[updated 16th Oct 2020]
The impressive demonstration against the junta and the monarchy on 14th October 2020 shows how far the movement has developed and it has raised the level of struggle for democracy.
Large youth-led pro-democracy protests have hit the Thai military junta from August this year. Crowds of up to 50,000 gathered around the Democracy Monument in the centre of Bangkok on 16th August. On 19th September, an important anniversary of a military coup against an elected government in 2006, crowds swelled to over 100,000. On the 14th October, on the 47th anniversary of a mass uprising against a military dictatorship, crowds gathered in similar numbers and marched to Government House to demand the resignation of the dictator Prayut Chan-ocha. They also demanded the writing of a new constitution and the reform of the Monarchy.
This time the stakes had been raised by the military government, which insisted that the protest should be cancelled because the king had decided to visit a nearby temple. Protesters ignored the government and the numbers swelled to 100,000 by nightfall, when people joined after work. The government conscripted state municipal employees and soldiers to line the roads wearing yellow royalist shirts in order to welcome the royal cavalcade. The Thai ruling class treated the civilian conscripts like dirt as many were transported in open trucks and some even had to sit in dust carts. Many voiced their displeasure and some were seen making the 3 fingered salute used by the pro-democracy protesters.
Police allowed the queen to be driven through the demonstrating crowds and she was met with the 3 fingered salute and even a few middle finger gestures. The crowd shouted “my taxes!” at her.
The protests were organised by a group of mainly young people and university students, initially calling themselves the “Free People” organisation. They have now created a coalition calling itself the “Peoples’ Party” after the movement that led the 1932 revolution that successfully toppled the Absolute Monarchy. The new generation leading the protest movement has become acutely aware of the importance of the historical struggle for democracy. What marks this latest movement out from the previous Red Shirt movement for democracy ten years ago is that they are independent of any political parties. In fact the main stream opposition parties cannot keep up with the movement.
In the days following the August protest, secondary school students up and down the country staged “3 finger salute” protests during the compulsory flag raising ceremony before start of school. Often it was young women who were the most militant. The playing of the 8 am National Anthem at a number of mass transit rail stations was temporarily stopped for fear that people would raise the 3 finger salute. [See more about this in a previous post on this site.]
In the late evening of 14th October, the protest leaders decided it was safer to disband and regroup the next day at Rartprasong intersection, the site of Red Shirt protests in 2010. The junta talked tough, announced emergency powers, banned all protest and arrested some of the protest leaders. However, on 15th October thousands gathered at Rartprasong to defy the government. Prominent among the demonstrators were school students in their uniforms. Again women students were some of the most militant.
The next day (16th October) protesters gathered further down the road from the previous day because the police had blocked off Rartprasong. See below. As night fell the paramilitary riot police moved in, using water cannon, spraying the young people with water mixed with a liquid irritant. Many people were arrested. At time of writing, the movement is at a junction. Either they increase the pressure on the junta or they step back and risk losing momentum. One way to increase pressure is to try to get working people to take strike action.
The 3 fingered salute was borrowed from Hunger Games, and became a symbol of opposition to the military dictatorship during anti-coup protests in 2014. The present junta came to power through a middle-class backed coup in 2014. Elections were eventually held in 2019, but under anti-democratic rules and a reactionary constitution drawn up by the military. Despite losing the popular vote to anti-junta parties, the military appointed senate helped to propel the junta back into government with the dictator Prayut Chan-ocha as Prime Minister.
People are scandalised and fed-up by the behaviour of the new king, Wachiralongkorn, who spends his life with his harem in Germany and has changed the constitution in order to allow this life style and in order to amass even more wealth. It is the first time in decades that people have had the confidence to criticise the king in public, despite the fact that there are draconian laws against this.
The powerful military has traditionally used the weak monarchy as a tool to justify authoritarian rule. Many ordinary activists in Thailand believe that there is an Absolute Monarchy. But nothing could be further from the truth. The movement should not over-estimate the power of the king.
Since 1932, the Monarchy has had very little power in itself and is a willing tool of the military and the conservatives. Although the much welcomed criticism of the monarchy can weaken the junta and hasten the long over-due day that Thailand becomes a republic, the military and its parliamentary dictatorship remain the main enemy of Thai democracy and a strong mass movement to topple the military is still needed.
The real people with power among the Thai elites are the army, high-ranking state officials and business leaders. They prostrate themselves on the ground and pay homage to the king on TV, while exercising the real power in the land and enriching themselves. This is an ideological play, acted out for the benefit of fooling the public. The fact that it is in any way believable by many is a great example of what Marx called “alienation”. It is when we are feeling powerless that we are more likely to believe the nonsense fed to us by the ruling class.
The Thai Absolute Monarchy was overthrown in the 1932 revolution and for a period the country was rule by anti-Monarchy civilians and generals. In the 1950s, during the Cold War, the Monarchy was revived and promoted by military dictatorships. The “return” of the Monarchy reminds me of what the historian Christopher Hill wrote about the restoration of Charles II after the English Revolution. He wrote that “Charles was called King by the Grace of God, but he was really King by the grace of the merchants and squires”. One could say that the Thai king is king by the grace of the military generals and capitalists.
At time of writing it is difficult to predict what will happen next. However, lessons from the 1970s and from the defeated Red Shirt protests ten years ago show that what is needed urgently is to expand the movement into the organised working class. The working class is the main location of our side’s power. The workplace is where the ruling class’ power is potentially weak. The lack of a significant organisation of the Left makes the task of mobilising workers more difficult, but it is hoped that militants will step forward to try and achieve this. Unfortunately a call for a “General Strike” on 14th October was made without any concrete work being done among the working class and it never happened. Socialists know that it is far easier to make abstract calls for General Strikes rather than to actually do the necessary organisational work to bring one about in practice.
Socialists do exist in Thailand and it is the job of such people, no matter how small in number, to encourage the spread of radical ideas into the working class and to strengthen trade union struggles. This is best carried out if we attempt to build the beginnings of a revolutionary socialist party.
Giles Ji Ungpakorn