Tag Archives: working class

Military Regimes Don’t Just Gradually Dissolve

The recent military coup in Burma/Myanmar has quite rightly shocked and angered many ordinary people. Protests by Burmese expats and Thai democracy activists were immediately held outside the Burmese embassy in Bangkok. True to form and true to their shared interests with the Burmese military, the Thai junta ordered the police to attack this demonstration under the pretence that it was against emergency Covid laws. Two Thai activists were arrested.

Thai police use tear gas against protesters outside the Burmese embassy

Thai and Burmese pro-democracy activists outside the Burmese embassy in Bangkok

The solidarity between Thai and Burmese pro-democracy activists is a beacon of hope. This is because the real hope for Burmese democracy does not lie with Aung San Suu Kyi or the West. The so-called “international community” will blow meaningless hot air over the coup, but nothing of substance will change. International sanctions have never brought about democracy. It was mass working class and youth uprisings which ended apartheid in South Africa. The same can be said about the collapse of the Stalinist states in Eastern Europe.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been cooperating with the military for the last 5 or more years under their half democracy system. In addition to this, in the 8-8-88 mass uprising against the military, she demobilised the student and workers’ movement, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and diverting the movement into a base for her electoral hopes. Burma then remained a military dictatorship for the next three decades.

Demonstrators march through Rangoon. A banner identifies them as students from Rangoon Institute of Technology, where the first demonstrations broke out in March 1988.

Suu Kyi is also a racist, an islamophobe and a Buddhist Burmese nationalist. She cannot be trusted to lead a genuine movement for democracy.

Suu Kyi defended the brutal violence against the Rohingya

The hope is that the new generation of young people in Burma will rise up, taking inspiration from Thailand, Hong Kong and Nigeria.

One good sign is that there are reports that hospital workers inside Burma have been taking action to protest against the coup.

The coup is an attack on freedom, despite the fact that Burma only had a sham democracy; the Burmese military’s own constitution allowed them to take total power in any so-called “emergency” and the military retained a monopoly of key ministerial posts, together with a guarantee of 25% of seats in parliament and other oppressive measures.

Right-wing political views try to push the false idea that deals by important top people and foreign powers can gradually bring about democratic change. A recent article in the New York Times implied that the development of Burmese democracy was seriously damaged because Aung San Suu Kyi failed to cooperate and compromise enough with the military [See http://nyti.ms/3cPanUD ]. In fact she spent the last five or more years compromising too much with the army.

It may be that after Suu Kyi’s landslide victory in the recent elections, the military staged their coup as a pre-emptive warning against those who might have had ideas that the military could have its power and business interests reduced through parliamentary measures.

 Back in 2016 I wrote a post about mainstream views on democratisation. I wrote that:

“Recently I had a conversation with a researcher associated with the British Foreign Ministry and I was surprised and shocked to hear him say: “Burma is the most democratic country in South-east Asia”. He went on to say that the worrying thing about Burma was that Aung San Suu Kyi might be too inflexible to work with the military.”  [See http://bit.ly/3jc3VrI ]

I then posed the question: “So what accounts for this absurd idea about Burma?”

“The views about democratisation among mainstream officials and politicians close to Western governments are heavily influenced by right-wing “comparative politics” theories associated with academics like Guillermo O’Donnell. For these people, democratic transition is all about the behaviour of elite factions and how they manage a stable transition to so-called democracy. In fact they are not really interested in freedom, democratic rights and social justice for the majority of the population. They are blind to and terrified of the prospect of mass movements of the working class and the poor rising up to overthrow authoritarian regimes.

Reading through political science literature about democratic transitions in the days before the overthrow of Suharto in Indonesia or before the overthrow of Marcos in the Philippines, you can see that the idea that these dictators might be overthrown by mass movements from below is totally lacking. But this is in fact, exactly what happened. The same can be said of the Arab Spring uprisings and uprisings against the military in Thailand in 1973 and 1992. And the most important social force which can push forward and develop democratisation in all these countries, including Thailand, remains mass movements of workers and the poor.”

The fact that a generalised mass uprising, involving workers, of the kind that we saw in Burma in 1988, did not get rid of the military junta in recent years, means that the military were still in control of the levers of power. Without destroying this power, the tough and poisonous vines of a full dictatorship could easily grow back.

Part of the hundreds of protest marches in 1988

In Thailand the military are still in control because the mass movement has not yet harnessed the power of the working class. [See “Rubber ducks cannot defeat the military” http://bit.ly/3tmU5YB ].

Both in Thailand and in Burma, we still need mass movements of young people, allied to the organised working class, in order to achieve a democratic transition. Military regimes don’t just gradually dissolve by polite negotiation.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Thailand needs a socialist party of the working class

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

In a recent article in Thai on the Turn Left Thailand blog site [https://turnleftthai.wordpress.com/], I argued that trade union activists should not put their faith in business tycoon Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit’s Future Forward Party. This is because it is a middle class party in the interests of business. This is despite the fact that it has a clear anti-dictatorship position, some abstract statement about building a welfare state, and has been busy trying to recruit some trade union activists to create an image that it supports workers. In reality, the party has no commitment to raising the minimum wage to significant levels which would eradicate poverty, or to scrap and rewrite labour laws which restrict the right to strike and build free trade unions. What is really needed, I argued, is a party of the working class. [See the importance of class in Thailand here: https://bit.ly/2qG1Ytl ].

