All posts by uglytruththailand

This non-commercial, alternative, and activist blog is dedicated to the political struggle for democracy, equality and human rights in Thailand. To contact the writer, Giles Ji Ungpakorn, please e-mail: ji.ungpakorn@gmail.com ถ้าท่านอยากอ่านบทความภาษาอังกฤษเชิญไปที่บล็อก"เลี้ยวซ้าย" https://turnleftthai.wordpress.com/

Temporary Defeat

The youth movement for democracy against Generalissimo Prayut’s dictatorship in Thailand has been defeated and key leaders and activists are facing draconian charges which have long prison sentences attached to them.

This defeat has been clear for some time, and given the length of time that has passed since the last significant protest, we can say this with certainty. There are still small symbolic signs of resistance and recently there was a Red Shirt gathering to remember the massacre by soldiers under the command of Prayut and Abhisit in 2010, but this Red Shirt gathering was more commemorative than an aggressive protest against the state crimes. This does not, however, mean that the fight against the dictatorship cannot be revived in the future, but meanwhile we need to assess the reasons for this failure.

Firstly, we need to take a historical look at the present crisis of democracy in Thailand.

The political crisis and unrest which we have seen in Thailand since the 19th September 2006 military coup against the elected Taksin Government, represents a class war between, on the one hand, the rich elites and the military, along with the conservative middle classes, and, on the other hand, the urban working class and rural poor, joined more recently by the new generation of young and progressive-minded youth. This class war has turned Thailand upside down and raised important political questions about the roles of many institutions.  

However, it is not a pure class war and those taking part have different aims and different concepts of Democracy. The class lines are not clear cut either. Twenty years ago, due to a vacuum on the Left since the collapse of the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT), millionaire and populist politician, Taksin Shinawat and his Thai Rak Thai Party, managed to inspire millions of ordinary Thais with many pro-poor policies. Later, after the 2006 coup, he provided leadership to the Red Shirt movement, Thailand’s largest pro-democracy social movement. More recently, ever since Generalissimo Prayut’s military coup against Yingluck’s elected government in 2014, other actors have appeared. Pro-business liberal tycoon Tanatorn Juangroongruangkit and his Future Forward Party, inspired many who saw Taksin as being too domineering and also making too many compromises with the elites. Later, the Future Forward Party was forced to metamorphose into the Move Forward Party after conservative judges dissolved the party.

In the last couple of years, a radical youth movement, independent of both Taksin and Tanatorn, emerged onto the streets and at its peak managed to mobilise tens of thousands of people against the dictatorship. This movement also “normalised” criticism of the Wachiralongkorn monarchy. [See my article “Youth-led movement challenges the junta and the monarchy” https://bit.ly/3OwebKy ]. But Prayut’s military government hit back with severe repression and the youth movement became isolated and eventually defeated.

For an overall historical view of the crisis, see my book “Thailand’s Crisis and the Fight for Democracy” (2010).  http://bit.ly/1TdKKYs .

Since 2006 it has taken the military, and the other conservative elites, 13 years of manoeuvring between bloody repression, the use of military controlled courts, and fixed elections, in order to stabilise the present system of “Guided Democracy”, which we now see in Thailand. [For further reading see my article “Guided Democracy after the flawed 2019 Election: Continuing Junta, Elite Politics, Myths about Wachiralongkorn and the Need to Build Social Movements”  https://bit.ly/2Wm6bzI ]. 

One of the most significant weaknesses of the pro-democracy movement was the refusal to spread the struggle into the organised working class, which would have raised the potential for crippling political strikes against the dictatorship. This was the case with both the Red Shirts and the youth-led movement. Instead, the struggle merely alternated between street protests and parliamentary strategies, with any emphasis on parliament acting to demobilise the street protests. The parliamentary strategy was flawed from the start, given that the military was prepared to stage coups, and in later years, drew up an authoritarian constitution and electoral rules which guaranteed its power through fixed elections and the use of military appointed senators and judges. [For further reading see my articles “Rubber Ducks cannot defeat the military” https://bit.ly/3p3LlnI, “Warning signs for the Democracy Movement”  https://bit.ly/3KcwHEq and “Parliamentary manoeuvres cannot bring about democracy” https://bit.ly/3MmdpOw  ].

Another significant weakness for both the Red Shirts and the youth-led movement was the lack of a radical political party, dedicated to the building of a genuine grass-roots pro-democracy social movement. When looking at the entrenched power of the military and the elites, it is clear that some kind of political revolution is required to bring about democracy. Furthermore, a social revolution would be required to end the gross class exploitation and inequalities experienced by most ordinary Thais. Any mainstream liberal political party will not be up to this task.

Instead of building a revolutionary party, the Red Shirts were too dominated by the politics of Taksin’s political parties, the latest version being the Pua Thai Party. This brand of politics looked to make compromises with the elites and to tone down the level of struggle, channelling people towards elections.

When it came to the youth-led movement, they rejected the idea of political leadership, pretending that they were participating in a spontaneous movement. The “we are all leaders” strategy meant that it was difficult to have serious and democratic discussions about the way forward because no democratic structures existed within the movement which could encourage participation in decision making. The top protest leaders become de facto unelected leaders. This was not because they wished to be authoritarian, but it was an unintended result of the “we are all leaders” strategy. Instead, there could have been mass discussion meetings and elections of a united front leadership committee. The Thai movement was not unique here. The same problem occurred with Podemos in the Spanish State.

Initially the youth protests grew out of isolated symbolic protest groups. Experience forced these groups to start working together. But they were not interested in building a revolutionary party. While turning their backs on the likes of Taksin, in practice, they unconsciously appointed themselves as leaders with no sustainable structures for the movement. This autonomist model of organising meant that when the military-controlled state hit back with repression against the top leaders, the movement collapsed. There was no strategy for responding to state repression.

