they can bring down the dictatorship. This is a kind of Ghandi-style or Aung San Suu Kyi style protest where the potential power of mass movements is reduced to the actions of a single handful of “heroes” or “heroines”. Look what is happening in Burma today where the military are still in power, fronted by a Suu Kyi government.
Secondly, it is not laughable because by ignoring the power of mass movements and by refusing to build such movements, the Thai military junta and its influence over society will never be fully destroyed.
Naturally there are always differences of detail in different eras and different countries. In Turkey Erdogan called for people to come out on the streets to oppose the military. In Thailand Taksin and the Red Shirt leaders have always called for calm in an attempt to demobilise the movement. In Turkey the military was split, but these splits can be built upon and magnified by mass protest movements. In Thailand the Red Shirt leaders called on people to place their faith in Taksin or pro-Taksin “water melon “military men or police. Such faith was misplaced.
In Turkey, my comrades in the Revolutionary Socialist Workers Party (DSİP) quite rightly called for mass opposition on the streets to the coup, but also made it clear that people should not have any illusions in Erdogan or the AKP. The struggle for democracy against the AKP must continue.
In Thailand the experience of the mis-led Red Shirt movement and the autonomist or atomist ideas of the young students has meant that opposition to the junta is confined to weak symbolic gestures. The rich experience of Thai mass movements defeating the military in 1973 and 1992 and the huge potential of the Red Shirt movement have been laid to one side.
Yet the important strand of truth that we can get from events in Turkey and Thailand is that only mass movements can defend and extend democracy.