Thailand: Mass protests shake the regime

Almost daily protests have been raging in Thailand for over a month. They are growing in size and audacity. Dozens of school children demanding democracy have become tens of thousands of protestors challenging the foundations of Thai society. If the government doesn’t respond by September, they say, things will escalate. The Thai establishment is like a rabbit caught in the headlights.

What’s happening?

Back in July school students began to protest. They are using the banned three-fingered salute from the Hunger Games series of books and films as an anti-authoritarian symbol. They have been holding up blank sheets of paper to demonstrate the lack of freedom of expression. Their slogans have been “down with dictatorship, long live democracy”.

By early August the movement had grown. Activists held a Harry Potter themed rally at which the main demands of what was known as the Free Youth movement, now the Free People movement, crystallised. They want the dissolution of parliament, an end to the harassment of activists, and a new constitution.

A few days later, at a rally at Thammasat University, protestors read out a ten point programme for reform of the monarchy. In a country where the royal family is a key pillar of the establishment, and criticism of it carries a 15-year prison sentence, this was earth-shaking. Demands include legalising criticism of the monarchy, separating the finances of the monarchy and the state, and removing the political role of the monarchy. Over 100 academics have come out defending this ten point programme.

On 16 August tens of thousands rallied in Bangkok against the government. Three more demands were raised: no more coups (there have been 12 successful ones since 1932), no national unity government, and to uphold Thailand as a democracy. Seven trade union groups, including factory workers and textile workers, issued a statement explaining why they were joining the protests. The protests have spread throughout the country, including into former strongholds of the Red Shirt protest movement whose political representatives were overthrown in a coup led by the current Thai Prime Minister in 2014.

The military-dominated Thai government doesn’t know what to do. Police have arrested a dozen or so leading activists, including two rappers who performed at a protest back in July, and charged them with sedition. Unbelievably the Prime Minister claims to know nothing about this and that the arrests are simply the initiative of the local police.

But mainly the regime seems afraid of provoking the movement even further. The Office of the Basic Education Commission has issued an order legalising school student protests as long as they remain on school premises, don’t break the law, and don’t involve outsiders. The preferred method of the Prime Minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, is repression. But under the pressure of the movement he has been forced to say that he is listening to the protestors and that there will be no prosecutions under the lese-majeste law for those criticising the monarchy.

Prayuth’s fear of this movement is explained by a poll conducted by the Suan Dusit Rajabhat University on 16-21 August. Of almost 200,000 people surveyed on the three key demands of this movement, 63% of people agreed that the constitution should be changed, 54% agreed that the government should resign and parliament be dissolved, and 59% agreed that the government should stop harassing pro-democracy activists. There is mass support for these demonstrations – 54% said they supported them overall and less than half of those surveyed (only 42%) said that the protests should not infringe on the monarchy.

Why is it happening?

These protests come just over a year after a farcical general election in Thailand. That election installed the coup plotter and junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha as Prime Minister. This didn’t come as much of a surprise because after the 2014 military coup, led by the same Chan-ocha, the constitution was rewritten so as to guarantee the military’s perpetual rule over the country.

Ever since 2001 the Thai ruling class has been badly split. The traditional Thai establishment, based on the bloated military-bureaucratic caste and the monarchy, has long been unable to win elections for lack of a social base. It relies on dwindling public support for the monarchy, weakened by its association with one rotten regime after another. In 2016 the relatively popular 88-year-old King died and his far less popular son ascended to the throne.

Leaning on the masses the Shinawatras, in particular Takhsin, struck blows against the traditional Thai political elite. A number of reforms were granted in the boom years during Takhsin Shinawatra’s premiership which gave him the support of the poorest layers of Thai society. Fearing the masses more than the Shinawatras, the Thai establishment removed them in repeated military coups, the last of which removed any pretence of parliamentary rule.

Immediately after the election last year, the new liberal party that came third in the elections called Future Forward was faced with a raft of criminal charges, including being linked to the Illuminati. Although cleared of that charge, the party was dissolved by the courts in February 2020 and 16 of its leaders banned from political activity for 10 years on a charge of receiving an illegal loan. Even if it was not a socialist party in any way, it stood to the left of the traditional party of the Shinawatras, raising a number of democratic demands, including a new constitution to remove the influence of the army as well as land reform and trade union rights. It was these demands, rather than its commitment to the free market, which earned it support from young voters, determined to see an end to military rule.

The protests following the dissolution of the party were the biggest since 2014, but were cut across by the outbreak of coronavirus. But the pandemic threw into sharp relief the vast gap between rich and poor in Thailand, the third most unequal country in the world, as the millions of already low-paid workers dependent on the tourist industry saw their livelihoods disappear.

And as the crisis has deepened, the ruling elite has openly flaunted its corruption. The pro-democracy activist and political exile Wanchalearm Satsaksit was abducted from his home in Cambodia in June. He is now the ninth opponent of the Thai government living abroad who has been abducted. His picture has been carried on demonstrations in recent weeks.

In July charges of killing a police officer in a drunken hit-and-run against Vorayuth Yoovidhya, heir to the Red Bull empire and son of Thailand’s second richest man, were dropped without explanation. Prior to that there had been an attempted cover-up of the hit-and-run involving some other police officers. While critics of the monarchy receive 15 years in prison, and pro-democracy activists are abducted from their homes, the offspring of the rich can drunkenly kill police officers with impunity. It’s one rule for them, and another for us.

In 2016 the new king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, ascended to the throne. He has overseen changes to the constitution making it easier for him to rule from abroad. He spends most of his time living in a luxurious hotel in Germany, while Thai workers struggle to survive on a daily minimum wage of around $10. Occasionally he does return to Thailand for events such as a lavish birthday party for his mother last week, jetting in and out within a couple of days, despite everyone else suffering under lockdown.