Naturally, and quite rightly, there were political debates within the youth movement. But there was no mechanism for forging these debates into a clear policy backed by the majority of activists. Tokenistic internet polls, which they sometimes carried out, were no substitute for mass meetings and open debates. There was great confusion about the nature of the tasks facing the democracy movement, with many leaning towards the conspiracy theory that Wachiralongkorn ruled Thailand as an “absolute monarchy”.  This meant not paying enough attention on the practicalities of how to crush the power of the military and the conservatives, when the military are clearly the major obstacle to democracy. Protests took on a symbolic nature against the “absolute monarchy” while having no clear strategy for moving towards a republic either. Activists vacillated between hoping that the military-dominated parliament might “reform” the monarchy and calling on organisations like the United Nations to step in. Not enough political theory was created, through debates, about the relationship between the military, the conservative elites and the monarchy. [See my article “Flawed theory about the King’s power: an excuse not to fight the military” https://bit.ly/3kaerRq ]

On a more positive note, the youth movement’s brave criticism of the monarchy broke a long-standing taboo, built on fear, concerning the criticism of the King. Of course, this came at a high price for the leaders, who now face lèse-majesté charges and long jail sentences. Another positive development, brought about by the youth movement, is the idea of self-activity from below and the idea that activists do not have to depend on rich tycoons as leaders. This also led to the growing interest in left-wing ideas among the new generation. Sometimes this has been channelled into dead-end ideas of anarchism, the most prominent being the creation of the anarcho-syndicalist organisation called the “Workers’ Movement”. This was thought to be a “short cut” to building political workers’ strikes. But in fact, the “Workers’ Movement” does not even function as a trade union, not bargaining with employers. It has become a diversion from working inside the existing trade union movement to build political activists and strike action. The one bright spark is the revival and moderate growth of the Socialist Workers group, with a small influx of youth members.

The pro-democracy movement is now experiencing a quiet period. But none of the problems that stimulated the past struggles have gone away. The hope is that future activists will learn from past failures and rebuild, as accumulated anger recharges the movement.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

No light at the end of the tunnel

2021 draws to a close with no light at the end of the tunnel for freedom and democracy in Thailand. Political activists, who have campaigned peacefully against the military junta, calling for democracy and reforms to the scandal-ridden monarchy, are still in jail, having been refused bail. Many more activists have serious court cases hanging over their heads. The pro-democracy movement is still fragmented and too weak to force out the junta, release all political prisoners and abolish or reform the monarchy. The draconian lèse-majesté law, which has been used against activists, is still enforced.

The state of Thai jails is dreadful. Severe over-crowding and degrading treatment are the order of the day and a recent news report highlighted the use of forced labour. [See https://tmsnrt.rs/3FswQSB ].

The struggle for democracy next door in Myanmar/Burma has taken a turn for the worse since activists decided to take up arms against the Burmese generals. Civil war in Myanmar/Burma has been going on for decades. Yet what can really shake the Burmese junta is mass protests and especially strikes. These have been tried to some extent, but not in any systematic manner. The non-cooperation campaign is not the same as a well organised general strike. The turn away from mass action towards armed struggle has deflated the mass movement, allowing for only a small number of armed combatants to participate in the fight against the generals. The Burmese army has hit back with brutal military actions, including torture, cold-blooded killing of civilians and bombing raids on villages.

Incredibly, Thai NGOs, stuck in their useless “lobby politics” have been calling on the Thai junta to protect civilian refugees from across the border. There are even some who call on the Thai junta to put pressure on the Burmese generals to return the country to democracy!! Anyone with any basic understanding of regional politics can see that the Thai and Burmese military are as thick as thieves, both with an interest in clinging on to authoritarian power by any means necessary.

The Thai junta, and previous civilian governments before them, have always had an appalling policy towards refugees. Those allowed into the country are often detained in prison camps and not allowed to earn a living or travel within the country. Generalissimo Prayut recently said that no permanent camps would be allowed for the recent refugees fleeing the violence of the Burmese military. That means forcing them back across the border at the earliest opportunity. Thailand often deports asylum seekers back to the country where they face danger.

Treatment of migrant workers in Thailand is hardly any better, with most denied any vaccines against Covid or any financial help when sacked by employers. Local people who cannot “prove” that they are “Thai” face huge bureaucratic hurdles and delays to becoming citizens. The government even uses DNA testing to somehow complete the process! Mass DNA testing of citizens in Patani is also routine oppressive government policy. For those who are stateless, not having citizenship means people have no access to any benefits, rights, or government help. The general level of nationalism and racism in Thai society helps to ensure that those showing solidarity with migrants and refugees remain a small minority. Thai nationalism has never had any progressive element; no historical roots in a national liberation struggle against colonial powers. It is 100% reactionary.

The situation in Myanmar/Burma is a lesson for Thai activists not to go down the road of armed struggle. The situation in the Thai parliament is another lesson for people not to place their hopes in the parliamentary process which is controlled by the military. The opposition Pua Thai and Move Forward MPs in parliament have been engaged in virtually useless manoeuvres which have not in any way reduced the power of the junta. The opposition parties are not even able to put forward significantly radical policies, which would benefit most ordinary people to win over those who still vote for the military party. Such policies would include a welfare state, significant benefits for those made unemployed by Covid, huge investment in good quality, free or cheap, public transport and progressive housing, education and health policies. The opposition have forgotten why Thai Rak Thai won land slide victories at the polls. They are afraid of being “too radical” and angering the generals and the reactionaries.

anti-lèse-majesté protests

The Thai junta is doing next to nothing to reduce CO2 emissions, which could easily be achieved by ramping up the use of solar power and other renewables, while closing down coal and gas power stations. There have been some protests by local communities against new power stations, but pro-democracy activists are yet to raise the question of the Climate Crisis.

