Thailand’s crisis, coup, 
and fight for democracy

As Thailand suffers from the effects of the second coup d’état in ten years, the new junta is both arrogant and stupid, but it has temporarily succeeded in stifling dissent. The self-appointment of coup leader General Prayut Chan-ocha as prime minister, confirmed by his handpicked military parliament, was an unsurprising non-event. Prayut did not even bother to attend, and the so-called vote was unanimous.

The latest coup d’état, which took place in late May this year, followed an earlier coup d’état in September 2006, three successive “judicial coups,” and the bloody and murderous suppression by the army and the Democrat Party of the Red Shirt pro-democracy movement in 2010. Since 2005, Thai politics and society have been thrown into a deep crisis, which has been characterized by a division between those who believe in democracy and those who favor dictatorship. On the side of the dictatorship stand the army, the royalist elites, the middle classes and their royalist Yellow Shirt movement, the so-called Democrat Party, and the non-government organizations (NGOs). 

On the side of democracy stand the Red Shirts—Thailand’s largest social movement in recent history—and the various political parties of rich businessman Taksin Shinawat and his sister Yingluk, which are supported by the Red Shirts. Their latest party, which won an overall majority in the 2011 elections, is called the Pua Thai Party.1 It was reconstructed from Taksin’s previous parties, which were suppressed by two consecutive judicial coups. Since the 2011 elections, the government has been headed by Yingluk Shinawat, Thailand’s first female prime minister. This was the government that was overthrown by the coup d’état in May.

General Prayut has set himself up as Thailand’s “Supremo,” placing himself in charge of all-important posts. This harks back to the dark old days of the military dictatorships in the 1960s and 1970s. As acclaimed writer Wat Wanyangkoon has said, “The junta is detritus left over from the Cold War.”

The most striking thing about this coup d’état was the speed and size of the anti-coup protests in the early days. For three days immediately following the coup, mass protests of ordinary people simultaneously erupted in many areas of Bangkok but also in Chiang Mai and other towns. This was unprecedented. 

These protests were spontaneous, but it would be a mistake to think that they were “unorganized” merely because they were not led by the official Red Shirt movement. For years pro-democracy activists have been creating their own small grassroots networks parallel to the Red Shirts, which are independent of Taksin Shinawat and the former Pua Thai Party. Such grassroots protests make it more difficult for the military to consolidate power for a long period. They are now ruling by force over an angry population.

Do not doubt for one moment that it was easy to defy the military junta and stand in front of armed soldiers, who in the past had not hesitated to shoot down unarmed protesters. The hope is that this movement will grow and will reach out to the organized working class. But this will take time. It may well be a case of “two steps forward, one step back.”

After the spectacular anti-coup protests in late May, the junta systematically arrested and detained key pro-democracy activists, forcing them to promise not to engage in politics. The military made it clear that any further activities would result in jail sentences handed down via military courts. Some of those who were detained have been indicted with lèse-majesté charges that carry long prison sentences. Others were tortured into making confessions. 

More recently, the junta has been picking on left-wing student activists. The most recent victims of lèse-majesté are students who performed in a political drama at Thammasart University in 2013. The play was part of the memorial for the student movement of 1973–76, which spearheaded the overthrow of the military junta back then. Those arrested were Butiwat Sarai-yam and Porntip Munkong.

Many activists have gone into hiding or left the country, and some are claiming political asylum abroad. There are more Thai activists in exile now than at any other time since the 1970s. The junta is banking on the idea that if they create a climate of fear, by arresting and detaining enough anti-coup protesters and pro-democracy activists, people will eventually become demoralized and subdued.

But even if the junta manages to force compliance and demoralization on the majority of citizens, it will only be papering over the cracks in society. The roots of the crisis lie in deep social inequalities and the way that the majority of citizens feel politically marginalized and that things can and should be better. When people regain their confidence to fight, a new political crisis will explode again and, if people learn lessons from previous setbacks, they will demand the removal of the entire old order.

The roots of the Thai crisis2
This long-running Thai crisis is the result of an unintentional clash between the conservative way of operating in a parliamentary democracy and a more modern one. It is equally related to attempts by ex–prime minster Taksin Shinawat and his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party to modernize Thai society so that the economy could become more competitive on a global level, especially after the 1996 Asian economic crisis. 

Thai political leaders since the early 1970s had always adopted a laissez-faire policy for economic development, with minimal government planning, low wages, few trade union rights and an abdication of responsibility by governments to improve infrastructure and living standards. This strategy worked for a while, but by the time of the 1996 Asian economic crisis it was becoming obvious that it was seriously failing. 

