Since the beginning of this year, Thailand has witnessed the rising up of youth and students who have launched massive protests in several major cities, colleges, and universities. Although initially only concentrated in certain higher education institutions, the protests have already begun to spread to the streets and are attracting layers of ordinary working people into action. This movement was interrupted temporarily at the beginning of the Covid19 pandemic in March and has resurfaced with a renewed vigour since the start of July.
The reaction from Thai youth and students was sparked when the military-controlled government banned one of the opposition political organisations, the Future Forward Party, which had garnered the support of the youth in the last general election. Although this was the trigger for the latest democracy movement in Thailand, the country had already been in a prolonged political crisis for almost two decades. Since the military coup in 2006 that toppled the rule of Thaksin Shinawatra, the Thai ruling class has not succeeded in establishing a stable government through a fair election.
Glancing back at their history, Thailand has been riddled with numerous political crises. since the ‘Siamese revolution’ of 1932 that established a constitutional monarchy. It has experienced 12 successful coups and 7 coup attempts. The ruling class in Thailand has repeatedly failed to build a stable capitalist economic system under a strong governing structure.
Thailand was never actually colonised by any colonial power. The monarchy managed to maintain its power for generations by cooperating with the colonialists to establish a system of capitalism that obeys the free market and the rules set by the great colonial powers. Due to this, the national bourgeoisie of Thailand is of a weak character, without a strong platform and unable to bring the population out of the clutches of feudal backwardness. In many ways, the interests of the Thai national bourgeoisie are interwoven with the interests of the monarch, but at the same time also subordinate to the will of international capitalists.
In order to compensate for their weakness, the ruling class of Thailand made use of military power and the national symbolism of the monarchy to try and establish stable governments. Nevertheless, succeeding Thai governments have repeatedly exhibited internal contradictions and often faced opposition from ordinary people.
In the last 15 years, Thailand has experienced two separate military coups. The first was when the Thaksin Shinawatra government was overthrown in 2006 and the second when the government led by Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was overthrown in 2014.
The political figures who fell victim to military repression, such as Thaksin and Yingluck, are representatives of neo-liberal capitalists who are hostile towards the crony capitalists under the control of the military and the monarchs. They represent entrepreneurs who are aiming to build a capitalist structure free from the clutches of the monarchy and the military which is widely seen as hindering the economic development of Thailand. Meanwhile, the monarchy and the military bureaucracy who are in control of some parts of the economy, are in a prolonged struggle to safeguard the interests of their own cronies and the privileges they have managed to secure.
In the conflict between two different capitalist representatives, Thaksin and Yingluck together with their Pheu Thai Party made use of populist slogans to gain the support of the Thai people, especially from the rural communities. They promised various infrastructure reforms for the poor and provided various forms of aid or gifts in the form of money payments, computers, household appliances, food items and so on during their rule. As a result, this political wing had managed to garner support from the poor, especially in large numbers from farmers in northern Thailand.
Supporters of Thaksin and Yingluck are dubbed the ‘Red Shirt’ movement and in the past launched huge protests that temporarily crippled the Thai economy. This mass movement was seen to be growing again in the wake of the political coups against both the Shinawatras. But it was successfully controlled by the monarchy and the military by the use of various anti-democratic measures including violence.
The traditional political representation of the monarchy and the military bureaucracy is the Democratic Party led by former prime minister Abishek Vejjajiva. Since losing power in the 2005 election, the military bureaucracy has tried several times to reinstate the Democratic Party back to power, but they have failed to gain electoral support among the people. As a result, the military has been forced to hold power for a prolonged period of time. In addition, they have also implemented major adjustments to the national constitution to ensure military-bureaucratic control over Thailand before holding any new elections.
Followers of the Democratic Party are known as the ‘Yellow Shirts’ and have the support of the middle-class population, mostly based in Bangkok. They have even managed to organise a few mass actions in the capital in the past. However, their grass-root support is nowhere as great as that of the ‘Red Shirts. Their strength is still dependent on nationalist propaganda that elevates the monarchy and military institutions.
In 2014, after the victory of the Pheu Thai Party and Yingluck being named prime minister, the Thai army, under the command of General Prayut Chan Ocha, launched a coup d’ Etat. It took over the Thai government under the auspices of the National Council of Peace and Order (NCPO).
