“The people have woken up”: Thai protests put regime on the backfoot

A huge protest movement is shaking Thai society to its foundations, forcing the regime onto the backfoot. The youth at the forefront of this movement must reach out to the working class, and fight for an end to the military junta, the monarchy and the rotten capitalist system both represent.

For the past five months, Thailand has been rocked by mass protests. The Thai government is facing a number of interlinked crises at the same time. The economy is in a very poor state. As The Economist pointed out in April, even before the impact of coronavirus, growth in 2019 was the slowest that it had been for five years. We pointed out recently that Thailand has been struck by the ‘middle income’ trap, where it is no longer able to attract as much investment due to rising wages but also not productive enough to compete with its neighbours, like China and South Korea. This has led to companies such as Mazda and GM moving production out of the country. Coronavirus has only exacerbated problems. The country relies heavily on tourism, which makes up 20 percent of its GDP. The Central Bank now predicts that the economy will contract by 8 percent in 2020 and millions are already becoming unemployed.

On top of this, poverty has been increasing. About one tenth of the population lives on $2.85 per day, while household debt stands at about 80 percent of GDP: one of the highest ratios in Asia. Around 40 percent of the Thai population are struggling to make ends meet. Therefore, many Thais, and especially young people, see no hope for the future.

October

On 14 October, tens of thousands of protesters marched to Government House. They broke through police lines and surrounded Thailand’s seat of government, demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha.

That same day, Queen Suditha, the King’s wife, was driven close to demonstrators in a luxurious limousine. She did not receive the welcome royals normally expect in the country. Protesters defiantly raised the three-fingered salute, an act inspired by The Hunger Games series, that has become a symbol of rebellion in the country. There were chants of “my tax money” and some even raised their middle fingers. The Queen, shocked to be in the presence of so many uncouth commoners, could be seen peering out of the car, open-mouthed and teary-eyed.

This shocked reaction is understandable in Thailand, where, up until recently, open criticism of the monarchy was completely unheard of. The bourgeois press call it a ‘taboo’. But this ‘taboo’ comes from the fact that any criticism of the monarchy is brutally repressed by the government. Thailand has strong lèse-majesté laws, defiance of which can result in up to 15 years imprisonment. Nine Thai exiles who criticised the monarchy or military have disappeared since the 2014 coup and, as we have written before, in 2018, the bodies of two activists were found in the Mekong river. They were handcuffed, disembowelled and stuffed with concrete.

The government acted swiftly to defend the Queen. In response to this “action that had an impact on the royal motorcade”, the next morning, Prayuth declared a state of emergency. Meetings of five or more people were outlawed and reporting on topics that could “harm national security” or “cause panic” was prohibited. Three people were also charged with ‘Violence to the Queen’s Liberty’.

For many Thais, however, the old fear that used to hold them back has disappeared. Titipol Phakdeewanich, a university professor, explained that the protesters “are not afraid… They are determined to challenge the power of the state right now.” So, ignoring the new rules, the next day 2,000 protesters gathered in Bangkok, chanting “free our friends” and blocking roads.

Rather than deter the protests, the new laws changed the method of organising. Inspired by the movement in Hong Kong, the protesters switched from the rallies that had been planned in advance to arranging the locations with only 30-60 minutes notice in order to avoid the police blockades. The protest leaders also created their own coded language to bamboozle the police, using the word ‘broccoli’ to describe soldiers or ‘cappuccino’ to describe police.

In response to the demonstrations, the authorities attempted to crack down. The police began firing water cannons filled with a chemical irritant and blue dye at the demonstrators so they could be identified later. The protesters, some of them teenage school children in their school uniforms, began wearing hard hats and using umbrellas to shield themselves. We had a situation where, 12 hours after Prayuth had announced the state of emergency, protesters were pushing police out of the Ratchaprasong intersection, which lies right in the centre of Bangkok. Police attempted to clear the area, reading out the emergency decree to the crowd. They were met with jeers and a forest of three-fingered salutes.

Rather than intimidating protesters, the crackdown only brought more out. The “whip of counter-revolution”, as Marx expressed it, encouraged even-bigger demonstrations the following weekend. The movement was also radicalising, with demonstrators chanting: “who owns the country? The people!”

The government retreats

At this stage, the government was clearly worried. They attempted to mobilise ‘Yellow Shirts’: the pro-monarchy movement involved in the coup that deposed the Thaksin Shinawatra government in 2006. However, it seems that a large number of the Yellow Shirts the government had mobilised were actually state employees and soldiers. Lacking the support to defend themselves, they had to pay people to do so. There are reports that these employees were treated poorly, transported in rubbish trucks that had been emptied out. Some of them even openly voiced their displeasure towards the regime and could be seen raising the three-fingered salute.

