Photo courtesy of The Karenni Culture Development Committee
For a few days, every September, the Karenni hills are alive with the sound of children singing and playing as they head into the forest. Carrying axes and saws the adults lead the way to a large tree to cut down. As the group haul the log back into the village, women and younger children come out of their huts. Music plays and sacrifices are offered, chickens are killed and de-feathered, the meat is taken away and offered around to neighbouring villages as a show of good faith, community and tradition.
The festivities though, are more than just a cultural practice, it’s an act of resistance and revolution. These are the Karenni people, my people. We’ve lived through 50 years of repression, 50 years of war, 50 years of displacement. For us, our culture and our identity is something we dare not let go, in case in the vacuum of war it’s lost forever.
Over one hundred years ago we resisted the strength of the British colonists and still today we live in a state of resistance. As we’re not many in numbers, around 500,000 people, we are often overlooked in the Burma Civil War, but what we lack in numbers we make up for it in strength and resilience. From our rebel soldiers in their bases, to the orphans in the refugee camps, there’s an identity we all share and hold, an identity that few outsiders can understand.
It’s not just our soldiers who fight imperialism with guns, it’s the farmers, the teachers and the refugees, every single one of whom resist, through embracing their identity, remembering their past and enduring through their present suffering.
Violence and peace respectively can have very different meanings. Bombs and bullets don’t reach the refugee camps, but who could say the residents live in peace? The violence of a family broken apart by war, the violence of going to bed hungry or the violence in traumatic memories, PTSD and deep depression.
People in the refugee camps, on the Thai border, have a lot of time on their hands to think about these things. The majority are not permitted to work so they just sit around, thinking, trying to find meaning in their suffering. They drink to find an escape from reality. So many of us have trouble sleeping, it drives you crazy, it makes you sick.
The Thai government would prefer us to not be there, our existence is a frustration for them. There are people born in the camp, 40 years ago, who have never left, lack of freedom and no options. It can feel like an open-air prison in the middle of the jungle and they’ve been prisoners since birth.
We’re denied a dignified life. We just want to live peacefully, to sustain ourselves, to work, to be useful, to contribute to the world, but no, we’re forced to be a burden.
Thai people always ask: “Why don’t you go back to Burma?” I don’t think they can imagine the fear, the danger. Go back to our villages that have been burnt to the ground, the place where our fathers were murdered and our mothers were raped.
Do we have a choice?
In the forest however, on our sacred days, the children are still singing and the music is still playing. People are smiling, laughing and dancing. This is what it’s like to be Karenni, we’re stoic, funny, easy-going, we don’t give a fuck. If something goes wrong we just laugh it off, we have to, because the trivial things have no meaning. When you’ve lost so much you have to appreciate what can’t be taken away. Your identity. Dancing around a tree with your neighbours, your family, and your people.
NA – Anonymous – Na is a leftist political activist and organiser in Burma.
A protest organiser in Burma reflects on the current crisis following the February 1st coup. Examining the road that led there, the state of Burma’s “Military Bureaucratic Capitalist System” and the future of the movement.
Since the February coup, the back of the old Burmese society has been breaking. With on-going nationwide street protests against the military dictatorship, the decades-old military bureaucracy has been paralysed since February 2nd, after health-care workers began the civil disobedience campaign. Since then, civil servants from other state departments have joined them en masse.
The financial sectors are also collapsing as a result of staff from private and state-owned banks joining the campaign, people withdrawing their savings, and people swearing to not pay any tax money to the military government. The decaying military dictatorship is moribund now and is resorting to their oppressive apparatuses like the police forces, soldiers, and top-level bureaucrats in the civil administration.
These phenomena, of the people’s struggles against the military dictatorship, is not new to the people of Burma. What has happened in Burma is like a seasonal pattern. As the famous journalist and politician Hantharwaddy U Win Tin put it: “the revolution in Burma will happen once every decade, as long as the military dictatorship prevails.” The present nationwide struggles have done well to lend credence to his words, and also reflect the conflicts between the oppressor and the oppressed— the military-bureaucratic capitalist class and the masses. The root of this oppression can be found in the military-bureaucratic capitalist state.
Since 1958, Burma’s military leaders have founded military-owned businesses. They nationalized all industries in Burma after the 1962 coup in the name of the Burmese Way to Socialism. Actually, this was a crude imitation of Stalinist Socialism in Russia. As a result, the military-bureaucratic caste emerged within the civil administration through their economic planning. The democratic air was choked out of the people by the military-bureaucratic centralization and one-party rule. It is no wonder socialism could not work from the top command alone by blocking the democratic inputs from those below. Numerous labour and student strikes took place sporadically and were suppressed brutally, the economy was bankrupt, and the country became one of the least developed places in the world.
Against this backdrop, the students’ protests ignited a spark in 1988 and nationwide protests exploded and fractured the shell of the old society. People from all corners of the country took part in the 88 General Uprising under a banner calling for a multi-party democratic system. Intellectuals and leaders of the mass movement were crying out for an individual to focus and coordinate the nationwide general strikes.
A reductionist interpretation of history, following the axiom of, “The Heroes Make the World” might lead us to believe, that since The Burmese people were able to fight back against the Japanese Fascists and gained independence from the British colonials under the sole leadership of the national leader General Aung San, then his daughter would be the most suitable candidate to lead this new struggle. Aung San Su Kyi, who had come back from England to take care of her sick mother, was cast as the future national leader of the Burmese people. The movement came to accept her as their national leader and liberator, as did the bourgeois press and governments in the western countries who thought to cultivate their own jockey for capitalism praised her as a democratic icon.
From the beginning, Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) was an opportunist and never a revolutionary. She dared not challenge junta rule outright and asked for minor concessions, rather than mass reform. As a result, precious time and the revolutionary momentum of the people were wasted. Further, under the opportunistic and reconciliatory leadership of ASSK, and following a brutal crackdown by the military, the revolutionary energy of the masses was finally dissipated.
Then following the movement in 1988, another military coup took place and the top military leaders transformed their rule into another form by opening the capitalist economy, selling the state-owned enterprises and export-import permits for ludicrously low prices to their close associates. The Burmese economy became dominated by military conglomerates and their lackeys. Politically, they promised to draw a new constitution and hold an election in the name of democracy under the guidance of the military. Eventually, in 2008, the military-drafted constitution was ratified in a so-called popular referendum.
In 2010, the founding of political parties was permitted and an election was held. The majority of people, including ASSK’s party, The National League for Democracy (NLD), boycotted the election and the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) composed of ex-military leaders won comfortably.
Two years later in 2012, the NLD, led by ASSK, entered a by-election and went on to win a landslide victory in the 2015 general election. The so-called political analysts and think-tanks funded by western donors, and the so-called international community, dominated by the representatives of the global capitalists, praised Burma as now being in a transitionary state towards democracy.
In reality, the economic and political base of Burmese society has never been challenged and left untouched by ASSK. The military-bureaucratic rule allowed the people simply the freedom to criticize, whilst maintaining their monopoly on violence and power, continuously expanded their wealth by engaging with global capitalism, and exploiting workers and peasants by seizures of land. It is no wonder ASSK and her party became the representatives of military-bureaucratic capitalism in Burmese politics, and championed the economic and political interests of this class.
