Tag Archives: struggle for democracy

From Peterloo 1819 to Thailand 2019

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The dead Tory tyrant Margaret Thatcher used to bang on about the importance of the Magna Carta in the development of British democracy. This was just a lie designed to ignore the key role of the workers’ movement in fighting for British democracy. The Magna Carta was just an agreement between King John and the nobles to share power.

Two hundred years ago, in the middle of deep austerity, appalling conditions and a total lack of democracy, 60,000 men, women and children gathered in a massive protest at St Peters’ Field in Manchester. This was roughly equivalent to half the population of Manchester. It was a huge mass movement against poverty and for democracy. Other rallies had already taken place in London and other cities.

The Times newspaper reported that in Manchester thousands of spinners and weavers lived in “squalid wretchedness” and “repulsive depravity”. But this ruling class paper also denounced the role played by women in the mass movement: “We cannot conceive that any but a hardened and shameless prostitute would have the audacity to appear on the hustings on such an occasion and for such a purpose.”

Given that the French revolution had erupted less than 30 years ago and radical uprisings were still happening, the British ruling class was fearful of a full-blown working class revolution here. Local magistrates ordered the peaceful Manchester protest to be brutally suppressed. The armed Yeomanry played a key role. They were a paramilitary force drawn from the ranks of the local mill and shop owners. Many were drunk. On horseback, armed with sabres and clubs, they rode through the crowd in an orgy of violence. Many were familiar with, and had old scores to settle with, the leading protesters. Six hundred Hussars, several hundred infantrymen; an artillery unit with two six-pounder guns, 400 men of the Cheshire cavalry and 400 special constables, also took part. At least 18 people were killed, including a two year old child and a pregnant woman. Six hundred were injured. Women were singled out for violent treatment to teach them a lesson about why they should not engage in politics.

This brutal massacre of workers by the British ruling class resulted in mass protests throughout the land. It also shaped the increased radicalisation of the working class Chartist movement that pushed for universal male suffrage. Emmeline Pankhurst’s paternal grandfather had narrowly escaped death at Peterloo and no doubt the story was told to her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, who all became active suffragettes. Sylvia also became a socialist.

Peterloo is not just an interesting chapter of history. It has great significance today in Britain and also in Thailand. Those gathered at St Peters’ Field in 1819 had already learnt the lesson that just petitioning to parliament was not enough. Mass movements had to be built. Today, as a British general election looms, with the prospect of a possible Corbyn Labour government, we need to be aware that the British ruling class will do everything in their power to obstruct Labour’s policies. We will need a mass movement outside parliament, among the trade unions, to defend any democratic mandate given to such a government.


In Thailand, the military junta has said it will hold a general election in February. Yet this election will not be free and fair. The junta’s 20 year National Strategy will empower junta appointees in the judiciary and the senate to overrule and even remove any elected government that does not conform to the junta’s “Guided Democracy” policies.


Liberal bourgeois political parties like the Future Forward Party have stated that they intend to rewrite the military’s constitution and reduce the legacy and political power of the military. Yet even if they manage to get elected and hold a parliamentary majority, they will be hampered by the National Strategy. The only solution will be to build a large pro-democracy social movement outside parliament to push for real change. This movement should be rooted in the Thai working class. The middle class has already shown itself to be supportive of military coups and opposed to all pro-poor policies.

As in Britain, the brutal behaviour of the Thai ruling class is plain to see with the shooting of unarmed pro-democracy activists in 1973, 1976, 1992 and 2010.

The radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote “The Mask of Anarchy” in response to Peterloo …

Listen to the poem here: https://bit.ly/2yIQsBO

Claiming that the king is all powerful is a convenient excuse to do nothing

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Even after the prolonged illness and eventual death of King Pumipon it is unbelievable that there are some Thais who still claim that the new “idiot” King Wachiralongkorn is all powerful and able to control the military junta.

