Giles Ji Ungpakorn
In my previous post I wrote that: “Both in terms of the popular votes for and against the junta and the estimates of seats, Prayut has no legitimate democratic claim to form a government. But that may not stop him from muscling his way into government. He has already claimed the right to form a government because his party won most votes, ignoring the higher combined votes against the junta. Even if he does not install himself as Prime Minister, the military will still use every means possible stop a civilian government from functioning normally”.
The obvious conclusion from any study of the ebb and flow of class struggle in Thailand since 1932, is that progressive steps to increase the democratic space and to reduce inequality have always taken place in the context of previous victories or pressure from mass social movements. This is the kind of idea put forward by Rosa Luxemburg a century ago in her important pamphlet on “Reform or Revolution”.
An example of the importance of social movements is the consequences of the 1992 uprising against the military and the events after that. In 1991 the military staged a coup against an elected government which it feared would reduce its role in society. Resistance to the coup took a year to gather momentum, but in May 1992 a mass uprising in Bangkok braved deadly gunfire from the army and overthrew the junta. A key issue was that the junta head had appointed himself as Prime Minister after the 1992 elections. Many activists in this uprising had previously cut their teeth in the struggles of the 1970s.
Four years after this uprising, Thailand experienced a deep economic crisis. Activists pushed for a new, more democratic constitution, in the hope that the country could escape from the cycle of corruption, human rights abuses and military coups. There was also an increase in workers’ struggles and one factory was set alight by workers who had had their wages slashed as a result of the crisis. The new democratic constitution was only possible because of the victorious uprising against the military.
In the general election of January 2001, Taksin Shinawat’s Thai Rak Thai Party (TRT) won a landslide victory. The election victory was in response to previous government policy under the Democrats, which had totally ignored the plight of the rural and urban poor during the crisis. TRT also made 3 important promises to the electorate. These were (1) a promise to introduce a Universal Health Care Scheme for all citizens, (2) a promise to provide a 1 million baht job creation loan to each village in order to stimulate economic activity and (3) a promise to introduce a debt moratorium for farmers. The policies of TRT arose from a number of factors such as the victory against the military in 1992 and the climate for reform, the 1997 economic crisis and its effects upon ordinary people and finally the influence of some ex-student activists from the 1970s within the party. The government delivered on all their promises which resulted in mass support for the party.
Eventually, there was a backlash from the conservative sections of the ruling class and most of the middle-classes. It is this conservative backlash that re-established the era of military rule with the coup in September in 2006. But the military were not confident enough to avoid holding elections one year later. However, they did manage to rewrite a more authoritarian version of the constitution beforehand. Taksin’s party won a majority in this election, but the government was overthrown by the conservative and military-backed judiciary. The military then installed a Democrat Party government. This military-backed authoritarian government was opposed by the Red Shirt movement, which became the largest pro-democracy social movement in Thai history. The Red Shirts were primarily a movement of small farmers and urban workers. [See: “The Role of Thai Social Movements in Democratisation” https://bit.ly/2aDzest ]
The military and the Democrat government responded to the rise of the Red Shirts with lethal violence against unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators. Yet, pressure from the Red Shirts meant that elections were held in 2011 and Taksin’s Pua Thai Party won a landslide victory in these elections. Yingluk became Prime Minister. But her government was weak and operated under threats from the military and the conservative middle-classes, which eventually wrecked the 2014 elections. An important weakness of the Yingluk government was the fact that she refused to call on the Red Shirt movement to protect her government. Instead, Taksin and Yingluk preferred to make compromises with the military and the conservatives, which merely encouraged anti-democratic forces.
Despite the fact that the Red Shirt movement was a grass-roots social movement with many elements of self-activity, political leadership remained with Taksin and his allies. More progressive voices were too small to develop an independent leadership. This meant that Taksin was able to de-mobilise the movement after the election of the Yingluk government. This opened the door to the Prayut coup of 2014.
What all this means for the present situation in Thailand, after the 2019 election, is that only the pressure from a mass social movement can prevent the military from stealing the election or, in the event of a new government led by the Pua Thai or Future Forward parties, such a movement will be vital to ensure that the government can move forward to dismantle the legacy of the dictatorship. Already, the leadership of the Future Forward Party are facing lawsuits initiated by the military in order to weaken the opposition to the dictatorship. Parliamentary politics on its own cannot achieve this. If no movement is built, the legacy of the dictatorship will be extended far into the future.
It will take time a much discussion in order to build a new pro-democracy social movement because the leaders of the main anti-junta parties have not shown an interest in this. But a new movement can be built if people learn the lessons from the past.
[For a full analysis of the 2019 election, read “Thai Politics after the 2019 Election“]