The youth-led prodemocracy movement that erupted in August has been inspiring. It has made huge strides forward towards getting rid of the conservative and corrupt, military dominated, society. But it is time to take an honest look at what has been achieved while assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the movement.
The movement has successfully rebuilt the pro-democracy movement on the streets in Bangkok and other locations up and down the country. This is after the bloody repression of the Red Shirt movement in 2010 and the following years when only small symbolic protests took place. At its height over 100,000 people have now taken to the streets in recent months. This is a remarkable achievement.
The protest movement has been invigorated by young people who are not afraid to defy the Old Order. Apart from the demands for the resignation of General Prayut as Prime Minister, and the demand to write a new “peoples” constitution, the protesters have dared to demand that the monarchy be reformed. This is long over-due and occurs in the face of a long history of stifling royalist propaganda and draconian laws used to protect the monarchy.
Young women have played key roles in the movement and activists from a wide range of campaigns have join the protests. LGBT and abortion rights issues have been raised. The right to self-determination for the people of Patani has also been flagged up. And the pressing need to reform the conservative and backward education system has also been a feature of protests by school students.
Rank and file organisation of the protests under the slogan “we are all leaders” has meant that demonstrations have continued when the original leaders have been arrested. The flash mobs are clearly well organised and continually use innovative styles of protest.
But there are weaknesses
Symbolism during the protests, for example, the use of rubber ducks, might be very photogenic and excite foreign journalists, but it cannot hide the fact that so far the protest movement has not been able to make the country ungovernable. Without doing this, Prayut’s parliamentary dictatorship cannot be overthrown. Rubber ducks are no substitute for real protest power that comes from strikes and workplace walk-outs. Unfortunately, little is being done to go out and visit worker activists in offices, banks, hospitals and factories in order to argue for strikes. This is mainly due to the appalling weakness of the left and the unwillingness of activists to rebuild a left-wing political organisation which can argue within the movement for an orientation on strikes.
The “we are all leaders” strategy means that it is difficult to have serious and democratic discussions about the way forward because no democratic structures exist within the movement which can encourage participation in decision making. The top protest leaders become de facto unelected leaders. This is not because they wish to be authoritarian, but it is 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 is not unique here. The same problem occurred with Podemos in the Spanish State.
If the movement fails to get strike action, we shall end up with a miserable compromise, carried out in the junta dominated parliament. Some sections of the constitution might be amended, but Prayut and the junta will not resign and the monarchy will not be reformed. [See https://bit.ly/3qol8Bl ].
A dozen protest leaders have been charged with lèse-majesté with the prospect of long drawn out court cases ending in draconian prison sentences. There does not seem to be any strategy to defend these leaders and to be able to pressure the regime to drop the charges.
Given the great strides made by the protest movement, it would be a terrible tragedy if very little was achieved in the end and the leaders ended up being isolated.
Giles Ji Ungpakorn