Are protests in Thailand a colour revolution? No

Are protests in Thailand a colour revolution? No

Samaidaeng Thungdin
Gabriel Ernst

Every time I find a new leftist media outlet I always type Thailand in the search bar to see if there’s been any coverage. More often than not, there’s nothing, but on the rare occasion that Thailand does appear, it’s typically an article denouncing the Thai protest movement at large as a ‘colour revolution’. Often this claim is made with little to no explanation as to what a ‘colour revolution’ is in the opinion of the writers. However, given that this is appearing within the context of leftist media, it’s safe to assume that ‘colour revolution’ refers to a mass protest movement controlled or instigated by foreign (western) powers, much like the colour revolutions in post-Soviet Europe and Central Asia. 

Applying this stamp to Thailand, however, is lazy, ignorant and inaccurate. Those abroad who claim to understand the complexities of the quasi-military dictatorship Kingdom seem confident enough to write off the entire movement with a broad brush, painting protestors as ignorant cannon fodder for the CIA. While little attention is paid to the voices of every single Thai leftist publication, writer and activist, all of whom are broadly aligned with the movement against the reactionary quasi-dictatorship currently in power.

Notably, the most active street protest group at the time of writing is FreeYouth/REDEM, who caused a massive upset among the Thai liberal media establishment when they changed their logo to the Hammer and Sickle late last year. FreeYouth is openly and unapologetically communist, recently they’ve aligned themselves with the wildcat gig economy delivery drivers Riders Union and are working hand in hand with other radical unions to organise mass protests, fighting the Thai state in the streets and supporting union efforts. If you’d like to hear directly from FreeYouth in English we’ve interviewed them a number of times. 1 2 3 4.

RT Logo

On the subject of unions, one collective of labour unions made a deliberate expression of support for the anti-government protesters last year; this group also uses the hammer and sickle in their banners. This is in stark contrast to many western-centric NGO’s with ties to international labour organisations that work to depoliticise unions and strip the Thai labour movement of any political power. If anything, this is a greater threat to Thai workers than any other western involvement. 

While the street protests in 2020 were initially led by the far more liberal figures of Penguin and Rung from the United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration (Thammasat) group, their popularity and relevance have clearly waned in 2021, giving way to the more radical movements of FreeYouth (avowed Communists) and Dao Din (avowed Anarchists), just by the numbers FreeYouth have four times the follower count of Thammasat. Of course, there are still a large number of liberal groups involved in the protests but FreeYouth and DaoDin would certainly seem like strange comrades for the CIA to align with. It should be noted that DaoDin’s radical credentials are quietly viewed with scepticism by some on the Thai left, you can read about their ideology here.

Pai DaoDin – A key organiser in DaoDin and UNME of Anarchy

The more likely explanation is that those who see the protesters as liberal opposition controlled by the west do not actually speak Thai and have little understanding of Thailand and its politics. To be fair, the English language reportage of Thailand is certainly dismal, hence the need for Din Deng. Of course, western media are reluctant to report on the more radical elements in the movement, nor are they keen to side with the clearly oppressive and reactionary military. Instead, they dedicate their ink to the more western inclined liberal groups, who are keen to parrot western ‘democratic’ tropes back to eager journalists, in effect liberal-washing the movement to outsiders. However, even those who have little insight into the country needn’t look too hard to see western influences meddling in the sovereignty of the kingdom, in fact, it’s staring them right in the face. 

The Royal Thai Armed Forces have been an absolute constant in Thai politics ever since 1932 and a close ally to the USA since the end of WWII, enacting around 13 coups within the period. During the war on Vietnam Thailand was used as a staging point for bringing in US troops and hosted US air force bases for bombing runs across Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Meanwhile, within the Kingdom, The Phoenix Program was in full effect, focused on wiping out the Chinese-backed Communist Party of Thailand insurgency.

Still today the Thai military and US share a close relationship, with the Cobra Gold joint training operations taking place in Thailand every year, one of the largest military exercises in the world. While researching this article we also spoke to a mid-level Thai military officer, who told us that the US Military is still deeply embedded in Thailand, regularly taking part in training and intelligence sharing, though this is no secret. Other more discrete sources have told us of the close intelligence-sharing relationship between Thailand and Israel, who often collaborate tracking Hezbollah members (apparently Pattaya is one of their favourite holiday spots).

US and Thai soldiers during Cobra Gold

Notably, the current Military Dictator turned Prime minister, Prayut Chan-o-Cha comes from a regiment expressly set up by the US military to hunt down and murder communists within Thailand and across Southeast Asia, such operations continued as late as 1983 (as far as we’re aware). Again it should seem strange that the US would dump one of their longest-serving anti-communist allies in favour of the FreeYouth communists, but such is the logic when you don’t actually understand the politics of a country. 

Such uninformed opinions have resulted in online leftist media seemingly being in agreement with Thai conservatives, as they too have been blaming the protests on US involvement, despite their adoration of the military. Far-right Thai conservative media has often been cited in western leftist media as ‘evidence’. 

Many also point to the ‘Milk Tea Alliance’, a seemingly western-backed pan-Asian/ Anti-China ‘alliance’, seen predominantly on Twitter. Indeed, there are suspicious cases of Twitter algorithm manipulation on behalf of Milk Tea Alliance hashtags, whether these are carried out in Langley or by some individual online activist in Hong Kong we just don’t know. Nonetheless, despite the alliance winning the adoration of mainstream western media, thus far it’s little more than a Twitter cheerleading squad with no material solidarity in the real world. Furthermore, defining what the alliance actually is seems to be much like the ‘blind men and an elephant’, in that it depends on what aspect of the phenomenon you’re focused on. For some, it’s an Anti-China movement, for others a pan-Asian recognition of solidarity against domestic dictatorships, while for many of the Thai left, who again aren’t overly active on Twitter, it’s not given a second thought. 

The supposed Anti-China Milk Tea Alliance argument also relies heavily on the assumption that Thailand’s government is drifting towards China’s sphere of influence, hence the US wants to overthrow the military’s grip on the country. However, given the aforementioned extensive Thai-US military cooperation this seems to be highly unlikely. While China’s economic interests are indeed spreading outwards, as they have done for the past two decades, there is little evidence that Thai foreign policy is conducive to China’s interests against that of the US. Rather the Thai establishment is benefiting from Chinese investment for the time being, though ultimately being a reactionary, capitalist system of governance it is clear that, if push came to shove, the Royal Thai Armed Forces would side with their oldest allies, The USA. There have even been alarming reports of US Special Forces newly being stationed at an air force base in Northern Thailand (close to the Chinese border with Laos and Burma), which would be unsurprising given The US military’s extensive activity within the Kingdom today.