The ruling class clearly lacks a large social base to support itself. Many of the protest leaders today actually come from Yellow Shirt families. The disgust towards the decaying regime can be seen even in the slang used by young Thais. Older Yellow Shirts are referred to as ‘Salims’, an insult that relates to a sweet dessert made from noodles, which resembles brains. The idea is that these older supporters of the monarchy have their brains dribbling out of their ears. We have also seen the so-called ‘Bad Student’ movement, where school children – some as young as 10 – ironically call themselves bad students because they refuse to be submissive in the face of abuses in the classroom by teachers. This year also, it became so common for school children to raise the three-fingered salute during the national anthem that the government had to temporarily halt the playing of it before the start of school. As is the case in many movements around the world at the moment, we see a new revolutionary generation, unfazed by repression and not willing to wait around for change.

These worrying signs forced Prayuth to behave in quite a conciliatory manner. In the face of a mass movement, the previously untouchable military dictatorship appeared powerless. Prayuth begged the protesters to use their “freedom of political expression within the legal framework” and that, since “the protesters [had] made their voices and views heard… it [was] now time for them to let their views be reconciled with the views of other segments of Thai society through their representatives in government.”

He admitted that the hardline response to the movement was not working. We can see a phenomenon that is often seen in a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situation. On the one hand, there is a fear that brutal crackdowns will only radicalise the movement. On the other hand, there is the fear that concessions will encourage it. In a sense, both are right. And, while Prayuth was making his speech, hundreds of protesters again broke through police lines to surround Government House.

In the end, the strength of the mass movement forced Prayuth to withdraw the emergency decree, admitting that Thailand could not become “a better society through the use of water cannon”.

The trouble that Prayuth faces is that these calls for the Thai people to abide by democracy stink of hypocrisy. After all, Prayuth himself led the coup in 2014. Moreover, the last election took place while Prayuth was head of the military junta, which wrote the election rules themselves. The second-largest opposition party was dissolved during the election and, despite this, anti-junta parties won almost double the popular vote, yet the junta remains in power. In addition to this, the military appoints all 250 members of the Senate, the upper house in the Thai parliament, which can veto government policy and remove elected governments.

Talk of a coup?

15 October protest Image Milktea2020Given the apparent stalemate between the protesters and the government, it is not surprising that there has been talk of a coup, of which there is a long history in Thailand / Image: Milktea2020

Given the apparent stalemate between the protesters and the government, it is not surprising that there has been talk of a coup. Thai newspapers and royalist forces have said that it would be a “shame” if there was a repeat of the Thammasat University massacre in 1976. Sondhi Limthongkul, who The New York Times describes as a “prominent royalist”, has said that a coup is “not a bad thing”, and at the end of October called for military intervention to restore stability and protect the monarchy. General Narongpan Jittkaewtae, meanwhile, said that “the chance of making a coup is zero as long as there are no groups that create a situation or a violent conflict.”

Thailand has a history of coups and these are usually justified with the aim of protecting the monarchy. The Lowy Institute, a bourgeois thinktank, says the Thai military’s role is “guarding against instability”, stepping in when “key national interests are threatened, such as during times of sustained internal strife or when the monarchy is imperilled.” By national interests, they mean the interests of the wing of the ruling class that is in power at present. Given the lack of a social base in society, moving in the direction of a coup would be very risky for the military. This year, every move towards repression has only radicalised the movement. Moving towards a coup too early thus risks antagonising the protesters and could provoke civil war, one they would not be sure of winning.

The King

As we have pointed out, the question of the monarchy is a vital one. It is certainly obscene that, while a huge proportion of Thai people are struggling to get by, the King lives in unbelievable opulence. He is one of the wealthiest monarchs in the world with a portfolio estimated at $40bn. Not only this, but for the 2021 fiscal year, the government budget allocates 37bn baht (over $1.1bn) to the monarchy. The Royal Office receives 9bn baht of that directly. while many Thais skip meals, the King receives even-greater wealth.

However, the reason socialists and Marxists must be against the institution of the monarchy is not just to do with this unfairness. It is primarily because it can play the role of justifying coups and violence against the working class. In order to maintain this reserve weapon, monarchies around the world are dressed up in all sorts of pomp and ceremony. Thailand is no different. The prime minister and other government officials are required to prostrate themselves on the ground before the King. The Royal Family use their own arcane royal form of the Thai language and the state has for years promoted stories painting the monarchy as demi-gods or “Buddhas-to-be”. All of this is intended to paint the monarchy as being a benevolent and kindly institution that stands above the petty interests of Thai society and represents the people as a whole. So long as this is intact, it provides a base for the military to justify coups against leaders that threaten their position.

King crop top Image Political Prisoners in ThailandThe current King is an embarassment, but he is the military's only option as a figurehead / Image: Political Prisoners in Thailand

While the King may appear to hold all the power, it is actually the military and, ultimately, a section of the capitalist class that rules Thailand. The institution of the monarchy has been useful for ensuring some degree of legitimacy for the system. However, this is becoming more and more untenable. While the previous King had a certain amount of support, King Maha Vajiralongkorn presents a bit of a problem. If what the ruling class needs is a dignified and noble individual, capable of uniting all Thais, this King is the opposite of that. Living in a harem in Germany, the King can often be spotted out in public wearing a crop top and temporary tattoos. Seemingly uninterested in anything apart from himself, The Economist from 14 October reported that one insider said: “Bike, f*ck, eat. He only does those three things.” When he does intervene in politics, things aren’t much better, with one notable act being the promotion of his dog Foo Foo to the rank of Air Chief Marshal.

