Tag Archives: social movements

Military junta orders the building of more coal-fired power stations

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Generalissimo Prayut, backward head of the Thai military junta, and Chair of the National Energy Committee, has ordered that the Electricity Generating Authority push ahead with controversial coal-fired power stations in the south at Krabi and Tepa in Songkla. This is despite opposition by environmental and conservation groups in the area. These groups came to peacefully protest outside Government House in Bangkok, but the military regime ordered the arrest of its leaders under draconian laws which outlaw the right to protest.

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Opposition to these coal fired power stations is based on the negative impact on the local environment in Songkla, Krabi and Patani. The power stations and the docks for unloading imported coal, will destroy natural habitats including mangrove forests and coral reefs, which are also important for local fisheries. They are also located in areas of high tourism, where people come to visit the natural beauty of the environment.

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But this is not merely a “not in my back yard” issue. It is widely accepted by most scientists and intelligent citizens that the burning of fossil fuels, especially in coal-fired power stations, is causing dangerous global warming.

Many countries are trying to phase out coal-fired power stations and to increase electricity generation via alternative sustainable means, such as solar and wind power. Not so, the backward military idiots that are now running Thailand.

The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) is wedded to coal and gas and its propaganda about the new power stations claims that they will use the most advanced technology which will reduce dust and damage to the local environment. Nothing has been said about the continued burning of fossil fuels and the problem of carbon dioxide generation which causes global warming.

The south of Thailand is prone to powerful cyclones which cause flooding and storm damage. These storms will only get worse as the temperature of the Earth increases.

The EGAT has been working with the local authorities, which are under the military, to conscript local people to come out and “show their support” for the power stations.

Thailand has a great abundance of sunshine and it would make perfect sense for the state to vigorously promote a national plan for vastly increasing electricity from solar power. New solar power technologies are being developed in China and Spain and the cost of developing solar power is rapidly decreasing, especially when carried out on a large scale.

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Any forward-looking government in Thailand would be pushing ahead with solar power and wind power while phasing out coal and gas power stations. But the pig-headed backward Generals have no such plans. They also, quite naturally, wish to develop dangerous and costly nuclear power so that they can have access to nuclear weapons technology in the future. The junta and their conservative allies in the courts have also successfully delayed progressive plans for high speed rail links put forward by the previous Yingluck government. Such high speed rail projects would also reduce global warming by cutting unnecessary airline travel within the country.

The issue of coal-fired power stations is yet another example of how the Thai military junta can use its dictatorial powers to ride rough-shod over the wishes of citizens and the reasoned arguments against increased use of fossil fuels.

Further reading: http://bit.ly/2aGcSun

The importance of strategy and tactics

Giles ji Ungpakorn

The mass uprising against the attempted military coup in Turkey has opened up a debate about the tactics of defeating military coups and military dictatorships in Thailand.

Chaturon Chaisang, one of the most principled Pua Thai politicians, has praised what he calls the “Turkish Model”. He and I share the belief that mass movements are needed to prevent or topple military dictatorships.

Of course, in my opinion, the mass opposition to the Turkish coup was to be celebrated. But the way that the Erdogan government has used this as an excuse to restrict democracy and human rights is expected and needs to be opposed. But this does not detract from the importance of the anti-coup mass movement. The fact of the matter is that the mass movement swung the balance of forces against the military coup in Turkey. It offers a possibility of using this force to expand the democratic space. Yet there are those who decry this and condemn the “mob”. The logic of this is to say that the mass movement was always under the control of Erdogan and it would have been better if the military coup had been successful. Those progressives who remember the legacy of military rule in Turkey would quite rightly disagree.

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There is a clear parallel with the situation in Thailand. There were those who decried the Red Shirt movement as being “merely” pawns of Taksin Shinawat, rather than celebrating the existence of a mass pro-democracy movement. Many among the Thai middle classes thought that a military dictatorship was better than a democratically elected Taksin government. The Taksin government was similar to the Erdogan government in Turkey because it was a pro big-business government which offered a better life for working people and the poor. Both governments abused human rights, but the alternative of military rule was worse. Both governments were opposed by entrenched conservative elites among the military, judiciary and civil service. The Turkish elites were anti-religious “Kemalists” while the Thai elites were royalists. Both used their ideologies to oppress those who disagreed.