Indeed, Sinophobia and anti-Chinese sentiment exist in the country, much of it whipped up by and concentrated in the western allied media, but other than a small handful of liberal activists and their ever reliant Twitter cheerleaders, such sentiment has made little to no transition into the political realm.

Here we should acknowledge that groups like The NED (CIA cut-outs) are actively funding within liberal Thai circles, as they are worldwide. The express purpose for this, however, is not to instigate a colour revolution, but rather to remain friendly with both sides. The USA is just as happy to work with elected liberal capitalists like former Prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra as they are with unelected military strongmen like Payut Chan-o-Cha, hence they maintain a relationship with both, unwilling to fall foul of either should the power shift. 

Such funding allows these liberal groups to extend their voices beyond their means, particularly to foreign observers, painting a discoloured picture of the situation. This is compounded by Thai, western orientated, liberals often being far more active online and better educated in English than the more radical constituents in the country. These liberals are described by outspoken communist professor and writer Soravis Jayanama as “frenemies” (friends for now, enemies for later). 

This seems to echo the sentiment across the Thai left, who are willing to work with liberal groups at present to achieve their immediate aim of toppling the government, but aren’t willing to compromise their positions for liberal support. As Baimaii, a lead coordinator for FreeYouth told us “Right now we’re hot, it’s time for them (liberals) to follow us.”

Certainly, this isn’t to say that the movement in Thailand is a leftist one, rather that there are significant leftist elements, who at times are leading it (right now they’re on the front foot). Liberal thinking is definitely still dominant in the minds of the majority of those opposed to the government, but we’re without a doubt seeing a shift in a leftward direction. 

The desire to denounce any protest movement which isn’t explicitly communicating its Marxist-Leninist intent in the English language as a colour revolution ultimately is both ignorant and self-defeating. It ignores the hard work and radical action of comrades who aren’t extremely active on sites like Reddit or Twitter catering to the whims of the western left. Such denouncements instead promote a liberal-washed account of events drawn from western media. It also denies agency to our comrades in the global south if we start with the baseline assumption that they are powerless to the mastery of the west. A classic trope in the western canon, that ‘the world revolves around Cleethorpes’. Regions in the global south have their own complex political cultures that don’t always fit the same paradigms seen in the west. In Thailand for example, it’s common to see Maoist forming non-hierarchical mutual aid groups and Anarchists raising the hammer and sickle flag. The cooperation between the comrades behind this very publication is further evidence of that.

Uninformed colour revolution denouncements defeat the purpose of international solidarity, which ironically, is exactly the purpose of western political hegemony, to alienate and destroy cross border anti-capitalist movements. This by no means decries the right for comrades to speak on leftwing movements anywhere other than where they are. We simply hope to stress the importance of not presenting an opinion as informed and authoritative when it may not be. Perhaps we could even be as harsh as to say: no investigation, no right to speak. 

Some leftist Thai accounts:

FreeYouth

https://twitter.com/FreeYOUTHth

DinDeng

https://twitter.com/DinDengTh

Analysand

https://twitter.com/the_analysand

Thammasat University Marxism Studies

https://www.facebook.com/Tumarxisms

Pud

https://www.facebook.com/pudproduction

Kengkit

https://twitter.com/Kengkij2

Museum of popular history
https://twitter.com/commonners

Aum Neko

https://twitter.com/cuteaum

The Real Face of Thai Feudalism Today TLDR – Part I

The Real Face of Thai Feudalism Today TLDR – Part I

Samaidaeng Thungdin

Jit Phumisak (1930-1966) is regarded as Thailand’s preeminent leftist artist, thinker, writer and analyst, even decades after his murder at the hands of the Thai state. He was known for his poetry, wit, love of linguistics and being a devoted Marxist revolutionary. In 1965 he put down his pen for a rifle and joined the rural Communist Party of Thailand’s insurgency. Always a free thinker, Jit often found himself at odds with the CPT leadership. Certainly, his analysis stands in contrast to the Maoist tendency common to leftist circles in Thailand at the time. However, his texts were still widely circulated among all leftist radicals and still are to this day, even valued by reactionary elements within Thailand. 

Jit’s seminal text The Real Face of Thai Feudalism Today (1957) remains an essential read for anyone trying to understand the origins of Thai society from a Marxist perspective. However, while the book makes constant references to Thai society, Jit’s analysis is a global one, not tied to the kingdom, making it a welcome example of early analysis of the development of capitalism from the global south. Readers could extrapolate his works to apply to not just Southeast Asia, but to any feudal society. Furthermore, given the resurgence of the term Saktina (feudalism) in the current Thai political discourse (often used in reference to the current iteration of the monarchy), understanding the term has become all the more important in the Thai context.

The purpose of the book was to expose how the plight of the rural Thai peasant in the 1950’s was a vestige rooted in the old feudal system, laying bare its horrors and its exploitative framework. Jit wrote this book as an antagonistic rebuttal against the revisionist history of the ruling classes taught to most Thai’s at the time (and still today), which typically depicts a utopian agrarian past, rather than the brutal exploitative reality. 

This series of articles hopes to provide a summary and general overview of the major themes and conclusions found in The Real Face of Thai Feudalism Today — written in Thai under the pseudonym Somsamai Srisudravarna. These articles are based on the translation by Craig J. Reynolds. It is worth noting that Jit’s original text was rushed and partially unfinished.

Jit understood that the two key means of oppression of the Thai working class were imperialism and the vestiges of the feudal system. This is where we acquire the rationale for the ‘semi-feudal, semi-colonial’ analysis of Thai conditions at the time of Jit’s writing (which I would argue can still be applicable today). Jit focuses on the development and persistence of the Thai feudal system, as well as giving a general overview of its mode of production, he calls it ‘Saktina’, and so shall I.