One reason for prolonging this conspiracy theory is the mutual excitement that any discussion about the monarchy arouses. Given that the junta uses the lèse majesté law to imprison anyone who criticises the monarchy, it is understandable that discussions of “prohibited” subjects should cause such excitement. However, as I have explained in a number of my blog posts, the monarchy has always been weak and used as a tool by the military. In the case of Wachiralongkorn this is even more the case than it was for his father, who at least had some credibility in the eyes of many Thais. The lèse majesté law is also in existence in order to protect the military, who always claim to be protecting and representing the monarchy. [See https://bit.ly/2F73RoD, https://bit.ly/2teiOzQ, https://bit.ly/2AF9ozT ]

But excitement and gossip do nothing to further the struggle to increase the democratic space in Thai society.


In practice, those who have been involved with protesting against the junta’s dictatorship on the streets of Bangkok have targeted the military and their policies. If such protests began to rebuild a pro-democracy social movement from the ruins of the Red Shirts, it would be a powerful force for progressive change. In the past Thai pro-democracy movements have overthrown military juntas. They have also had an effect in pressurising governments to change policies. Even today, when the movement is not as strong as in the past, small and continuous protests by young activists have kept up the pressure on Prayut’s junta to make sure that there is no back-tracking on elections. Also campaigns to defend the universal health care service have so far stopped them introducing payment fees.

Yet there are those who belittle these struggles against the junta by saying that “democracy cannot be established without getting rid of the monarchy”. They claim that Wachiralongkorn is controlling the junta. Some of the more extreme commentators, who titillate their internet audiences with anti-monarchy stories, even go as far as to say that they are not against the military.


Given that in the present political climate it is not possible to demonstrate against the monarchy, the claims that the king controls the junta are just a recipe for doing nothing. By demanding something that is unrealistic, without also actively fighting for realistic changes, the demands become abstract. Yes, it is right that we aim for a republic, but we need to fight in the here and now for the ending of the junta and its 20 year plans to influence politics. Yes, it is right to aim for socialism, but as Rosa Luxemburg explained, socialists must also be the best fighters for reforms under capitalism.

Some Thais, who erroneously state that King Wachiralongkorn is ruling Thailand as an Absolute Monarch, also campaign against the military junta. But there is an inconsistency in their thinking because if it is the case that Wachiralongkorn is the most powerful person in Thailand, then the only meaningful campaign would be against the monarchy.


The real anti-democratic thugs in Thailand are Prayut and his cronies and the sooner we build a mass movement against the military, the sooner we can have democracy.

How can we reduce the power of the military?

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Many people in Thailand are thinking about how to reduce the power of the military and prevent future coups and the never ending destruction of democracy. This is especially important given that the power of the junta will be extended into the future after the next elections. The junta has organised this “Guided Democracy” state of affairs through its constitution, the military appointed senate, the military appointed judges, the election rules and the National Strategy.

In order to make sure the military are unable to intervene in politics we shall have to change the constitution, scrap the National Strategy, replace the generals, judges and appointed senators and drastically cut the military budget. Ending conscription would also help. The abolition of the lèse-majesté law and the de-mystification of the monarchy are also necessary in order to reduce the power of the military because the generals rely on the monarchy as a tool for legitimisation. This necessary and difficult project will have huge implications.

Some are placing their hopes in the election of new political parties which are opposed to the role of the military. But even if these parties manage to win seats, and even form a government, they will not have the power through parliament to reduce the influence of the military.

This is not because of some secret “Deep State” but it is because the military and the conservative anti-democratic sections of the ruling class hold extra-parliamentary power. The military have their power based upon their weaponry and other sections of the conservatives control the large corporations, courts, the senate and the mass media.

This is not just a problem confined to Thailand. In Britain, if Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party wins the next general election, and I hope they will, the government will face an entire conservative establishment hell-bent on frustrating the democratic wishes of the people. Apart from threats of military coups, which may merely be the demented dreams of some backward generals, the business class will try to cause a financial crisis by withdrawing capital from the country. The mainstream mass media will be hysterically anti-Labour and the permanent secretaries in the civil service will try to frustrate the Corbyn government’s policies. The EU and the IMF will also put pressure on the government. This has happened in Britain in the past. The same kind of pressure was applied to the Syriza government in Greece.

The only way in which an elected government can have the power to face up to this kind of extra-parliamentary force from the conservatives is for the government to be supported by mass movements on the streets and in work places. Protests and strikes can balance and push back the power of unelected conservatives.