When the need to find ways of rebuilding pro-democracy mass movements is raised in Thailand, especially after the events in Turkey, there have been three negative responses.

Firstly, there are those who say that the events in Turkey are different from Thailand because in Thailand the king is the power behind the military and the king is so powerful that he cannot be opposed. This is a big lie and a big excuse for doing nothing. The view that the king is all powerful is a wonderful excuse used by people who want to chatter and gossip about the royals but do nothing. In actual fact the king has always been a weakling, dependent on the military. Today he is totally incapacitated by old age. The real anti-democratic power lies with the military, not unlike in Turkey.

Secondly, there are those who claim that it is not possible to oppose the military in Thailand because they shoot down pro-democracy activists. Yes, they do, and so did the Turkish coup plotters. So did the Thai military in 1973, 1976, 1992 and 2010. Yet the mass movement beat the Turkish military in 2016 and the Thai military in 1973 and 1992. The real question is how to build an affective mass movement and how it relates to the power of working people. The other side are always prepared to use violence. But violence can be overcome by mass movements.

Thirdly, there are those who want to silence debate about strategy and tactics. Some claim that this is necessary in order to build “unity”. Unity built on stifling debate is a false unity which disrespects debate and wants to close its eyes to all discussions about seeking the best way of overthrowing dictatorships. Others are offended by criticisms of “holy sacrifices” made by sincere but misguided young students in the NDM who turn their backs on building mass movements. They are offended by criticism of symbolic and elitist gestures by a handful of people. These actions are elitist because ordinary people cannot afford to go to jail repeatedly to make a point. But Thais have shown repeatedly, that if conditions are right, and there is good organisation, they are prepared to join huge mass movements for democracy and face down the military.

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The red shirts were the biggest pro-democracy mass movement in Thailand’s history. The tragedy was that they were demobilised by the UDD leadership along with Taksin. The answer is not to celebrate powerless symbolic gestures by a few dedicated people who rely on the internet, but to rebuild a mass movement with independent leadership based among grass roots activists in the working class and poorer sections of society. A further discussion about this is sorely needed.

Two countries two methods

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Both Thailand and Turkey have experiences of long periods of brutal military rule. In both countries the conservative elites have opposed democratically elected governments that have enjoyed the support of the poor. The judiciaries of both countries have tried to subvert the election process. In Turkey the Western-leaning middle-classes have usually allied themselves with the military, supporting “Kemalism” which is used in an attempt to suppress those who dare to criticise the old order. In Thailand the royalist middle-classes have allied themselves with the military, supporting the oppressive lèse majesté law, used against dissidents. In both countries the democratically elected governments had support from the poorer sections of society. But these government were not bastions of freedom and democracy and were prepared to use violence to oppress sections of society outside the mainstream. In Turkey the elected government oppressed the Kurds, dissident youth, journalists and the left. In Thailand the elected government oppressed the Muslim Malays in the south and waged an extra-judicial campaign of murder against drug users and small time drug dealers.

Supporters of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, protest in Istanbul's Taksim square, early Saturday, July 16, 2016. President Erdogan told the nation Saturday that his government was working to crush a coup attempt after a night of explosions, air battles and gunfire across the capital. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)
Supporters of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, protest in Istanbul’s Taksim square, early Saturday, July 16, 2016. President Erdogan told the nation Saturday that his government was working to crush a coup attempt after a night of explosions, air battles and gunfire across the capital. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

But one thing that stands out in stark relief today is the manner in which mass action by ordinary people in Turkey prevented the military coup on the night of the 15th July 2016. This should be compared to the almost laughable symbolic gestures of the New Democracy Movement in Thailand. (see picture below)

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However, the actions of the New Democracy Movement are not really laughable for two reasons. Firstly it is a tragedy that they sincerely believe that by making the news or by staging personal sacrifices, they can bring down the dictatorship. This is a kind of Ghandi-style or Aung San Suu Kyi style protest where the potential power of mass movements is reduced to the actions of a single handful of “heroes” or “heroines”. Look what is happening in Burma today where the military are still in power, fronted by a Suu Kyi government.

Secondly, it is not laughable because by ignoring the power of mass movements and by refusing to build such movements, the Thai military junta and its influence over society will never be fully destroyed.