Part I: The Saktina Production System as a Whole

Land ownership is intrinsically tied to the literal translation of ‘Saktina’, as it means ‘power in controlling the fields’. This is the defining feature of this mode of production. In the same way that capital is an accumulated economic factor under Capitalism, during the Saktina system, it was land. This meant that the ‘big landlords’ (akin to landed gentry) were in possession of the means of production, whereas the ‘phrai’ or ‘lek’ (agricultural slave/serf class) were not. While there were some independent peasants (free people) who did own small portions of land, they were not big landowners— these can be seen as analogous to the petit-bourgeois or middle-class today.

Jit’s understanding of the term Saktina includes economic, political and cultural dimensions. He uses the term Saktina as an adjective and noun (i.e. as both ‘Feudal’ and ‘Feudalism’ as well as ‘the ruling class’ under Feudalism). 

The Economic Characteristics of the Saktina System

Social Classes and their Relations of Production

As society was divided into those who owned land and those who did not, these are generally the key ‘classes’ within Saktina.

Phraiagricultural slaves/ serfs, they were bound to a specific plot of land and were bought and sold alongside it. They paid ‘Suai’ (a tax-in-kind, a proportion of their harvest) to keep some of their yield from the land that they worked on. Their Suai ranged from 50-80% of an annual yield. 

Thay— freemen, they were not bound to land, but had to rent it from landlords and pay a Suai of anywhere between 30%-50% of their yields.

Independent Peasants— small scale landowners, they did not rent land, but they did pay land tax (in hard currency) to the Saktina class (which was composed of big landlords).

Landlords (Jao)— typically aristocracy, characterised by their ownership of land and phrai, in large and small quantities (those who held smaller parcels of land would later become part of the emergent middle class).

In addition to the above, a system of corvée labour forced peasants into performing hard labour for their landlords or regional lords lasting from 3-6 months a year. This was justified by the ruling class as a means to give thanks for the lord’s supposed ‘generosity’.

The Form and Purpose of Production

Technological developments in agriculture allowed peasants to increase their crop yields, reducing time and labour spent in the fields. This permitted them to spend more time supplementing their income through handicrafts. However, this led to landlords expropriating a greater proportion of their yields. The purpose of agricultural production for the peasantry was subsistence. The expropriated surplus produce was for the landlords to consume or it was used to pay for the upkeep of their military forces and general maintenance of their land and later to trade.

The Trade Monopoly System of the Ruling Masters

Over time regional trade arose as a new purpose for production. This was due to more productive farming techniques, the acquisition of more land by landlords, the increased safety of maritime travel, and the expansion of small-scale trading for luxury goods. These developments allowed for a greater accumulation of wealth for the landowning class, who then cemented their control by ensuring that they had a monopoly on the trade system. They did this by enacting laws that made landlords middlemen between merchants and peasants— forbidding direct trade between the two— as well as monopolising shipbuilding and increasing taxes to limit the excess produce the peasantry could use to barter or trade with.

Jit identified three periods of exploitation within the Saktina period, as well as a final period illustrating the decline of the economic system as a whole:

  • Pre-Monopoly: The extraction of labour, taxes, and levies from peasants. This occurred to such a degree that peasants were forced to borrow at extortionate rates (usury) pushing them further into dependence and debt. 
  • Emerging Monopoly: A sharp increase in the rate of Suai paid for the purpose of trading surplus produce for foreign goods.
  • Established Monopoly: This could be considered the peak of the Saktina system as it saw the highest level of exploitation and wealth extraction from the peasantry, as a result of the established trade monopoly system.
  • Declining Monopoly: Due to restrictions imposed by the ruling class, people who were neither large landlords nor peasants started freely associating to promote a more laissez-faire conception of trade. They formed guilds to protect themselves and further their material interests. This group became the bourgeoisie, the middle class, or the ‘kadumphi’. Opposed to those who controlled the monopolistic nature of the economy, they wanted to utilise new technologies and techniques to advance small-time handicrafts to large-scale manufacturing, giving rise to ‘industry’. With that, they began developing the commercial system of ‘seriniyom’ (liberalism) and the productive system of ‘thunniyom’ (capitalism). The ‘kadumphi’ soon became the ‘naithun’ (capitalist class). This era was in Jit’s analysis, the origins of capitalism. 

The Economic Characteristics of the Final Era of the Saktina System

  • ‘Agricultural Backwardness’: The height of technology for Saktina agricultural production was characterised by the use of natural fertiliser, draft animals, seasonal cultivation and excavated irrigation. Jit argues that there was no further technological potential to develop due to the Saktina economic structure. This upper limit on technological development resulted in a ceiling on productivity, causing the economy to be unable to create any more wealth— the kadumphi would therefore continue to miss out, unless they were able to develop wealth outside of the agricultural means of production.
  • ‘Ruin of the Peasantry’: The extreme exploitation of peasants restricted any social mobility, as such they would begin flocking to newly formed cities due to new opportunities for income— creating industrial centres.

The Political Characteristics of the Saktina System

The Rule of the Saktina Class

The centralisation of land (economic power) in the hands of the landlord class permitted them total political power over the peasantry. The institutions that they could afford to set up focused on ensuring the perpetuation of their wealth and ownership of the means of production. At the head of these institutions were the ‘Kshatriya’, or ‘prachao phaendin’ (the Monarch). These words are etymologically linked to the notions of land ownership, governance, control, and authority. Further, territory governed by the Monarch called the ‘lord’s domain’ or the ‘phrarajanakhet’, again etymologically linking authority with the word ‘khett’ meaning ‘arable land’. 

Conflict within the Saktina Class

At the beginning of the Saktina period, the Monarchy found that it could not maintain direct and total control over its kingdom. Oftentimes, in these Saktina institutions, members of the ruling class who did not find the Monarch’s policies financially favourable would enter periods of conflict either with the Monarchy, representatives of the Monarchy (puppets/vassals etc), or other nearby muangs (provincial capitals). This necessitated a political hierarchy of the Monarch at the top, lords in the middle, and the peasantry at the very bottom. 

The Monarchy began to understand that there needed to be rapid decentralisation of power in order to ease tensions between the Monarch and lords within his domain. However, as time went on and these conflicts continued, the Monarchy grew tired of granting concessions to these rebellious lords and started to find new mechanisms to increase the degree of direct control over the lords.