Covid continues to be a serious threat in Thailand, especially after the emergence of Omicron. Yet, many people are having to choose between paying out large sums of money for injections or waiting months for free doses.

One small fragment of light at the end of the tunnel is that young people are now much more political, with a significant minority interested in socialist ideas and militancy.

There are also signs that “gig” or “platform” workers, such as motorbike delivery drivers, are now getting organised in unions.

In addition, the protests against the monarchy are having an effect on the legitimacy of both the monarchy and the military. But for serious steps towards freedom and democracy, a stronger mass movement needs to be built, with important input from the working class.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Lèse-majesté rears its ugly head

The military junta is throwing all its legal weapons at the pro-democracy youth leaders. It is now just over a year since Generalissimo Prayut announce that the government would start to use the lèse-majesté law law against protesters. This was after a brief two year period when the no one was charged under this law.

The human rights organisation “iLaw” reports that 156 people have since been accused of lèse-majesté, with prominent leaders facing multiple lèse-majesté charges. Student activist Parit Chiwarak (“Penguin”) faces 22 cases under this law, while the lawyer Arnon Nampa faces 14 cases.

Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak
Arnon Nampa

Other leaders being charged include student activist Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul and Ramkhamhaeng University student Panupong Jadnok. Many activists have spent time in jail or are still being detained. The junta’s Kangaroo courts have often refused bail. [See https://bit.ly/3r6hBun .]

Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul
Panupong Jadnok

The use of the lèse-majesté law this time round has been aimed at those demanding the reform of the scandal-ridden Monarchy, with many pro-democracy activists believing that loathsome King Wachiralongkorn has too much power. Recently, the junta’s Kangaroo Constitutional Court ruled that merely calling for the reform of the Monarchy is equivalent to “treason” or attempting to overthrow the state. The maximum sentence for this is the death penalty. Some protesters have also been charged with lèse-majesté for wearing crop-tops on protests, ridiculing the preferred dress style of Wachiralongkorn.

This repression against the protest leaders has resulted in a revival of calls for the abolition or reform of lèse-majesté. Such calls were raised by myself and others after the 2006 military coup, but the movement against the lèse-majesté law today is more wide-spread and has support of large numbers of young people. A recent on-line petition gathered over 200,000 signatures. People are also refusing to stand up for the King’s anthem in cinemas.

In many ways, the demand to reform the Monarchy is a real threat to the military junta and the Thai ruling class. It undermines the way that the military and the capitalist politicians have always used the weak Monarchy to justify their rule, claiming that they always act to defend the “sacred” Monarchy, when in fact they merely act to defend their own interests.

The so-called “power” of the king is manufactured by the military, and other members of the Thai ruling class, in order to create fear and also enforce the idea that people are not equal. It is equivalent to the way some regimes in the world claim that they rule according to God’s wishes. Neither Pumipon, nor his idiot son Wachiralongkorn have any real political power.

Those who claim that Wachiralongkorn is all powerful need to explain how this can be the case, given that he chooses to spend most of his time living with his harem in Germany. Is there an example anywhere in the world, now or in the past, where a powerful ruler can exercise his power while spending most of his life abroad? Tyrants are very wary of leaving the country where they rule for fear of being deposed while abroad. The idea that Wachiralongkorn has been increasing his power is parroted by some articles published by mainstream news outlets abroad.

The lèse-majesté law is an anti-democratic law. The way it is used in the courts, with cases held in secret, is also un-democratic. It cannot be reformed; it must be abolished. In fact, the parasitic and wasteful Monarchy, which is used to justify the destruction of democracy, cannot be reformed either. It is time to fight for a Republic. Many young people today would agree with this sentiment.

Unfortunately, the building of a powerful pro-democracy social movement to achieve these aims has still not been achieved. The protest movements are fragmented, with many just watching from the sides or merely hoping in vain that the opposition mainstream political parties can achieve reform in a parliament controlled by the military. A mass movement based among the working class is required so that strikes can bring down the military. Some young people understand this, but they are being led astray by Anarcho-Syndicalist ideas about building a “red” trade union: “The Workers’ Union”. Unfortunately, this Red Union is merely an Anarcho-Syndicalist movement made up of youth, it isn’t an affective trade union and, unlike a revolutionary party, it cannot place activists among existing unions in order to agitate among workers. This is a task that is being attempted by a small group of Marxists in Thailand at the moment.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Anti-Government Skirmishes

The large united protests against the Thai military junta last year have become fragmented after the latest wave of Covid. The main reason is that last year’s impressive protests got stuck in a rut without the movement expanding into new areas, especially the workers’ movement. Many handed over the role of opposing the junta to the opposition parliamentary parties. Not surprisingly, the opposition to the junta in parliament was hardly inspiring. Attempts at political reform are being blocked by the military’s built-in majority from appointed senators and the actions of the Pua Thai Party have been cowardly to say the least, especially on the issue of bringing the monarchy to account.

The new round of protests were revived by last year’s youth leaders and leaders of the Red Shirt movement which opposed the military ten years ago. The return of the Red Shirts is to be welcomed. But the weakness which dogged the movement last year remains. No serious work is being done to spread the movement into the organised working class. What is more, the protests, although being organised almost every day, are smaller and fragmented, with different groups organising separately.