Naturally there are always differences of detail in different eras and different countries. In Turkey Erdogan called for people to come out on the streets to oppose the military. In Thailand Taksin and the Red Shirt leaders have always called for calm in an attempt to demobilise the movement. In Turkey the military was split, but these splits can be built upon and magnified by mass protest movements. In Thailand the Red Shirt leaders called on people to place their faith in Taksin or pro-Taksin “water melon “military men or police. Such faith was misplaced.

In Turkey, my comrades in the Revolutionary Socialist Workers Party (DSİP) quite rightly called for mass opposition on the streets to the coup, but also made it clear that people should not have any illusions in Erdogan or the AKP. The struggle for democracy against the AKP must continue.

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In Thailand the experience of the mis-led Red Shirt movement and the autonomist or atomist ideas of the young students has meant that opposition to the junta is confined to weak symbolic gestures. The rich experience of Thai mass movements defeating the military in 1973 and 1992 and the huge potential of the Red Shirt movement have been laid to one side.

Yet the important strand of truth that we can get from events in Turkey and Thailand is that only mass movements can defend and extend democracy.

The role of Thai social movements in democratisation

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

In recent Thai political history we have seen a number of social movements which claimed to be campaigning for democracy. The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) or the “Yellow Shirts”, Sutep Teuksuban’s People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) and the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) or the “Red Shirts”, are the most important examples.

There is a long held view that the action of social movements, or civil society actors, has the effect of expanding the democratic space. Yet social movements in themselves are not automatically progressive movements for democracy and civil rights. Nor is “civil society”, when defined as non-state organisations, and often made up of middle-class actors, automatically in favour of democracy or of expanding civil rights and freedom.

On the conservative side of the political spectrum we saw the “People’s Alliance for Democracy” and the “People’s Democratic Reform Committee”. Despite their misleading names both these movements sought to shrink the democratic space by calling for a military coup or intervention from the king against an elected government.

These social movements are very good examples of “social movements created from above”, mobilised by the ruling class in order to maintain the status quo in the face of threats to their privileges. We know that they were mobilised from above because although the movements themselves were mainly made up of middle class people, their leaders were top politicians and businessmen with close links to the military top brass and the Palace. After the 2006 military coup, leaders of the PAD were seen celebrating with coup leaders and aristocratic types at a New Year party. The Queen and one of the princesses showed support by attending the funeral of one PAD supporter who was blown up by a PAD grenade, and both the PAD and PDRC leaders have enjoyed special preferential treatment from the military junta and the courts, especially over the occupation of the international airport by PAD members in 2008 and the violent wrecking of the elections in 2014. In both cases the military refused to intervene and restore order on behalf of the elected government. Yet the military used deadly sniper fire to kill almost a hundred Red Shirt protesters in 2010. These Red Shirts occupied a shopping area to demand democratic elections instead of a continuation of the military installed Democrat Party government.

Some have also tried to claim that the Red Shirts or the “United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship” were merely political tools of former Prime Minister Taksin Shinawat. Yet this is a fundamental mistake. The Red Shirts cannot be classified as a “social movement created from above” for a number of reasons. Firstly, most Red Shirts believed that they were fighting to expand the democratic space against the entrenched conservative structures of the ruling class. They wanted an end to the status quo. Secondly, at community level the Red Shirts were a self-organised movement of working people, both urban and rural. This is despite the fact that political leadership came from a group of former politicians in Taksin’s party.

As the Red Shirt movement developed, so did their class consciousness. The Red Shirts started to call themselves “serfs” or “Prai” and many started to question the whole elite political structure, including the monarchy. Thousands of ordinary Red Shirts struggled for democracy, dignity and social justice, while Taksin and his political allies waged a very different campaign to regain the political and economic influence that they had enjoyed before the 2006 coup d’état . However, at the same time, Taksin remained very popular and influential among most Red Shirts.

An important mobilising factor for the Red Shirts was the anger felt by millions of ordinary people at the way they were being robbed of their democratic rights by the elites and the middle classes.

