Thai school students, who have been helping to lead the pro-democracy protests, have refused to wear school uniforms on the first day of term, in a defiant protest to demand individual freedom over their lives and their bodies.
This is another sign that the young generation have had enough of the old conservative order. It is an indication of how far the movement has traveled.
Thai society has remained rigidly trapped in a conservative vice where people must grovel to their so-called elders and “betters”. The compulsory wearing of uniforms is widespread among civilian government officials, from teachers through to local authority employees. Even university students, especially in their first and second years, are often required to wear uniforms and have “behaviour marks” deducted for failing to do so. Uniforms are an attempt to control people in a rigid hierarchy. They are also an attempt to stifle free thought. But this is not working in today’s Thailand.
Those who advocate uniforms for students, both in Thailand and in western countries like Britain, falsely argue that uniforms are great levellers where rich and poor students look alike. They also, very stupidly, argue that uniforms improve academic performance!
The fact of the matter is that students know who is rich or poor even with uniforms. The “cut” and price of school uniforms can often differ.
As someone who was involved in campaigning against my son’s state school in Oxford becoming an “academy”, I know that the introduction of more and more uniforms, including ridiculous jackets, is all about neo-liberal models of education. It is about “form over content”, emphasising the image of the school rather than child-centred education and education as a process of originality and enquiry. It goes with attempts to centralise the control of the curriculum in order to restrict choice and to teach to “targets”, exam results and league tables. In terms of the U.K. it is part of the process of turning the clock back from the liberating atmosphere of the late sixties.
Thailand never liberalised the education system and the conservative nature of education establishment is closely linked to nationalist and royalist ideology which reinforces class hierarchy and shrinks the democratic space within society. Having to sing the national anthem at the flag raising ceremony at 8am followed by Buddhist prayers in class is an important part of this. Being forced to bow your head when walking past teachers and being forced to use royal language when referring to the monarchy and the royal family help to drill into citizens that they are “low” and must respect the “Pu-yai” or big people.
Therefore the scenes of school students staging the three fingered salute at the flag raising ceremony, arguing with reactionary teachers and government ministers, demanding a revision of the curriculum, or joining mass protests against the junta, and now the “uniform protest” are all to be welcomed as part of the struggle for liberation. This is both a struggle by youth within Thailand and also on an international level.
Since Generalissimo Prayut announced emergency powers banning demonstrations and after the paramilitary riot police used chemical water cannon on crowds, protesters have continued to gather in their thousands to call for his resignation. The use of water cannon against young school students angered many ordinary people, thus swelling the protests.
On Saturday, because the junta ordered the closure of all mass transit train lines in a futile attempt to stop the protests, demonstrators assembled at different spots in Bangkok. Large demonstrations also took place in lots of provincial cities, mainly on university campuses. The protests are now involving hundreds of thousands of people up and down the country.
At Lard Prao, in Bangkok, where on of the largest protest took place, tens of thousands of defiant protesters assembled. The organisers managed to get a truck load of crash helmets, masks and raincoats distributed to the crowd in case the police attacked. In the event they decided to disperse by 8pm without the feared attack happening.
Reports from many areas tell of the impressive organisation managed by rank and file activists. Some of the key activists had been arrested in previous days, but this seems to have had little effect. This shows the strength of the movement.
On the 18th October protests were again held in many locations in Bangkok and provincial cities.
One worker activist reported that at Rungsit, a primary school student asked to make a speech!
There were also reports of thousands of factory workers protesting in Chonbury, along the Eastern Seaboard industrial area (see below). The Rungsit protest was also made up of some factory workers.
The success of the protests are an important and clear symbolic victory. But the struggle will be long and hard. Prayut and his gang of military thugs are not about to go easily. They have spent the years since their coup in 2014 putting in place measures to maintain their power, including writing a constitution, appointing the senate, designing the National Strategy and fixing last year’s elections. They already have blood on their hand from the murder of pro-democracy redshirts ten years ago and the use of death squads against dissidents.
The movement is at a junction. Organising flash mobs over and over again risks tiring out protesters and these actions are not enough to make the country ungovernable. Either they move forward to organise more militant and powerful action such as strikes, or the momentum will be lost. Given the level of public support for the protests it is important to seize the moment and try to build for workplace stoppages.
The impressive demonstration against the junta and the monarchy on 14th October 2020 shows how far the movement has developed and it has raised the level of struggle for democracy.
Large youth-led pro-democracy protests have hit the Thai military junta from August this year. Crowds of up to 50,000 gathered around the Democracy Monument in the centre of Bangkok on 16th August. On 19th September, an important anniversary of a military coup against an elected government in 2006, crowds swelled to over 100,000. On the 14th October, on the 47th anniversary of a mass uprising against a military dictatorship, crowds gathered in similar numbers and marched to Government House to demand the resignation of the dictator Prayut Chan-ocha. They also demanded the writing of a new constitution and the reform of the Monarchy.
