(Part 1): Why we can’t go back
The monthslong democracy protests continue to put pressure on the Junta Party and the rest of the ruling class. The recent protest at Democracy Monument has been one of the largest, if not the largest, demonstrations of public dissent in the last half-decade or so since the NCPO took power. However, as to be expected, most of the coverage of the events, as well as the events themselves, fall within a safe liberal democratic interpretation of politics. The overarching contention I have with the movement comes from the nature and the ethos of the initial demands set forth by a group that was once called the ‘Free Youth’ group and is now the ‘Free People’ as it has grown in popularity, with the added support from social groups as well as the student and youth activists.
It would probably be prudent of me to preempt my analyses with the reaffirmation of my support for the democratic protests and the movement as a whole, as I might be seen as unfairly criticising the movement for no reason. It is at this point that I must make the argument for self-criticism: If we aim to stamp out autocracy and anti-democratic elements in Thai society, then it is important the movement itself is as democratic as possible and does not harbour reactionary elements either inadvertently or by design.
Taking cues from the neoliberal element of the Hong Kong protests is one example of incorporating reactionary elements into a movement. The fact that so many Hong Kong pro-democracy activists were willing to ask the imperialist USA and their former colonial overlords for aid against the PRC is farcical and absurd. Western Democracies are also ironically some of the most ‘undemocratic’ states, given their historic and contemporary meddling in Asian affairs as well as their continued support for authoritarian regimes, not based on ideology, but based on what will benefit their economic interests— the Global South is their playground.
The Demands and Their Shortcomings
The initial three demands symbolised by the three-fingered salute from the Hunger Games are as follows:
- The dissolution of parliament
- The cessation of judicial harassment of dissenters
- The rewriting of the constitution since the 2017 constitution was written by the Junta
The vast majority of the pro-democracy activists cite the same combination of issues as the impetus for their political revolution. They focus on issues such as the lack of free speech, the poor education system, and the tanking economy. Assuming that the goals of the pro-democracy protests (aside from obviously establishing Thailand as a Democracy) are the reformation of the education system, increasing civil liberties, and improving the economy, the three demands seem to me to be quite naive and shortsighted. That is not to say that the demands are not important, but they should be considered the bare minimum in the first step towards Democracy.
Dissolving the parliament only goes so far as to strip the current politicians of power, but we have no control over who might be chosen next and how their sympathies may undermine the desire for a general progression towards Democracy.
Asking the rabid dogs of the Thai Justice system to hold off on attacking one group of people is to dance with the devil, as that does not encapsulate the fact that the justice system is heavily aligned with the old ruling elite and already oppresses us in a multitude of ways.
How can we be certain that rewriting the constitution, yet again, will be any different to the 20 times (including the 2017 constitution) it was edited and rewritten and co-opted by the elites and ignored? This is seemingly an exercise in futility. Furthermore, Constitutions are often tools of disempowerment rather than empowerment, what one is permitted to do is written in an official document and leaves no room for the nuances of reality or shifting relativism.
Although the saying goes “a bad workman always blames his tools”, the figurative tools of Thailand’s 88-year-old Democracy are rusty and ill-fitting for the goal of democratisation. We, the people, the manifestation of popular will, cannot and will not achieve Democracy in a society where the legislative and judicial system is not democratised as well.
Tackling the issues of Education, Civil Liberties, and the Economy requires democratisation in both the Political and Economic planes of Thai Society. To illustrate one interpretation of this struggle, I propose 3 core assumptions:
- The Political is organised around the Economic
- The Economic is organised around Class Interests
- Class Interests drive behaviour
The Economy and Democracy
A study by the Puey Ungphakorn Institute for Economic Research found that only 500 or so people hold over a third of Thailand’s corporate equity. Of these 500 people, each person ends up receiving over 3 Billion baht (more than 100 Million USD) a year in company profits alone. This is in stark contrast to the average annual household income of 10,000 USD. The 2018 Credit Suisse report found that Thailand was the most unequal country in ASEAN with a grotesque 90.2 Gini Coefficient, as a result of that, Thailand was ranked as the 4th most unequal Nation worldwide surveyed by Credit Suisse in 2018.