The division between the “Reds” and the “Yellows” in the current crisis is class. There is a clear tendency for workers and poor to middle income farmers to support Taksin’s parties and the Red Shirts, irrespective of geographical location. This is because of TRT’s pro-poor policies of universal health care, job creation and support for rice farmers. Urban workers benefitted from the pro-poor policies which had a positive impact on their extended families in rural areas. It reduced their financial commitments to these family members. In the provinces and in Bangkok, the middle classes and the elites tended to vote for the Democrats and wanted to reduce the democratic space and turn the clock back to pre-TRT times.

But this is not just a simple class struggle. In fact, class struggle in the real world is seldom simple or pure. The Thai crisis has important class dimensions, but they are complicated by the political weakness of the Left and the organised working class. This is why Taksin could dominate and lead the Red Shirts.

If social movements are too closely allied to ruling class political parties they will end up being led, incorporated and dominated by those parties rather than being able to push for changes which correspond to the movement’s own agenda. In Thailand leading UDD members were either politicians from Taksin’s party or quickly became so after Yingluk Shinawat’s election victory in 2011. This has led to the gradual decline of the Red Shirts.

Even if a progressive Red Shirt party were to be built in the future, a balance still needs to be established between political parties and social movements and between grass-roots spontaneity and political organisation. They are not mutually exclusive, but they depend on each other in order to bring about change.

A Marxist “big picture” view of social movements often describes various movements from below as just one big social movement with many arms and legs, constantly changing through time and always linked to international movements. This “social movement” is constantly battling against “the system” which is controlled by the ruling class.

This view allows us to see the Red Shirts as a continuum of past pro-democracy movements such as the People’s Party that overthrew the absolute monarchy in 1932, the pro-democracy uprisings against the military in 1973 and 1992 and the communist inspired civil war in the late 1970s. Many of the key actors in the Red Shirt movements were involved in some of these previous movements. Of course there were also activists from these movements who switched sides and joined conservative elite mobilisations. But the point is that they switched sides and supported previous enemies like the military or the monarchy.

Today the challenge for pro-democracy activists is whether we can all help to rebuild a mass movement for democracy which weaves together all the pressing issues of society and is linked to a new organised political party and the labour movement. However brave the student activists of today may be, their symbolic protests against the junta are not enough. We need a mass movement.

This is a shortened version of a paper presented at the International Conference on Human Rights Education, Soochow University, Taipei, November 2015.

FOR THE FULL PAPER GO TO THIS LINK: http://bit.ly/1l34Xqe

Also watch this introductory video: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ePe_PK8LSzo

 

Theorising the Thai Democracy Movement

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

For outside observers of Thai anti-government street protests, the array of different social movements could be confusing, especially when they all claimed to be movements “for democracy”.

On one side of the political spectrum we saw the “People’s Alliance for Democracy” (PAD) or Yellow Shirts, The multi-coloured shirts or “Salim” which evolved from the PAD, and then the Democrat Party led mobs which eventually wrecked the 2014 election. These mobs, led by Sutep Tueksuban and the fascist monk “Buddha-Isara” called themselves “The People’s Democratic Reform Committee” (PDRC), or on some occasions, “The People’s Committee for Absolute Democracy with the King as Head of State” (PCAD).

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Despite their misleading names the above movements sought to shrink the democratic space by calling for a military coup or intervention from the king against elected governments. They claimed that the majority of the electorate were too stupid and uneducated to deserve the right to vote. According to them the lack of education and information of the electorate allowed corrupt governments to “buy votes” by offering pre-election manifestoes which promised pro-poor policies such as universal health care.

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These social movements are very good examples of “social movements created from above”, mobilised by the ruling class in order to maintain the status quo in the face of threats to their privileges. Those who are mobilised from above like this are often people from the middle classes or disillusioned unemployed workers. In the case of Thailand today it was the urban middle classes who were mobilised, but in the 1970s semi-fascist gangs like the Krating Daeng and Village Scouts mobilised both the middle classes and disillusioned unemployed workers against the Left.

After the end of the Cold War many academics were quick to announce the end of class struggle and the birth of so-called “New Social Movements”. It was claimed that these movements were atomised movements motivated just by identity politics, not class, and that they were not demanding any changes to state power like the “Old Left”. This was a myopic, fragmented Post-Modern view of social movements which totally ignored the big picture. It ignored all history and any events occurring in other countries. Each movement was viewed in isolation despite the fact that the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Movement and the GLBT Movements were all part of the same wave of protests.