The consequences of the 1996 economic crisis are important to understanding the Thai political crisis today. The increased inequality in Thai society as a result of free-market economic growth is also an important factor. The top 20 percent now have a disposable income, after deducting living costs, of more than ten times that of the general population.3 Taksin’s aim was to develop the standards of living of the mass of the population via government spending. He hoped to engage with the people as “stakeholders.” In his view this would raise the capacity of Thai private capitalist conglomerates to compete in the world market.

In the first general election 1996, Taksin’s party put forward a raft of modernizing and pro-poor policies, including the first-ever universal health care plan. By contrast, the conservative Democrat Party told the unemployed to “go back to their villages and depend on their families,” while they spent state finances to prop up the banks and secure the savings of the rich. Meanwhile, Taksin declared that the TRT would benefit everyone, not just the rich. Unsurprisingly, the TRT won the elections and Taksin’s party, repackaged under various names, has since won every election held since 2001.

Taksin’s policies and his overwhelming electoral base came to challenge many elements of the old elite order although this was not Taksin’s conscious aim at all. In the past the elites had an unwritten agreement to share power and access to the national feeding trough. All this went out of the window.

Claims by the Democrat Party that the military and the conservative elites of Taksin’s party “bought votes to win elections” are a complete distortion of the truth. These claims are also linked to criticism of his populist policies by the neoliberals who say that these policies “wrecked the economy and society.” The neoliberal conservatives would like to turn the clock back to the bad old days of laissez-faire policies.

But the Democrat Party lacks a mass base capable of defeating Taksin at the ballot box. It has never won an overall majority in any election and relies on patron client politics. Likewise,  the military cannot compete in terms of democratic legitimacy and support. The middle class has started to resent the how the government was helping to raise the standard of living for workers and poor farmers. This is the real basis for the prolonged crisis in Thai society, and it explains why the conservatives, the middle class and the Democrat Party are so strongly opposed to democracy. For these people democracy and voting got the “wrong” results.

The NGOs initially welcomed Taksin’s rise to power, but because they oppose government spending to raise living standards and are suspicious of elections, they soon turned against him, especially when he started to do better at poverty reduction than the NGOs. Along with the middle classes, the NGOs started to despise the people for being too ignorant to deserve the right to vote.4

In 2005 an unholy alliance of middle-class royalists, conservative elites, and NGOs organized the Yellow Shirt movement against Taksin’s government. These royalists called for a military coup, and the military obliged in 2006. Taksin went into exile, yet his parties continued to win the 2007 and 2011 general elections, even though they were held under military supervision. But this earlier junta tried to box Taksin’s parties; they wrote a military constitution in 2007 and packed with loyal supporters the so-called independent bodies like the Senate, the judiciary and various commissions. 

The junta’s idea was that the people needed to be “saved from themselves,” and the policies of democratically elected governments needed to be reined in by elite conservative “experts.” Earlier this year these antidemocratic bodies worked hand in hand with Sutep Tueksuban’s Democrat Party mobs, which roamed the streets to bring down the Yingluk government just before the May coup d’état.

This time around the new junta aims to prevent Taksin and his allies from winning another election. Elections to local municipal and provincial councils have been abolished because the junta believes that local politics helped to build the support base for Taksin’s parties. All government ministries are now controlled by military personnel.  The junta has replaced civil servants with their cronies and loyal lapdogs. Conveniently, the so-called Counter-Corruption Commission is desperately trying to manufacture charges against former prime minister Yingluk. This would be their “legalistic” way to bar her and fellow Pua Thai Party politicians from engaging in politics. They may even try to dissolve the Pua Thai Party.

The junta has also appointed a Burmese-style National Assembly, made up mainly of soldiers with a few antidemocratic civilians. It is aiming to craft a new political system where any future elections can be fixed in favor of the military and the conservatives. This explains the warm reception that the Burmese military representative received from the Thai junta in Bangkok this July and General Prayut’s visit to Burma in October.

♦ ♦ ♦

It is pure nonsense to see the present crisis as merely a dispute between two factions of the elite and their “followers,” with no independent role for the general population. Since the early 1970s, Thai social movements have fought deadly battles with the ruling class in the streets of Bangkok and in the countryside in order to expand the democratic space. Pro-democracy demonstrators have been murdered in cold blood by the military in 1973, 1976, 1992, and 2010. The elites have ensured that not one single member of the military has ever been punished for this.

