The Thai working class

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The Thai trade union membership stands at less than 5% of the workforce. However, such an average figure can be misleading. Most State Enterprises and large factories in the private sector are fully unionised or at least dominated by unions. This includes some offices, especially the banks. Apart from this, unionised workers are mainly concentrated in Bangkok and the surrounding provinces of the Central region and the Eastern industrial Seaboard. Such concentrations of working class organisations allow for more influence than would be supposed from just looking at the national figures for unionisation. Strikes occur on a regular basis and trade union membership has expanded in manufacturing on the Eastern Seaboard, especially in auto-parts and auto assembly factories.

In Thailand, as in other countries, trade union bureaucrats enjoy a better standard of living than their members. However, networks of unofficial rank and file activists, independent of top leaders, exist in “Area Groups”. Even official groupings, such as the Federation of Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Unions, are able to bring together different unions at rank and file level, independent of the various bureaucratised peak bodies and congresses. These area groupings are considerably more democratic than the peak bodies. The entire committee of the group is usually elected every year and made up of men and women lay-representatives covering different workplaces and industries. These rank and file union groupings are a way in which “enterprise unions” can build solidarity with one another across workplace boundaries.

Trade unions and strikes have existed in Thailand for many years, but it is ideological factors which have held back the working class. This is due to a number of factors. Firstly, the Communist Party of Thailand, which originally organised urban workers in the 1940s and 1950s, took a Maoist turn away from the working class, towards the peasantry, in the 1960s. For this reason there have been few left-wing activists willing to agitate among workers. Unlike South Korea, where student activists had a long tradition of going to work in urban settings with the aim of strengthening trade unions, Thai student activists headed for the countryside after graduation. After the collapse of the CPT we can see the influence of NGOs, using funds from U.S. and German foundations, and more recently the arrival of “international” bureaucratic union federations. This is the second main factor which accounts for the ideological weakness of the Thai labour movement.

Labour-NGOs run by Thais receive funds from international foundations such as “The American Center For International Labor Solidarity” or the “Solidarity Center”, funded by the AFL-CIO and “The Friedrich Ebert Stiftung”, funded by the German Social Democrat Party (SPD). In recent years highly bureaucratised “international” unions have organised recruitment drives in some Thai workplaces. The aim is to increase membership of these international bodies, not to increase the combative and political nature of Thai unions. These NGOs and international unions have a number of commonly held beliefs. They actively support trade unions as long as they stay within the law. Thai labour law stipulates that trade unions must remain “non-political” and most NGOs are totally opposed to trade unionists taking up socialist politics or forming political parties. Thai labour law also makes it hard to carry out strikes.

NGO activists are known as “Pi-lieng” (Nannies). These “nannies”, help “child-like workers” to organise unions, to know their rights under the labour laws and to conduct themselves properly in labour disputes. When a dispute arises at a workplace, various NGO nannies will be sent out to stay with the workers’ “mob” in their picket tents. On some occasions, more rebellious workers will be scolded like children.

While such NGO and international union activity has resulted in more trade unions being established, it also breeds worker dependency on outside funding and socialises union representatives into a life-style made up of seminars in luxury hotels and foreign trips to conferences.

Yellow Shirts influence in some unions

The Yellow Shirts, and later Sutep’s mob, gained some influence in the trade union movement, although this is severely limited to sections of the State Enterprise workers. These unions are influenced by retired railway union boss Somsak Kosaisuk, who has joined Sutep’s mob. They have personal connections with Somsak Kosaisuk and his allies in NGO-type organisations like “Friends of the People” (FOP). Somsak and his allies organised “top down” educational groups for these trade unionists, funded by outside bodies such as The Solidarity Center and The Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. Another factor is the “State Enterprise union mentality” of putting more faith in talking to “sympathetic” management or elites, rather than organising and building a mass base. This drew some trade unionists towards the yellow shirts and later towards Sutep.