This is not some wild pipe-dream. In the past it has been the mass movements of 1973 and 1992 which have knocked back the power and influence of the military in Thailand. In South Korea, Argentina, Venezuela and Turkey, mass movements have played crucial roles in preventing coups, cutting the power of the military and even punishing the most brutal dictators.

In Burma, it is Aung San Suu Kyi’s demobilisation of the mass movement in 1988 and her compromise with the military that has allowed the Burmese junta to survive despite the elections. In Indonesia and the Philippines, dictatorships were overthrown by mass movements.

In Thailand if we are ever to get rid of the vast parasitic and authoritarian organisation of the military we need to rebuild a mass pro-democracy movement irrespective of the results of the next elections.

Verbal Solidarity Is Not Enough

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

As many young activists who have come out against the military dictatorship now face imprisonment or even lèse-majesté charges, it is worth building an understanding of the potential power of social movements and the importance of politics in leading the struggles of these movements. If we do not do this, the activists will languish in jail and Thai society will not be freed from the influence of the military.

It is not enough to praise these young activists and wish them well, as many have quite rightly done. If we remain as mere spectators, viewing some symbolic defiance of the junta by the students or NGO activists, the dictatorship can never be overthrown. It is not merely about pushing the junta to call elections or demanding civil rights in an abstract manner. The whole authoritarian structure of Thai politics, which the military dictatorships have been building needs to be dismantled. This means we must pay attention to “power” and political leadership.


The latest protest at the Democracy Monument yesterday was a good start, but much more needs to be done to build an organised movement. Rungsima Rome, one of the leaders, was right when he said yesterday that just observing the protest via the internet is not enough. People need to come out and join the protests.

But merely making a call for action does not automatically result in a mass uprising against the military either. Hard work on the ground is necessary in building strong social movements. It may seem too easy for someone in exile like me to state this, but it nevertheless remains true.

We need to learn from the lessons of the 14th October 1973 uprising against the dictatorship, when half a million students and working people came out on to the streets of Bangkok and faced down tanks and guns and beat the military. That uprising was sparked by the arrests of pro-democracy activists. Of course we can all hope that this happens again. But there are some crucial differences between the situation in 1973 and 2018.

One of the most important lessons from the 14th October 1973 uprising was that it did not just arise out of thin air. Students and workers in those days had mass organisations and the anger at the military repression fed into those mass organisations and resulted in half a million people being pulled on to the streets. Added to this was the political influence of the Communist Party in building a clear and unified critique of society, even though the party played little role in organising the uprising itself and made serious mistakes 3 years later.

What we urgently need is mass organisation. The Red Shirts were a mass movement, but the Taksin allied UDD leadership has placed the Red Shirt Movement in cold storage. This has destroyed the movement.

It is up to all of us to step up to the challenge and rebuild a democracy movement which is independent of politicians like Taksin.

The absence of a Left political party has also created difficulties. If we look around Thai society we see that the so-called NGO-led “Peoples Movement” is blinded by its post-communist adherence to single-issues. Many even supported the junta in the past. The 14th October 1973 uprising linked discontent with social and economic issues in with the struggle against the military. That was why it was so powerful.

The military junta is busy designing an authoritarian political system similar to that which we see in Burma. This aims to extend the dark shadow of the military into the future, even if elections are eventually held.

Today the challenge for us all, but also for the active students and NGOs, 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 newly organised political party built from below.

For more on Thai Social Movements, see this paper from 2015: http://bit.ly/2aDzest

One Step back Two Steps Forward

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The results of the referendum on the junta’s draft constitution are disappointing and are a set-back for democracy. But we should never forget that this was never a democratic referendum. The junta arrested and intimidated all those who wished to express their opposition to its appalling charter and tried to ensure that the media reported a one-sided pro-junta account. Troops were sent into communities to “explain” the authoritarian constitution. Many who live and work outside their home provinces were unable to vote for bureaucratic reasons.

A number of people would also have mistakenly voted to accept the constitution because they wanted to see elections as soon as possible. Yet any future elections will not be democratic and any government will be under the potential control of the military and the conservatives.