The Monarchy had two main methods: 

  1. The replacement of rebelling lords with members of the Saktina class that were loyal to the current Monarchy. However, this maintained the distinction between vassal land and the Monarch’s land, which perpetuated the Saktina system, without any kind of structural development. 
  2. The cultivation of a new breed of ruling masters whose interests were the same as the Monarchy. This was the creation of jaomuang (provincial governors), ensuring that any previously dispersed power and land was now completely under the authority of the Monarchy.

The Struggles of the Peasantry

The division of the peasantry into separated plots of land meant it was difficult to develop solidarity and organise to protect their class interests. The dominant Saktina class also developed ideological doctrines that repressed the wills of the peasantry. This caused the peasant class to only rise up in intermittent disorganised rebellions that were easily crushed.

As a result, the peasants turned to other classes for leadership. Their closest point of contact with the Saktina system was their landlord, who at the beginning of the Saktina period, could harness the formless and seemingly directionless anger of the peasantry as a means to their own ends to further their own interests. 

The peasantry also later turned to the emergent middle class for allyship as they both shared grievances with the Saktina class, but the emergent middle class’ antagonism with the Saktina class was more economic than existential, hence they were willing to collaborate to develop an economic structure that prioritised a ‘liberal trade-and-industry’ system (capitalism), while maintaining the caste characteristics of Saktina.

However, now that the industrial bourgeoisie had begun to develop, so too did the industrial proletariat, which Jit deems a greater source of leadership for the disorganised peasantry, as the proletariat worked in productive settings more conducive to class consciousness and solidarity— factories etc.

The Struggle between the Middle and Saktina Classes

The emergent middle class was continually repressed by the Saktina class, as the Saktina class stridently worked to maintain their trade monopoly system. This imbued the middle class with revolutionary potential and they worked towards overturning the Saktina system by creating their own political, economic and social institutions. However, this emergent middle class required popular support from the peasantry as a political mandate. As previously mentioned, this was granted by the peasantry, but only resulted in changes to the nature of exploitation they faced, rather than eliminating it. 

The Cultural Characteristics of the Saktina System

Social Relations and Generational Wealth, Power, and Inequality

Social mobility and high social standing were only achievable if one was of high birth or a highly savvy landowner, this made emancipation impossible for much of the peasantry. They were also looked down upon as beings for whom boon (merit) was unfathomable, indeed, the phrai were not even deemed worthy of personhood. 

To ensure a family maintained their standing, Saktina class families intermarried. High class men did occasionally marry phrai women, who were deemed property and thus the subject of his every whim. Saktina women were not permitted to marry phrai men as women were not seen as equal to their male counterparts. 

Additionally, the Saktina class popularised the notion that their success came as the result of holy merit which was seen as granted or honoured by ‘the lords and deities’.  Again painting the peasantry as dishonourable and not worthy of respect, thus perpetuating their oppression, a kind of Saktina realism. 

The Continuation of Slavery

As phrai were simply agricultural slaves with no sense of personhood, their eventual emancipation, at the end of the Saktina era, had no real benefit to their economic conditions as they were still not landowners and now as free people they had no capital to become so. Therefore, they were forced into extortive labour, selling themselves in the newly developed capitalist mode of production. 

Nationalism

As polities and kingdoms were under the control of their Monarchs, conflict amongst the Monarchs translated to conflict between polities. As such, the Monarchy was able to cultivate hostility between different nationalities or ethnic groups, as a means to deter inter-ethnic solidarity within the peasant class. These cultivated antagonisms included those within the borders of polities presided over by the same Monarch, giving rise to inter-ethnic conflicts.

Patriarchy

Saktina also upheld patriarchy, and women were seen as objects of the Saktina class’ desire. Children were also considered to be nothing more than tools of expanding control, via extending lineages, or they were deemed expendable by-products of evenings of desire produced by members of the Monarch’s harem. 

Customs and Traditions

Only customs and traditions that upheld the Saktina system were encouraged by the Saktina class. This meant most practices originated from the Saktina class, however some traditions emerging from the peasantry were able to be co-opted, reinforcing their own continued oppression. Such practices were ingrained into the cultural norms and customs of all classes, often unknowingly to those practising them. 

The emergent middle class considered many of these traditions to be oppressive, the emergent bourgeoisie capitalist system managed to change some of these restrictive traditions. However, the middle-class’ tendency to compromise with the Saktina class resulted in the long-running persistence and prevalence of Saktina traditions to this day.

Art and Literature

Art and literature were encouraged only when they upheld the Saktina system; any art produced by the peasantry was seen as vulgar. The Saktina concept of ‘art for life’ was intended to promote the Saktina way of life (similar to romanticism) which was not agreeable to the new bourgeois artists who wanted to cultivate an ‘art for art’s sake’ (similar to aestheticism).

Education

Education and the development of knowledge were structured and permitted in order to maintain a narrative that upheld the Saktina system at the expense of the peasantry. Jit identified history as a field of study wherein popular movements can be analysed and learned from, however, the Saktina class taught their own version of history which deified Kings and excluded the role of the masses.

Formal education generally occurred in the households of the ruling masters, ensuring only the Saktina class were permitted to have an education. This resulted in learned peoples being solely found in regional courts. The ruling class required educated individuals for the express purpose of managing their lands, as such only limited fields of study were available, thus upholding the Saktina system. These fields were primarily related to commerce, finance and law.

The emergent bourgeoisie took umbrage with the monopoly on education and founded their own bourgeois educational institutions to promote their liberal ideas. However, they adopted the Saktina method of teaching their narrative to sustain their system as soon as they established their own class’ political and economic structure (capitalism). 

Religion

The early Saktina class was in conflict with organised religion. However, the economic and political dominance of the Saktina class pressured religious institutions to acquiesce to Saktina rule. This was achieved through the mechanism of patronage, thus incorporating these institutions into the body of the Saktina system as a means for further wealth extraction and as a mechanism to control the peasantry through a divine mandate. This was also incorporated into the aforementioned education system.

However, as the middle class amassed their own wealth, they seemed to be better at financing organised religion, shifting the institutions’ loyalty. As the nature of religion had been altered by its relationship to the Saktina class, religion in the capitalist era, once again, perpetuated elements of the previous system within the new framework.

A Broad Overview

So far, Jit has provided an outline of the nature of Saktina and how its economic, political and cultural characteristics developed whilst it was the prevalent socio-economic system.