Despite promising an early general election, it has taken five years before the Thai people could engage in any electoral exercise. During this time, the junta government has re-written the constitution, introduced several laws that suppress the democratic rights of the people, and created a complex electoral system which unfairly favours the military bureaucracy. The junta government has also used its power to ban some opposition organisations, arrest hundreds of activists, and suppress the media from speaking out against any military repression.
After waiting for five years, finally, the Thai election took place last year – 2019. Various manipulations and dirty tactics were adopted to guarantee success for the Palang Pracharat Party, established by the military bureaucracy and led by General Payuth Chan Ocha,. Nevertheless, the opposition Pheu Thai still managed to get the most parliamentary seats with 136. Palang Pracharat won 116 seats and the newly formed Future Forward Party won 81 seats.
Nevertheless, the process for selecting the prime minister was changed from what it was before and as many as 250 Senators, appointed by the military, could also vote to choose the prime minister. Therefore, in spite of not getting a majority in the general election, Prayuth Chan Ocha has managed to secure his position by using the support of the 250 senators. The candidate who really got the majority in Parliament, based on elected MPs, is the leader of the Future Forward Party (FFP), Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.
With the least support in parliament, Prayuth Chan Ocha was able to become prime minister and form a cabinet. However, this government still has not managed to achieve the freedom to legislate and act as they please. Opposition parties in the parliament have formed an ‘anti-junta’ bloc. They are very vocal in their criticism of the government, which is widely considered as undemocratic and ruling without the consent of the people.
Among the general population, the Prayuth-led government is seen as corrupt, undemocratic and not deserving to hold onto power. The military bureaucracy, together with its leader, Prayuth, has also been linked with a massive international corruption scandal (1MDB) which saw the previous Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak recently sentenced to a 12-year prison term.
The military regime had also exposed itself during their failure to handle the Covid-19 pandemic which is causing devastation for the majority of the population. While the cronies close to the Junta are making a record amount of profits, the population of Thailand is facing mass unemployment and austerity measures. The repressive regime will go to any extent in order to protect the interests of the rich and powerful. Similar to all other capitalist governments in the region, most of the stimulus packages or emergency funding were aimed at providing welfare for the big business owners and protecting their profit.
At the same time, after the death in 2017 of King Bumiphol, who was a popular figure among the people, the Thai army has begun to lose its credibility. This is especially so since the successor to Bumiphol, his son Vajralongkorn, is generally very unpopular. Vajiralongkorn is considered an irresponsible leader and his name is often connected with various scandals that have been exposed worldwide.
Recently, the new king made headlines when he went off on a ‘quarantine vacation’ in an exclusive retreat in Germany with an entourage of over 100. This is at a time when the Thai population is being strangled by the crisis caused by the Covid19 pandemic. The King of Thailand is also the richest monarch in the world with wealth estimated to reach $45bn.
There was also an internal conflict within the monarchy after the death of Bhumipol. In the 2019 general election, the sister of the king, Ubolratana, was named as prime ministerial candidate for a new party that opposes the military junta government. However, this attempt was ridiculed and criticised heavily by the king Vajralongkorn and the government banned Ubolratana from contesting altogether.
In this situation, with instability and the loss of total control by the government, Prayuth Chan Ocha and his regime have begun to increase repression against opposition parties. Leaders of the FFP have been jailed on baseless allegations and the party itself was banned shortly thereafter. This action angered the people, especially the youth, who have sparked the protest movements being witnessed at this time.
Although the Future Forward Party has the support of the youth, it also represents capitalist interests very similar to other parties such as Pheu Thai. The leader of the FFP is a multi-millionaire rooted in a wealthy business dynasty. Despite being considered to carry a progressive agenda that has succeeded in attracting the youth, the party does not put forward any concrete solutions to the problems facing the majority of Thai people. The FFP wants only to reform the capitalist system so that it can function for the sake of those capitalists who are in tune with them. There are no signs that ordinary people will automatically benefit, especially economically, if the FFP takes control of the government.