Irrespective of the fact that these academics had proclaimed the end of class struggle, the movements thrown up by the present Thai political crisis are all about class. For Marxists like me “class struggle” is never just some crude and pure struggle of organised workers against the capitalist class. It involves all those who feel aggrieved by the effects of class rule and their grievances can be about a myriad of issues.

Post-modern and autonomist rejection of “politics” and any “big picture” analysis allowed post-communist activists, such as those in the Thai NGOs, to forget about class, the state and political organisation. Their interest was merely in lobbying those in power, whether they be elected or authoritarian. This degeneration of politics explains why many Thai NGO activists, and the movements which they influenced, moved dramatically to the right, ending up supporting military coups and the shrinkage of the democratic space.

A number of middle-class commentators have attempted to categorise the Yellow Shirt-Red Shirt street confrontations in Thailand as merely the clash of different elite supporters, much like a clash between supporters of two football teams.

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Some have also tried to claim that the Red Shirts or the “United Front of Democracy against Dictatorship” (UDD) were merely political tools of Taksin Shinawat. Yet this is a fundamental mistake. The Red Shirts cannot be classified as a “social movement created from above” for a number of reasons. Firstly the aims of the Red Shirts were to expand the democratic space against the entrenched conservative structures of the ruling class. They wanted an end to the status quo. Secondly, the Red Shirts were a self-organised movement of working people, both urban and rural. As the movement developed, so did their class consciousness. The Red Shirts started to call themselves “serfs” or “Prai” and many started to question the whole elite political structure, including the monarchy.

The fact that Taksin and the pro-Taksin UDD leadership dominated the political leadership of the Red Shirts raises the important question of leadership in a social movement. Marxists have often described social movements as “continuing fields of argument” where different forces struggle to dominate. The tragedy of the Red Shirts is that most of the left-wing progressive Red Shirts, who had rejected Taksin and the UDD leaders, refused to organise a coherent alternative political organisation. They too were influenced by autonomist ideas.

A Marxist “big picture” view of social movements often describes various movements from below as just one big social movement with many arms and legs, constantly changing through time and always linked to international movements. This allows us to see the Red Shirts as a continuum of past pro-democracy movements such as the People’s Party that overthrew the absolute monarchy in 1932, the pro-democracy uprisings against the military in 1973 and 1992 and the communist inspired civil war in the late 1970s. Many of the key actors in the Red Shirt movements were involved in these previous movements. Of course there were also activists from these movements which switched sides and joined conservative elite mobilisations. But the point is that they switched sides and supported previous enemies like the military or the monarchy. This is merely an example of how people’s ideas change through time.

In addition to this, international factors, such as the dominance of neo-liberal economic policies, which increased inequality, and the oppression from authoritarian regimes, were triggers for both the Arab Spring uprisings and the rise of the Red Shirts. It should be remembered that the rise of Taksin’s popularity was a result of the neo-liberal economic crisis in 1996 and his grass-roots Keynesian response to this. We see little snap-shots of the links between the Red Shirts and the Arab Spring by looking at pictures of some demonstrators holding French bread sticks, Tunisian style, and the large poster which appeared on one Red Shirt demonstration claiming to be from the “Egyptian branch” of the UDD located in the north-eastern province of Chaiyapoom!

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Previous links between Thai movements and those in other countries occurred in the late 1960s when the Thai democracy movement was clearly influenced by the 1968 movements in the West. The 1973 uprising against the military in Thailand also acted as a boost for Greek students protesting against their own military dictatorship. Greek students could be heard shouting “Thailand! Thailand!” during the Athens Polytechnic uprising.

Real events in Thailand and elsewhere have a habit of challenging academic political theories. In the past I have written about the myth of the “democratic middle-classes”. The idea of New Social Movements also needs to be deposited in the dustbin of history.

 

Further Reading

Colin Barker, Laurence Cox, John Krinsky & Alf Gunvald Nilsen (2014) “Marxism and Social Movements” Haymarket Books, Chicago, IL.

Why Thai NGOs supported the military: http://bit.ly/1KhCrbu

Thai links with the Arab Spring: http://bit.ly/1IVqs6m

Links between Thai and international struggles in the 1960s and 1970s: http://bit.ly/1LymNsL

Thailand’s crisis and shattered political theories: http://bit.ly/1HFxyLM