More and more youth leaders are facing legal action after repeated arrests. Thai Lawyers for Human Rights report that in the past year there have been over 2 thousand prosecutions against 1161 protesters. [See https://tlhr2014.com/en/archives/34277 ].  Some Protesters face multiple charges. A total of 143 youngsters under the age of 18 have been charged. Most people face various “offences” concerned with protesting. But there are 124 people who have been charged under the draconian Lèse-majesté law. [See https://bit.ly/3zW9mCG and https://bit.ly/3larcLZ ].

One new development is the almost daily skirmishes between disaffected youth and the riot police at Din Daeng intersection in Bangkok. These young people, many of whom call themselves the “Breaking Through the Tear-Gas” movement or “Talu-Gaz”, deliberately respond to the violence of the riot police. The police regularly use tear gas, rubber bullets and batons to break up peaceful and legitimate protests. Rubber bullets are fired directly at people’s heads and on a few occasions, there have been reports of live rounds fired as well. The young people respond by using fireworks and catapults.

The Talu-Gaz youth, who are mainly unorganised and individualistic, come from poor families living in the area. They are different from the students who led last year’s protests. However, they have joined other and bigger anti-junta protests in the past. They are angry about their lack of future prospects and the way the government has mishandled Covid. They also wish to “get even” with the violent police.

Another development is the increasing numbers of young people who identify in some way with left-wing ideas. They are associated with the REDEM group. However, they are more like “autonomists” than Revolutionary Socialists because they reject leadership and the need to build a party. Despite this, they are also interested in Marxism.

Recently two pro-democracy Buddhist monks held a live social media discussion which attracted many viewers. The two monks cracked jokes and tried to keep things light and obviously enjoyed themselves. But their aim of making Buddhist teachings more accessible had mixed results, as people tended to leave the chat room when they started talking about more serious religious matters. Not surprisingly, the two monks have been criticised by conservatives and they had to explain themselves to the religious authorities. Never the less they remain unrepentant. After a criticism that monks should not be involved with politics, one replied that “soldiers shouldn’t intervene in politics”!

Finally, the thieves and gangsters in the junta seem to be falling out with one another. Drug dealer and “Mr Political Fix-it” Thammanat Prompao (pronounce as “Tammanat”) was recently sacked from the cabinet after trying to manoeuvre to get his boss “General Pig-face Prawit” to take over as Prime Minister instead of Prayut. This shows that splits in the ruling military party are developing as a result of mismanagement of Covid and the general mood in the country which is turning against the junta.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Conspiracy Theories thrive under Prayut’s dictatorship

The Prayut dictatorship in Thailand is a fertile breeding ground for conspiracy theories. This is because Prayut and his military gang tell lies, instinctively, in order to justify their rule and to protect their interests. This means that the population quite rightly do not believe most of what they say. The problem is to find alternative truths. But real scientific truths are not the only alternatives on offer, especially in a society with little freedom of expression and accountability. What is seen by many people as an alternative “truth” can often be the nonsense of a conspiracy theory.

I shall give two examples of conspiracy theories circulating in Thai society right now: theories about the Covid vaccines and about the King. Both examples are a danger to those wishing to struggle for an alternative and democratic society.

Covid Vaccines

The military government’s handling of the second and more serious wave of Corona virus infections in Thailand has been a total shambles, especially when vaccination of the population is concerned. In mid-June 2021, the total number of people who had contracted the virus reached nearly 200,000, with the total number of deaths standing at 1,449 in a population the size of Britain. Only 4.5 million people have received 2 doses of a vaccine, just over 6% of the population. Despite the number of deaths being significantly lower than in Western Europe or the United States, the Thai government has failed in its vaccination programme. This is due to the fact that protecting the health of the general population has never been a priority and also due to the mindset of the generals who are running the country. They arrogantly believe that soldiers can solve any crisis, usually by military means. The government failed to order enough vaccines early in the day and initially restricted it to just one single company; the local production unit of AstraZeneca, owned by the King. The junta were clearly aiming to revive the flagging popularity of the monarchy. Later, they have had access to the Chinese Sinovac vaccine in larger amounts.

The lack of a welfare state or single national health service is also a huge problem, allowing for fragmentation of vaccine delivery and allowing private institutions to import some vaccines. One such private organisation is linked to a princess. Corruption and nepotism have also been playing their part, with big-shots jumping the queues.

In such circumstances conspiracy theories about the lack of efficiency and dangers of Sinovac have been circulating, despite the stamp of approval from the WHO. Other un-scientific rumours about AstraZeneca have also been doing the rounds, with people favouring the Pfizer vaccine, which is not being offered to the general public. The efficiency of all three vaccines are comparable and all three have side-effects. But the benefits of the vaccines for the vast majority of people outweigh the potentially dangerous side-effects. In a properly organised vaccination programme, different vaccines would be available to different people to try to minimise these side-effects. Such a programme does not exist under the Thai junta.

By swallowing conspiracy theories, activist become unable to make powerful criticism of the government and unable to offer real alternative visions of how to run the health service or other aspects of society.

“The King is dead”

Another conspiracy theory doing the rounds of social media a few weeks ago, was the “news” that king Wachiralongkorn had “died”. There was no reliable evidence to back this up and unfortunately it was not true. But this conspiracy theory was lapped up by those who are obsessed with the royal family. When it was found to be untrue, no apology or explanation was forth-coming.

These people also believe a much more harmful conspiracy theory that the idiot king Wachiralongkorn holds real political power in Thailand and can give orders to the military junta, which these people believe to be “merely” a tool of the king.