The hypothesis found in many foreign media reports that the present long-running unrest in Thailand is primarily caused by a “crisis of royal succession,” is also nonsense. It wrongly assumes that the Thai monarch has real power and that he has been constantly intervening in politics. In fact, the Thai kings have always been weak and cowardly, benefitting from military juntas and corrupt governments that constantly use him to legitimize their actions. Ever since he came to the throne after his older brother died in a gun accident, he has been a willing tool of the military and the elites. During the Cold War, he was also used by the US government as a figurehead against “communism.” He is currently very old and can hardly speak. 

The elites have agreed that his odious son will be the next monarch, despite the misgivings of many. The prince is well known for having a hand in circulating nude photos of his various women on the Internet. If his present official partner becomes queen, everyone will have seen her entire anatomy on social media. The prince is also a high-spending thug, constantly bullying minor officials. But the Thai elites have no choice, for to pass the crown to his unmarried sister or someone else would shatter the myth of a long and holy tradition of monarchy. If the prince could be excluded because he is not fit to be king, then it opens the door to the possibility of an elected or selected head of state.

More importantly, the theory about succession assumes that social and political crises are merely about elite rivalries with no involvement by millions of ordinary people. It is a top-down view of politics. Conservative academics, mainly from the West, have a tradition of painting a patronizing and racist picture of the majority of the Thai population as being childlike, with no interest in politics. In fact, the opposite is the case. Two military juntas have been overthrown by mass popular protest, and the Communist Party of Thailand fought a civil war against the government in the mid-1970s.

Guided democracy neoliberal-style
We are now seeing the antidemocratic neoliberals crawling out of the woodwork to help the junta on its road to guided democracy, neoliberal-style. They are following the same path they trod for a year after the 2006 coup when the junta’s government tried to impose neoliberal policies. Today the military’s newly installed government—made up of prominent, high-salaried university bosses—is trying to roll back Taksin’s reforms in favor of the same old neoliberal agenda.

In July 2014 the permanent secretary for health suggested that the free universal health scheme be scrapped and patients forced to pay up to half of their own health-care costs. Dr. Narong Sahametapat, the permanent secretary for health, had previously joined Sutep Tueksuban’s antidemocratic mob and called for the resignation of the elected government. Other reactionary doctors who support the military used appallingly sexist insults against former prime minister Yingluk, including threats to rape her. Now these doctors are saying that the poor need to look after themselves and that this will prevent hospitals from making a “loss.”

In my 2006 book A Coup for the Rich I warned that the first military junta back then was thinking of introducing copayments for the health service to replace the universal health-care scheme. It did not take place, but this seems to be a second bite at the cherry.

The Counter-Corruption Commission is also talking to the Election Commission about a plan to force all political parties to submit their manifestos to the Electoral Commission before an election campaign can start. This is so these unelected antidemocratic neoliberals can “weed out” any pro-poor policies that use state funds. The neoliberals hate the use of state funds for the benefit of the majority of people and call them “populist policies” in a derogatory manner. But these same people just love the military for vastly increasing its own budget!

The right-wing Thai Development Research Institute (TDRI) has proposed that the minimum wage should not be raised as it was during the previous Yingluk government, because it supposedly resulted in higher prices and workers were still poor. Yet, given that most workers are too poor to make ends meet anyway, the minimum wage ought to be doubled from 300 baht ($9.40) to 600 baht per day. Most middle-class Thais, including the academics at the TDRI, enjoy salaries much higher than most workers. What is more, the wage costs in Thailand are a very small proportion of overall production costs and are therefore not the real cause of increased prices. But even if they were, a pro-poor government could impose price controls. 

But the TDRI opposes such government intervention into the economy. For example, it has a history of opposing the rice price protection scheme, which benefitted small farmers by using state funds to guarantee a decent price for their produce. This scheme was introduced by the previous Yingluk government. The TDRI also opposes the idea of a welfare state and it now sees itself as having a special role in advising the junta.

The junta has also announced that it will increase value-added tax (VAT) next year by at least 2 percent, a measure that will hit the poor hardest. All this demonstrates that neoliberalism and dictatorship go hand in hand.

Struggle and betrayal—leadership really matters
The dictatorship’s new round of class attacks will no doubt provoke a wave of resistance and yet another political crisis. After all, it was the inequalities caused by neoliberalism that sparked discontent among the general population, provided Taksin’s party with its electoral base, and produced the Red Shirt movement. The test for the Left will be whether it can build a mass political alternative in yet another round of mass struggle.