She even asked the people not to call the military lackeys, “cronies”, but rather as “tycoons” so as to soften the public’s hatred towards their wealth accumulation within the framework of the military-dominated economy. Finally, in 2019, she even defended the military, in front of the International Criminal Court, against the charge of genocide against the Rohingya people.
In the eyes of the military-bureaucratic capitalist class, the elected political representatives are no more than their employees. They could employ and fire them as they wish since the actual power is not in the politicians’ hands and does not rely on the power of people’s votes.
The current Commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, who enacted the coup this year, has his own economic empire. Due to the changes by the International Court of Justice, I believe he decided to take the presidency in order to maintain his economic interests and to protect himself from becoming a sacrificial lamb for the ICJ, on behalf of other military bureaucratic capitalists’ interests, as his retirement was imminent due to his age being over the limit for military officers. He enacted the military coup on February 1, 2021. All the employees of the military-bureaucratic capitalist class and NLD leaders including ASSK were arrested.
The day after the coup, health-care workers (particularly doctors and nurses) initiated a civil disobedience campaign (CDM) calling for the release of the elected leaders including ASSK, and other NLD government officials and representatives. They also called for the restoration of the NLD government, which had won a landslide victory in the 2020 general election. Later, other civil servants from several state departments started the Red Ribbon Movement Campaign (RRM) and later joined the CDM under the same slogans.
Their slogans might be strange to our comrades in other countries since the workers and peasants suffered the same fate under the NLD government, which was not significantly different from the outright military rule. Following some limited political and economic liberalizations regarding international markets and donors, many jobs were created in private economic sectors (including many NGOs jobs). It was mainly the middle class that benefited from these opportunities.
The NLD government also put a significant emphasis on the healthcare system during the onset of Covid-19. Civil servants have a long history of hatred towards filling administrative positions with military personnel. For the middle class, as long as the elections and civilian rule continued, despite the presence of the existing military constitution which was designed to limit civilian government power, they seemed to be satisfied with the incremental and minimal changes they believed NLD government led by ASSK was trying to push.
Their tactical decisions centered around non-cooperation with the military government and they refused to go to work. As usual, the middle class dare not take the risk of actually protesting in the streets publicly. Expecting international pressure and intervention, they restrained each other to wait for 72 hours without taking any action on the streets. Some even believed the military would give back state power to the NLD government, and that it would enact a real coup if people took to the streets.
But no one could control the momentum of the coming class struggle arising out of the old decaying conflict-ridden society. A crack has already appeared due to the military coup and the façade of the old society has been unmasked by arresting ASSK and elected government officials. After seeing the unmasked old face of military-bureaucratic capitalism, the working class and the progressive youth stepped forward to try to shatter the shell of the old society into pieces.
The Burmese working class, historically, has never hesitated in class struggle and always takes the leading role in resistance against the military dictatorship. It is true in every mass movement that has ever taken place in Burma. After a small group of student protests in Mandalay on February 5th, thousands of workers from the Hlaing Thar Yar Township in Yangon marched in the centre of Yangon City ,combining forces with the progressive youth from the Student Union on February 6th. The next day, workers from the South Dagon Township joined the street protests, and some politicians and activists became involved in the movement as well.
After their outright challenge against the coup, the protests spread all across the country including among the ethnic minority peoples in the more remote areas, with the movement increasing in number day by day. Even the ethnic minority people who have endured great suffering and casualties in the wars and dehumanization in genocidal attacks during NLD rule, came out to call for the release of the NLD leaders and restoration of the elected government. Many of the workers and peasants who have faced suppression and imprisonment during the NLD rule also joined the movement and chanted the same slogans as well.
If you are not on the ground and don’t have access to the real movement, understanding who is leading the protests can be difficult. Even the domestic media and exiled broadcasting outlets can not explain what’s going on. For the security of our comrades, I would like to explain those questions generally.
In reality, the majority of people are from labour organisations in the Hlaing Thar Yar and South Dagon Townships, as well as the progressive youth forces, led and organised by our experienced comrades. These people have tremendous experience of economic struggles in their industries, and have the class solidarity already formed in the democratic trade unions in their own factories for years. Everyone else has followed their lead spontaneously out of their shared hatred for the military dictatorship.
Copper Mine Strikers
While our comrades have to play low-profile roles due to security, some opportunistic former political activists as well as one of the leaders from the 88 generation, Ko Min Ko Naing, has been making empty interviews with the media and using his old political credits. In reality, he has no real popular base and no leading role in the daily mass movement. But I have to admit that since the Burmese people in the countryside have to struggle for their daily meals and have no time to study the daily political news, they only know of Ko Min Ko Naing, since they rely only on the radio for their political news. Thus, his political demands, of releasing the NLD leaders and the restoration of the NLD government, have become the widespread slogans of the people.
International political analysts should not be rash and assume the Burmese people still admire or believe in ASSK. They want to fight against the military dictatorship firstly and foremostly, and do not like to argue about the controversial matters that would disintegrate the solidarity of the people before any overthrow of the military dictatorship.
The progressive youth in Burma have said in reference to ASSK’s cult-like status, “No Supreme Saviour,” and so they continue marching instep with other comrades in the working class and other progressive forces
The military government now has one last resort, to utilise the oppressive apparatuses like the police force, military, and top-level bureaucrats. The police started firing on protesters in Myawaddy on February 7. Some protesters were arrested and some have been killed.
Our comrades spread pamphlets on that day, proposing to form self-defence organisations under a self-governing body in every neighbourhood which should work to disobey the authority of the government. On February the 10th, the police and authorities from the Township General Administration started night raids to pressure and arrest the protest organisers and lower level NLD representatives.
The opportunistic old leaders from the 88 generation followed only part of our pamphlet and agreed to form the neighbourhood protection group to protect the targets of the raids, but the only tactics they proposed is that the people should beat the pots and pans to frighten the night raiders who came in the area.
We have repeatedly said that this is not enough, and the youth from the self-defence organisations must form small units composed of not more than five people in each unit, whose duty is to disarm the weapons and communication materials of the night raiders and arm themselves for the coming street fights when necessary. Later, the military government started using soldiers for the night raids who do not hesitate to fire the real bullets.
On February 10, riot police used water cannons to disperse protesters and fired on the crowd. Myat Thet Thet Khaing, a 19-year old girl, was shot dead. On the night of February 14, the protesters in Myitkyina were shot at by riot police. Protesters in Mandalay were also shot by riot police and soldiers as well. Live rounds, teargas and water cannons were used in dispersing protestors as well as night raids. In Yangon city, the military tanks have been stationed near the central bank since February 14.
The dictatorship is gasping and convulsing by now, having reached the last of their violent measures. At present, the organisers from the middle class still stick to the illusion of non-violence. Some of them are even spreading belief in the myth of military intervention by the US or a UN peace-keeping task force.
This of course will not happen. The masses, in my opinion, are now calling for the complete overthrow of the military-bureaucratic capitalist system, in line with the policy, ‘Combating the military three’ (Military businesses, military bureaucracy, and the old military structure). Ultimately we hope to replace them with a people’s democracy.