To add to these quantitative illustrations of Thailand’s wealth inequality, I ask residents of Bangkok, or any major Thai city, to look out the window of your home or your car or the train. Perhaps you live in a part of the city where things are generally all the same, such as the sprawl of suburban moo-baans, but where I live, I can see an embassy, a government ministry, malls, patches of unused land, khlongs and the people living alongside them, the remnants of an old labour camp, as well as recently constructed luxury condos which will never see maximum occupancy. The vast patchwork of the city, though not representative of the rest of Thailand, demonstrates the need for Economic Democratisation.
The interests of the ruling class — made up of powerful elites including the 500 people mentioned before — are centred around the continuation of amassing wealth and power so that they may maintain their lifestyle. This can only be done by exploiting and controlling the underclass — the working class, and parts of the lower middle class. Therefore, there is a conflict of interest, as the underclass — in a moderate scenario — simply wishes to survive and provide for their family and loved ones. In a more ambitious scenario, the underclass may strive to be as successful as their ruling class overlords, however, in either scenario they face difficulty because of a variety of economic barriers that prevent them from reaching their goals.
Not only are wages low and stagnant, but conditions may not be up to standard. Over four decades ago, an important union leader, Terdphum Chaidi said in a 1976 broadcast on the VoPT (Voice of the People of Thailand) radio:
“which among the some 70,000 enterprises and factories in Thailand — especially those owned by big monopoly capitalists, both local and foreign — conform to the labour law? None, none at all. All of them are above the labour law. No official has dared arrest any big capitalist for violation of the labour law.”
That’s it right there, the system no matter how ‘democratic’ in a Liberal sense it can get, will work for neither the people, the workers, nor for you or I. Although this speech was over 40 years ago, both the International Labour Organisation and the Solidarity Center are still finding glaring issues within Thailand’s labour law and its enforcement. It is this point of enforcement that suggests the Justice system requires intense restructuring and democratisation so that it is not swayed by ruling class interests, but is rather in the hands of the people.
However, before we begin considering political changes, economic changes must occur. Workers should be given more of a stake in their company, as it is they who keep it running. An economy is not kept alive by they who host the board meetings, but rather the employees whose lives are tied to the outcomes of the board meetings. Therefore, if workers can control their lives and control their own labour, Thailand will move towards democracy. However, if the Thai worker is beholden to the will of the ruling class, then no matter how Liberal and Democratic our government might be, we will still be oppressed by the dictatorship of the rich.
Essentially, Political Liberty is not Economic Liberty, but as the Political is organised around the Economic, then Economic Liberty is Political Liberty. Allowing someone to speak out against corruption does not mean corruption will end, seizing control of the means to carry out corruption, will. Discourse, though important, is not always translated directly to action.
We cannot touch the intangible concepts of Freedom or Liberty, however, we can alter the material conditions of our society and that includes reorganising the economy to be more allocatively efficient and democratic. Corporations do not know what we want, and even if they did, they only bend to ‘consumer demand’ because it suits their material interests. If we wish to produce what we want and have control of our lives, in a truly democracy sense, we must take control of our economy.
Education can then become decided by the community based on what the local needs are, civil liberties can exist so that we can express ourselves now that we are economically independent and not beholden to the Dictatorship of the rich, and the economy will work for us, not for the rich.
I implore that the pro-democracy activists understand that they are representing just one vein of thought in the modern Thai discourse, however, there are people in Isaan, the south, the north, and scattered throughout the industrial hubs of Central Thailand that were historically part of their own generation’s protests and movements that should be drawn from. Their demands were never met but their motivations have not withered away, and they must be incorporated into any subsequent movement. The pro-democracy movement must become a Liberation movement, one that will free us not just from Autocracy, but from Capitalism and hierarchical social structures too.
Furthermore, although COVID-19 has impeded the general movement, the impending doom of Climate Change has not disappeared. Economic Democratisation and worker control will allow Thailand to make leaps and bounds in a more environmentally friendly direction. An economy that is ripped away from the grasp of gas-guzzling corporations can be better organised to not only suit the needs of the Thai people but also prevent massive increases in carbon emissions and plastic output— given the fact Thailand contributes greatly to such issues.