This time the stakes had been raised by the military government, which insisted that the protest should be cancelled because the king had decided to visit a nearby temple. Protesters ignored the government and the numbers swelled to 100,000 by nightfall, when people joined after work. The government conscripted state municipal employees and soldiers to line the roads wearing yellow royalist shirts in order to welcome the royal cavalcade. The Thai ruling class treated the civilian conscripts like dirt as many were transported in open trucks and some even had to sit in dust carts. Many voiced their displeasure and some were seen making the 3 fingered salute used by the pro-democracy protesters.
Police allowed the queen to be driven through the demonstrating crowds and she was met with the 3 fingered salute and even a few middle finger gestures. The crowd shouted “my taxes!” at her.
The protests were organised by a group of mainly young people and university students, initially calling themselves the “Free People” organisation. They have now created a coalition calling itself the “Peoples’ Party” after the movement that led the 1932 revolution that successfully toppled the Absolute Monarchy. The new generation leading the protest movement has become acutely aware of the importance of the historical struggle for democracy. What marks this latest movement out from the previous Red Shirt movement for democracy ten years ago is that they are independent of any political parties. In fact the main stream opposition parties cannot keep up with the movement.
In the days following the August protest, secondary school students up and down the country staged “3 finger salute” protests during the compulsory flag raising ceremony before start of school. Often it was young women who were the most militant. The playing of the 8 am National Anthem at a number of mass transit rail stations was temporarily stopped for fear that people would raise the 3 finger salute. [See more about this in a previous post on this site.]
In the late evening of 14th October, the protest leaders decided it was safer to disband and regroup the next day at Rartprasong intersection, the site of Red Shirt protests in 2010. The junta talked tough, announced emergency powers, banned all protest and arrested some of the protest leaders. However, on 15th October thousands gathered at Rartprasong to defy the government. Prominent among the demonstrators were school students in their uniforms. Again women students were some of the most militant.
The next day (16th October) protesters gathered further down the road from the previous day because the police had blocked off Rartprasong. See below. As night fell the paramilitary riot police moved in, using water cannon, spraying the young people with water mixed with a liquid irritant. Many people were arrested. At time of writing, the movement is at a junction. Either they increase the pressure on the junta or they step back and risk losing momentum. One way to increase pressure is to try to get working people to take strike action.
The 3 fingered salute was borrowed from Hunger Games, and became a symbol of opposition to the military dictatorship during anti-coup protests in 2014. The present junta came to power through a middle-class backed coup in 2014. Elections were eventually held in 2019, but under anti-democratic rules and a reactionary constitution drawn up by the military. Despite losing the popular vote to anti-junta parties, the military appointed senate helped to propel the junta back into government with the dictator Prayut Chan-ocha as Prime Minister.
People are scandalised and fed-up by the behaviour of the new king, Wachiralongkorn, who spends his life with his harem in Germany and has changed the constitution in order to allow this life style and in order to amass even more wealth. It is the first time in decades that people have had the confidence to criticise the king in public, despite the fact that there are draconian laws against this.
The powerful military has traditionally used the weak monarchy as a tool to justify authoritarian rule. Many ordinary activists in Thailand believe that there is an Absolute Monarchy. But nothing could be further from the truth. The movement should not over-estimate the power of the king.
Since 1932, the Monarchy has had very little power in itself and is a willing tool of the military and the conservatives. Although the much welcomed criticism of the monarchy can weaken the junta and hasten the long over-due day that Thailand becomes a republic, the military and its parliamentary dictatorship remain the main enemy of Thai democracy and a strong mass movement to topple the military is still needed.
The real people with power among the Thai elites are the army, high-ranking state officials and business leaders. They prostrate themselves on the ground and pay homage to the king on TV, while exercising the real power in the land and enriching themselves. This is an ideological play, acted out for the benefit of fooling the public. The fact that it is in any way believable by many is a great example of what Marx called “alienation”. It is when we are feeling powerless that we are more likely to believe the nonsense fed to us by the ruling class.
The Thai Absolute Monarchy was overthrown in the 1932 revolution and for a period the country was rule by anti-Monarchy civilians and generals. In the 1950s, during the Cold War, the Monarchy was revived and promoted by military dictatorships. The “return” of the Monarchy reminds me of what the historian Christopher Hill wrote about the restoration of Charles II after the English Revolution. He wrote that “Charles was called King by the Grace of God, but he was really King by the grace of the merchants and squires”. One could say that the Thai king is king by the grace of the military generals and capitalists.
At time of writing it is difficult to predict what will happen next. However, lessons from the 1970s and from the defeated Red Shirt protests ten years ago show that what is needed urgently is to expand the movement into the organised working class. The working class is the main location of our side’s power. The workplace is where the ruling class’ power is potentially weak. The lack of a significant organisation of the Left makes the task of mobilising workers more difficult, but it is hoped that militants will step forward to try and achieve this. Unfortunately a call for a “General Strike” on 14th October was made without any concrete work being done among the working class and it never happened. Socialists know that it is far easier to make abstract calls for General Strikes rather than to actually do the necessary organisational work to bring one about in practice.
Socialists do exist in Thailand and it is the job of such people, no matter how small in number, to encourage the spread of radical ideas into the working class and to strengthen trade union struggles. This is best carried out if we attempt to build the beginnings of a revolutionary socialist party.