The left in the unions

Many active trade unionists who wish to fight in a more politicised manner have turned to militant Syndicalism. They are organised in networks of unofficial rank and file activists. Militant Syndicalism in the present day Thai context means engaging in the class struggle, supporting and organising strikes and being against cooperation with the State or the elites. These militants, who are mainly in the private sector workplaces, opposed the 2006 coup d’état and the Yellow Shirts. But Syndicalists are also very anxious to protect their independence while being wary of all political parties or of forming political organisations. This means that Thai Syndicalists are wary of cooperating too closely with pro-democracy social movements and this remains a political weakness.


Violence begets violence

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Indiscriminate violence against ordinary people, whether they be involved in politics or not, is always appalling and serves no progressive or democratic purpose. The recent killing of children is even worse. We have no idea who has been committing these latest atrocities in Bangkok or in Trat and it would be foolish to make wild guesses. It could be those on the side of dictatorship who want to create conditions favourable for a military coup or the resignation of Yingluk and it could also be disgruntled hot heads from the Red Shirt movement who are angry with the impunity of Sutep’s mob.

However, we must never lose sight of the fact that the violence in Thailand’s political crisis was started by the military when they used force to overthrow the democratically elected government in 2006. The military and the Democrat Party then shot down Red Shirt pro-democracy demonstrators in Bangkok in 2010. Among the dead was a young boy.

Since the beginning of the year Sutep’s thugs have been openly carrying automatic weapons in the streets and they have been filmed using them against unarmed civilians. They used systematic violence to intimidate voters. Yet no one has been arrested and the conservative elites, mainstream academics, NGO leaders and mainstream media have done all in their power to condone or ignore Sutep’s mob violence.

Violence and intimidation has been used by the anti-democratic side against progressive academics and activists like Sombat Bun-ngarmanong.

We must also put this political violence in a wider context. Over the last month children and adult civilians have been gunned down in the Patani region, probably by the Thai security forces. Sometimes they pose as separatists, like in the most recent incident when a crude note was exposed as not being written by anyone with a proper knowledge of Yawi or Malay.

Systematic state violence against civilians has taken place in 1973, 1976, 1992 and in 2004 and also in Taksin’s war on drugs. The real source of violence is the Thai ruling class. They create the conditions to breed more violence.

The solution is to establish standards of human rights by punishing the state actors and big men who commit these crimes. Today that means bringing Sutep, the generals, Abhisit and Taksin to court. The democratic space needs to be expanded and strengthened. All those who have been involved in destroying democracy since 2006 are only shedding crocodile tears over the recent tragedies.

We are being blackmailed with the spectre of civil war

Giles Ji Ungpkorn

Reactionary academics, NGO leaders and the “Great and Good” are all warning of the perils of civil war in Thailand. All this is designed to put pressure on those who support the democratic process, to accept a grubby compromise.

Some say “the only solution” is to have a “neutral Prime Minister” or an unelected government while others suggest a coalition government including Sutep and Yingluk. None of these “worthies” discuss expanding the democratic space. They are not interested in doing so because all they want is to get rid of Taksin’s influence. They are also sceptical about democracy because the majority keep voting for “the wrong people”.

A neutral Prime Minister would either have to be a liar or an idiot because being neutral in Thailand today would mean having kept your head in a bucket for the last 8 years.

The present German coalition government has been raised as an example for Thailand. However Germany only has a coalition government because no party received an overall majority. The coalition may also be very damaging for the SPD as it goes along with the CDU’s conservative policies. Perhaps a better example from Germany might be how Adolf Hitler was appointed as the chancellor of Germany by President Paul Von Hindenburg in 1933? At that time the Nazis did not have majority support.

Civil war is not an immediate threat right now and in such a bloody war the well-equipped military would win. Dividing up the country between the north/north-east and the central/south is merely a wet dream born of anger. The Malay Muslims in the south know how hard it is to break away from the Thai state and dividing up the country would mean handing over Bangkok to the reactionaries.

But this is not the point.

The real point is that all these reactionary academics, NGO leaders and the Great and Good have played important roles in creating this crisis and increasing the tensions and violence. If in the future a civil war were to break out, it would be their fault.

