Giles Ji Ungpakorn
The lessons from the military intervention in politics in Thailand are highly relevant to what is going on in Zimbabwe today, despite some of the differences.
Over the last few weeks and days we have seen jubilant crowds in Harare celebrating the military coup which overthrew the dictator Mugabe.
In Thailand in 2006 and 2014 we saw middle-class crowds urging the military to overthrow governments controlled by Taksin Shinawat. Despite the fact that these middle-class crowds were dominated by reactionary elements, who felt that democracy was not suitable for Thailand, there were many deluded fools, especially among the NGOs, who welcomed the intervention of the army to overthrow what they considered a “parliamentary dictatorship”. Of course Taksin abused human rights, but the governments which were controlled by him were not dictatorships. However, the point I wish to discuss is the belief among many people that a military coup can somehow bring about freedom and democracy.
Now the crowds celebrating in Harare were not mainly deluded fools. There was genuine elation at the overthrowing of a brutal dictator. Some, however, were indeed deluded fools believing that Mugabe’s former “enforcer” Mnangagwa was somehow a democrat and because he was a businessman he would restore the economy. Businessmen restore economies on their own class terms, on the backs of the working class and the poor.
The common idea held by those who believe that military coups can bring about democracy is the feeling that ordinary people, especially workers, can never change society and bring about freedom and democracy. That is why NGO types suspend their intellect and cheer the military. They believe that ordinary poor people need to be “helped” and can never act collectively to change society.
A similar event to Zimbabwe and Thailand took place in Egypt. There were mass protests when the elected President Mohamed Morsi started to betray the revolution. A majority among the crowds were under the illusion that the Egyptian military were the friends of the people. Only the radical Left warned that the military could not be trusted. Events showed that the military encouraged these protests and then hijacked them in order to come to power and roll back the revolution.
In Zimbabwe a significant number of people celebrating in Harare, had deep reservations about the military and Mnangagwa. The make up of the “new” military-civilian government shows they were right. The radical Left is encouraging workers and students to organise independently in order to bring about real change. The working class of Zimbabwe is capable of this if there is strong enough political organisation. Workers in neighbouring South Africa also have significant power and could provide solidarity. But it is the events in Portugal in 1975 which show the importance of working class self-organisation following a military coup. Chris Harman’s wonderful book “The Fire Last Time: 1968 and after” makes the point clearly.
On the 25th April 1975 General Spinola, an old fascist, headed a military coup which overthrew the dictator Caetano. Spinola’s aim was to run an authoritarian regime. It was planned as a Palace Coup. Yet the massive upsurge in working class struggle, which immediately followed his coup, split the military and prevented Spinola from achieving his goal. The fact that the Portuguese revolution could have moved society further along towards socialist freedom and democracy is a tragedy, but the lesson from Portugal for Zimbabwe, Thailand and Egypt is the vital role of independent working class struggle.
Unfortunately those who understand this are a tiny minority among pro-democracy Thais. The hope in Zimbabwe is that this will not be the case.