One reason (among many reasons) why the junta managed to gather more votes for its authoritarian constitution is that Taksin and the UDD demobilised the Red Shirts. Any social movement which has been demobilised will wither and die and its members lose confidence.

Given this situation it is remarkable that 10 million people voted to reject the draft charter.

Those who want to see democracy in Thailand will have to start by seeing these millions of people as their allies in any practical struggle against the junta. This is not a time to sink into depression. It is a time to turn anger into organisation and future action against the junta. Such action has full legitimacy given the undemocratic nature of the referendum and the constitution.

While we have to look reality in the face and admit this set back, we do not have to abide by the referendum results. To say this is nothing like the way the rabid conservative middle-classes rejected the democratic wishes of millions in previous general elections won by Pua Thai or Thai Rak Thai. Those elections were never held under the same authoritarian conditions seen during the referendum.

We should not overlook the fact that only 55% of those eligible to vote actually went to the polling stations. This means that only 33% of the population approved the junta’s awful constitution.


4 provinces in the north, 14 in the north-east and the 3 Muslim Malay provinces in the south rejected the junta’s constitution. Now that tells us something!!

At the risk of repeating myself I have to stress that the way forward is to build a mass social movement against the junta. The mass action by ordinary people in Turkey prevented the recent military coup on the night of the 15th July 2016. The rich experience of Thai mass movements defeating the military in 1973 and 1992 and the huge potential of the Red Shirt movement should be revisited. It is time to stop playing symbolic games organised by a handful of self-appointed heroes. Such misguided views arise from a mistaken analysis that in the days of social media we do not need to build mass movements. The experience of the mis-led Red Shirt movement and the autonomist or atomist ideas of the brave young students has side-tracked us from the real tasks.

Ridding Thailand of the influence of the military will take time and determined political organisation to build a movement which is independent of the old Red Shirt leadership and Taksin. Taksin has never called for mass action to defeat the junta. All Taksin says when he speaks to the Thai people is to talk about himself.

The mass political movement for democracy should be an inclusive movement which is a united front of all those opposed to the junta. In the past activists have allowed their own sectarianism and their vain wish to remain “pure” to become an excuse to exclude people or act in small groups. Political differences in this united front should be celebrated. This also means that left-wing activists need to build a socialist party in order to be a significant part of this movement.

However, this is not really a discussion for English speaking readers. It is vital that debates about strategies take place in Thai among Thai activist. That is why I run a parallel Thai language blog in an attempt to speak directly to people inside the country [https://turnleftthai.wordpress.com/ ]. Of course, propaganda on its own is no guarantee that these ideas will be put into practice. However, it is all that exiles like myself can achieve under present circumstances.

Thailand’s Cycles of Class Struggle

Thailand’s Cycles of Struggle

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

A recent editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald begins with the phrase: Let’s stop pretending about Thailand….The evidence of this century is that Thailand is not a democracy at all. It is a good thing that international newspapers come out and clearly denounce the coup. But we need to add important details. In Thailand the democratic space has been fought over for almost a century. It has been a constant struggle between the rulers and the ruled.


The military domination of Thai politics, started soon after the 1932 revolution which overthrew the absolute monarchy. But its consolidation of power came with the Sarit military coup in 1957. The economic development during the years of the highly corrupt military dictatorship in the 50s and 60s, took place in the context of a world economic boom and a localised economic boom created by the Korean and Vietnam wars. This economic growth had a profound impact on the nature of Thai society. The size of the working class increased as factories and businesses were developed. However, under the dictatorship trade union rights were suppressed and wages and conditions of employment were tightly controlled. Illegal strikes had already occurred throughout the period of dictatorship, but strikes increased rapidly due to general economic discontent in the early 1970s.

Economic development also resulted in a massive expansion of student numbers and an increased intake of students from working class backgrounds. The new generation of students, in the early 1970s, were influenced by the revolts and revolutions which occurred throughout the world in that period, May 1968 in Paris being a prime example.


In late 1973 the arrest of 11 academics and students for handing out leaflets demanding a democratic constitution, resulted in hundreds of thousands of students and workers taking to the streets of Bangkok in October. As troops with tanks fired on unarmed demonstrators, the people of Bangkok began to fight-back. Bus passengers spontaneously alighted from their vehicles to join the demonstrators. Government buildings were set on fire. The “Yellow Tigers”, a militant group of students, sent a jet of high-octane gasoline from a captured fire engine into the police station at Parn-Fa bridge, setting it on fire. Earlier they had been fired upon by the police.