The reactionary academics, NGO leaders and the Great and Good supported the semi-fascist PAD, called for the monarchy to use article 7 to sack Taksin, supported the 2006 military coup, cooperated with the military junta, helped draw up the undemocratic military constitution, supported the overthrow of the second elected government by the military and the judiciary in 2008, helped to occupy the international airports, gave legitimacy to the Abhisit dictatorship, lined up against the red shirts who wanted elections, and kept quiet about the military massacre of ninety unarmed red shirts in 2010. If you were not following Thai politics, you might think this was exaggerated! Today some claim “not to like” Sutep and his tactics, but they have not condemned the authoritarian judges, joined the white shirt “respect my vote” campaign or urged everyone to respect the democratic process. All they are doing now is to say that we must all accept the shrinkage of the democratic space in order to “keep the peace”.

It is unbelievable hypocrisy and blackmail.

For those who wish to protect and expand the democratic space, it means that pro-democracy activists, whether they are progressive Red Shirts, pro-democracy trade unionists, White Shirts, Nitirat supporters, socialists, or members of the Forum for the Defence of Democracy, all have to work together. There is an urgent need to build a strong network of pro-democracy groups. In the long-term this network also needs to expand into the organised trade union movement. For too long, the right-wing has been allowed to have a monopoly of influence among some state enterprise unions.

On an international level, the organised working class has played a crucial role in developing and strengthening democracy, especially in Europe and also in South Korea. Recently, the labour movement strikes in Egypt in early 2011 were a significant factor in the fall of Mubarak. For years activists of the Egyptian Left had worked underground among workers and they were present in the great strike wave of 2006.

Trade unions and strikes have existed in Thailand for many years, but it is ideological factors which have held back the working class. This is due to a number of factors. Firstly, the CPT, which originally organised urban workers in the 1940s and 1950s, took a Maoist turn away from the working class, towards the peasantry, in the 1960s. For this reason there has been a lack of left-wing activists willing to agitate among workers for the past 30 years. Unlike South Korea, where student activists had a long tradition of going to work in urban settings with the aim of strengthening trade unions, Thai student activists headed for the countryside after graduation. After the collapse of the CPT we can see the influence of NGOs, using funds from U.S. and German foundations, and more recently the arrival of “international” bureaucratic union federations. These groups are opposed to political trade unionism and strikes. This is the second main factor which accounts for the ideological weakness of the Thai labour movement. There is still no political party of the trade union movement and the lack of a clear pro-democracy political current within the Thai unions is a fundamental weakness in the struggle for participatory democracy and social justice.

Save the outrage at the impunity of Sutep’s mob

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

     No amount of outrage at the violence and impunity of the thugs will push Yingluk or Pua Thai or the authorities into a crackdown on those committed criminal acts. Yingluk would rather do a dirty deal with Sutep and others than to mobilise the Red Shirts and the general population to fight for democracy.

After the 2011 election Pua Thai and Taksin made an uneasy peace with the military. This was reinforced in late 2013 when the Pua Thai government tried unsuccessfully to push through a disgraceful amnesty bill covering the military and Democrat Party leaders who murdered red shirts in 2010. Naturally, it also covered Taksin, but not lèse majesté political prisoners.

Since the eruption of Sutep’s anti-government protests, the military have realised the advantage of just sitting on their hands. Sutep’s mob, with the backing of the elites, academics and NGO leaders is putting pressure of Pua Thai to make more compromises.

No amount of compromise or negotiations with the anti-democratic thugs will solve the crisis. The only short-term result would be shrinkage of the democratic space and the further empowerment of those who view the majority of the electorate with contempt.

This means that pro-democracy activists, whether they be progressive Red Shirts, pro-democracy trade unionists, White Shirts, Nitirat supporters, socialists, or members of the Forum for the Defence of Democracy, all have to work together to prevent the destruction of the democratic space. They should also push forward with real reform proposals which will increase rights and the empowerment of the majority. The future of Thai democracy lies in their hands.