Jit’s analysis focuses almost as much on the emergence of capitalism as it does on the Saktina system itself. Indeed, he often uses the Saktina framework as a means to interpret the fundamental economic and power dynamics that developed into the birth of the middle class and liberal capitalism, tracing the roots of exploitation of the working class to their origins and underscoring how little has changed in their material lives, despite the apparent progress made in liberal systems of governance.

To further examine the Saktina system’s foundations and characteristics, Jit later reflects on the origins of the system (both in Thailand and worldwide), as well as the transition from what he terms the ‘First Thai Communal System’ to the ‘Slave System’ and then finally, the transition from the ‘Slave System’ to the ‘Saktina System’. We will explore this in a later article. 

Glossary:

Below are some words present in the original translation used hitherto. Here they are anglicised and with their meanings (not all have been used in this summary).

Phraior lek— serfs, labourers bonded to land, essentially agricultural slaves.

Thay— Freemen, similar to ‘phrai’ but were not bonded to specific pieces of land, possibly linked to the name ‘Thai’ referring to ‘free people’.

‘Suai’ — a Tax in Kind, where agricultural yields are given to Land-Lords by those working their land (more to come on this later in Jit’s section on Taxes).

‘Kadumphi’ — the bourgeoisie 

‘Seriniyom’ — Liberalism

‘Thunniyom’ — capitalism

‘Naithun’ — a Capitalist

‘Kshatriya’ — essentially the ruling class (it can be used in place of ‘King’)  this word comes from the second-highest Hindu caste. 

‘Prachao paendin’ — Lord of the land, see ‘Kshatriya’.

‘Phrarajanankhet’ — ‘the Lord Raja’s Domain’, a combination of words meaning ‘Lord Raja’ and ‘arable land’, implying the relationship between political control of territory and economic control of land.

‘Khaluang’; ’jaomuang’; ’phuwa ratchakan muang’ — governors of Thai polities (I’m not sure if they are interchangeable)

‘Muang’ — a polity, essentially a city-state.

‘Phaphapwai’ the obedient woman that Saktina men wanted to promote for their patriarchal desires

Euro-Fascism with Thai Characteristics

Euro-Fascism with Thai Characteristics

Gabriel Ernst

In the 1930s, Thailand began a project of mass homogeneity based on western Euro-Fascism. This project was refined by the monarchy in the 1950s, leading to a reactionary consensus lasting a half-century. However, many elements in the recent protest movement, so far, fail to recognise their own deep-seated Euro-fascist tendencies when challenging the contemporary Thai state.

In 1938, European style fascism bloomed in Thailand. The dictator Plaek Phibunsongkhram (Phibun) had risen to power. It was on this wave of supposed modernisation, that Phibun spent the next six years reshaping Thailand in his image. Phibun had been educated at a military academy in France, where he was a great admirer of the new fascist powers emerging in Europe. He was particularly fond of Mussolini and supposedly kept a portrait of the Italian fascist leader on his desk when governing Thailand.

Phibun was born in central Siam in 1897 to a farm owning family, he enrolled in the military officer’s academy, and after graduation was sent to France to study artillery tactics. During his time in post-WWI Europe, fascism was seen as a ‘progressive’ force, one that would modernise and strengthen countries, removing the old feudal order and creating a homogeneous ethnonationalist culture with authoritarian top-down rule. It was around this time that Ataturk in Turkey and Mussolini in Italy were at the peak of their respectability. It was this idea and these idols that endeared a young Phibun.

The Thailand (then named Siam) that he returned to in the late ’20s was a far cry from his imagined republican fascistic utopia. The country, which had escaped the ravages of colonisation by western powers, was extremely diverse, wild in parts, due largely to the geographic conditions which made governing large swathes of the land near impossible, particularly the lowlands in the rainy season and the highlands all year round. 

However, European colonisation had a large impact on the shape of the country’s borders, due to French colonies to the east and British colonies to the west and south. Siam did not define its own borders, rather they were imposed on them by colonial powers, and whatever populations ended up landing in those borders, despite escaping European rule, would have the Siamese state to contend with.

After narrowly escaping colonisation the Siamese feudal system had undergone huge liberal reforms decades earlier, there had been efforts at modernisation, in the hopes of keeping up with the western powers that surrounded it. However the state was relatively weak and was yet to undergo any major industrialisation, a huge majority of the population lived rurally and it still took weeks, sometimes even months, to reach some of the fringes of the kingdom from the capital Bangkok.

This allowed many localised communities and ethnic or regional identities to exist across the country without much interference from the state. However, these freedoms of expression or local governance practices were not given benevolently, rather they existed due to the state’s incapability to interfere and the lack of an aggressively homogeneous-nationalist ideological structure at the time. 

This made Siam an incredibly diverse country, with a huge array of localised languages, cultures, practices and governing institutions. Today these diversities still very much remain, there are still around 60 indigenous languages spoken in Thailand and an uncountable number of dialects, historically there were likely far more.

Joining a clique of like-minded military officers who allied with progressives from the civil society, known as Khana Ratsadon (The People’s Party), Phibhun took part in the 1932 coup, which ousted the monarchy, allowing the institution to essentially remain in name only. After six chaotic years, where the progressive factions were essentially banished, Phibhun finally rose to become the de-facto dictator of Siam in 1938, renaming the nation Thailand the next year, in a clear display of his ethnonationalist intent.

Brass plaque placed to commemorate the 1932 coup

During Phibun’s tenure, there were many other hallmarks of fascist regimes. He declared his birthday to be a national holiday, and later extended the same decree to his wife and child. These holidays were typically militaristic, with military parades in the larger cities. He also strongly encouraged everyday people to hang his portrait in their homes. This is ironically the same practise established and continued by Thai monarchs. A militaristic youth wing was also founded, not unlike the Hitler Youth. Generally Phibun was attempting to build a cult of personality, much like his fascist compatriots in Europe. This also included seizing and heavily monitoring media and the cultural sphere.

Phibun era propaganda poster

Thai’ification

Phibuns program of Thai’ification or The Thai Cultural Revolution, was an attempt to codify and enforce what he perceived Thai’ness to be. His definition of Thai’ness would draw entirely from central Thailand, with an emphasis on the Bangkok military elites’ culture, which for decades had been heavily influenced by the west. 