The king has also brought two important regiments of the army, stationed close to Bangkok, under his personal command. And the Crown Property Bureau consisting of tens of millions of dollars worth of property, previously managed by and on behalf of the government, has now been taken back under the direct control of the king, making him by far the richest man in Thailand.

His personal life is littered with divorces, affairs, and disowned children. He promoted his pet miniature poodle Foo-Foo to the rank of Air Chief Marshal. Leaked diplomatic cables showed how fearful the Thai ruling class is that Maha Vajiralongkorn will undermine the legitimacy of the monarchy.

In June last year, after the election, we wrote “Chan-o-cha’s reign will be one of crisis...It will not be long before the regime is shaken by new scandals and mass protests, more militant than ever before.” This prediction, proven right in just one year, was made on the basis of an economic crisis which was present even before the pandemic, and the extreme polarisation of wealth. On top of this the naked authoritarianism of the military and the monarchy has provoked the protests we are seeing today. And demonstrators have been enthused by the movements in Hong Kong, Belarus, Lebanon, and the Black Lives Matter protests around the world.

What is the significance of these protests?

Although the Thai masses are no stranger to mass protest and political upheaval, these demonstrations mark a qualitative turning point. The protests were sparked by school students, they are making unprecedented criticisms of the monarchy, and they are suspicious of national unity governments.

School children are taught to revere the monarchy. Every single one of the 20 different Thai constitutions drafted since 1932 have included the unimpeachable position of the royal family. The lese-majeste laws are the strictest in the world, with secret trials and long imprisonment for those who so much as raise an eyebrow at the monarchy.

Even in a country like Britain, the monarchy plays an important role for the ruling class. It is a reserve weapon of reaction – a rallying point for “the nation” in times of political upheaval which holds important but hidden constitutional powers. This is why it’s important that a veil of mystery and wealth is drawn around the royal family, and that school children are taught to love them through pageantry and pomp – so that they can be used as a last ditch attempt to save a system in crisis.

This is even more the case with the Thai monarchy because the ruling class has so little social base. But with each military coup, which the palace duly sanctions, royal legitimacy erodes a little further. Since 2016, the antics of the new king have shone a spotlight on the political and military role of the crown, as well as its fantastic wealth. Instead of keeping the monarchy shrouded in mystery, it has been thrust into the light and people don’t particularly like what they see. The monarchy is becoming odious in the eyes of the masses, completely linked to the equally hated military and their civilian puppets.

The ten-point programme for reform of the monarchy, which has been raised by some protestors, is therefore a challenge to the very foundations of Thai society and the regime. It has never been done before by mass movements or by the liberal parties. The demands include allowing parliament to investigate any wrongdoings of the monarchy, to allow criticism of the monarchy, to prohibit the monarchy expressing any political opinion, and to adjust the national budget of the monarchy according to the economic conditions of the country. It is tantamount to clipping the wings of the monarchy. Although it stops short of calling for the abolition of the monarchy, this programme is a huge step forward.

The other significant step forward for this movement is the demand for no national unity governments. This time the masses are warning that they will not accept some backroom stitch-up between the different wings, which inevitably would be at the expense of the poor and oppressed.

What next?

The Financial Times editorial board has issued a stern and impatient warning to the Thai ruling class to introduce democratic reforms and allow the liberals into power. The strategists of capital are frustrated with the creaking military bureaucracy and blundering royal family.

The US imperialists are also fearful that if the situation gets out of control then its long-time ally in the region could drift into the geopolitical orbit of geographically closer China.

The masses have shown a healthy scepticism of the monarchy and of national unity governments, but illusions in abstract ideas about ‘democracy’ are still widespread. This is inevitable at this stage in a leaderless movement, but it will lead down a blind alley if not overcome.

In the context of discussions about monarchs, constitutions, and democracy, the very existence of a royal family should be questioned. The previous king was popular in Thailand, but this current one is not. Why should anyone have wealth and power simply by accident of birth? Indeed, #whydoweneedaking has been trending on Twitter during this protest movement. We must point out that ancient relics such as the monarchy have no place in a democracy. The monarchy shouldn’t just be reformed, but abolished altogether.

Just like in 2010, when the leadership of the Red Shirts pulled back from overthrowing the Abhisit government, leaders of the present movement are urging caution. An organisation called the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship, which is the remnant organisation of the Red Shirts and an ally of billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, is explicitly advising the movement not to “cross the line” when it comes to challenging the royal institution. This is absolutely detrimental to the goals of the movement and is typical of the Thai bourgeois liberal opposition.

The movement must pay no heed to advice from billionaires on how to solve the problems of ordinary people. The leadership of the Red Shirts and their allies in Parliament have proven themselves unable to remove the rotten regime. Their attempts over the past few years have only led the heroic struggles of the masses into one blind alley after another.

Instead the movement must rely on its own strength, which if used correctly can be unstoppable. The students on the streets should work to link up with workers and begin building for a general strike which would paralyse the whole regime. The regime is already living on borrowed time, a determined general strike would bring an end to it. To this end there must be action committees set up to coordinate the movement and organise a general strike.

The working class in alliance with the peasants and the urban poor could rid themselves of this hated regime. However, this is what the Financial Times and the US imperialists fear – that the masses will become conscious of their power in this situation, which is why they are urging the Thai ruling class to get the situation under control through democratic reform. They want to head off revolution from below with reform from above.

The liberals of Future Forward would be most happy to play this role, without fundamentally challenging the power of the military and the monarchy. Only through revolutionary action can the masses bring down the regime and introduce a democratic constitution. There can be no trust in the liberal opposition which will serve only to hold the movement back and moderate its demands.

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