The next steps we are now proposing, are to set up strike groups in every neighbourhood, to form the self-defence groups, to disarm the oppressor’s apparatuses, arm our democratic organs by any means, to convene the National Congress with the elected representatives from each strike group and form a Provisional Revolutionary Government which would command the remaining police forces and soldiers loyal to the military dictatorship to throw down their weapons and obey a newly established Provisional Revolutionary Government.
To sum up, no one can bring the Burmese people back into the shell of the old military-bureaucratic capitalist society and the old society. Neither can bourgeois democracy or global capitalism that encourages reconciliation with the old Burmese order solve the age old conflict in Burma.
The only solution to these problems is to completely shatter the old society into pieces and burn them into ashes, and to build a new democratic and socialist society which can serve the majority of the Burmese people including the peasants living in the sprawling, rural lands, the workers in the major cities, and as well as the ethnic minorities who have suffered for decades under the brutal oppression of the militaristic state.
To strive for that, the only motto we have to remember in our mind, is the line from The International, “No Supreme Saviour.”
The Lèse-Majesté law, also known as Article 112 in Thailand, forbids any criticism of the monarchy in the kingdom under punishment of imprisonment. Even those far removed from the machinations of Thai politics are vaguely aware of this law. In an era where basic freedom of speech is held as sacrosanct, this law is globally recognised as being bizarre and archaic, and hardly used for anything other than protecting an already seemingly beloved institution”. This law, however, is not simply used to protect the dignity of the monarch against insult. Lèse-Majesté laws are in reality a relatively small mechanism which is part of a larger systematic structure of censorship, used as means of social coercion to manufacture what we can term royalist realism.
Capitalist realism as defined by Mark Fisher is explained in the quote “It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” In Thailand switching out the word capitalist with royalist makes for an eerily similar comparison, that is until very recently. For decades, however, Thai society existed under ‘The Bhumiphol Consensus’, a term coined by professor Kasian Techaphira to define the second half of the reign of King Bhumiphol (Rama 9) who was king of Thailand from 1946 until his death in 2016. Such was the adoration of King Bhumiphol that it was considered sacrilegious to express any doubt in the monarch as well as the wider institution of the monarchy. While Thailand was officially a constitutional democracy, it was clear that King Bhumiphol had the final say in all major matters regarding the governance of the kingdom.
This is not to say that there were no opposition voices to the royalty. Whispers were abound in the kingdom but they were relegated to strictly private circles among trusted friends and family. For decades there were virtually no public displays of dissonance whatsoever. Those few who openly spoke out were immediately punished by Lèse-Majesté laws, while those who were lucky enough to escape into exile abroad remain there to this day. Lèse-Majesté laws are the last legal resort for the Thai superstructure, as part of the multi-layered system for manufacturing consent.
Lèse-Majesté Law: It is illegal to defame, insult, or threaten the king, queen, heir-apparent, heir-presumptive, or regent.
The mechanism of Lèse-Majesté has mostly been used during times of political crisis. Ultra-royalist prime minister Sarit Thanarat was the first to utilize the law in the modern era. During Sarit’s premiership, the monarchy was desperately trying to recapture its hold on the kingdom following the coup that transformed Thailand into a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Sarit used the law to silence his own critics who disapproved of the increasing power of the royal palace.
In the decades that followed, the law would often be laid down as a means of making an example of any perceived dissonance. For example, at the height of the student democracy movement in 1976, a man was arrested on charges of lèse-majesté for using a royal village scout scarf to wipe clean a table.
If found guilty perpetrators would typically serve jail sentences between 2-10 years, depending on the severity of the perceived offence. Occasionally sentences of mandatory re-education would be handed out, like in one case in 2014, where a nurse who wore black on King Bhumibol’s birthday was charged with Lèse-Majesté.
There have also been cases where the law has been commandeered by civilians. For example, if two neighbours are having a dispute, one may make a fake social media account in their neighbour’s image and post content that violates Lèse-Majesté so as to have them jailed.
Academia too has been hit hard by the law, one notable case was with the famous scholar Ajarn Sulak who suggested that a legendary 1v1 duel on elephant-back won by a king of Ayutthaya (the kingdom that preceded Thailand) against a Burmese prince 500 years ago may not have happened. This precedent of criminalising insult against, not just the present, but past monarchs, even those from different dynasties, has also been used as a form of censorship for contemporary dissonance. For example, a magazine editor was charged for publishing a satirical cartoon, which depicted a famous statue of 3 former kings wearing face masks, during a bout of severe smog pollution in the northern province of Chiang Mai.
The leftist academic and prominent republican Giles Ji Ungpakorn was also charged with Lèse-Majesté and forced into exile for his book ‘A Coup For The Rich’ in which he criticised King Bhumiphol’s involvement in the coup of 2006. Ungpakorn noted “the lèse-majesté laws are not really designed to protect the institution of the monarchy. In the past, the laws have been used to protect governments and to shield military coups from lawful criticism. This whole [royal] image is created to bolster a conservative elite well beyond the walls of the palace.”
Judges have also said the accuser did not necessarily have to prove the information was factual. One judge famously said, “because if it is true, it is more defamatory, and if it isn’t true, then it’s super-defamatory.”
Despite all of the numerous cases, as mentioned earlier, Lèse-Majesté laws are a relatively small mechanism in the wider manufacturing of consent for the royalist institution and its proponents. Fealty to the monarchy is demanded and constantly reinforced in the kingdom, it’s intertwined through culture, spirituality and any kind of civic duty.
Grandiose portraits of the king and company adorn the streets of the country, while almost every home and business has a portrait of King Bhumiphol or his son, the current king Vajiralongkorn. This is so extreme that it’s considered a small show of dissidence to instead hang a portrait of the reformer king Chulalongkorn, Bhumiphol’s grandfather who died in 1910.
The state school curriculum is heavily focused on Thai exceptionalism, which is constantly linked back to the monarchy. Students learn of the innumerable good deeds done by the royal family, which include protecting them from dangerous outside forces, showering them in charity, and even (to this day) providing the weather conditions for a bountiful harvest. Indeed every morning students line up for the national anthem and flag-raising ceremony which marks the start of the school day.
In Buddhist temples portraits of the monarchy are hung side by side with Buddhist and Hindu gods, embellished by flowers and incense, giving them a god-like aura. It is widely believed even, that the monarch carries so much holy merit that when in his presence some will wash onto you as a blessing. As such, believers flock to public appearances of even relatively minor royals in hopes of catching a modicum of grace.
In the spiralling state bureaucracy of Thailand, sometimes compared to Kafka’s castle, all work is dedicated to not just the state but the monarchy. The act of giving your labour to the state is often perceived as giving yourself to the monarchy as the two are so deeply intertwined. Yellow, the royal colour is worn every Monday, as a show of fealty to the king, as both the late King Bhumibol and the current King Vajiralongkorn, were both born on a Monday. On mondays, Bangkok is awash with yellow shirts, particularly among civil servants, for whom the dress code is mandatory.