12 enforced cultural mandates were issued, these included a western-style dress code, a standardized Thai language, a banning of declaring regional identity and even codifying how many hours sleep one should have. These mandates, despite their at times bizarre nature, were genuinely enforced whenever possible. The aim was to create a clear, well defined, definition of Thainess and spread it to every corner of the nation.

This, of course, led to the mass decline of regional identities, particularly among Buddhists in the central plains, while many Muslims, particularly the ethnic Jawi-Malay in the deep south, suffered at the hands of the new policies. Madrasas were forced to close and Muslims were banned from wearing Islamic attire. The Jawi community would later form an armed rebellion against the state, which is ongoing to this day. 

The effects of these mandates were also strongly felt in Isaan. This vast Northeastern region of Thailand was populated mostly by Lao people, the descents of a mass forced population transfer a century earlier. Isaan people were, and still are, yet to fully assimilate into the state, as well as a sizable Vietnamese minority population in the area. To this day Isaan is the poorest area of the country and known for its distinct local culture, its restive populace and its distaste for Bangkok governance.

Isaan dress pre-Thaification

The purpose of such assimilation policies was not purely cultural, the program intended to make use of subjects who, prior to assimilation, were not adequately benefiting the imperial core. By capturing them and integrating them into Thai society they were put to use for state-building, conscription and taxation, growing the imperial core.

However, during this period, despite attempts at industrialisation, the same geographic conditions still existed in many areas, with huge populations living almost entirely untouched by the state, particularly the ethnic minority ‘mountain people’ living in the hills around the borderlands. These include The Karen, Lisu, Akha and Hmong—  just to name some of the larger groups. These groups are all completely distinct from Thai people, speaking their own language and practicing their own culture, religion and social institutions.

Expansionism & War

In 1940, Phibun saw an opportunity to flex his fascistic muscles in classic form with an expansionist war. During border treaty negotiations under the previous Siamese feudal regime the Kingdom had ceded land to French Indochina in what is today Laos and Cambodia and when mainland France fell to the Axis powers in WWII, Phibun decided to invade the territories and reclaim them for Thailand. 

This kind of expansionism through war was a hallmark of Phibun’s fascistic counterparts in Europe, particularly Nazi Germany. He was likely inspired by their aggressive actions to carry out his own hostile expansionism. Indeed, Phibun described Hitler and the Nazi Party as “intellectual allies”.

The war itself was widely popular in Bangkok, with Thai forces initially making huge gains against a weakened French colonial force, that had been cut off from its imperial core since the Nazi invasion. 

However, Imperial Japan, which had been rapidly expanding westwards into Indochina intervened, pressuring the two sides to sign an armistice which weighed heavily in Thailand’s favour, setting the stage for the (nearly) bloodless Japanese invasion of Thailand which would take place later that year, resulting with Thailand joining the Axis powers as an ally.

After the armistice with France, Phibun declared victory and constructed the Victory Monument roundabout in central Bangkok, in the style of classic fascist architecture. To this day the monument is an important site in Bangkok. 

Thailand’s alliance with the imperial Japanese allowed Phibun to remain in power during the Japanese occupation. However, towards the end of the war, Phibun was ousted by military men who were secretly loyal to the Allies, as they saw the tide was turning in the war. 

Due to US pressure, post-war, the nation was not considered to be an Axis ally by the west, this was because the west saw Thailand as a useful ally against rising communist sentiment in Southeast Asia.

Return of the King

Phibhun’s regime had spent its time in power trying to malign the royal family, both those abroad (which included the king) and those remaining in Thailand, many of whom were imprisoned. He slashed the royal budget and promoted a Buddhist theology that overlooked the spiritual role of the monarch, which had of course been a staple of the previously feudal society.

On the other side of the world, however, in central Europe, a plan was underway to wrestle the nation out of the clutches of the republicans. After a decade on the fringes of Thai politics, the monarchy was formulating a plan to reassert its control over the still-kingdom from de-facto exile in Europe. Post Phibun they saw an opportunity, when a number of prominent royals were released from prison and King Ananda, just 20 years old, and his younger brother Prince Bhumibol, returned to Bangkok to a royal palace which now stood in the shadows of the militaristic fascist state.

The turbulent post-WWII years saw shrewd manoeuvring by the royal household. In 1946 the progressive democrat Pridi Banomyong took office. Pridi sought to assert his control over the country by cosying up to the newly returned young royals.

During this brief period, efforts by the royal household, particularly those of Prince Rangsit, were greatly successful in promoting the monarchy and the young King was widely popular. The royalists were able to successfully synthesise Phibun’s Thai nationalism with adoration to the royal family, particularly through religious clout, intrinsically linking the monarchy to ‘Thai’ness’. 

However, just four months into Pridi’s tenure, King Ananda was dead. He supposedly shot himself at home while playing with a pistol (though many conspiracies surrounding the death remain to this day). With rumours abound in Bangkok, Pridi ultimately took the blame for the king’s death, resigning shortly after, while Prince Bhumibol was crowned King.

In November of 1947, another coup led to Phibun regaining his premiership. However, this tenure would be markedly different to the last, as he now had the monarchy to contend with. Phibun was never able to assert full control of the Kingdom, as he had to walk a fine line between appeasing the newly empowered monarchy and his republican former allies. This led to a number of attempted coups, including a dramatic hostage-taking, where Phibun was captured on a warship by mutinying Thai navy officers, resulting in him having to swim back to land to escape.

The Bhumibol Consensus and Royal Realism

Phibuns second tenure, which lasted a decade, saw numerous power plays and realpolitik maneuvers by both the civil government, the military and the royal household. Publicly these efforts were focused around Thai’ness and who supposedly best represented ‘The Thai People’.

Ultimately though the monarchy came out on top when an ardent royalist general, Sarit Thanarat, ousted Phibun in a coup in 1957, setting the stage for this new blend of Thai nationalism, which placed upholding the monarchy as an elemental ingredient of Thai’ness, with King Bhumibol as the head of state.

This is the beginning of what has been dubbed ‘The Bhumibol Consensus’ era, wherein any republican sentiments were considered heresy and ‘anti-Thai’. Old Les Majeste laws, which forbid any insult to the monarchy, began to be utilised against political dissidents and the royal household started a huge public relations push, initially targeting Thai subjects, but gradually focussing on those remote minority groups who had been living on the fringes of the imperial core for centuries. 

