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.
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