The successful 14th October 1973 mass uprising against the military dictatorship shook the Thai ruling class to its foundations. For the next few days, there was a strange new atmosphere in Bangkok. Uniformed officers of the state disappeared from the streets and ordinary people organised themselves to clean up the city. It was the first time that the pu-noi (little people) had actually started a revolution from below. It was not planned and those that took part had only vague notions about what kind of democracy and society they wanted. But the Thai ruling class could not shoot enough demonstrators to protect their regime. It was not just a student uprising to demand a democratic constitution. It involved thousands of ordinary working class people and occurred on the crest of a rising wave of workers’ strikes.

Success in over-throwing the military dictatorship bred increased confidence. Workers, peasants and students began to fight for more than just parliamentary democracy. In the two months following the uprising, the new Royal appointed civilian government faced a total of 300 workers’ strikes. On the 1st May 1975 a quarter of a million workers rallied in Bangkok and a year later half a million workers took part in a general strike against price increases. In the countryside small farmers began to build organisations and they came to Bangkok to make their voices heard. Workers and peasants wanted social justice and an end to long-held privileges. A Triple Alliance between students, workers and small farmers was created. Some activists wanted an end to exploitation and capitalism itself. The influence of the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) increased rapidly, especially among activists in urban areas.

The first democratic elections, since the October 1973 uprising were held in January 1975. Parliament had a Left colouring and government policies reflected a need to deal with pressing social issues. Left-wing parties, such as the New Force Party, the Socialist Party of Thailand and the Socialist Front Party gained 37 seats (out of a total of 269) but did not join any coalition governments.

It was not long before the ruling class and the conservative middle classes fought back.

In the early hours of 6th October 1976, Thai uniformed police, stationed in the grounds of the National Museum, next door to Thammasat University , destroyed a peaceful gathering of students and working people on the university campus under a hail of relentless automatic fire  . At the same time a large gang of ultra-right-wing “informal forces”, known as the Village Scouts, Krating-Daeng and Nawapon, indulged in an orgy of violence and brutality towards anyone near the front entrance of the university. Students and their supporters were dragged out of the university and hung from the trees around Sanam Luang; others were burnt alive in front of the Ministry of “Justice” while the mob danced round the flames. Women and men, dead or alive, were subjected to the utmost degrading and violent behaviour.

The actions of the police and right-wing mobs on 6th October were the culmination of attempts by the ruling class to stop the further development of a socialist movement in Thailand. The events at Thammasat University were followed by a military coup which brought to power one of the most right-wing governments Thailand has ever known. In the days that followed, offices and houses of organisations and individuals were raided. Trade unionists were arrested and trade union rights were curtailed. Centre-Left and left-wing newspapers were closed and their offices ransacked.

Thousands of activists joined the armed struggle led by the Communist Party of Thailand in remote rural areas. The struggle was ultimately unsuccessful, but it managed to put a great deal of pressure on the ruling class.

Three years after 1976, the government decreed an “amnesty” for those who had left to fight alongside the communists. This coincided with splits and arguments between the student activists and the conservative CPT leaders. By 1988 the student activists had all returned to the city as the CPT collapsed. Thailand returned to an almost full parliamentary democracy, but with one special condition: it was a parliamentary democracy without the Left or any political parties representing workers or small farmers. But the economic boom helped to damp down discontent.

Three years later 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 the deadly gunfire from the army and overthrew the junta. Many key activists in this uprising cut their teeth in the struggles from 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.

In the general election of January 2001, Taksin Shinawat’ 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 crsisi. 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 loan to each village in order to stimulate economic activity and (3) a promise to introduce a debt moratorium for poor peasants. The policies of TRT arose from a number of factors, mainly the 1997 economic crisis and the influence of both big-business and some ex-student activists from the 1970s within the party.

Read more in my book “Thailand’s Crisis”….at: http://www.scribd.com/doc/47097266/Thailand-s-Crisis-and-the-fight-for-Democracy