Democracy is not an unchanging state of affairs. It is constantly contested. If the Thai democratic space is compressed today, it does not mean that we cannot fight to expand it in the future.

Photo credit (from facebook)

Corruption in hypocrite land

Numnual  Yapparat

The Thai army always accuses civilian politicians of being corrupt in order to justify staging military coups. Sutep’s mob, the Democrats and the middles class love to use the same accusation against Taksin and Pua Thai. Yes, corruption is a serious problem for Thailand and therefore we need a serious discussion about how to fix this problem.

We need to ask which groups are most corrupt. The answer is the army, both in the past as well as in the present. In normal times the army generals enjoy lavishly fees by sitting on boards of state enterprises and big companies. The military also own much of the mass media, which gives them large profits.

Independent bodies and courts are corrupt to the core because people in these high positions are appointed and enjoy huge salaries. To get into such positions you need to be well connected with politicians and army generals.

What about politicians? Yes, the corrupt politicians are especially those who have no policies to offer to the electorate, like the Democrats or the old style parties. They love to stress, over and over again, about morality and justice, but have nothing to provide to the people except “special favours” to their clients. They are also only motivated to become politicians by the prospect of accumulating wealth.

Taksin was also interested in accumulating much wealth and he never paid enough tax. Like all politicians, he used his powerful position to further his own interests. But his motivation to become Prime Minister was more about feeling that Thailand needed to be modernised.

What about the police? Yes, we can see their corrupt activities every day on the streets.

The whole system is a fertile ground for corruption to grow. What about the solutions?

A few days ago there was a seminar about the corruption hosted by The Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). What were the main points that concerned them? The director of TDRI said that monopolies are the root of corruption.  The representative from the Thai Chamber Of Commerce implied that “populist” policies by Thai Rak Thai or Pua Thai were examples of corruption! He claimed that governments all around the world are reducing the role of state to intervene in the market with the exception of Thailand. Obviously, he has not kept in touch with the news in Europe and how much ordinary Europeans have expressed their resentment against austerity and their support for the Welfare State. There were a few academics in the seminar, but only one, Pasuk Pongpaijit, defend democracy as the best tool to cope with corruption. Even so, she did not offer any concrete way to do this.

Corruption is a serious problem in Thailand, but it is can never be abolished by the elites who are universally corrupt. It cannot be abolished by legislation either. To abolish corruption we need to expand the democratic space so that the public can reject corrupt politicians and state officials. Everyone, including the army generals and members of the royal family need to be openly scrutinised and made accountable. Strengthening social movements and trade unions can be an important part of this and we need mass media to be free of elite control. Reducing inequality and providing decent public services can also be part of the fight against corruption.

However in present day middle class Thai discourse, “corruption” is merely an insult people use against public figures whom they dislike, while ignoring the corruption of others.



Thongchai Winichakul On the crisis of Democracy

Thongchai Winichakul, former student leader in 1976 and now a Professor in the U.S.A., has written an article in Prachatai entitled “Wrong methods create even heavier damage”.

Thongchai writes that academics and those claiming to be part of the “peoples’ movement” constantly and selectively criticise Taksin’s “evil capital” while ignoring the largest capital conglomerate that no one can criticise. This is either because of their stupidity or they are just being dishonest to society.

He worries that Human Rights in Thailand, that have taken decades to develop have now been destroyed and are become a laughing matter in which no one has any faith.

Thongchai also writes that we should stop repeating the phrase that “democracy is the least worse system” because it may sound clever, but in reality it is a sign of ignorance and does not help us understand the situation. For Thongchai, democracy is the best system because it is the only just way of managing power relations in a complex society. Using “wrong methods” (as the Sutep mob and others do) can never build democracy because these methods are diametrically opposed to democracy.

Finally Thongchai criticises those “worthies” who have lined up, almost by prior arrangement, to suggest anti-democratic solutions rather than suggesting that those who are using the wrong methods end their actions. They are helping to destroy the future of Thai democracy.

His article can be read in full here:


Thai politics