In all, Thailand has the potential to be the first of the Southeast Asian nations to break from the “Khaki Capital” — the militaristic and authoritarian rule of the vast majority of SEA — and utilise the nation as an experiment in rapid democratisation. However, to do so, we require a unified front that draws on the anger of all marginalised and oppressed social and economic groups that constitute Thailand, we cannot rest our hopes solely on the backs of the youth whose reference to protest and revolution are typically the bourgeois revolts of the 21st century. But just to be clear, I wholeheartedly support them in their efforts to remove an unjust and undemocratic regime, I just hope they can draw more inspiration from their 1973 and 1976 counterparts, and not those who fight over 1700 Kilometres away.
(Part 2, How we go forward)
I must admit that I have my reservations about the Thai democracy protests. While attending last month’s protest at Kasetsart University, I was not exactly instilled with the greatest sense of hope for the movement’s theory and praxis. However, the sighting of labour organisers giving speeches at the Thammasat protest and the words of a youth protestor on a live broadcast from the 16th’s Democracy Monument protest have given me new hope. The latter said that if the working class joined with the students and the rest of the protestors, the government would have no option but to capitulate, I couldn’t agree more.
Constitutional Monarchism and Contradiction
However, many youth protestors and others in the movement have referenced the British Constitutional Monarchy and the Japanese Constitutional Monarchy as potential role models for Thailand’s future. The reality is that Thailand is closer to the Japanese model than we think. In 1932, the drafting of the first permanent constitution that was passed in December of that year was essentially an exercise in copying and pasting the 1889 Meiji constitution but with “Japan” scratched out and replaced with “Siam”. Each iteration of the constitution has retained the same borrowed elements about Royalty and therefore any new constitution would need special attention when it comes to how it chooses to treat the institution of the Monarchy.
Furthermore, simply because Queen Elizabeth II has the power to dissolve parliament, yet chooses not to, is less of a testament to her being a better Constitutional Monarch, and rather the result of centuries of Constitutional Monarchism and public pressure ossifying the British Monarch as a figurehead rather than a supreme head of state. The open criticism and fun that is often poked at the British Monarch generate a culture where Elizabeth knows her place, rather than her reminding her subjects of theirs.
Fundamentally, Constitutional Monarchism cannot function in the way we hope because of the imbalance between the power of the Monarchy and the power of the pro-democratic forces. The issue with the term ‘Constitutional Monarchy is based on the following premises:
- The term ‘Monarchy’ refers to the rule of one; it comes from the greek ‘mono’ meaning ‘one’.
- Though not all governments with constitutions are democracies, Aristotle considers both a democratic government and Constitutional government to be ‘governments of many’.
- Pluralistic governments and ‘governments of many’ are inherently democratic as they imply many people in society hold power— thus antithetical to the rule of one.
Then applying the Dialectic we see that ‘Constitutional Monarchies’ are contradictory and therefore cannot be democratic.
- Thesis: The status quo is the Monarchy, it is the rule of one over many.
- Antithesis: The opposite of the rule of one is the rule of many. Therefore, democracies, constitutions, and ‘governments of many’ are antithetical to Monarchism.
- Synthesis: Constitutional Monarchies are then made up of Democratic and Anti-Democratic elements, however, according to the Dialectical Law of the Quantitative into the Qualitative, the fact that the Monarchy is more powerful than the democratic forces means that any resulting synthesis of the two would have the initial Thesis— the Monarchy— be more dominant than the Antithesis— Democratic forces. This is similar to how pouring a cup of hot water into a bucket of cold water barely changes the bucket’s overall temperature.
Therefore, any attempt to reconcile any notion of ‘democracy’ with the institution of the ‘Monarchy’ will fail. So far, the pro-democracy activists have been met with pro-monarchy backlash, even though direct opposition to the institution has not been explicit to the point of calling for its dismantlement. However, the institution has been an important part of the Thai political discourse for as long as Thailand has had a ‘constitutional monarchy’ and one specific detractor of the Monarchy is worth revisiting.