There are thousands of activists and supporters of the pro-democracy Red Shirt movement throughout Thailand, including in the capital city Bangkok. The Red Shirt movement is not merely a rural phenomenon based in the North and East of the country as claimed by ignorant commentators. The Red Shirts waged a class struggle against the elites because most Red Shirts are ordinary working people in urban or rural areas. It is a movement of the working class and peasantry, the people who benefitted from Taksin’s policies. But this is not just a simple class struggle. In fact, class struggle in the real world is seldom simple or pure. 

The Thai crisis has important class dimensions, but they are complicated by the political weakness of the Left and the organized working class. This explains why Taksin’s parties came to dominate and lead the Red Shirts. In fact the Red Shirts were set up by three elected members of parliament who belonged to Taksin’s party. But it soon grew into a grassroots social movement with a life of its own.

Taksin Shinawat is a rich business tycoon, and his parties have always represented the more modern faction of the capitalist class. However, we should understanding the “dialectical” relationship between Taksin and the Red Shirts. Thousands of ordinary Red Shirts have been struggling for democracy, dignity and social justice for themselves, while Taksin and his political allies waged a very different campaign to regain the political influence that they had enjoyed before the 2006 coup d’état. At the same time the Red Shirts support Taksin.

This dialectical analysis explains the betrayal of the Red Shirt struggle for democracy by Yingluk, Taksin, and the Pua Thai Party today. They have totally capitulated to the military junta, refusing to lead a fight against the dictatorship. Taksin recently called for people to cooperate with the military. The pro–Pua Thai Red Shirt leadership (the UDD) have followed suit. Taksin and his allies only see the struggle as one between them and their political opponents in the military and the Democrat Party. Taksin is equally keen to use the monarchy for his own legitimacy, just like the military, the top civil servants, and the other big business leaders.

That is why socialists like those of us in the group Turn Left Thailand have always advocated that progressive Red Shirts needed to come together to build some kind of radical organization with clear links to the working class, in order to keep the aspirations of the Red Shirts alive. The failure to build such an organization explains the decline in the struggle against the military only a month after the May 2014 coup d’état.

Yingluk, Taksin, and the Pua Thai Party capitulated to the junta when faced with a hard choice: Pua Thai could either mobilize its millions of supporters and the Red Shirts to tear down the old order or make peace with its conservative elite rivals. Given that Taksin, Yingluk, and Pua Thai are basically “big business politicians,” they naturally chose the latter option. This was not to avoid “civil war,” as some claim, but to avoid triggering a revolution from below. They were happy to use the Red Shirts as voters but do not want to risk mobilizing a mass movement. 

This dynamic between a modernizing faction of the capitalist class and a mass working-class movement can be understood best through the lens of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. Karl Marx originally developed the theory during the revolutions of 1848. Thailand today is not the Europe of Marx’s time, but there are some aspects of the theory, as explained by Karl Marx, that can help us understand the Thai situation. 

Marx wrote that the rising capitalist class in Europe was too cowardly to finish off the old order by leading a revolutionary movement of workers. The capitalist class preferred a compromise with the old feudal ruling class rather than mobilizing the working class, which might challenge the capitalists themselves. Marx concluded that workers consequently needed to lead an independent permanent revolution that would sweep away the old feudal rulers and go on to challenge the capitalist class. 

Leon Trotsky developed this idea further by arguing that in underdeveloped countries workers should lead movements of workers and peasants to sweep away colonialism or feudalism and not merely stop at modern capitalism, but move on toward socialism. This happened in Russia in 1917, until Stalin drowned the revolution in blood.

Of course Thailand today is a thoroughly capitalist country. Thailand’s bourgeois revolution was made from above by the king in the 1870s in response to the encroachment of Western colonial powers. A similar event occurred in Japan, when a section of the feudal ruling class staged the Meiji Restoration, taking state power in their own hands and using it to develop capitalism.

What permanent revolution means for Thailand today is that we should not raise false hopes that Yingluk, Pua Thai, or Taksin will carry out the necessary mobilizations to get rid of the old order. All factions of the elites want to preserve this old order, including Taksin (who merely wanted to modernize it). Building a minimum level of democracy and equality in Thailand requires revolutionary change. That task must be led by a movement from below whose aims should be to go further than just establishing an elite-dominated corrupt capitalist democracy as seen in the West or in neighboring countries like Indonesia and the Philippines.

The position of UDD Red Shirt leaders with regard to Taksin and the Pua Thai Party does not make it possible for the official Red Shirt movement to rebuild democracy and expand democratic space. In practice, given the weak state of independent Red Shirts and socialists, the best we can hope for in the short term is to build a movement from below that continues to push against the boundaries of authoritarianism and continually criticize any nasty compromises that Pua Thai will want to make with the conservatives and the military. 

