Tag Archives: Thai working class

Flawed theory about King’s power: an excuse not to fight the military

The flawed theory about the so-called power of King Wachiralongkorn, and how he supposedly controls the Thai military junta, has led to idiotic conclusions among some Thais about the struggle for democracy in Burma/Myanmar and Thailand.

Comments on social media claiming that it “easier” for the people in Burma to fight the military “because they have no king” totally ignore the Burmese military’s history of brutality in suppressing unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators. In fact it is likely that the Burmese army has shot down even more civilians in the streets than the Thai army. One academic, who believes in the power of the Thai king, even posted on social media that the British had done the people in Burma a “favour” by removing the monarchy! Hardly a favour when they replaced it with a brutal colonial dictatorship.

Lawyers

The comments also under-estimate the bravery of pro-democracy activists in Burma. They ignore the level of organisation among activists which have allowed the anti-coup protests to spring up in many towns and cities across Burma.

The idea about King Wachiralongkorn’s power, or even Pumipon’s power, was always a myth. Unfortunately it has been used by some as an excuse not to get involved in the struggle against the military. These people see no point in overthrowing the junta since the “all powerful” monarchy, which is “really in charge” will remain. It is a recipe for inaction based on a lie.

So those who are obsessed by the King and the Royal Family prefer the comfort of merely engaging in gossip about the royals on social media. They are not interested in proposing or debating concrete ideas about how to strengthen the mass movement against the military.

In the real world, the fact of the matter is that whether there is a monarchy or not, the military regimes in Thailand and Burma are both capable of using brute force to cling on to power. The issue about the monarchy is irrelevant to any strategy to fight both juntas.

The only difference between the Thai and Burmese militaries is that the Thai military uses the monarchy to justify its repression. But both use “the protection of the nation and religion” as excuses.

On the issue of using the monarchy, the “Move Forward Party” has tabled an amendment to the lèse-majesté law. But it insists that the law must be retained and that a maximum prison sentence of 1 year must also apply to those who insult the monarchy. It justifies this by saying that the monarch and his family must enjoy more protection than ordinary citizens in order to protect the “dignity” of the monarchy! The word “dignity” and the actual nature of the idiot parasite Wachiralongkorn are a contradiction! The Move Forward Party should change its name to the “Standing Still Party”.

Meanwhile scores of youth activists now face lèse-majesté charges and some are in jail because they have not been granted bail.

Workers

The organisation among activists in Burma is also seen in the number of strikes and protests by workers. We have seen action in the hospitals, schools, universities, civil service offices, the central bank, the railways, the courts and in at least one copper mine.

Railway workers on strike

Workers in Burma are continuing a tradition of working class action from the past. The great uprising in 1988 started with a dock strike and expanded to a general strike against the military dictatorship.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for Thailand. Workers did join last year’s youth protests, but only one protest on the Eastern seaboard was organised by trade unions. Strikes did not occur. When asked if worker activists were discussing building for strikes, a long standing activist from Rungsit replied that workers could hardly feed themselves, so they could not strike. Yet, Burmese workers are poorer than Thai workers and have equally been affected financially by Covid. So we see yet another excuse to not attempt to use the potential power of workers in Thailand.

We do not know if the people of Burma will manage to overthrow the junta there. But so far they are doing as much as they can to achieve this. If they are successful, the hope is that it will inspire renewed struggle in Thailand and an interest in building strikes.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Further reading:

Wachiralongkorn’s power https://bit.ly/2EOjsNL   

Absolutism https://bit.ly/2teiOzQ  

Can an absolute ruler hold power from abroad? https://bit.ly/3hxGFCv

Rubber Ducks Can’t Defeat the Military

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.

Strengths

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

Warning signs for the democracy movement

The fantastic mass movement against the Thai junta 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; a necessary condition for victory. 

There are ominous signs that the junta is seeking to pressure the movement into a shoddy compromise with the help of the political parties. The aim is to merely amend some parts of the constitution via a parliamentary process. This will fall well short of the three demands of the movement: the resignation of Prayut, a complete re-write of the constitution by ordinary people, and the reform of the scandal-ridden monarchy.