In the interest of developing the capitalist economic system, the political structure of Thailand is being torn apart. There is a major conflict between the crony capitalists who have traditionally ruled the country and the internationally linked capitalists who want to open up the Thai market and establish a different kind of government. Workers and poor people who have been the victims of economic crises, government violence, and iron-clad rule by the military regime do not have political leadership that truly represents their interests.
In the Southeast Asia region, Thailand is the country most severely affected by the spread of the Covid19 pandemic. It has seen the collapse of its tourism industry on which the Thai economy so heavily depends. As a result of this, the Thai economy is expected to decline by almost 10% this year. The unemployment rate in Thailand is also expected to reach as high as 25%, not counting the millions of unregistered informal workers who are losing their livelihoods daily. The people are now also facing a political crisis that will spark further tensions and create situations of instability.
In the past and again today, Thai people have shown a tremendous capacity to fight, even without a clear leadership. The students have taken on the military with their own bare hands, risking prison and even death.
The working class of the cities and poor of the countryside in Thailand need a mass workers’ party that can unite all the struggles of the people and fight for the will of the majority. All the parties that exist in Thailand, including anti-junta organisations such as the Pheu Thai and the FFP, are simply representative of one wing or another of the capitalists and are at odds with the interests of the working class majority. Eventually, the so-called progressive parties will also exploit the Thai working class and oppress them upon gaining power.
The anger of the people will only be used as a tool to shape a different form of oppressive structure, even if it is a ‘clean’ rather than openly corrupt capitalism. These capitalist political organisations offer no real solutions to the perils facing the Thai majority and will be subordinated to the will of the capitalist class all over again.
The fight ahead
Young people and students who are protesting in the streets have become more courageous in raising anti-monarch demands in addition to the demand for democracy. The actions of these youth are incredibly bold considering that in Thailand, any criticism of the monarchy could result in severe prison sentences and was a very rare occurrence in the past. Technically, the protests led by the young people and students over the past months were deemed to be illegal by the Thai regime under the Covid-19 emergency laws and hundreds of arrests followed a brutal crackdown on protests.
The bold action by the students and youth who are defying a notoriously repressive regime is inspiring the Thai population who are facing a dire situation following the impact of Covid-19 pandemic. Thai youth have pledged to continue their struggle under the ‘Free Youth’ umbrella and are planning various actions including one scheduled to take place in Thammasat University at the end of September. They are determined to carry on with protest action until their demands are met – for the Prime Minister to resign and dissolve the Parliament, for the Constitution to be amended to include democratic practices, and to stop the government repression towards political opponents and critics immediately.
Thousands of Thai protesters have taken to the streets in an unprecedented fashion, chanting “Down with dictatorship!” and “The country belongs to the people”. At the core of these protests is the coming together of students who are braving the COVID-19 pandemic to demand their rights as citizens.
Already, these protests have forced the government to hold a Parliamentary dialogue forum to discuss all the students’ demands and proposals, including issues surrounding the monarchy. This will be the first time in recent memory where issues regarding the reform of the monarchy will be raised in the Parliament and a challenge made to arbitrary punishment meted out for ‘lese majeste’ or offending the king.
However, no concrete solution can be achieved simply through parliamentary means. The government is dominated by pro-capitalist forces on all sides. In order to gain any kind of reform which will be beneficial to the masses, the existing structure of capitalist politics must be challenged by formulating a clear alternative to the system. The current mood of the masses in Thailand is ripe for a successful battle with the oppressors and the youth movement should be harnessed in the direction of replacing the capitalist system, rather than depending on one or other of the capitalist representatives who are unable to deliver any meaningful change.
At the same time, the youth must also raise their demands and formulate an economic and class-based programme to attract the workers and poor farmers into this democracy movement. Students should also put pressure on the organisations and leadership of the working class such as the trade unions to take up the mantle of the struggle and lead the movement by launching protest action such as general strikes to fight the undemocratic regime.
Thailand also needs the establishment of a revolutionary party that can bring a clear political perspective to the mass movement and the working class. A meaningful change for the people cannot be achieved as long as the capitalist system is enslaving the real potential of humanity. An alternative which is socialism, that functions democratically for the benefit of the ordinary working people and the majority, should be the aim of the mass movement. Only with a planned economy democratically controlled by the working class will a fair distribution of wealth be ensured in Thailand and internationally.