The protest at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok on 16th August 2020 was a great success with crowds of up to 50,000 people coming to show their anger at the continued parliamentary dictatorship of Generalissimo Prayut and the behaviour of king Wachiralongkorn. A month later, on 19th September, the anniversary of the military coup against the elected Taksin government in 2006, over 100, 000 filled Sanam Luang.
The protest was organised by the organisation “Free People”. It has 3 major demands: stop intimidating activists, re-write the constitution and dissolve parliament. People are fed up with the fixed elections, the appointed senators and the military designed “Guided Democracy” system in general. In addition to these demands, student activists and the lawyer Anon Numpa are now openly demanding the reform of the monarchy. People are angry about laws which prevent the monarchy being subjected to criticism and accountability. They are angry that he spends his time with his harem in Germany and changed the constitution to allow him to do this more easily. They are angry that he changed the constitution to bring all wealth associated with the monarchy under his centralised control. They want to curtail his privileges and power.
For the first time since the military and the Democrat Party murdered pro-democracy Red Shirts in cold blood in 2010, Red Shirt activists and older people joined the students in protesting. The Red Shirts had been specifically invited to come along at a student rally a few days earlier at Chulalongkorn University.
The movement needs to keep up the momentum and spread to all sections of the population, especially organised workers. Progressive trade unionists were on the protest, but organised workers need to come out it their thousands and be prepared to take strike action if necessary.
Many activist leaders face prosecution and the movement must insist that all charges are dropped immediately.
On the Monday after the huge protest on 16th August, secondary school students at hundreds of schools up and down the country defied teachers to staged “3 finger” protests against the dictatorship during the compulsory singing of the national anthem and flag raising before classes.
On Wednesday 19th, hundreds of school students demonstrated outside the education ministry after the minister had threatened them. He made an attempt to address the crowd of students but was prevented from doing so by shouts of “lackey of the dictatorship!” and loud whistle blowing. This particular minister was part of a reactionary whistle-blowing mob who helped the present junta come to power.
Recently, the human rights lawyer and pro-democracy activist Anon Numpa, addressed an anti-junta rally of young people and made open criticism of the idiot king Wachiralongkorn. He was dressed as Harry Potter, just to make the event more humorous. However, the content of his speech was deadly serious.
Anon criticised Wachiralongkorn’s habit of living abroad in Germany and using huge amounts of public funds for his personal use. According to Anon, Wachiralongkorn has also massively increased his power. However, as followers of this blog know, this latter view is not one which I share. [See Wachiralongkorn’s power https://bit.ly/2EOjsNL Absolutism https://bit.ly/2teiOzQ Can an absolute ruler hold power from abroad https://bit.ly/3hxGFCv ]
Such open criticism of Wachiralongkorn is to be welcomed and Anon Numpa has shown great courage in doing this. There will be top state officials, especially military officers, and rabid royalists among the public, who will want to persecute or prosecute Anon for his statements. It is important that as many people as possible in Thailand show him solidarity by also discussing the issue of the monarchy openly and in public. This will make it more difficult for the state to attack Anon.
In reality one of the important issues that has helped spark the latest round of youth protests against the military junta in Thailand has been the behaviour of Wachiralongkorn and this can be seen in many of the placards on the demonstrations.
Anon Numpa’s statement was couched in royalist and nationalist language. This was an attempt to protect himself. He said that he was criticising the monarchy in order to defend it. But it is doubtful that this will be enough to stop attacks on him by the state and the royalists.
One unfortunate aspect of Anon’s speech was the use of the word “Farang-Mungka”, a derogatory and racist word used to describe Westerners. In an era of Black Lives Matter protests, pro-democracy activists in Thailand need to be more aware about their racism.
If the increasing anti-monarchy feeling can be encouraged, it will weaken the military, who use the weak-willed monarch as a political tool. It will also help to make a republic more likely. However, we must never forget that republics can also be oppressive and just after the Second World War Thailand was rule by an anti-monarchist military dictatorship in the shape of Field Marshall Pibun.
The military and its parliamentary dictatorship remain the main enemy of Thai democracy.
It is encouraging that the youth groups who have been protesting against the parliamentary dictatorship run by the military have now officially stated that they want to expand their network beyond students and young people to include adults. Hopefully this will facilitate expansion of the movement into the working class.
LATEST (7th Aug 2020) Anon Numpa served with arrest warrant.
Anon Numpa and student activist Panupong Jadnok were arrested on 7th August 2020 and charged with a number of so-called “offenses” relating to peaceful anti-junta demonstrations. Other protest organisers were also served with warrants.
The authorities are trying not to draw attention to Anon’s comments about the monarchy, but the charges against him are serious.
At some point later in the day, Anon and Panupong were dragged off to police detention.
Crowds gathered outside the court and the police station and a “flash-mob” protest at the Sky-walk was organised the next day.
Later on the 8th August, Anon and Panupong were released on bail.
It is vital that more and bigger anti-junta protests are held in order to keep up the pro-democracy momentum.
10th August: Over 5000 protesters at Thammasart University demand key reforms to the monarchy including the right to criticise and the down-sizing of the king’s privileges.