As I have explained in previous posts, that the myth about the power of the king lets the junta off the hook because many activists see the junta as irrelevant. This results in ignoring important discussions about vital strategies to overthrow military rule. The conspiracy theorists merely say that if you overthrow the junta, the monarchy will still remain in power. This is not actually true, as the survival of the monarchy is totally dependent on the military and important sections of the capitalist class who use it for their own purposes. [See: Wachiralongkorn’s power https://bit.ly/2EOjsNL and Can an absolute ruler hold power from abroad? https://bit.ly/3hxGFCv .]

What is more, none of these royal conspiracy theorists have, or are interested in having, a credible strategy for overthrowing the junta. Recently when someone on the popular (anti-royal) “Royalist Marketplace” site suggested the need for strike action, like we are seeing in Burma/Myanmar, in order to overthrow the dictatorship, this was dismissed out of hand by one leading light on the site. No alternative strategy was on offer. [See:  Rubber ducks cannot defeat the military http://bit.ly/3tmU5YB .]

This is a very serious issue as the youth-led revolt, which erupted last year, is going down to defeat, with the leaders facing serious lèse-majesté charges and the prospect of spending years behind bars as a result. Unless a realistic strategy for overthrowing the military is taken up in order to revive the movement, this could be the depressing outcome.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Continued repression, racism, and military stupidity under Prayut’s Dictatorship

Two pro-democracy youth leaders, Parit Chiwarak “Penguin” and Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul “Rung”, have been on hunger strike for some weeks. Penguin started his two weeks before Rung. They are protesting against the fact that they have repeatedly been denied bail while awaiting trial on lèse-majesté charges.  Three other leaders have also been denied bail, while others who are out on bail still face serious charges.

The military junta’s attack on freedom of speech and the pro-democracy protest movement, has been stepped up because Prayut and his gang feel that the large protests, which erupted onto the streets last year, have ceased and the movement is now weaker.

Unlike the heroic protests in neighbouring Burma/Myanmar, Thai activists have not organised workers’ strikes and this is an important factor. [See https://bit.ly/3x4c9ca ].

While I do not believe that hunger strikes are useful strategies in the struggle against the heartless junta and their lackeys in the courts, I disagree with those in the movement who are putting pressure on Penguin and Rung to abandon their hunger strikes. Penguin and Rung are brave and intelligent activists and we should respect their personal decisions to refuse food; not make it harder for them.

There have been daily solidarity gatherings outside courts in Bangkok and Chiang Mai to demand the release of all detained activists and this is vital. But further, more powerful, actions by the organised trade unions need to take place. Unfortunately there is little sign of this right now.

While this is going on, U.S. academic, David Streckfuss, who has written about Thailand’s lèse-majesté law, faces expulsion from Thailand after living in the country for 35 years. The junta’s authorities pressurised Khon Kaen University to sack him. Without his job, his visa has been terminated. He is clearly being victimised for his stance on democracy and his association with activists.

The political situation is just getting worse and the COVID policies of the junta are a cruel farce.

There has been an increase in the number of people testing positive for COVID and this has coincided with the Songkarn water festival, when people travel back to the provinces or go on holiday. Many cases are associated with entertainment establishments. The numbers of infected people are low, as a proportion of the population, compared to Western Europe, the USA, Brazil or Mexico, and fortunately the number of deaths is also low. This is despite the fact that the junta is incapable of organising to protect the population, with the vaccination programme lagging far behind many countries. [See https://bit.ly/3bGCRvc for an analysis of COVID in Thailand last year.]

Yet, what is unbelievable is that the government insists on admitting everyone who tests positive into hospital, regardless of whether or not they have symptoms, and the vast majority do not. This has cause chaos in hospitals and delayed essential treatment for non-COVID patients.

The junta has long been using COVID as a political excuse to crack down on protesters, but in recent days the army have used COVID to whip up racism against Karen refugees who came across the border, fleeing bombardment by the Burmese military. They were pushed back by the Thai army. Then the army organised to spray the open ground near the river where these refugees had been sitting with disinfectant, claiming to stop the spread of COVID. There is absolutely no scientific evidence that this was necessary or would have any effect. Rather it was a disgusting attempt by the army to portray migrants and refugees as vectors of disease!

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Struggles for democracy either side of the border

The people of Burma are waging a heroic fight against the brutal Burmese military. Over three hundred unarmed protesters have so far been murdered in cold blood since the coup at the beginning of February. Yet, every day we see reports of more mass protests up and down the country. The general strike is having an impact on the economy, shaking the junta. In their anger at the strikers, the military have been threatening to throw people out of their workplace accommodation unless they return to work. Many have chosen to move out of their homes rather than submit to the junta.

Railway workers, hospital workers, civil servants, garment workers and bank workers have all joined the general strike. In stepping up the action, workers councils really need to be formed, as they were in the general strike of 1988. These workers councils could then start to organise the distribution of food and essential services to people, thus creating the beginnings of a functioning parallel government controlled by workers. Trade unionists in other countries could also make solidarity donations to help the workers of Myanmar.

In a challenge to the determination of those on strike, a recent article in the Financial Times argued that business leaders in Burma are saying that “protesters are playing a dangerous game with the Myanmar economy” This shows that strikes and civil disobedience are starting to have a real impact and worry the bosses. That is something to be celebrated. Working class strikes which cripple the economy are vital to overthrowing the military dictatorship and are potentially less dangerous than confronting the military and police on the streets. Yet, not surprisingly, bosses in Burma claim that these strikes and the many demonstrations that are occurring “could wipe out a decade of economic gain”. They are only worried by about their profits. In the past, these bosses were quite happy to go along with the military controlled sham democracy before the February coup and have turned a blind eye to gross human rights abuses throughout the country. Western governments were also happy to talk about “progress towards democracy” under the military constitution which allowed the military to hold real power even before the coup. The concerns for the wellbeing of ordinary people because of the strikes and protests expressed by bosses and even the UN are merely crocodile tears. Bosses and the so-called “international community” cannot be relied upon to liberate the people of Myanmar from military rule. And ASEAN certainly cannot be relied upon to do anything to stop the Burmese military. Most ASEAN countries are ruled by authoritarian governments.