For any of those who don’t subscribe to the adoration of the monarchy, life can be made unlivable. As well as the legally codified aspects of fealty the social pressure is immense. Families will disown children should they privately express republican leanings or if they refuse to partake in royalist ceremonies and traditions. Ultra-royalist business owners, which make up the majority of big business owners, will also regularly force employees to take part in or display performative acts of adoration for the monarchy, this can range from wearing a yellow shirt on Mondays, to joining in with royalist religious ceremonies. Those who refuse will likely find themselves out of a job, if not worse, reported for Lèse-Majesté.
This super-structural royalism is so powerful and all-encompassing that certainly during the Bhumiphol Consensus era it was, like capitalist realism, impossible to imagine a world without it. Lèse-Majesté laws were only deemed necessary in the small number of instances of actual dissidence, which were, more often than not, tied to greater political concerns. However, after the death of King Bhumiphol in 2016 and the ascension of King Vajiralongkorn to the throne, this paradigm of royalist realism has finally begun to shift.
A Crack In The Veil
Since becoming king, public adoration for Vajiralongkorn has paled in comparison to his father, while criticisms have grown louder and more vocal. The reasons for this shift can not be explored in this article, lest we find ourselves charged with Lèse-Majesté for naming his perceived transgressions, as so many others have. However, it is fair to say that for a huge number of (mostly younger) Thais, Vajiralongkorn is despised.
In part due to the perceived egregious nature of the new King’s transgressions, and in part due to social media’s ability to anonymise criticism, 2020 saw the near-total collapse of royalist realism. In the summer, after the Covid 19 lockdown, protests that started as a response to the government’s handling of the pandemic quickly spiralled into anti-monarchy demonstrations which not only rocked Bangkok by the sheer number of protestors but by their radical discourse on the monarchy.
Personally, when I first witnessed some of the speeches, signs and performances I was astonished by their boldness and lack of fear over the consequences. I was not the only one, after the tide of anti-monarchism had grown online the floodgates had opened so quickly it caught the majority of the country off guard. Once again, due to Lèse-Majesté laws, we would be putting ourselves at great risk of charges by repeating any specific quotations of this sentiment.
While the protests were at their height the government was uncharacteristically slow to respond. However, since the movement’s momentum has slowed towards the end of 2020 Lèse-Majesté charges have been filed at a rate not only shocking in their quantity, but in their pettiness. While some protestors have been charged with actively trying to physically harm the monarchy, in the now infamous incident where the queen and prince royal’s vehicle was swamped by protestors, others have been charged for such minor offences as wearing inappropriate clothing.
One woman, for example, was charged for dressing too similarly to the queen in a fashion show, while another was charged for wearing an exercise outfit similar to that of the king. Both were deemed by courts to be offensive parodies of the royals. These cases have drawn scorn from human rights groups, however, during a time of global pandemic the Thai state presumably feels it can get away with such gross censorship.
At the time of writing, there are currently 56 cases of Lèse-Majesté charges in the Thai courts. This goes to show that the court was always the final resort for a monarchy that has reinforced its power through almost every possible facet of life in the kingdom.
However, since the protests, the toothpaste is out the tube and many are sure that it can never go back in. The sheer levels of public dissidence and the dramatic rise of popularity in republican exiles overseas mean controlling this new anti-monarchy tendency, manufacturing monarchist consent, is never going to be as effective as it once was.
Without question, in the year 2021 royalist realism has been virtually wiped out. The movement to abolish the Lèse-Majesté laws has become the focus of the majority of activists, with smaller demonstrations popping up in the kingdom on a near-daily basis. These activists hope that removing the threat of Lèse-Majesté can make it possible to criticise the greater royalist superstructure. To once again reference Fisher, vast numbers of the population have exited the royal castle, which now begs the new question: What of capitalist realism?
ผู้เขียน Gabriel Ernst [EN] & Pathompong Kwangtong [แปลไทย]
บรรณาธิการ Sarutanon Prabute
ภาพ Karuna Tilapaynat
So the million dollar question regarding the coup is: Why now? That’s what’s confusing so many Burma watchers.
คำถามโลกแตกเกี่ยวกับการรัฐประหารครั้งนี้ก็คือ ทำไมเป็นตอนนี้? คำถามนี้กวนใจผู้ติดตามสถานการณ์ในพม่าตอนนี้อย่างยิ่ง
To begin this article we must openly state that we do not like Suu Kyi. She has failed to really reform Burma during her years in charge. She has been a supporter of devastating neo-liberalism and has done nothing to challenge the on going genocide and civil war that devastates ethnic minorities in the country.
ก่อนอื่นเราต้องขอบอกก่อนเลยว่า เรามิได้พิศมัยอองซานซูจี เธอล้มเหลวในการปฏิรูปประเทศในช่วงเวลาที่เธออยู่ในตำแหน่ง เธอคือผู้สนับสนุนแนวทางเสรีนิยมใหม่อันโหดร้ายป่าเถื่อนและหันหลังเมินเฉยต่อการฆ่าล้างเผ่าพันธุ์และสงครามกลางเมืองที่กระทำต่อชนกลุ่มน้อยหลากหลายชาติพันธ์ุในประเทศ
Many have considered Suu Kyi an apologist for the Burma army for years now and her appearance at The Hague international criminal court in 2019, where she literally defended the militaries genocide of the Rohingya, underscored that. That’s what makes it so surprising that the military have bothered with this coup, they still have total control over the armed forces, make tremendous profits through corruption illicit industries and generally are feared by the populace. They can pretty much do whatever they want, regardless of the civilian government. So why bother with the coup?
หลายคนมองว่าอองซานซูจีเป็นผู้แก้ต่างให้รัฐบาลทหารในห้วงเวลาหลายปีมานี้ด้วยซ้ำ คำให้การในชั้นศาลของเธอที่ปกป้องการฆ่าล้างเผ่าพันธ์ุชาวโรฮิงยาโดยกองทัพ ณ ศาลอาญาระหว่างประเทศที่กรุงเฮกเมื่อปี 2019 เป็นเครื่องยืนยันได้อย่างดี นี่ทำให้การรัฐประหารของกองทัพครั้งนี้เป็นเรื่องที่น่าประหลาดใจยิ่งนัก ทำไมพวกเขาต้องรัฐประหารทั้งๆ ที่กองทัพยังคุมกองกำลังติดอาวุธได้เบ็ดเสร็จ กองทัพยังคงทำกำไรมหาศาลจากอุตสาหกรรมทุจริตผิดกฎหมาย อีกทั้งผู้คนก็ยังหวาดกลัวพวกเขาอยู่ กองทัพสามารถทำสิ่งใดๆ ได้ตามใจปราถนาโดยไม่ต้องสนใจรัฐบาลพลเรือน แล้วทำไมเล่า ทำไมต้องรัฐประหาร?
The best answer we can give right now is that it’s a confluence of reasons. The first being personal. Suu Kyi, in the circles of the higher echelons of the Burma government, is not well liked at all. She’s considered extremely hard to work with and surrounds herself with a gerontocracy of yes men. She’s had major fallings out with a number of people formerly close to her, including a very public feud with her brother. This makes her look weak and thus makes a coup easier.
