At the end of December last year, due to the worsened COVID-19 situation, Thailand’s democracy movement, led by students, temporarily ended the street protests that had been going on since last August. The movement has three goals: the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, constitutional reform and reform of the monarchy.
This is a spontaneous movement which consists of students, long-term democracy activists, ordinary citizens, members of the former opposition ‘Red Shirts’ and trade unionists. Women have played a very visible role in the demonstrations.
Even though the democracy movement has not, as yet, succeeded in achieving any of the three goals, it succeeded in creating a spontaneous movement against the Prayuth government’s authoritarian rule. Moreover, the movement has succeeded in creating a public debate on the Thai monarchy.
The movement vows to continue the protests this year, though over 50 leaders have been arrested. Some of them have been released on bail, but serious charges of Lèse Majesté have been made against them which carries a heavy punishment of imprisonment. The minimum prison sentence for insulting monarchy is 2.5 years per charge; however, recently, a woman was sentenced for 87 years in prison for insulting the monarchy. This is the harshest sentence ever given under Thai Lèse Majesté laws (“to do wrong to majesty”) to anyone in Thailand.
Behind the protests, there is widespread dissatisfaction with the Prayuth government’s harsh methods of government. The protests have also been spurred by the country’s economic problems, worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Downright indignation towards Prayuth’s regime has grown since his orchestrated election win in 2019 and after the dissolution of the Future Forward Party (Pak Anakhot Mai) in February 2020. This party was popular among the young with its liberal agenda for reforms.
Thailand’s economic problems are demonstrated up in the figures. In the second quarter of 2020, Thailand’s economy contracted by 14% compared with the previous year and it is estimated that in 2020 as a whole, the economy shrank by 8%. Tourism, a vital industry to the Thai economy, has all but died during the pandemic. Current economic problems have widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots – already one of Asia’s deepest before the pandemic.
More fuel to the fire has been added by the disappearances and murders of democracy activists escaping to neighbouring countries. The democracy movement claims that the Thai government is heavily involved in them.
Tradition of struggle
Thailand’s democracy movement has a long tradition in the struggle against those in power against inequality and for democratic and basic civil rights. The exiled former Associate Professor in Politics in Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Giles Ji Ungpakorn, stated recently that the history of Thailand’s democracy movement can be compared to a tree; new branches have grown since the historic Thai student protests of 1973. Ungpakorn also sees the current democracy movement as a continuation of the process which saw the Red Shirts movement emerging after the 2006 military coup.
The coup was preceded by a political crisis, during which the economic and political divisions produced by the Asian financial crisis exploded in an open class war. It escalated into major clashes in rival street protests between the ‘Yellow Shirts’ and the ‘Red Shirts’ during 2008/2010. The Yellow Shirts represented conservative middle-class elements and elite royalists. The Red Shirts represented the urban and rural poor. They included not only supporters of former Prime Minister Taksin, a telecommunications billionaire, but also people who were opposed to him because of the Taksin government’s own human rights violations. By 2010 the Red Shirt movement had developed into a heterogeneous movement whose goals included the achievement of democratic rights, free elections and political and social reforms.
The democracy movement has been using similar methods of struggle to those the Hong Kong demonstrators in 2019, such as calling gatherings through using encrypted message platforms like Telegram for communication. The movement has no centralised leadership. It emphasised the adoption of organised non-violence to try to eliminate the possibility of a violent crackdown by the authorities. But violence has not been avoided; the police have dispersed Bangkok protests with water cannon and other means. In October, the riot police, reinforced with border police who have a reputation for using harsh measures, dispersed a protest with water cannon and liquid tear gas. The following day, international human rights organisations expressed their concerns.
The democracy movement also uses elements borrowed from pop culture in the way the Hong Kong protesters have done. The movement’s symbols are the three-finger salute borrowed from the movie ‘Hunger Games’ and yellow rubber ducks used internationally on international demonstrations against authoritarian regimes.