In Thailand, prodemocracy activists look at events in Burma with a mixture of huge respect for the protesters and absolute horror at the actions of the military. Many Thais are really hoping for a victory against the Burmese junta which would invigorate the struggle in Thailand.

But important lessons from Burma are not being learnt by Thai activists. So far there have been no real attempts to build a strike movement against the Thai dictatorship and activists are stuck on a strategy of repeated demonstrations, which are smaller in size than those held in 2020. There have been sectarian comments against a group of more militant protesters calling themselves the REDEM movement. This movement takes internet polls from participants about where and how to organise protests. Their marches have been brutally attacked by police and royalist thugs. Some conservatives are criticising them for being “violent” when they defend themselves. But the violence of self-defence cannot in any way be equated to the violence of the Thai military junta, which uses crowd dispersing weapons, intimidation and kidnapping and the courts and prisons against those calling for freedom and democracy.

The junta has long sensed that the movement is stalling and this has given the military confidence to attack numerous protest leaders using the draconian lèse-majesté law and other undemocratic laws in the junta’s legal arsenal. If the democracy movement does not change tactics and increase pressure on the Thai junta, many leaders will be jailed for merely peacefully expressing themselves during protests. Some are being held in jail anyway after being denied bail.

The protesters are quite right in being critical of the odious King Wachiralongkorn, even if they exaggerate his powers in relation to the military. He has continued with his disgusting behaviour flaunting his wives in public and giving military ranks to his many women. This is going on even when he is engaged in a “charm offensive” to counter all the public criticism by touring the country and spending more time in Thailand instead of Germany.

Meanwhile, the total disregard by the military, for the welfare of Thai citizens in relation to the lack of Covid vaccinations, can be summed up by the news that one of the young princesses received her vaccination ahead of the elderly “because she has to meet lots of people while carrying out her duties”. In addition to this, the head of the army suggested that golf caddies on military golf courses be given the jab as a priority! The generals obviously feel that they can say any old rubbish because they are in power and no one can hold them accountable.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

See also:

Wachiralongkorn’s mythical power https://bit.ly/2EOjsNL Rubber Ducks cannot defeat the military https://bit.ly/3p3LlnI

Flawed theory about King’s power: an excuse not to fight the military

The flawed theory about the so-called power of King Wachiralongkorn, and how he supposedly controls the Thai military junta, has led to idiotic conclusions among some Thais about the struggle for democracy in Burma/Myanmar and Thailand.

Comments on social media claiming that it “easier” for the people in Burma to fight the military “because they have no king” totally ignore the Burmese military’s history of brutality in suppressing unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators. In fact it is likely that the Burmese army has shot down even more civilians in the streets than the Thai army. One academic, who believes in the power of the Thai king, even posted on social media that the British had done the people in Burma a “favour” by removing the monarchy! Hardly a favour when they replaced it with a brutal colonial dictatorship.

Lawyers

The comments also under-estimate the bravery of pro-democracy activists in Burma. They ignore the level of organisation among activists which have allowed the anti-coup protests to spring up in many towns and cities across Burma.

The idea about King Wachiralongkorn’s power, or even Pumipon’s power, was always a myth. Unfortunately it has been used by some as an excuse not to get involved in the struggle against the military. These people see no point in overthrowing the junta since the “all powerful” monarchy, which is “really in charge” will remain. It is a recipe for inaction based on a lie.

So those who are obsessed by the King and the Royal Family prefer the comfort of merely engaging in gossip about the royals on social media. They are not interested in proposing or debating concrete ideas about how to strengthen the mass movement against the military.

In the real world, the fact of the matter is that whether there is a monarchy or not, the military regimes in Thailand and Burma are both capable of using brute force to cling on to power. The issue about the monarchy is irrelevant to any strategy to fight both juntas.

The only difference between the Thai and Burmese militaries is that the Thai military uses the monarchy to justify its repression. But both use “the protection of the nation and religion” as excuses.

On the issue of using the monarchy, the “Move Forward Party” has tabled an amendment to the lèse-majesté law. But it insists that the law must be retained and that a maximum prison sentence of 1 year must also apply to those who insult the monarchy. It justifies this by saying that the monarch and his family must enjoy more protection than ordinary citizens in order to protect the “dignity” of the monarchy! The word “dignity” and the actual nature of the idiot parasite Wachiralongkorn are a contradiction! The Move Forward Party should change its name to the “Standing Still Party”.

Meanwhile scores of youth activists now face lèse-majesté charges and some are in jail because they have not been granted bail.

Workers

The organisation among activists in Burma is also seen in the number of strikes and protests by workers. We have seen action in the hospitals, schools, universities, civil service offices, the central bank, the railways, the courts and in at least one copper mine.

Railway workers on strike

Workers in Burma are continuing a tradition of working class action from the past. The great uprising in 1988 started with a dock strike and expanded to a general strike against the military dictatorship.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for Thailand. Workers did join last year’s youth protests, but only one protest on the Eastern seaboard was organised by trade unions. Strikes did not occur. When asked if worker activists were discussing building for strikes, a long standing activist from Rungsit replied that workers could hardly feed themselves, so they could not strike. Yet, Burmese workers are poorer than Thai workers and have equally been affected financially by Covid. So we see yet another excuse to not attempt to use the potential power of workers in Thailand.