The Bhumibol Consensus era lasted right until the king’s death in 2016. During his 60 year tenure, there were never any real challengers to Bhumibol’s authority and at no point was the monarch at all threatened in any real way.

We’ve previously written extensively on this phenomenon in Royalist Realism & Les Majeste.

During this era, despite the change in leadership, the Thai imperial core continued its process of expansion and Thai’ification, only with the face of King Bhumibol as the figurehead. To put it bluntly, regarding policy, there was not a whole lot of difference between Phibun and the newly empowered monarchy. Both were militaristic, expansionist, nationalists who enforced central Thai hegemony. The 12 cultural mandates policy was even explicitly revived in name with the ‘Thai Niyom’ policies of 2018, after the death of King Bhumibol, now called the 12 Core Values. 

The New Era

While there are many groups, mentioned earlier, that have been hostile to the state for centuries, in recent years there has been an increase in resistance from within the imperial core. Since the death of King Bhumibol in 2016, there has been a growing hostility towards the Thai state among Thai people, particularly the younger generations. 

Pro-democracy/republican leaning protests have ignited in the past year and many of those taking part in the movement are finally rejecting Thai’ness as defined in the Bhumibol consensus era. Indeed royalists often accuse the protestors of “Not being Thai”. 

Many have already been jailed for Lese Majeste and for organising the protest movement, the aim of which is to reign in the power of the monarchy and the overtly militaristic state, and bring a semblance of democracy to the country.

Notably one of the largest factions of the current protest movement has named itself Khana Ratsadon (The People’s Party) in reference to the group that initially overthrew the monarchy in 1932, of which Phibun was a key member and later leader. 

This goes to show that even within the supposedly progressive protest movement, it still harbours elements of deeply reactionary and even fascistic tendencies. Indeed, rather than challenging these pathologies, they’ve been quietly embraced by the overt worship of Phibun. One popular Twitter hashtag even read “We are the children of Phibun”. Certain factions in the movement would rather look backwards, adoringly, to a time where reactionary fascism was rampant and unchallenged in the kingdom, simply because it reinforces their republican agenda, rather than attempting to forge a new progressive path forward.  

Brass plaque placed to commemorate the 2020 protest movement

The roots of Eurofascism run deep in Thailand. For decades it was disguised by its Thai characteristics of Theravada Buddhism and adoration of the monarchy, but these foundations still very much remain in the kingdom, from their origins in 1920’s Europe to Thailand a century later, be they royalist of republican.

Royalist Realism & Lèse-Majesté

Royalist Realism & Lèse-Majesté

Mondor Pakled

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.”

Royalist Realism

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? 

Haji Sulong – Patani’s Reformer, Martyr and Father

Haji Sulong – Patani’s Reformer, Martyr and Father

Gabriel Ernst

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. 

Origins

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. 

Thaification

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. 

Post Sulong

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. 

Futher Reading:

Profile on Haji Sulong in Thai and Bahasa languages:
https://www.bbc.com/thai/thailand-53761549
https://www.bbc.com/indonesia/dunia-53831094

Extensive paper on Haji Sulong from which much of this information is sourced:
https://www.jstor.org/stable/23020304?seq=1

Thai Imperialism and Colonisation

Thai Imperialism and Colonisation

Samaideng Tungdin & Gabriel Ernst

An examination of Thailand’s internal ‘auto-imperialism’, how the state works to capture populations on the fringes of the kingdom and put them to use for the nation’s imperial core. Exploring the roots, history and present day effects of Thai ‘auto-imperialism’.

Walking through a Lisu village in the far northernmost reaches of Thailand we come across the village headman’s house, adorned atop are two flags; the red, white and blue of the Thai state and the yellow of the monarchy. The headman himself, from the Lisu ethnic minority, is not Thai. Nobody in this village is. Yet they fly Thai flags over the leader’s house. It’s reminiscent of nearby Burma, just a few kilometres away, where the British flag once flew.

Imperialism and Colonialism have many faces, most famously the British model of the 17th to 20th century alongside other European powers, the legacy of which remains potent today. There’s also the more contemporary American model, which doesn’t explicitly take land and form colonies in the style of the former, but still utilises both soft and hard power to subjugate countries and peoples. However, imperialism was never strictly confined to the West. Japan’s imperial empire was vast, malicious and remarkably similar to its European adversaries in its aims and functions. We also have a multitude of examples of localised imperialism; states which practice almost identical methods of subjugation but on a far more local scale, and it is here we find Thailand.

Auto-Imperialism and Subaltern

The version of imperialism in Thailand can be considered ‘auto-imperialism’— though ‘imperialism’ refers to the expansion of a nation’s borders abroad, ‘auto-imperialism’ (like how ‘auto-cannibalism’ refers to the consumption of one’s own body) is a means of imperialism conducted on endemic populations. Specifically the capture of populations already within a nation’s borders, who were previously living outside of state control and influence.

In postcolonial studies and critical theory, Antonio Gramsci coined the term subaltern, which designates the colonial populations who are socially, politically, and geographically outside the hierarchy of power of a colony, and of the empire’s geographical homeland. As such within Thailand the subaltern peoples can be considered to be the ethnic minorities of the northern hills, the ethnic Malay Muslims of the deep south, and the huge Isaan region, which makes up over 30% of the population for the entire kingdom, while the central Thai planes constitute the imperial core of Thai power, both culturally and politically, centralised in Bangkok.

Thailand’s evasion of Western colonisation is often heralded in the kingdom as a miraculous feat of ingenious diplomacy, whereby kings Mongkut and Chulalongkorn saved Siam from the Western imperialists. However, in hindsight, we can assess that much of this is due to sheer luck and the importance of healthy economic relations and a political buffer zone between the British and the French colonies, but that’s an article for another time. The end result was that Thailand was free to continue its feudal practices unabated and went on to expand its control into lands untouched by the Western powers. However, during this era the state was relatively weak and unable to influence its outer reaches— rendering those residing outside of the state’s influence as the remaining subaltern peoples, some of which remain subaltern to this day.

Phibunsongkhram and Euro-Fascism

In 1932, the Siamese Revolution pushed the country towards a semblance of ‘democracy’, however military figures have repeatedly asserted their control over the state, through coups, aggressive diplomacy and the threat and occasional use of mass violence to control restive populations. Plaek Phibunsongkhram rose to power when he was handed the premiership and leadership of the military from Phot Phahonyothin in 1938— Phahonyothin conducted Thailand’s first successful coup against an incumbent Prime Minister. Phahonyothin admired Mussolini’s Italian Fascism as did Phibun. This led to an intentional design of Thailand’s governing systems as an imperialist and fascist state based on what Phibun saw during his time spent in Europe in the 1920s. 