Besides creating a spontaneous popular movement, the democracy campaigners have also succeeded in opening a public discussion about the monarchy. This has been taboo in Thailand with its strict Lèse Majesté laws. The protesters have rebuked King Vajilalongkorn for his luxurious lifestyle. They have criticised the more-than-generous funds allocated to the monarchy from the state budget annually. They are particularly angry about the transfer to King Vajilalongkorn’s own name in 2018 of property belonging to the monarchy worth a minimum of €34 billion.
Mere observation of Vaijilalongkorn’s behaviour since he came to the throne shows that the very idea of Vajilalongkorn as an absolute monarch is absurd. Vajilalongkorn has never shown any interest in governance. He is only interested in himself and his jet-set lifestyle.
Vajilalongkorn lives in Germany and only goes to Thailand occasionally to perform mere ceremonial duties. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has rented a whole luxury hotel for his entourage in the ski-resort of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. During the pandemic, he has shuttled between Germany and Thailand, totally ignoring international covid restrictions.
In October, the representatives of the movement for democracy in Thailand took a letter to the German Ambassador in Bangkok. It asked if the German government would investigate if Vajilalongkorn has made political decisions concerning Thailand from Germany. Questions were raised in the German Bundestag, regarding Vajilalongkorn’s status in the country. However, in December, the German Parliament stated that it had found nothing judicially wrong in the King’s actions in Germany.
When studying the Thai monarchy’s position, Karl Marx’ concept of Bonapartism offers a useful tool for analysis. First, using the concept of Bonapartism, the Thai monarchy can be positioned accurately to Thailand’s domestic power structures. Only by analysing the whole picture of Thai domestic power structures, the monarchy’s role in them becomes clear and visible. Secondly, applying Bonapartism makes obvious the King’s role as an active agent in politics, thus removing the distorted idea that Thai monarchy is above politics.
Bonapartism can arise in a historical situation where two equally strong forces – conservative and reformist – are struggling for power. A figure emerges who apparently rises above the situation, posing as a defender of ideals and even reforms. The unravelling of the crisis depends on whether the leader uses his power to the advantage of the old order or those who are challenging it.
When analysing the Thai monarchy in the light of historical events, it can be concluded that in the power struggle between the rulers and the ruled, the king can have the position of the heroic leader or “good king”. In Thailand’s political crises, the previous king Pumiphon was, during his long reign, presented as a heroic leader, a defender of reforms and ideals, the good king.
However, two points have to be underlined. Firstly, Pumiphon has never been above politics but an active agent in Thailand’s historic political crises. He was always presented as the heroic leader who solves crises. Secondly, Phumiphon invariably used his power to side with the conservative elite and the army against the reformists, including those elements within the capitalist class who wanted change for their own interests. What is more, events showed that Pumiphon was not a strong leader. On the contrary, he was weak and manipulated by the army. He always approved the military intervening in politics, be it an army coup or cracking on the democracy movement.
The future of Thailand’s struggle for democracy now depends on whether the current movement can utilise the momentum they have created to their advantage. However, to reach their goals, they must organise into a proper grassroots movement which could ultimately paralyse Prayuth’s regime. It requires that the movement expands to the workplaces in the cities and in the countryside and that the movement organises strikes at the workplaces where the regime’s power to intervene is weak.
The current opposition movement planned a general strike last October, but it did not invest enough effort in organising the strike. It did not happen. Trade unions are vital in this matter. At present public sector workers are not allowed to organise and public sector strikes are forbidden. But a struggle must be waged to overcome this and build an independent workers’ movement.
It is still possible that the present movement for democracy will win important reforms. A militant wing aiming to build a nationwide grassroots movement, in which working women and young people have a vital role to play, may succeed in this.
However, for lasting victory over the exploitation and bullying by the elite in society, a socialist organisation needs to be built, however small its forces may be at the beginning. It needs to have a programme for a government of representatives of workers and the poor taking land, industry and finance into public ownership and running the economy according to plans drawn up and controlled by democratically elected representatives of working people.
The future will show how successful the struggle for Thai democracy is in opening the way for a struggle for a society without bosses, landlords and monarchs. Forward to socialism in Thailand and throughout South East Asia!