Because of a lack of a social base in Thai society, the military and monarchy have formed what Foreign Policy calls a “mutual survival pact.” For this very reason, as the Lowy Institute points out, despite concerns over the character of the new King, the military were forced to swing behind him as they had no alternative. They argue that: “The king is not… in many respects the master of his own fate” because, from the perspective of the military and, we would add, the section of the ruling class benefiting from the status quo, “the security of the royal family is indivisible from national security”. This explains why criticism of the monarchy is so dangerous in Thailand. Criticism of the monarchy means criticism of the status quo, the entire system. It is for this reason that it is considered untouchable on the part of the current ruling elite.

The constitution

Thai ducks

On Tuesday 17 November, Arnon Nampa, one of the leaders of the movement, called on supporters to gather outside parliament to demand the acceptance of an amendment to the constitution. He urged protesters to come wearing hats and sunglasses, and to bring along any boats that they may own, because the government building is right next to a river. Protesters were given enormous rubber ducks to approach by ‘boat’.

The protesters were met with some of the worst violence seen since the start of the movement. Yellow Shirt royalists were allowed to confront protesters and three were shot, though it is unclear whether this was done by police or Yellow Shirts. In the end, 55 were taken to hospital.

MPs were debating seven different points to amend in the constitution, including some by pro-government MPs. The iLaw ‘people’s draft’, which was backed by 100,000 signatures, despite the organisers expecting only 50,000, would have allowed the restriction of the King’s powers. It would also have replaced the 250 senators with elected officials. Two amendments, proposed by the opposition and pro-government parties, were voted through but the iLaw amendment fell.

In a parliament dominated by the military junta, a reform such as this could never have been allowed. As Royalist leader Warong Dechgitvigrom said: “Amending the constitution is going to lead to the abolition of the monarchy.” Clearly, the junta have said “this far and no further.”

What now?

The blocking of the amendments to the Constitution only provoked anger on the streets once again. Arnon Nampa, standing on a truck, said: “One day, if there’s no reform, we will revolt.” In a later interview he also pointed out that: “If the house is too ruined, we shouldn’t fix it… We absolutely have no hope of reforming the monarchy through the Parliament.” We would argue that this is certainly the only way forward. The Thai regime has proven time and again that it is impossible to reform, the only way forward is a root and branch transformation, a revolution.

The question that remains is how this can be done. The movement has shown incredible bravery and resilience. It has lasted for five months despite brutal repression and the arrest of many leaders. There is, however, a limit to everything. There are only so many times that people will answer the calls of the leaders to mobilise if no real gains seem to be won. The trouble is that, while the demonstrations have been huge, they lack the active participation of the working class. The workers are the only progressive class in society because they hold all of society’s power in their hands, though in the main they are unaware of it. If mobilised around a revolutionary programme, they could bring Thailand to a halt.

There has been some participation by workers. In Chonburi, for example, there were reports of thousands of factory workers joining the movement. As we reported previously, the protesters also called for a general strike on 14 October. Unfortunately, this was not prepared for and so it did not happen.

If these steps to involve the working class are not taken, there is every possibility that the movement could be defeated. Foreign Policy lay out the perspective. They say that the authorities, if they sense the students are unable to expand their movement, may just dig in and stall for time, hoping the protests eventually fizzle out. If, through exhaustion, the movement does fizzle out, we can expect a brutal crackdown. In recent days, Prayuth has already threatened to use “all laws, all articles” against the protesters.

The protests on 18 November were called with the slogan “If we burn, you burn with us.” There is, however, no need for the movement to burn. The masses in Thailand are calling out for a radical change. If the protesters carried out a political campaign to bring the working class onto the scene, they could easily sweep away this reactionary regime along with the monarchy.

No going back to normal

Student protester hit by a tear gas Image Milktea2020Thailand is one of the many countries where a new revolutionary generation is emerging, ready to challenge the old order / Image: Milktea2020

In a certain sense, whatever happens to this movement, there can be no going back to normal. There has been a profound shift in consciousness, with a large layer of Thai people, especially young people, learning lessons. Perakarn Tangsamritkul, 23, said: “I wasn’t always politically active… You should have met me three months ago. Now I understand why we have to be here. We have to speak out.” The Guardian interviewed Thanisorn, a 22-year-old protester, who said: “We don’t have weapons, we don’t have the army… I felt I have to come out to tell them I’m not afraid of them. We are stronger than them. The people have already woken up. It’s not the propaganda age anymore.” There is a new generation that has confronted the might of the Thai state and has learned the power that they possess. This cannot be undone.

Thailand is one of the many countries where such a revolutionary generation is emerging, ready to challenge the old order. Indeed, activists around the world, including in Nigeria and Belarus, have been sending well wishes to the movement. What is lacking is not the determination to fight, but it is the leadership that is prepared to go the whole way, and launch a revolutionary struggle to overthrow the decrepit capitalist system, along with the rotten institutions that rest on it.