Phibun introduced the cultural mandate system, which was aimed at homogenising Thailand into ‘central Thai’ culture, the culture of those at the imperial core, in an explicitly fascist method aimed at entrapping the subaltern peoples on the fringes of the state, this was known as Thai’ification and it exists as one of the methods of Thailand’s state-sanctioned racism. Phibun’s tenure as Premier included conducting a war on French Indochina to reclaim territory once ceded by Siam to French colonial forces. His farcical war, much like his mentor Mussolini’s failed foray into Abyssinia (Ethiopia), resulted in an embarrassing defeat against the French. However, while WWII raged and the Japanese empire rapidly expanded across Asia, that very year when the imperial Japanese army arrived on Thailand’s doorstep Phibun’s Thailand capitulated immediately. The Japanese, new rulers of the region, then demanded that the desired Indochinese territories be handed over by France to Thailand as a reward for Thailand’s submissiveness to their new Japanese overlords. 

Phibun then took his obsession with euro-fascism to an almost farcical level in building the Victory Monument, a monument to this ‘victory’ against French Indochina. The monument itself was designed similarly to monuments and buildings commissioned under both Hitler and Mussolini— thus receiving the name ‘fascist architecture’. The Victory Monument still stands today, its importance even translated into a BTS (sky train) station, but aside from this obvious celebration of Thai fascism, the subtler influences of Phibun and the fascistic military class are still prevalent. This is where the structure of modern Thailand has its roots. 

Mass Violence by the state

The vast majority of mass violence at the hands of the state have been carried out against Subaltern Isaan peoples, who for as long as Isaan people have had an identity it has been one of domination by the Thai state. Originally the Isaan region, a large chunk of North-Eastern Thailand, was an inhospitable jungle/swamp area, however, the Siamese state wanted to make use of the land and as such a mass forced population transfer of Lao people to Isaan took place starting in 1827. Forced population transfer was a technique also used widely by the European colonial states. However, as much as the state tried to control them, the new Isaan’ers proved an extremely restless population, with numerous peasant uprisings, holding onto their Lao language and practices to this day, they have yet to truly assimilate into mainstream Thai society. 

Most notably during the 20th century, there was a large scale revolt, in the communist insurgency that gripped the region from the 1950s until an armistice in 1984. The vast majority of communist cadres were Isaan’ers rebelling against the Thai state. Since the armistice, however, the people of Isaan have continued to revolt unabated, into the 21st century, in the form of the red shirt movement, a predominantly Isaan based group of populists originally centred around former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra— considered a hero by many Isaaners. The repression of the redshirt movement has been brutal and is on-going to this day. It has been covered in great detail in a series of articles by The Isaan Record.

Anti-State Peoples

However, Isaan is far from the only victim of Thailand’s ‘auto-imperialism’. As mentioned in the intro, in the far north of the country a diverse plethora of ethnic minority groups dot the mountains who are also the victims of ‘auto-imperialism’. For centuries the state was unable to penetrate the far reaches of the mountains, as such those who lived there were free of state control and oversight. The anthropologist James C. Scott argues that these residents made a conscious decision to flee there in order to escape state control. However once clear borders were drawn, Siam and then Thailand considered it a mandate to make those within their borders ‘useful’ or ‘productive’ members of the state. We have previously covered this in the article Nationalism and Anti-Statehood in Thailand

Ethnic Karen in Mae Hong Song Province

The Thai state treats more remote northern regions such as Mae Hong Song province, almost exactly as European imperialists treated their colonies. Establishing outposts, religious missions, transplanting settlers, enslaving locals (in the past), and today subjecting the local population to strong-armed pressure into cultural assimilation, while strictly regulating and limiting their traditional practices. 

Border Expansion in the deep south

The Thai state carries out a very similar practice in the deep south provinces of Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani, along the Malay border. The region was captured by Siam and it’s ownership of the territories were ratified by the British in 1912. However the vast majority of the population are Malay Muslims and, as with many northern provinces, there is little to no history of Thai people living in these areas.

Since around 2004 the 3 provinces, as well as a few districts in Songkla province, have been in near open revolt against the Thai state. The local grievances predominantly revolve around Thai state-mandated schools and government institutions, as the locals would rather live under Sharia (Islamic) law. A small number of closely affiliated armed rebel groups have since conducted bombing campaigns and attacks on targets seen as symbolic of the Thai state. Notably, military barracks’/checkpoints, government offices and even state schools, targeting teachers brought in to teach the Thai state curriculum. Today there is a heavy military presence throughout these southern states, the area feels like it’s under military occupation and in many ways it is. 

The demands from the bulk of the locals and the rebels are fairly tame, few call for true secession, mostly the demands are for partially localised governance and independent schools. The Thai state’s inflexibility to these demands highlights it’s inflexibility in it’s nationalist and imperialist outlook, wherein the governing powers in Bangkok see anything within the clearly defined Thai borders as their own property, including those people on the outer reaches.

Malay Muslims in Thailand at prayer

Peoples as property

From observing how the Thai state treats its people in a similar way as it treats its territory it is clear that ‘auto-imperialism’ is one of the key drivers for the kingdom. The purpose of all this is to ‘capture’ these people and make them productive towards the imperial ‘central Thai’ core, as was exactly the same driver behind Western imperialism and colonialism. 

While much of European colonialism is now becoming confined to history, Thai expansionism is very much alive, as the restive populations continue to attempt to evade capture, be they in Isaan, the north, the deep south or elsewhere. The Thai state is still firmly rooted in its founding traditions of fascism, expansionism and loyalty to its imperial core, focused on expanding Thai hegemony as far as is possible in the 21st century. 

Further reading

Ethnicity, Borders, and the Grassroots Interface with the State: Studies on Southeast Asia in Honor of Charles F. Keyes by John A. Marston, 2014 Silkworm Books

The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia by James C. Scott, 2009 Yale University Press 

Subaltern Social Groups: A Critical Edition of Prison Notebook 25 by Anthonio Gramsci, Columbia University Press