We do not know if the people of Burma will manage to overthrow the junta there. But so far they are doing as much as they can to achieve this. If they are successful, the hope is that it will inspire renewed struggle in Thailand and an interest in building strikes.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Further reading:

Wachiralongkorn’s power https://bit.ly/2EOjsNL   

Absolutism https://bit.ly/2teiOzQ  

Can an absolute ruler hold power from abroad? https://bit.ly/3hxGFCv

The real hope for the people of Burma lies with a movement from below

The military coup in Burma/Myanmar is being opposed by tens of thousands of activists in towns and cities throughout the country.

These protests show a glimpse of what needs to be done to overthrow the military. The most important actions have involved organise workers. They are important because workers have the potential economic power to bring the military to its knees.

Railway workers in Mandalay
Hospital Workers

There are reports that hospital workers at up to 70 hospitals have been taking action against the coup. In the southern city of Dawei and at Dagon University, on the outskirts of Yangon, students have held protests. Teachers, academics and civil servants have also been protesting. There are also reports of railway workers joining protests in Mandalay and according to “The Irrawaddy”, hundreds of workers at the Chinese owned Kyisintaung copper mines in Sagaing Region have joined the civil disobedience movement. In addition to this, residents in Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Rakhine, Mon and Shan States have joined anti-coup nationwide rallies, temporarily putting aside their differences with Burmese politicians.

Copper Miners (photo from The Irrawaddy)

The coup is an attack on freedom, despite the fact that Burma only had a sham democracy. The Burmese military’s own constitution allowed them to take total power in any so-called “emergency” and the military retained many oppressive powers, a monopoly of key ministerial posts, together with a guarantee of 25% of seats in parliament. Opposition to the coup also means opposition to this fake democracy.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi remains a popular figure inside the country, but she is not the kind of leader who is willing to overthrow the dictatorship. She has been cooperating with the military for the last 5 or more years under their sham democratic system. She is also an islamophobe and a Buddhist Burmese nationalist. This is why she refused to condemn the atrocities carried out by the army against the Muslim Rohingya. Within her party (the National League for Democracy) she has shown increasing authoritarian tendencies towards her opponents and tried to ban Muslims from holding important posts. During Suu Kyi’s time in office, there were over 200 political prisoners and her government continued to allow the junta’s laws to restrict free speech and assembly. Yet, despite this, we must stand with all those who demand her release from detention and an end to military rule. But this is not the same as supporting Suu Kyi’s leadership.

The demands of the democratic movement cannot just be confined to ending military rule. Self-determination for the various ethnic nations within Burma has been a key issue since British rule. The British encouraged ethnic divisions along the lines of the empire’s “divide and rule” policies. There can be no peace or genuine democracy without addressing the ethnic question. Yet, most Burmese nationalist politicians since independence have opposed full self-determination for all ethnic groups, favouring a unified country, which has often involved “unity by military force”. There has been continuous armed conflict between separatists and the central government in various parts of the country since independence. At one point Burmese pro-democracy students also tried to use armed struggle against the regime after being brutally repressed in 1988. In no case has armed struggle resulted in victory.

Despite talking about freedoms for ethnic groups, in general, Aung San Suu Kyi has a condescending attitude towards the non-Burmese who make up a significant proportion of the country. She opposes the right to full self-determination. Suu Kyi once wrote in her book “Freedom From Fear” that the Karen “made good nannies”, the Chins were just a “tribe” and the Kachins, while being “handsome people” only worship spirits. She contrasted this to the “highly cultured” Buddhist Burmese, Mons and Shans. It is no wonder that many ethnic groups do not trust her!

Ne Win

Between 1962 and 1988 Burma was ruled by the military dictator General Ne Win, who claimed that he was a socialist. Yet in reality his regime was a nationalist “State Capitalist” regime modelled on the various Stalinist regimes throughout the world. This had an effect on the stifling the development of a genuine socialist movement.  

Right-wingers try to argue that deals done at the top, with the help of foreign powers, can gradually bring about democratic change. This is a dangerous myth. The so-called “Burmese Road Map to Democracy”, applauded by the West, merely allowed for a façade of democracy while the military held real power. Aung San Suu Kyi was only allowed to take part in elections because she was prepared to compromise. This façade of democracy was enough for the West and mainstream commentators to declare that Burma was returning to “democracy”.

The so-called “international community” will blow hot air over the coup and threaten sanctions, but this will achieve very little. Apartheid in South Africa was not ended by sanctions. It was ended by mass uprisings of youth and militant strikes by the black working class. The Arab revolts ten years ago managed to overthrow repressive leaders through mass uprisings. The dictators Suharto and Marcos were overthrown in Indonesia and the Philippines by mass revolts, not by international pressure. In fact the international community are only interested in ensuring stability and “business as usual” despite their meaningless words about democracy and human rights. 

It is likely that the military staged their coup as a pre-emptive warning against those who might have had ideas that the military could have its power and business interests reduced through parliamentary measures. The Burmese military has huge economic interests and behaves like an armed mega business corporation.

There is a rich history of mass uprisings from below in Burma. On 8th August 1988 a great uprising took place against the military, led by workers, monks and students. This was met with terrible brutality from the security forces who fired live ammunition directly into the crowds. But the defiance continued. On 22nd August a general strike was announced, with strike centres in most towns and cities. The regime began to wobble and the ruling class party disintegrated. This was the window of opportunity to seize power and overthrow the military. Yet on 25th August Aung San Suu Kyi addressed 500,000 people at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon and urged protesters to forget what had taken place and not to lose their “affection for the army”!! Thus Suu Kyi helped to demobilise the movement, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

A further mass uprising led by monks took place in 2007 in response to economic hardship and students demonstrated against the military in 2015. Both these revolts were crushed by the army. Monks have a history of radical politics in Burma and this was strengthened when students entered the monasteries after the 1988 revolt was crushed. The monasteries provided an opportunity for education and some freedoms for political debate when the universities were shut down or tightly controlled. 