The Legacy of the “Red Siam” Manifesto
Giles Ji Ungpakorn, Marxist and lese-majeste induced exile, has written a bevvy of articles and texts on Thailand and its societal woes. His relevance to the ongoing protests is in the demands and desires of the protestors. Recently, the protestors have added a set of reforms on the Monarchy to their demands. The essence of the 10 point reformation of the Institution of the Monarchy is as follows:
- Constitutional reforms— revoking Article 6 of the 2017 constitution and Article 112 of the Criminal Code, both limits on freedom of speech with regard to the Monarchy
- Economic reforms— revoking the 2018 Crown Property Act and adjusting the national budget so that less is spent on the Monarchy and Crown property is seized.
- Structural reforms— the abolition of Royal Officers, Royal Security details and the Privy council, and steps towards auditing of the Monarchy’s assets.
- Societal Reforms— these are attempts to alter how society interacts with the institute of the Monarchy such as: prohibiting the propagation of the Monarchy’s political opinions (including support for future coups) and education reform to change the way the Monarchy is taught in school.
These are all spiritual successors to Ungpakorn’s 4th clause in his Red Siam Manifesto and the rest of the current pro-democracy movement informally encompasses elements of clause 1, 2, 5, and 6— concerning democracy, increased civil liberties, decreasing support for the military, and reformation of the justice system. Ungpakorn wrote the “Red Siam” Manifesto in 2009 in response to the economic and political upheaval at the end of Thaksin’s rule, with special focus on the People’s Alliance for Democracy— who ironically was quite undemocratic. The platform he lays out has been collectively accepted by the current pro-democracy movement, though not through direct expressed by them, the very fact that his ideas remain relevant and part of the conversation today means that Thailand has made little to no progress in the last decade.
The learning point here is that although the manifesto is but 9 clauses long, it is detailed enough to tackle a variety of the issues that plague Thai society today. It is what the pro-democracy movement should be, something that tackles the ills of Thailand on a broad and structural basis, not something that calls for a specific action that has been known to be part of a cycle that continues to fail us.
This is what the movement needs, detailed analyses and deliberate platforms that encourage action in addition to the well-crafted optics and public spectacles that these protests are. Credit where credit is due, the protesters are good at utilising social media and co-opting pop culture in a means to create a wide-reaching network of activists. But what is being shared barely scratches the surface of any potential Marxist critique of Thai society.
The Relevance of Radical Thought
Marxism itself is still a valid lens for societal analysis, despite what some of the activists might say. During the Kasetsart protest, I overheard a conversation behind me concerning university students in favour of Communism. One individual — an older woman — was saying how “communism is outdated and it won’t work in the modern world”, however, this is likely based on a misunderstanding of Communism and the models employed around the world.
I wish to reiterate my previous point for the need for Economic Democratisation and Worker Empowerment to attain Democracy and outline why Communism is not outdated. According to Marxism, Communism is the next stage of society after today’s bourgeois capitalism. Again, I am assuming the following:
- The political is organised around the Economic
- The Economic is organised around Class Interests
- Class Interests drive behaviour
The Military, the Police, and other State forces all fall under the control of the Monarchy, and the Military has infiltrated the political arena, alongside the rich. This results in a quadripartite (The Military, The Monarchy, the Political Class, and the Rich) hold on Thai society, where the rich and powerful dominate the rest of the population. To empower the underclass and the oppressed— politically— they must achieve a level of material— economic— success to compete with the vast resources held by the quadrumvirate. The quadrumvirate divides the control over the nation amongst itself in new ways to convince the rest of us that change is occurring.
Since 2008, the Thai PMs have been the following:
- Thaksin Shinawatra— a wealthy businessman with his own company
- Sonthi Bunyaratkalin— former Commander in Cheif of the Army and multimillionaire
- Surayud Chulanot— former Supreme Commander of the Army and Rama X’s Privy Counsellor
- Samak Sundaravej— who was married to a CP financial advisor and was involved in the violence at Thammasat in 1976
- Somchai Wongsawat— Thaksin’s brother-in-law
- Chavarat Charnvirakul— put in place by the Constitutional Court of Thailand (a body that has no elected representatives, yet is responsible for gauging the constitutionality of governmental and royal acts and degrees).