คำตอบที่ดีที่สุดที่เราจะให้กับทุกท่านได้ ณ ตอนนี้คือ มันมีหลายเหตุปัจจัยด้วยกัน หนึ่งคือเรื่องส่วนตัว อองซานซูจีไม่ได้เป็นที่รักในกลุ่มชนชั้นนำระดับสูงของรัฐบาลพม่าแม้แต่น้อย รอบๆ ตัวเธอมีแต่กลุ่มคนชราที่พร้อมเห็นด้วยกับเธอไปเสียทุกอย่าง การทำงานกับเธอจึงเป็นสิ่งที่ยากยิ่งนัก เธอเองมีปากเสียงกับหลายต่อหลายคนที่เคยใกล้ชิดเธอ อาทิการวิวาทะกับพี่ชายของเธอเองต่อหน้าสาธารณชน นี่ทำให้เธอดูอ่อนแอและการรัฐประหารเป็นไปได้ง่ายขึ้น
Secondly the USDP (military backed party) did embarrassingly poorly in the national elections late last year. To explain their bad performance a narrative grew that the elections were rigged, which honestly is quite absurd, but the embarrassment felt by the military certainly is not. These are bravado guys who don’t appreciate being shown up.
สอง พรรค USDP (ที่กองทัพหนุนหลัง) ทำคะแนนได้ย่ำแย่ในการเลือกตั้งระดับชาติเมื่อปีที่ผ่านมา เรื่องเล่าที่ค่อนข้างไร้สาระว่าด้วยการเลือกตั้งอันสกปรกเกิดขึ้นเพื่ออธิบายความล้มเหลวของพวกเขาครั้งนี้ ทว่าสำหรับพวกกองทัพแล้ว มันไม่ไร้สาระเลยสักนิด พวกเขาเป็นจอมวางท่าผู้ไม่นิยมการตกเป็นเป้าสายตาเท่าใดนัก
Thirdly Suu Kyi has been surrounding herself with foreign advisors, all of them die hard neoliberals, including one individual who quit the British embassy to join her advisory team. Historically the ideology of the military has been extremely hostile to the west, this was why they were such a isolated country during the junta years. This all traces back to British colonialism and the vein of anti-colonial thought in the higher levels of the military, who sought domestic protectionism from outside interference above all else. As such Suu Kyi’s decision to surround herself by foreign neo-liberal advisors goes hard against that and many of the economic reforms (opening up the country to large foreign business) have been pretty drastic. This likely enraged the military, more so the old brass who still are highly influential.
สาม อองซานซูจี รายล้อมด้วยที่ปรึกษาต่างชาติมากมาย พวกเขาทุกคนเป็นผู้อุทิศตนให้กับอุดมการณ์เสรีนิยมใหม่ หนึ่งในนั้นลาออกจากคณะฑูตสหราชอาณาจักรเพื่อมาเป็นที่ปรึกษาให้เธอ ว่ากันตามประวัติศาสตร์แล้ว กองทัพมีอุดมการณ์ชิงชังตะวันตกหัวชนฝา นี่เป็นเหตุผลว่าทำไมรัฐบาลทหารของพม่าจึงมีนโยบายปิดประเทศในช่วงก่อนหน้านี้ ทั้งหมดทั้งปวงเป็นผลมาจากลัทธิล่าอาณานิคมอังกฤษและร่องรอยของความคิดต้านอาณานิคมที่ฝังรากลึกอยู่ในกองทัพ ผู้ลุ่มหลงคลั่งไคล้การปกป้องประเทศจากการแทรกแซงของต่างชาติ การที่อองซานซูจีตัดสินใจให้ฝรั่งมังค่าเสรีนิยมใหม่มาเป็นที่ปรึกษาของเธอนั้น ก็เสมือนการตบหน้าความกองทัพเข้าอย่างจัง และการปฏิรูปเศรษฐกิจ (เปิดประเทศเพื่อกลุ่มทุนต่างชาติขนาดใหญ่) ของเธอนั้นก็ค่อนข้างรุนแรง สิ่งเหล่านี้น่าจะทำให้กองทัพรวมไปถึงกลุ่มชนชั้นนำเก่าๆ ที่ทรงอิทธิพลอยู่เดือดดาลพอสมควร
Finally the head of the military who enacted the coup General Min Aung Hlaing was due to retire in 6 months. We don’t know a whole lot about his personal ambitions but perhaps he wasn’t content with a quiet retirement. For all we know he could be a staunch reactionary who pines for the old days of the junta. He’s promised elections one year from now so we will see.
สุดท้าย วาระเกษียณอายุของผู้นำกองทัพที่ทำการรัฐประหารครั้งนี้อย่างนายพลมี่นอองไลง์ก็ใกล้เข้ามาอีกเพียงแค่ 6 เดือนเท่านั้น เราไม่รู้นิสัยใจคอของเขาในหลายๆ อย่าง ไม่รู้ว่าความทะเยอทะยานส่วนบุคคลมีผลมาเพียงใด แต่เขาก็คงไม่พึงพอใจในการเกษียณอายุเท่าใดนัก ที่เรารู้ก็คือเขาต้องการรักษาแผลของพวกปฏิกิริยาที่คิดถึงคืนวันเก่าๆ ในห้วงเวลาเผด็จการทหาร เขาสัญญาว่าจะให้มีการเลือกตั้งในอีกหนึ่งปีถัดจากนี้ เรามารอดูกัน
สำหรับประวัติศาสตร์การเมืองในประเทศพม่า โปรดฟัง podcast #Analysand EP 14 ด้านล่างนี้ (ภาษาอังกฤษ)
The name Haji Sulong is little known in Thailand proper, despite being considered a hero and the founding father of the modern separatist movement in Thailand’s deep south ‘Patani’ region. Little is known outside the region about the conflict that erupted following his death, showing just how localised a civil war can be. This nescience is embodied in Haji Sulong, a man who lived an extraordinary life, was wildly influential and yet almost totally unknown to Thai society at large.
Haji, originally Muhammed Sulong, was born in 1895 to a Jawi family of religious teachers in Lukson Village in the Patani Sultanate, Thailand (then Siam). The Jawi are a Malay Muslim people localised in what is today the ‘Three Deep Southern Provinces of Thailand’. Sulong attended the local Jawi religious school where he was trained in Malay, basic Arabic and Islam.
The greater kingdom of Siam would have had little influence on the young Sulong, as Patani was almost entirely self-governing at the time, in fact, it is said that Sulong never spoke a word of Thai in his life. The local Sultans of Patani had for centuries paid tribute to distant Siamese kings, who in return offered their protection from encroachment by the other Malay Sultanates to the south. This arrangement also kept the British Empire at bay, as they gradually conquered the Malay states, formalising Siam’s ownership of Patani in the treaty of 1905.
At just 12 years old, Sulong was chosen to make Haj and to study in Mecca, a rare honour in the Jawi community. This was seemingly made possible by his family’s influential religious status and his intellectual prowess shown as a student. Making Haj for a member of the Jawi community at the time was not only expensive but extremely time-consuming, the trip would typically take around one full year to complete, on top of that it was dangerous, around 15% of pilgrims did not survive the journey.
Time in Mecca
On arrival in Mecca, Sulong had the opportunity to meet Syeikh Wan Ahmad bin Muhammad Zain al-Fatani, a leading scholar from Patani and a prominent modernist. He spent the next two decades studying Quranic Arabic and Islamic theory, moving between several mosques and schools. Eventually, he earned a reputation as a scholar and attained the position of Junior Lecturer at al-Haram Mosque specialising in Islamic law. At some point, after completing Haj he attained the name Haji.
Mecca Circa 1910
The Islamic world that Sulong had entered into was tumultuous, with power towing and throwing between the Ottoman and British Empire as well as resistance from local rulers. Without a doubt, the secular nationalist influences of the new Young Turks impacted on the young Sulong as well as the teachings of the legendary scholar Muhammad Abduh, who is today known as a key founding figure in Islamic Modernism. During this era, he also spent time in colonial Jerusalem and Egypt.
Islamic Modernism was a relatively new and bold current in Islamic thought at the time. The concept attempted to reconcile the Islamic faith with modern values such as democracy, civil rights, rationality, equality, and progress. Sulong pursued this avenue of theology rather than the reactionary Wahabism which was also on the rise.
Age 29 Sulong, now a widower after a brief first marriage, remarried a woman named Khadijah who was a member of Kelantan Royalty, from British Malaya, which increased his ties and influence among the Jawi community back in Southeast Asia.
Living in Mecca during the First World War, Sulong witnessed what many Arab Muslims considered to be a betrayal by the British and French Empires after they fought against the Ottomans. The western empires carved up the Arab world as their own newly-acquired colonies, leading to much resentment. This would later give rise to post-colonial Arab nationalism, which was highly influential on Sulong. Shortly after WWI, however, Wahabist Islamic extremists took control over Mecca. The new rulers did not at all favour the Jawi community, many of whom left for elsewhere in the Islamic world, including Sulong and his wife, who, shortly after the death of their young son, departed back to Patani.
During Sulongs time in Mecca, he witnessed tremendous upheaval and was exposed to numerous strains of synthesised Islamic thought in nationalism, colonialism, identity, theology and self-determination. He left Patani as Muhammed, the child and returned as Haji, the widely respected scholar, well versed in theology, politics and their synthesis.
Return to Patani
On his return to Patani, he saw his homeland in desperate need of redevelopment, particularly in regards to Islam. He considered typical Jawi spirituality to be far removed from authentic Islam, with many people incorporating aspects of Animism, Hinduism and even Buddhism into their religious practices, this influenced both the individuals’ spiritual lives and their systems of education and governance.
He felt a responsibility to teach Islam as he had learnt in Mecca. As such he began touring the south of Siam, lecturing and meeting with local spiritual leaders. His teachings were described as ‘progressive and bold’ upsetting many of those local leaders. The purpose of this tour was first seeking to revive Islamic teachings, then to reform Islamic education and finally to implement modern political and legal systems within a pluralist Islamic context.
‘Three Southern Provinces of Thailand’
Following his tour, Sulong decided to build a school in Patani. This would not be another Jawi Islamic school, as were typical in the region, but an institution that taught a modernist progressive curriculum within an Islamic context. As construction of the school neared completion Siam was rocked by the 1932 coup that toppled the absolute monarchy of King Prajadhipok.
This development made necessary a completely new relationship between Patani and the new civilian post-coup leadership in Bangkok. Sulong saw this as an opportunity to forge good ties with Bangkok so as to have more influence over what he considered the reactionary old guard in Patani. In 1933 he travelled to Bangkok to meet with the new leadership and request funds for his school. Prime Minister Phahol agreed and future Prime Minister Pridi Phanomyong, while he was Minister of the Interior, visited the newly built school where he was warmly received. This cemented the perception from Bangkok of Sulong as the leading authority in Patani, despite the existing influence of other powerful families who hadn’t yet been able to forge ties with the new regime.
Sulong became headmaster of his new school and gained tremendous influence among the local community. The school also served as a mosque for the community, proselytising Sulong’s modernist teachings on Islam.
The warm relationship with Bangkok, however, was short-lived as the national leadership began to see Sulong’s movement as a threat to their governance over the region and the school was closed down just 2 years after opening. Sulong then resumed his touring of the South, continuing his education program with his dedicated followers.
In 1937 Siam held its first general elections, which included votes from Patani. In the Patani election, Sulong controversially supported a Buddhist candidate, Jaroen Suebsaeng, over the more locally populist Muslim candidate Phraphiphitphakdi who was a descendent of the Jawi Sultanate. Sulong saw Jaroen as being more inclined to his own political aims of modernism and pluralism rather than supporting a member of the old Jawi elite purely on the basis of shared identity. Jaroen was also aligned with the reformist Pridi who Sulong surely admired. Phraphiphitphakdi won the election, however, Jaroen would later become elected as governor of Patani in large part due to Sulongs support.
The fall out of the general election spelt bad news for not only Sulong but the majority of the Jawi community in the deep south. Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram replaced Phahol as the Prime Minister of Thailand and established a military dictatorship inspired by the Italian fascism of Benito Mussolini. Phibun launched a reactionary modernization campaign known as the Thai Cultural Revolution that included a series of cultural mandates, changing the country’s name from “Siam” to “Thailand”, and enforced promotion of the Central Thai language. This cultural mandate program was particularly problematic for the people of Patani as after centuries of near-complete autonomy from Bangkok they were now suddenly being forcibly assimilated into the Thai state.
Thai cultural mandates poster
School curriculums were forced to focus on Central Thai culture and all lessons had to be in the Thai language. Traditional Jawi clothing was banned and Islamic courts, which were previously used in civil cases were prohibited. The local population passively resisted, when there was a dispute among Muslims it would be arbitrated informally, Sulong was often chosen to act as arbiter in these cases.
Sulong became the leader of an informal extrajudicial legal system in Patani and part of the tacit resistance movement to Thai imperialism. Certainly to Sulong, this would have been all too familiar, having spent decades living under western colonial powers while in Mecca.
World War II
The outbreak of World War II saw Phibhun’s Thailand align with Imperial Japan. The Japanese Army also conquered Malaya from the British Empire and the British sought allies to resist the Japanese in the region. Many Jawi joined the underground Thai resistance movement against the Japanese-Phibhun alliance. The British supported the Jawi independence movement, which had grown stronger during the Phibhun era and supposedly promised them national independence post-war, thus further undermining Bangkok’s control over the deep south.
Sulong used this opportunity to ingratiate himself with the pro-independence movement and the British, however, he was always sceptical as he had witnessed the dark side of British colonialism during his time in Mecca and the middle east.
At the close of the war, however, the British didn’t live up to their promise. The United States wanted to treat Thailand as an ally, despite its alignment with Japan. This was due to the encroaching threat of communism, the US saw Phibhun, who managed to hold onto power post-war, as a useful anti-communist ally and as such the issue of Patani independence was ignored.
The Pridi Years
The post-war years in Thailand were chaotic, with an ever-shifting political climate, as the reformer and anti-Phibun politician Pridi came to power briefly in 1946 prospects were looking optimistic for Sulong and his movement. The young King Ananda even donated 20,000 Baht to promote welfare in the region and Pridi indicated his willingness to allow greater autonomy.