Over the last 30 years, Aung San Suu Kyi has moved to divert radical movements towards parliamentary politics. Every time a revolt takes place she attempts to place herself as the figure-head or personification of Burmese democracy, rather than encouraging mass action from below. This has only protected the military’s power. While opposing the military dictatorship run by the generals, she often expresses admiration for the army, which her father Aung San established after independence.

The real hope for democracy in Burma is that the new generation of young people, independent of Aung San Suu Kyi, will rise up, taking lessons from Thailand and Hong Kong, but also teaching and inspiring activists in those countries. Success in overthrowing the military will depend on involving the working class, both inside the country and also the millions of migrants working in neighbouring Thailand.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Keep up to date with the latest news from Burma at Myanmar Now and The Irrawaddy

Military Regimes Don’t Just Gradually Dissolve

The recent military coup in Burma/Myanmar has quite rightly shocked and angered many ordinary people. Protests by Burmese expats and Thai democracy activists were immediately held outside the Burmese embassy in Bangkok. True to form and true to their shared interests with the Burmese military, the Thai junta ordered the police to attack this demonstration under the pretence that it was against emergency Covid laws. Two Thai activists were arrested.

Thai police use tear gas against protesters outside the Burmese embassy

Thai and Burmese pro-democracy activists outside the Burmese embassy in Bangkok

The solidarity between Thai and Burmese pro-democracy activists is a beacon of hope. This is because the real hope for Burmese democracy does not lie with Aung San Suu Kyi or the West. The so-called “international community” will blow meaningless hot air over the coup, but nothing of substance will change. International sanctions have never brought about democracy. It was mass working class and youth uprisings which ended apartheid in South Africa. The same can be said about the collapse of the Stalinist states in Eastern Europe.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been cooperating with the military for the last 5 or more years under their half democracy system. In addition to this, in the 8-8-88 mass uprising against the military, she demobilised the student and workers’ movement, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and diverting the movement into a base for her electoral hopes. Burma then remained a military dictatorship for the next three decades.

Demonstrators march through Rangoon. A banner identifies them as students from Rangoon Institute of Technology, where the first demonstrations broke out in March 1988.

Suu Kyi is also a racist, an islamophobe and a Buddhist Burmese nationalist. She cannot be trusted to lead a genuine movement for democracy.

Suu Kyi defended the brutal violence against the Rohingya

The hope is that the new generation of young people in Burma will rise up, taking inspiration from Thailand, Hong Kong and Nigeria.

One good sign is that there are reports that hospital workers inside Burma have been taking action to protest against the coup.

The coup is an attack on freedom, despite the fact that Burma only had a sham democracy; the Burmese military’s own constitution allowed them to take total power in any so-called “emergency” and the military retained a monopoly of key ministerial posts, together with a guarantee of 25% of seats in parliament and other oppressive measures.

Right-wing political views try to push the false idea that deals by important top people and foreign powers can gradually bring about democratic change. A recent article in the New York Times implied that the development of Burmese democracy was seriously damaged because Aung San Suu Kyi failed to cooperate and compromise enough with the military [See http://nyti.ms/3cPanUD ]. In fact she spent the last five or more years compromising too much with the army.

It may be that after Suu Kyi’s landslide victory in the recent elections, the military staged their coup as a pre-emptive warning against those who might have had ideas that the military could have its power and business interests reduced through parliamentary measures.

 Back in 2016 I wrote a post about mainstream views on democratisation. I wrote that:

“Recently I had a conversation with a researcher associated with the British Foreign Ministry and I was surprised and shocked to hear him say: “Burma is the most democratic country in South-east Asia”. He went on to say that the worrying thing about Burma was that Aung San Suu Kyi might be too inflexible to work with the military.”  [See http://bit.ly/3jc3VrI ]

I then posed the question: “So what accounts for this absurd idea about Burma?”

“The views about democratisation among mainstream officials and politicians close to Western governments are heavily influenced by right-wing “comparative politics” theories associated with academics like Guillermo O’Donnell. For these people, democratic transition is all about the behaviour of elite factions and how they manage a stable transition to so-called democracy. In fact they are not really interested in freedom, democratic rights and social justice for the majority of the population. They are blind to and terrified of the prospect of mass movements of the working class and the poor rising up to overthrow authoritarian regimes.

Reading through political science literature about democratic transitions in the days before the overthrow of Suharto in Indonesia or before the overthrow of Marcos in the Philippines, you can see that the idea that these dictators might be overthrown by mass movements from below is totally lacking. But this is in fact, exactly what happened. The same can be said of the Arab Spring uprisings and uprisings against the military in Thailand in 1973 and 1992. And the most important social force which can push forward and develop democratisation in all these countries, including Thailand, remains mass movements of workers and the poor.”

The fact that a generalised mass uprising, involving workers, of the kind that we saw in Burma in 1988, did not get rid of the military junta in recent years, means that the military were still in control of the levers of power. Without destroying this power, the tough and poisonous vines of a full dictatorship could easily grow back.

Part of the hundreds of protest marches in 1988

In Thailand the military are still in control because the mass movement has not yet harnessed the power of the working class. [See “Rubber ducks cannot defeat the military” http://bit.ly/3tmU5YB ].

Both in Thailand and in Burma, we still need mass movements of young people, allied to the organised working class, in order to achieve a democratic transition. Military regimes don’t just gradually dissolve by polite negotiation.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn