Giles ji Ungpakorn
The mass uprising against the attempted military coup in Turkey has opened up a debate about the tactics of defeating military coups and military dictatorships in Thailand.
Chaturon Chaisang, one of the most principled Pua Thai politicians, has praised what he calls the “Turkish Model”. He and I share the belief that mass movements are needed to prevent or topple military dictatorships.
Of course, in my opinion, the mass opposition to the Turkish coup was to be celebrated. But the way that the Erdogan government has used this as an excuse to restrict democracy and human rights is expected and needs to be opposed. But this does not detract from the importance of the anti-coup mass movement. The fact of the matter is that the mass movement swung the balance of forces against the military coup in Turkey. It offers a possibility of using this force to expand the democratic space. Yet there are those who decry this and condemn the “mob”. The logic of this is to say that the mass movement was always under the control of Erdogan and it would have been better if the military coup had been successful. Those progressives who remember the legacy of military rule in Turkey would quite rightly disagree.
There is a clear parallel with the situation in Thailand. There were those who decried the Red Shirt movement as being “merely” pawns of Taksin Shinawat, rather than celebrating the existence of a mass pro-democracy movement. Many among the Thai middle classes thought that a military dictatorship was better than a democratically elected Taksin government. The Taksin government was similar to the Erdogan government in Turkey because it was a pro big-business government which offered a better life for working people and the poor. Both governments abused human rights, but the alternative of military rule was worse. Both governments were opposed by entrenched conservative elites among the military, judiciary and civil service. The Turkish elites were anti-religious “Kemalists” while the Thai elites were royalists. Both used their ideologies to oppress those who disagreed.
When the need to find ways of rebuilding pro-democracy mass movements is raised in Thailand, especially after the events in Turkey, there have been three negative responses.
Firstly, there are those who say that the events in Turkey are different from Thailand because in Thailand the king is the power behind the military and the king is so powerful that he cannot be opposed. This is a big lie and a big excuse for doing nothing. The view that the king is all powerful is a wonderful excuse used by people who want to chatter and gossip about the royals but do nothing. In actual fact the king has always been a weakling, dependent on the military. Today he is totally incapacitated by old age. The real anti-democratic power lies with the military, not unlike in Turkey.
Secondly, there are those who claim that it is not possible to oppose the military in Thailand because they shoot down pro-democracy activists. Yes, they do, and so did the Turkish coup plotters. So did the Thai military in 1973, 1976, 1992 and 2010. Yet the mass movement beat the Turkish military in 2016 and the Thai military in 1973 and 1992. The real question is how to build an affective mass movement and how it relates to the power of working people. The other side are always prepared to use violence. But violence can be overcome by mass movements.
Thirdly, there are those who want to silence debate about strategy and tactics. Some claim that this is necessary in order to build “unity”. Unity built on stifling debate is a false unity which disrespects debate and wants to close its eyes to all discussions about seeking the best way of overthrowing dictatorships. Others are offended by criticisms of “holy sacrifices” made by sincere but misguided young students in the NDM who turn their backs on building mass movements. They are offended by criticism of symbolic and elitist gestures by a handful of people. These actions are elitist because ordinary people cannot afford to go to jail repeatedly to make a point. But Thais have shown repeatedly, that if conditions are right, and there is good organisation, they are prepared to join huge mass movements for democracy and face down the military.
The red shirts were the biggest pro-democracy mass movement in Thailand’s history. The tragedy was that they were demobilised by the UDD leadership along with Taksin. The answer is not to celebrate powerless symbolic gestures by a few dedicated people who rely on the internet, but to rebuild a mass movement with independent leadership based among grass roots activists in the working class and poorer sections of society. A further discussion about this is sorely needed.