In 1947 the Bangkok government sent a team of representatives to the deep south on a fact-finding mission regarding the possibility of greater autonomy for the region. Sulong was chosen by religious leaders as their representative and he proposed the following:
1. That the four southern provinces be governed as a unit, with a Muslim governor.
2. That for the first seven years of the school curriculum, Malay be allowed as the language of instruction.
3. That all taxes collected in the four southern provinces be expended there.
4. That 85 per cent of the government officials be local Malays.
5. That Malay and Thai be used together as the languages of government.
6. That the provincial Islamic committees have authority over the practice of Islam.
7. That the Islamic judicial system be separated from the provincial court system.
The delegation held extensive discussions with Sulong over the requests but had no authority to implement them, as such they returned to Bangkok. The national government was slow to respond, so Sulong started a very public pressure movement, collecting funds and again travelling around the region promoting his movement and its goals. He also declared that if Bangkok approved his suggestions he would invite back Haji Mahayiddin to govern the region, Mahayiddin was the son of the last Sultan of Patani and former leader of the underground movement during WWII. This demonstrated that Sulong had no real interest in governing, rather he was more interested in continuing his educational work.
During this period, just over the border in British Malaya, separatist movements were becoming increasingly bold and insurrectionary. This along with Sulong’s increasing popularity made Bangkok nervous about the region falling into all-out separatist revolt. Some government officials in Bangkok saw Sulong’s movement as being the Patani branch of the independence movement that gripped Malaya.
Conservatives Reclaim Bangkok
In November 1947 a coup overthrew the reformist national government, replacing it with a conservative royalist regime who were extremely hostile to the movement in Patani. A crackdown on reformists and dissidents followed and Sulong was arrested in January 1948 along with his more active supporters. Charged with sedition Sulong was sentenced to 4 years imprisonment, all of which were served in Bangkhwang Prison in Bangkok. In jail, he wrote extensively, however, all of his writings were screened and censored by prison officials.
Without Sulong the movement in the deep south became increasingly paranoid and moved further underground. Those who were still free made little progress with a government in Bangkok who had no intention on ceding any ground.
Sulongs release after 4 years saw him return to a hero’s welcome in Patani where over a thousand followers came to greet him at the train station. However, he was barred from taking part in any political activity and was told to stop teaching or else he would be imprisoned again. Sulong apparently obeyed but struggled personally without being able to fulfil his purpose in life.
During the next year, the Bangkok government grew increasingly paranoid of internal threats. The Communist Party of Thailand was becoming more influential, while the independence movement in British Malaya grew ever stronger.
In August of 1954 Sulong was summoned to a police station in nearby Songkhla province for questioning. He attended with two colleagues and his 15-year-old son to act as a translator. The four were never seen again. Years later the police officers involved would admit to the brutal murder of Haji Sulong and company. Their bodies were never found.
To this day Sulong’s battle for self-determination lives on. However, the movement he helped to define has taken on an entirely different shape. A far more radical tendency has come out of the deep south in terms of its resistance to Bangkok, nowadays bombings, drive-by shootings and assassinations are commonplace as the Thai authorities have taken an increasingly heavy-handed approach to the separatists.
Patani is a city under military occupation, full of checkpoints manned by heavily armed soldiers, brought in from distant provinces to crush the unrest. The era of reformist post-colonial Islam seems like a distant memory in the Muslim world. However, the influence of Haji Sulong as a martyr and as the intellectual force behind Patani’s self-determination movement remains. Indeed the current insurgency has generally continued its tradition of nationalism, rather than embracing a more Salafist creed, as has become increasingly common in rebellions throughout the rest of the Islamic world and we can only assume that this tradition in Patani stems from the extensive teachings and influence of Haji Sulong.
Profile on Haji Sulong in Thai and Bahasa languages:
Extensive paper on Haji Sulong from which much of this information is sourced:
Looking beyond the limitations of symbolic protest in an attempt to escape the seemingly omnipresent capitalist state superstructure in which our defiance lacks any material consequences.
The primary quote which serves as the thesis for Mark Fisher’s seminal 2009 book Capitalist Realism reads “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. When framing this in the context of The Kingdom of Thailand a similar quote comes to mind, from the great Ursula Le Guin: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.” It would seem right now that Thailand is indeed trying to escape this divine rule of the monarchy, but what of capitalism? Which alongside a kind of neo-feudalism, is also deeply entrenched and intertwined within the very fabric of life in the Kingdom as Alain Badiou terms it the capitalo-parliamentarian system.
There is one more foundational quote I’d like to frame within this snapshot of the Thai protest movement, from Murray Bookchin who wrote: “The assumption that what currently exists must necessarily exist is the acid that corrodes all visionary thinking.” I would argue that the current moment, by beginning to challenge these once concrete assumptions, provides a potential future far beyond the somewhat tacit calls to reform the monarchy, rather there has been a tear in the veil of capitalist realism, a tear which allows us not to see the other side, but lets in a ray of light, beaming with potentialities, which given the appropriate response, could be actualised.
Iconoclasm: the belief in the importance of the destruction of icons and other images or monuments.
Thailand is clearly a deeply symbolism rich culture, from religious and state iconography collaging nearly every facet of public life, to constant symbolic displays of social and economic hierarchy through consumption, language and even body movements. As such it’s no surprise then that the current protest movement has largely been engaging in symbolic acts of defiance rather than any material attempts at forcing change.
It was notable during the demonstration on November 17th, when protestors beat back riot police lines, fought yellow shirt agitators and bravely ran through a thick smog of tear gas just to peacefully sit outside the front of the then empty parliament before going home, content with the ultimately symbolic display of their capability rather than actually occupying the parliament and reclaiming it for the people as so many successful movements have done before. Of course, I’m not arguing that the protesters could, at this point, realistically occupy parliament and seize it as a governing institution in order to enact change. Even seizing the parliament itself would ultimately result in yet another symbolic act, devoid of any real change other than sending a message. Understandably, sustaining energy for a movement which is iconoclastic, rather than truly political is going to be fatiguing, as ultimately that desire for real change is never wholly satisfied.
The same trap of iconoclasm is by no means unique to Thailand. We saw a prime example this year as the Black Lives Matter movement warped from an anti-authoritarian movement against the police and carceral state, literally burning down police stations, to a war waged against racist statues, at which point the momentum began to fade away. Again I find myself very sympathetic towards this problem. As much as the state is attacked, its power, its base and superstructure seem invincible.
Looking at the options for the protest movement reveals the seeming inescapability of capitalist realism. Coming up against the apparent invincible power of the capitalist state reveals the stark need for imaginative thinking, experimentation and an alternative means of protest.
This is very much the case when examining the last century of Thai history. Typically there is a cycle of Coup, Protest, Election, Protest Coup. Over the years there have been multiple attempts at reformism, entryism and even armed revolution. From even Taksin’s ingenious pragmatism, Future Forwards charm and optimism and The Communist Party Thailand’s determination and utopianism. I’m sure most would agree that none of these have been successful at achieving any real structural change since 1933.