The article received much interest and some criticism. A former high paid finance worker who claims to be a “Marxist” dismissed the idea of a workers’ party by saying that the working class had shrunk and was no longer a majority in society. The opposite is actually true, with formerly middle class professions like teaching and nursing seeing unionisation. There have also been active trade unions among white collar bank workers for some time. Unionisation levels may be low, but that is a political problem rather than a structural one. Part of the political problem is a lack of a socialist party of the working class. Among the most radical sections of the Thai labour movement, “revolutionary syndicalism” is a dominant current, although very small in proportion to the whole of the movement. These anti-capitalist, anti-junta, activists do not see the need to build a party, but see their trade unions as the main vehicle for struggle.

Some Maoists from the defunct Communist Party of Thailand have also criticised my article, claiming that workers need to build cross-class alliances with capitalists because “the time is not right for a workers’ party”. For them, the time will never be right!

Another criticism of my article came from a former trade union activist who stated that Thai workers do not have a culture of political struggle. She accused me of not knowing Thai workers. Both statements are untrue.

The “cultural” argument has a long right-wing tradition among commentators. Western conservative academics used to pontificate about a Thai “lack of political culture”, ignoring repeated cycles of mass struggle for democracy. Even today this finds an echo among NGO activists in the Commoners’ Party. It fits nicely with the patronising attitude that claimed that the rural poor who voted for Taksin were ill-educated, ignorant of politics and sold their votes. It also seems to have an echo among demoralised former labour activists.

In the late 1990’s I was involved in re-establishing a Marxist and Trotskyist current among small groups of students and trade unionists. We managed to establish a presence for about ten years. But our organisation was not strong enough to withstand the repression and use of lèse-majesté following the two recent military coups. Never the less, interest in Marxism and Socialism, especially among some young people, has been on the rise recently, with some left-wing seminars being held. Unfortunately, serious party builders are yet to emerge.

To build a socialist party of the working class today, activists need to refrain from being mesmerised by elections, especially those held under the rules set down by the junta. There is no need to create a registered party to fight elections right now. What is needed is to build an activist party among workers with the involvement of young students. The activists need to train and educate themselves in theory while engaging in day to day struggles alongside other social activists. People need to learn from the successes of the illegal Communist Party of Thailand while rejecting its Stalinism and Maoism. The CPT had many activists who recruited students and workers in the early days.

One of the most important tasks is for a socialist party to bring together a big picture political analysis to counter single issue lobbying which has long been promoted by the NGOs and the trade unions.

History tells us that without a socialist party of the working class it is difficult to make serious advances on building a welfare state, reducing inequality and expanding the democratic space by promoting participatory democracy in society.

Zimbabwe, Thailand, Egypt & Portugal: No such thing as a coup for democracy

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The lessons from the military intervention in politics in Thailand are highly relevant to what is going on in Zimbabwe today, despite some of the differences.

Over the last few weeks and days we have seen jubilant crowds in Harare celebrating the military coup which overthrew the dictator Mugabe.

In Thailand in 2006 and 2014 we saw middle-class crowds urging the military to overthrow governments controlled by Taksin Shinawat. Despite the fact that these middle-class crowds were dominated by reactionary elements, who felt that democracy was not suitable for Thailand, there were many deluded fools, especially among the NGOs, who welcomed the intervention of the army to overthrow what they considered a “parliamentary dictatorship”. Of course Taksin abused human rights, but the governments which were controlled by him were not dictatorships. However, the point I wish to discuss is the belief among many people that a military coup can somehow bring about freedom and democracy.

Now the crowds celebrating in Harare were not mainly deluded fools. There was genuine elation at the overthrowing of a brutal dictator. Some, however, were indeed deluded fools believing that Mugabe’s former “enforcer” Mnangagwa was somehow a democrat and because he was a businessman he would restore the economy. Businessmen restore economies on their own class terms, on the backs of the working class and the poor.

The common idea held by those who believe that military coups can bring about democracy is the feeling that ordinary people, especially workers, can never change society and bring about freedom and democracy. That is why NGO types suspend their intellect and cheer the military. They believe that ordinary poor people need to be “helped” and can never act collectively to change society.

A similar event to Zimbabwe and Thailand took place in Egypt. There were mass protests when the elected President Mohamed Morsi started to betray the revolution. A majority among the crowds were under the illusion that the Egyptian military were the friends of the people. Only the radical Left warned that the military could not be trusted. Events showed that the military encouraged these protests and then hijacked them in order to come to power and roll back the revolution.

In Zimbabwe a significant number of people celebrating in Harare, had deep reservations about the military and Mnangagwa. The make up of the “new” military-civilian government shows they were right. The radical Left is encouraging workers and students to organise independently in order to bring about real change. The working class of Zimbabwe is capable of this if there is strong enough political organisation. Workers in neighbouring South Africa also have significant power and could provide solidarity. But it is the events in Portugal in 1975 which show the importance of working class self-organisation following a military coup. Chris Harman’s wonderful book “The Fire Last Time: 1968 and after” makes the point clearly.

On the 25th April 1975 General Spinola, an old fascist, headed a military coup which overthrew the dictator Caetano. Spinola’s aim was to run an authoritarian regime. It was planned as a Palace Coup. Yet the massive upsurge in working class struggle, which immediately followed his coup, split the military and prevented Spinola from achieving his goal. The fact that the Portuguese revolution could have moved society further along towards socialist freedom and democracy is a tragedy, but the lesson from Portugal for Zimbabwe, Thailand and Egypt is the vital role of independent working class struggle.

23 Nov 1975, Lisbon, Portugal — Portugal after Carnation Revolution — Image by © Alain Keler/Sygma/Corbis

Unfortunately those who understand this are a tiny minority among pro-democracy Thais. The hope in Zimbabwe is that this will not be the case.