The government has also been trying to divide the protesters by holding talks with some secondary school students about conditions in schools. The aim would be to get the school students to drop out of the movement.

Let us remember how far the movement has come. Since August 2020 large youth-led pro-democracy protests of up to 100,000 people have targeted the Thai military junta and even dared to criticise the monarchy. These protests have been organised up and down the country and have inspired millions of people in Thailand and other countries who are desperate for change. The energy and bravery of young people has been breath-taking.

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.

The reasons why students have managed to enliven and expand the pro-democracy protests, which have occurred sporadically since the last military coup in 2014, is that this new generation have seen that pushing for reforms within the military controlled parliamentary system has not worked. They are fed up with the entrenched conservatism in society, especially in the education system. The economy is a mess due to the Covid crisis and youth see little to be hopeful for the future. In fact they share all these feelings of anger and frustration with over half the adult population who voted against the military party in 2019. A recent poll, conducted by Bangkok University, found that more than 40% of the population are struggling to make ends meet.

As with all mass protests, the demands of the movement have expanded. LGBT and pro-abortion rights activists have joined in, along with activists campaigning for self-determination in the Muslim Malay region of Patani.

Hopes have been raised.

A miserable compromise with the military junta, only agreeing to amend certain sections of the constitution, would do nothing to solve the issues which have led to the protests in the first place. Therefore there is an urgency to add new tactics in order to increase pressure on the junta.

The movement’s emphasis on devolved leadership, without clear organisational structures, contains both a strength and a weakness. The strength can be seen in the way the protests have continued despite the ongoing arrests of key activists, many of whom face multiple charges. But the weakness is that, in practice, strategy is determined by a group of non-elected key activists without the possibility of much face to face debate on the ground within the wider movement. This is something we saw in Spain with Podemos.

What is needed is an urgent and open debate about the way forward.

Either the protest movement pushes 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 which would add power to the movement.

Many active Thai trade unionists have turned up to support the youth-led pro-democracy demonstrations as individuals and also in trade union groups. The Thai working class is much more than factory workers in the textiles and auto industries. There are white collar workers in offices, banks, schools, universities and hospitals. To build for strike action against the junta, youth activists need to link up with worker activists and visit workplaces to discuss how to get rid of the dictatorship. The lack of a significant organisation of the Left will make the task of mobilising workers more difficult, but it is hoped that militants will step forward to try and achieve this.

The key role of the working class is due to its economic power. This is an issue for all the present day movements such as Black Lives Matter, the Climate Strikes, and the struggles in Nigeria or Latin America. The important role of the working class has been well described in a recent book about the Hong Kong youth-led uprising (Au Loong-Yu, “Hong Kong in Revolt”).

It is a shame that some commentators who have influence on the movement seem to have been content with merely criticising the monarchy while not discussing the way forward for the movement. Perhaps this is no coincidence. If people believe that the idiot king Wachiralongkorn, who finds it hard to string a complete sentence together, is the real power in Thai society, rather than the military, it may lead to pessimism about the chance of victory because of the king’s “invisible power”. But the real enemy of democracy is the military junta.

The real people with power prostrate themselves on the ground and pay homage to this king. Yet, this is an ideological play, acted out for the benefit of fooling the public and creating fear. 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. What all modern monarchies throughout the world have in common is their ideological role in supporting the status quo. Thailand is no exception.

We must criticise the monarchy and call for a democratic republic, but in order to achieve that, the military need to be overthrown and there needs to be a serious discussion about how to achieve this aim.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The Thai working class

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The Thai trade union membership stands at less than 5% of the workforce. However, such an average figure can be misleading. Most State Enterprises and large factories in the private sector are fully unionised or at least dominated by unions. This includes some offices, especially the banks. Apart from this, unionised workers are mainly concentrated in Bangkok and the surrounding provinces of the Central region and the Eastern industrial Seaboard. Such concentrations of working class organisations allow for more influence than would be supposed from just looking at the national figures for unionisation. Strikes occur on a regular basis and trade union membership has expanded in manufacturing on the Eastern Seaboard, especially in auto-parts and auto assembly factories.