- Abhisit Vejjajiva— a foreign-born, foreign-educated career politician that Human Rights Watch accused of massive censorship who was also Boris Johnson’s classmate and whose first cousin was aligned with the Yingluck cabinet.
- Yingluck Shinawatra— Thaksin’s sister.
- Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan— Vice-Chairman of Thaksin’s Shin Corporation since 2000.
- Prayut Chan-o-cha— former Commander in Cheif of the Army.
This demonstrates that despite changes in leadership, those that are put in power are either members of the quadrumvirate themselves or are placed there by the quadrumvirate. Hence, a Marxist interpretation would argue that the only way to prevent this practice continuing is to replace the dictatorship of the rich and powerful with the leadership of the commoners, the working class, and the marginalised populations of Thai society. If liberal democracy is seen as a preferred alternative to the Marxist road to economic democratisation, worker liberation, and socialism, then there is no way to secure the gains of the pro-democracy movement as the quadrumvirate will persist. Therefore, Communism is not outdated, as for us— the underclass— to secure our interests (namely democracy) we must secure the economic apparatuses and processes of Thailand so that we may achieve our political goal.
Modern Problems Require Older Solutions
Fundamentally, the protests aim to motivate the government to act. This is evidenced by the fact that the movement has demands that explicitly state this. This is in contrast to what the protests could be used for. I believe that rather than gathering the protestors to take direct action that will democratise the nation— through mutual aid networks, exercises in direct democracy, and mass strikes— the protests actually gather concerned citizens to collectively beg and plead the government to give them democracy. The protestors are not ‘putting pressure’ on the government, they are begging them. The government does not have to respond favourably, and historically it has not always done so, therefore, taking cues from other (non-bourgeois) revolutions and movements may prove useful. In fact, there is no need to look beyond Thailand’s own history.
In 1973, in the months leading up to the October 14th popular uprising, 40 general strikes were carried out during a time of great labour repression— the workers were not afraid of breaking laws to move towards a better society. One of the strikes at the Thai Steel Company was particularly successful because other workers from other industries and trades stood in solidarity with them— they recognised that worker solidarity is powerful. This, coupled with the increased progressivism of the growing university student population, allowed for the conditions that led to the incident. Afterwards, Bangkok became a strange Paris Commune style microcosm of mutual aid networks. Boy Scouts directed traffic, people volunteered to clean up the streets, and previously banned books were back in circulation.
The student protests occurred during a period of workers’ strikes, the force from two incredibly powerful and important parts of society is what ultimately caused the regime to buckle under their solidarity’s strength. Strikes and other forms of direct action have been used all around the world to undermine the state government’s power over society. If all of a sudden society is becoming more reliant on itself, and on day-to-day democratic processes that aim to empower the community, then the government can no longer hold our liberty hostage. As of now, the constitution is a gun to our heads and the ruling class can cock it, shoot it, or replace it for a bigger gun at any point in time. Historically, industrial agitators have been able to acquire proverbial guns of their own and were able to hold their own against their oppressors.
Catalonia in the 1930s worked wonders with their direct democratic control over businesses and society— they did not need representatives to speak for them, they spoke and took action by themselves. Rojava today is doing the same, and Mutual Aid networks in Ukraine and Greece have countered their economic and political turmoil. These are examples of taking control back from the powerful, not asking them for a concession that they can take back at any point in time. Perhaps the pro-democracy activists can learn from them. Seizing control of the pipeline that fuels the ruling class through actions like blocking highways, organising strikes, and even shutting down public works and universities will be more effective at getting the government to capitulate whilst simultaneously taking control of Thai society for the sake of the ผู้น้อย (pu noi, little people). It could accomplish that which Free People set out to do, and so much more.
In summary, unless there is a newfound emphasis on how the economic interests of the ruling class constrict the liberties of the youth, the poor, the working class, the LGBTQ+ community, and the ethnic minorities of Thailand, a new liberal democracy means nothing and stands for little more than Prayut does. But as long as the pro-democracy activists stand in the face of oppression, power to them.