In the long term, this movement will have to rise up and pull down the structures dominated by the military, big business, and conservative officials. All this proves the importance of organizing a political party of the working class and peasantry, independent of ruling-class parties and not relying merely on loose collections of progressive activists within a social movement such as the Red Shirts. Any such party would need to fight for political leadership of the Red Shirts. 

Before 2006, the antiparty and antipolitics ideology of autonomists within the Thai NGOs and various NGO-dominated social movements, like the Assembly of the Poor, meant that most activists in what was then called “the people’s movement” rejected organizing and building political parties. They instead concentrated on activism, which dealt with fragmented single issues, divorced from any big-picture analysis or revolutionary project. This was a recipe for powerlessness and political ignorance, resulting in antiparty autonomist ideas also existing among progressive Red Shirts. The best sections of the pro-democracy trade-union movement are similarly antiparty syndicalists.

Many people have quite rightly criticized the role of some trade unions in supporting the royalist antidemocratic mobs. But it would be a huge mistake to see the entire trade-union movement as being in support of this elite movement.  The royalist or Yellow Shirt influence is confined to sections of the state enterprise workers. These unions are influenced by retired railway union boss Somsak Kosaisuk, who joined the Yellow Shirts and then joined the Democrat Party’s antidemocratic mobs in late 2013. Many state enterprise union leaders developed personal connections with Somsak Kosaisuk and his allies via NGO-type organizations funded by outside bodies such as the Solidarity Center, which is wrongly backed by the American trade union federation, the AFL-CIO.

Many active trade unionists in the wider movement who wished to fight for democracy and social justice since the collapse of the Communist Party have turned to militant syndicalism. They are organized in networks of unofficial rank-and-file activists. Militant syndicalism in the present day Thai context means engaging in the class struggle, supporting and organizing strikes and being against cooperation with the state or the elites. These militants, who are mainly in private sector workplaces, oppose the military. 

But syndicalists are also very anxious to protect their own independence and are wary of all political parties and refuse to form political organizations of their own. This means that they have refrained from cooperating too closely with pro-democracy social movements like the Red Shirts. This is a mistaken position. Without a party of its own, the working class has been unable yet to contend for the leadership of the movement for democracy and equality. As a result, the old faction of the capitalist class and the military have been able to stage a coup, impose neoliberal attacks, and carry through massive attacks on workers and peasants.

What can activists in the United States do to help the struggle for democracy in Thailand? First, you can counter any lies put out by the junta and its allies in the media. Second, you can help campaign for the release of political prisoners, especially those in jail under the lèse-majesté law. The website Political Prisoners in Thailand has details.5 Third, any students or academics who are involved with Thai Studies can denounce and boycott the universities in Thailand run by pro-junta academics. Thammasart and Chulalongkorn Universities are prime examples. Recently, Harvard University set up a Thai Studies program with a number of Thai antidemocracy academics. This has been exposed in the Harvard Crimson.6

The key to overthrowing the dictatorship lies within Thailand, despite the importance of international solidarity. Any fight for democracy must come from a reinvigorated Red Shirt movement. There is no other movement that is remotely interested in doing this and no other group that has the potential to do so. What is needed is new leadership that is independent of Taksin and Pua Thai and more closely allied to the organized working class. Until this happens the Red Shirts will not be able to rebuild democracy and expand the democratic space.


  1. Taksin’s first party was called the Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party. After being suppressed by the courts it changed its name to the Palang Prachachon Party and eventually was forced to become the Pua Thai Party.
  2. For more details see Giles Ji Ungpakorn, Thailand’s Crisis and the Struggle for Democracy (London: WD Press, 2010), https://www.scribd.com/doc/47097266/Thailand-s-Crisis-and-the-fight-for-Democracy
  3. See Giles Ji Ungpakorn, “The Roots of the Thai Crisis,” July 24, 2014, https://uglytruththailand.wordpress.com/....
  4. See Giles Ji Ungpakorn, “Why Have Most Thai NGOs Chosen to Side with the Conservative Royalists against Democracy and the Poor?” Interface1, no. 2 (November 2009), http://www.scribd.com/doc/221530131/Why-have-most-Thai-NGOs-chosen-to-side-with-the-conservative-royalists-against-democracy-and-the-poor
  5. “Missing the Point,” Political Prisoners in Thailand, October 20, 2014, https://thaipoliticalprisoners.wordpress.com/.
  6. Ilya Garger, “The Trouble with Thai Studies,” Harvard Crimson, August 18, 2014, http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2014/8/18/harvard-thai-troubles/.

 

Issue #78

July 2011

Slavery and the origins of the Civil War

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