In Thailand, as in other countries, trade union bureaucrats enjoy a better standard of living than their members. However, networks of unofficial rank and file activists, independent of top leaders, exist in “Area Groups”. Even official groupings, such as the Federation of Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Unions, are able to bring together different unions at rank and file level, independent of the various bureaucratised peak bodies and congresses. These area groupings are considerably more democratic than the peak bodies. The entire committee of the group is usually elected every year and made up of men and women lay-representatives covering different workplaces and industries. These rank and file union groupings are a way in which “enterprise unions” can build solidarity with one another across workplace boundaries.

Trade unions and strikes have existed in Thailand for many years, but it is ideological factors which have held back the working class. This is due to a number of factors. Firstly, the Communist Party of Thailand, which originally organised urban workers in the 1940s and 1950s, took a Maoist turn away from the working class, towards the peasantry, in the 1960s. For this reason there have been few left-wing activists willing to agitate among workers. Unlike South Korea, where student activists had a long tradition of going to work in urban settings with the aim of strengthening trade unions, Thai student activists headed for the countryside after graduation. After the collapse of the CPT we can see the influence of NGOs, using funds from U.S. and German foundations, and more recently the arrival of “international” bureaucratic union federations. This is the second main factor which accounts for the ideological weakness of the Thai labour movement.

Labour-NGOs run by Thais receive funds from international foundations such as “The American Center For International Labor Solidarity” or the “Solidarity Center”, funded by the AFL-CIO and “The Friedrich Ebert Stiftung”, funded by the German Social Democrat Party (SPD). In recent years highly bureaucratised “international” unions have organised recruitment drives in some Thai workplaces. The aim is to increase membership of these international bodies, not to increase the combative and political nature of Thai unions. These NGOs and international unions have a number of commonly held beliefs. They actively support trade unions as long as they stay within the law. Thai labour law stipulates that trade unions must remain “non-political” and most NGOs are totally opposed to trade unionists taking up socialist politics or forming political parties. Thai labour law also makes it hard to carry out strikes.

NGO activists are known as “Pi-lieng” (Nannies). These “nannies”, help “child-like workers” to organise unions, to know their rights under the labour laws and to conduct themselves properly in labour disputes. When a dispute arises at a workplace, various NGO nannies will be sent out to stay with the workers’ “mob” in their picket tents. On some occasions, more rebellious workers will be scolded like children.

While such NGO and international union activity has resulted in more trade unions being established, it also breeds worker dependency on outside funding and socialises union representatives into a life-style made up of seminars in luxury hotels and foreign trips to conferences.

Yellow Shirts influence in some unions

The Yellow Shirts, and later Sutep’s mob, gained some influence in the trade union movement, although this is severely limited to sections of the State Enterprise workers. These unions are influenced by retired railway union boss Somsak Kosaisuk, who has joined Sutep’s mob. They have personal connections with Somsak Kosaisuk and his allies in NGO-type organisations like “Friends of the People” (FOP). Somsak and his allies organised “top down” educational groups for these trade unionists, funded by outside bodies such as The Solidarity Center and The Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. Another factor is the “State Enterprise union mentality” of putting more faith in talking to “sympathetic” management or elites, rather than organising and building a mass base. This drew some trade unionists towards the yellow shirts and later towards Sutep.

The left in the unions

Many active trade unionists who wish to fight in a more politicised manner have turned to militant Syndicalism. They are organised in networks of unofficial rank and file activists. Militant Syndicalism in the present day Thai context means engaging in the class struggle, supporting and organising strikes and being against cooperation with the State or the elites. These militants, who are mainly in the private sector workplaces, opposed the 2006 coup d’état and the Yellow Shirts. But Syndicalists are also very anxious to protect their independence while being wary of all political parties or of forming political organisations. This means that Thai Syndicalists are wary of cooperating too closely with pro-democracy social movements and this remains a political weakness.