Police in Bangkok use water cannons on student protesters. (Gemunu Amarasinghe / AP)

By ANDY BARNS

Since February, Thailand has been witness to thousands of student protesters demanding democratic accountability for the Thai monarchy, and further demanding a resignation of the Prayut Chan-O-Cha regime and new elections to take place.

In a country with 238 years of the Chakri dynasty, and where people are taught to venerate the monarchy as a cornerstone of Thai society, this is an incredibly brave act. An unnamed BBC reporter [1] described it as “nothing short of revolutionary,” which is fair considering Thailand’s strict lese-majeste laws, enforcing censorship or imprisonment for criticism of the monarchy. The #WhyDoWeNeedAKing has trended on Thai twitter this year, and the Thai military, wedded to the monarchy, might censor the internet like it did in previous coups [2].

Additionally, since the 2006 coup, military rule, not a “democratic” republic, is the status quo in the country, which has repeatedly come into conflict with rising aspirations for democracy among working people and working-class youth. These aspirations for democracy and accountability have been used by various competing Thai capitalists to secure state power, which has hinged on both the support of the military and the monarchy. By criticizing the monarchy and demanding new elections, Thai students and protesters are taking a step beyond the political games that have plagued the country for years.

Military coups, populist parties, and billionaire leadership

Since the 1932 coup that put a constitutional monarchy in power (abolishing the absolute monarchy) there have been 12 successful coups in Thailand. The pattern continued in both the 2006 coup, which deposed then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecom billionaire now living in exile, and the 2014 coup, deposing his sister Yingluck Shinawatra. In each instance of a coup, the military received the support of the monarchy, considered by Thai society to be a legitimizing force (until recently).

The deposing of these billionaires was not an act for the workers, since the military simply put establishment-friendly billionaires in their place. The governance of the billionaire class may, with this or that administration, be more, or less, kind to the poor, but in Thailand legitimacy flows not from democratic elections but from the military and the monarchy.

Shinawatra’s exile has not prevented him from influencing Thai politics, as the political unrest in 2010 and 2011 showed. Shinawatra’s populist policies were popular among the rural poor of the country’s north and some of the urban working class, but drew heavy criticism from the middle class of the country and Thai southerners. These opposing forces would eventually coalesce into the so-called “red shirts” populist movement and the “yellow shirts” royalist movement. Both carried the battle cry of “democracy,” but only the red shirts expressed criticism of the monarchy, while the yellow shirts fulfilled a more reactionary role.

The Shinawatra supporters pushed for populist politics in various political shells, with each one being dissolved following a coup. The latest incarnation of populist talking points in Thailand came in the form of the Future Forward Party (FFP), which before its abrupt dissolution by the Thai courts, won landslides in the 2019 elections. It was extremely popular with Thai youth and carried a program which clearly expressed much of the youth’s yearning for democracy and working-class programs [3].

However, this party, similar to Shinawatra’s, was under the charismatic leadership of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, a young inheritor of his father’s auto-parts company, Thai Summit Group. In other words, the content of the politics of the FFP can also be expressed as capitalist ambition.

This doesn’t tell us whether Thai billionaires do (or do not) sincerely care about the policies they push. What it tells us is that up until the recent past the political arena has been the conflict of the capitalist class, the military, and the monarchy. The Thai working class has not, as of yet, achieved independent political organization. But it must do so if the pro-democracy movement is to achieve victory. The military crackdowns on populist threats and suppression of political parties by the Thai courts will no doubt force such an organization of the workers to operate underground, unless serious political change occurs soon.

Socialist Resurgence stands in solidarity with the people of Thailand, and looks forward, with great anticipation, for the emergence of an independent workers’ movement to win the battle for democracy. Following is a statement that is being circulated by the Asian and Pacific left in solidarity with the movement:

Joint Asian regional left statement in solidarity with the people of Thailand for democracy

A growing wave of student-initiated pro-democracy protests have been sweeping Thailand since February. They have united a new generation of activists with former Red Shirts and even some disaffected people from the Yellow Shirt movement demanding: (1) the resignation of the Prayut regime and new, free and fair elections, (2) democratic constitutional changes, (3) reforms to put the monarchy under the rule of law, curb its privileges, and end the use of the draconian lese-majeste laws to silence dissent.

Former general and current PM Prayut Chan-O-Cha declared a “severe” state of emergency on Oct. 15 which bans gatherings of more than five people and the “publication of news, other media, and electronic information that contains messages that could create fear or intentionally distort information, creating misunderstanding that will affect national security or peace and order.”

Following this, police and military were sent in to violently disperse the protesters. Police attacks on this latest protest began on the evening of Oct. 13 when democracy activists arrived in Bangkok from the poor north-east of the country and set up makeshift shelters on street corners. The police tore down these shelters and about 20 people were arrested. The police also staged pre-dawn raid on Oct. 15 to disperse the protesters at the Government Building.

Several leading movement activists have been arrested and there are serious concerns about further repression.

We stand in solidarity with the protest movement in Thailand and demand: 

1. An immediate lifting of the “state of emergency” and respect for the right of the people to protest

2. Immediate release of the pro-democracy movement activists and all political prisoners

3. An end to the military-dominated rule and for free and fair elections for a democratic government

4. Democratic constitutional change

5. Abolish feudal powers and stop the use of repressive laws including the lese-majeste laws to silence dissent.

Initial endorsers:

1. Partido Lakas ng Masa (PLM), Philippines

2. Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM), Malaysia

3. North South Initiative, Malaysia

4. Sedane Labour Resource Centre (LIPS), Indonesia

5. Working People’s Party (PRP), Indonesia

6. Socialist Alliance, Australia

7. Federation of Karya Utama Union (FSBKU), Indonesia

8. Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, India

9. BMP (Solidarity of Filipino Workers), Philippines

10. Sanlakas, Philippines

11. Partai Rakyat Demokratik (PRD), Indonesia 

12. SPERBUPAS GSBI PT. Panarub Industri, Indonesia

13. Indonesia for Global Justice (IGJ), Indonesia

14. Laban ng Masa, Philippines

15. Radical Socialist, India

16. Haqqoq Khalq Movement (Peoples Rights Movement Pakistan)

17. Socialist Alternative, Australia

18. Yubaraj Chaulagain – Central Committee Member – Nepal Communist Party

NOTES:

[1] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-53770939

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2014_Thai_coup_d%27%C3%A9tat

[3] https://time.com/5756668/thailand-future-forward-party/