So how can this protest movement be different and how can the cycle be broken?
The Voluntary Subaltern
Here I will make my case for a new kind of protest, not new to the kingdom, but new to its educated classes. I propose the movement take on the role of a voluntary subaltern. Subaltern in this context refers to an individual who is on the fringes of the empire or state, one who’s economic and social activity are not productive towards the capitalo-parliamentarian system, but rather beneficial for their own communities.
More specifically this means not engaging with the state or capitalism, living on the fringes of hegemonic state society to the most extreme ends as is possible while collectively building institutions with other subaltern people that specifically exclude the state. This last point of collective institution building I must stress as it is the key distinction that separates voluntary subalternism with punk. Punk also attempts to completely obfuscate from the state and mainstream culture, to live outside it, but fails to provide an inherently revolutionary capacity, this is where collective institution building comes in, to allow for a genuinely progressive movement by the people for the people in a voluntary manner, one through which people can actually see a material benefit to their lives as well as a kinship or solidarity with one another.
The reason I use the term voluntary subaltern instead of anarchism is because Thailand already has a long history of these kinds of social formations outside of the context of western theorised concepts of anarchism. Furthermore, I do not want to be some kind of prescriptivist falling into the trap of telling other communities the formation by which they should structure their social order based on western intellectual writings from over 100 years ago.
In his book The Art of Not Being Governed, the historian and anthropologist James C Scott makes the case that due to geographic and technological conditions, large swaths of what was Thailand (Siam, Ayuthaya, Sukhothai, Lanna or Laos) were inaccessible to the states who claimed their ownership. Notably during the rainy season, when much of the land would flood leaving communities to self govern, free of the burdens of taxation, conscription and other aspects of imposed authority.
These conditions developed a base subaltern culture which we still see the remnants of today in the linguistic and cultural distinctions between even central Thai provinces. Going slightly further afield into more remote areas of the kingdom we can find still existing social and economic structures which are a far cry from the rigid hegemony of the Bangkok government. We have already covered this phenomenon and the state’s response in-depth on DinDeng.
Indeed there are also currently a huge number of what we can consider involuntary-subaltern people in Thailand. Sometimes described as the ‘underclass’ these economically bereft and counter-cultural peoples are already, perhaps unintentionally, experimenting with a kind of subaltern existence, which the state or mainstream society have very little control over.
What Is To Be Done?
Of course, I am not suggesting a return to these primitive feudal times, rather that we take inspiration from them to form our own voluntary subaltern protests to state power and hegemony. As mentioned above, attempts by reformers to take part in the system so as to reform it have cataclysmically failed in the past. The key aim of the Thai state is to keep reproducing subjects that are beneficial both economically and socially to its continued existence, as such, what the state (seen as a conscious entity) wants most is to subordinate these mostly middle class, highly educated protestors into productive citizens, a future which at the moment looks likely if the focus of the protests remains on iconoclasm. Even if the protesters current demands are met and some reform of the monarchy or fresh elections are achieved it will do nothing to break the aforementioned cycle of coups, protests and meaningless elections.
So how does one become a voluntary subaltern? Unfortunately, that is not for me to say, for I too am enveloped by the shroud of capitalist realism. The only way to achieve this is through experimentation, collective decision making and de-aligning ourselves with a statist mentality.
In recent history there have been many failed attempts at community building along such lines by groups geographically removing themselves into remote intentional communes, typically cut off from wider society. Many of these experiments attempt to restructure their new social order in one fell swoop from the ground up and in many cases, these have collapsed entirely, if they still remain they clearly do not demonstrate any structurally revolutionary potential as they are far too removed from society at large.
However new experiments are taking place across the world in the form of horizontally organised co-ops looking to remove the state from targeted areas of our lives. For example in rural areas with farming co-ops to stave off big agriculture and share knowledge, labour and skills. There are also child care co-ops in many cities in the world, relieving some of the burdens of childcare to allow parents to participate in political activity while the collective dependency of the co-op acts as a political organisation in and of itself. The same is true with alternative education and study groups which, outside of an officially institutionalised format, are focused on group education with the aim of freeing us from the higher education system.
Indeed in Rojava in Northern Syria, a similar movement to what I describe has been taken up en masse in which voluntary-horizontally organised groups are replacing the traditional state model almost entirely. It must be stressed that this became actualised in Rojava after decades of community building, education and critical debate as well as having suffered devastating material conditions due to brutal oppression and war. There is a famous saying among activists in the Rojava freedom movement. “You must spend only 2% of your time attacking the state and 98% community building”.
This may sound like a lot to ask, but when you consider the courage required to charge a police line while being teargassed compared to the bravery needed to establish a community garden it doesn’t seem like too much of a challenge.
Of course, there is always the danger that capitalism will come in to fill the void left by the state. Certainly, this has happened under neo-liberal government programs, in which the carefully managed pullback of state support in people’s daily lives has been replaced by private corporations. For example, the privatisation of once state-run medical facilities in Thailand. This is the importance of the word voluntary. In the aforementioned cases of state withdrawal it happened on a non-consensual basis, those patients did not choose to have their healthcare privatised, it was forced on them, however, if they were to decide to start their own free healthcare co-op/provider in their community it would indeed be voluntary and outside of the purview of capitalism or the state.
The ultimate aim is to both de-commodify and de-state’ify our existence, our communities and our relationships creating our own new realisms disavowing capitalist realism. The tentacles of the state and capital run deep, pervading our decisions, our thoughts and even our dreams. The challenge is to wrestle away these tentacles, regaining control over not just our personal lives, but the immediate world in which we live. It may sound naive or overly utopian, but the state must be subordinated to our whim and the only way to do that is to remove ourselves from allowing it to use us as a mandate for its continued existence.
By no means, however, do I suggest abandoning the direct struggle against state power. While iconoclastic protest has no material ends, the symbolic is nonetheless of some importance, at least to heighten public consciousness of the contradictory relationship between the people and capitalo-parliamentarian system. As such, there is a place for symbolic protest, just not as a means of directly achieving material change. Perhaps later down the line when the heightened contractions of capitalism become more apparent such mass mobilisations will indeed bear fruit.
All of the examples of challenging the state and capitalism mentioned above are but the bare beginnings of a voluntary subaltern movement, a skeleton without any flesh, but by embracing a more holistic view of protest through which, rather than symbolically attacking, we reject the state and its superstructural institutions, grafting on the flesh to create a new voluntary subaltern being through this process.
The late anthropologist David Graeber along with archaeologist David Wengrow wrote in Eurozine of how human societies in the past experimented endlessly with all manner of different social and economic structures. They claim that we have lost that imagination and agency to even try and live differently. What I propose is bringing back that experimentation and in doing so rejecting the strong arm of the state and the invisible hand of capitalism, finally breaking the cycle and tearing down the veil of capitalist realism.
Ultimately the protest movement in Thailand is anti-authoritarian, as was Black Lives Matter, a visceral reaction to an oppressive, violent, brutal and humiliating state. Even if we can’t achieve fully automated luxury space communism within our lifetime we can at least claw back some semblance of dignity and try to find some form of spiritual fulfilment in one another.