(Part 1): Why we can’t go back
The monthslong democracy protests continue to put pressure on the Junta Party and the rest of the ruling class. The recent protest at Democracy Monument has been one of the largest, if not the largest, demonstrations of public dissent in the last half-decade or so since the NCPO took power. However, as to be expected, most of the coverage of the events, as well as the events themselves, fall within a safe liberal democratic interpretation of politics. The overarching contention I have with the movement comes from the nature and the ethos of the initial demands set forth by a group that was once called the ‘Free Youth’ group and is now the ‘Free People’ as it has grown in popularity, with the added support from social groups as well as the student and youth activists.
It would probably be prudent of me to preempt my analyses with the reaffirmation of my support for the democratic protests and the movement as a whole, as I might be seen as unfairly criticising the movement for no reason. It is at this point that I must make the argument for self-criticism: If we aim to stamp out autocracy and anti-democratic elements in Thai society, then it is important the movement itself is as democratic as possible and does not harbour reactionary elements either inadvertently or by design.
Taking cues from the neoliberal element of the Hong Kong protests is one example of incorporating reactionary elements into a movement. The fact that so many Hong Kong pro-democracy activists were willing to ask the imperialist USA and their former colonial overlords for aid against the PRC is farcical and absurd. Western Democracies are also ironically some of the most ‘undemocratic’ states, given their historic and contemporary meddling in Asian affairs as well as their continued support for authoritarian regimes, not based on ideology, but based on what will benefit their economic interests— the Global South is their playground.
The Demands and Their Shortcomings
The initial three demands symbolised by the three-fingered salute from the Hunger Games are as follows:
- The dissolution of parliament
- The cessation of judicial harassment of dissenters
- The rewriting of the constitution since the 2017 constitution was written by the Junta
The vast majority of the pro-democracy activists cite the same combination of issues as the impetus for their political revolution. They focus on issues such as the lack of free speech, the poor education system, and the tanking economy. Assuming that the goals of the pro-democracy protests (aside from obviously establishing Thailand as a Democracy) are the reformation of the education system, increasing civil liberties, and improving the economy, the three demands seem to me to be quite naive and shortsighted. That is not to say that the demands are not important, but they should be considered the bare minimum in the first step towards Democracy.
Dissolving the parliament only goes so far as to strip the current politicians of power, but we have no control over who might be chosen next and how their sympathies may undermine the desire for a general progression towards Democracy.
Asking the rabid dogs of the Thai Justice system to hold off on attacking one group of people is to dance with the devil, as that does not encapsulate the fact that the justice system is heavily aligned with the old ruling elite and already oppresses us in a multitude of ways.
How can we be certain that rewriting the constitution, yet again, will be any different to the 20 times (including the 2017 constitution) it was edited and rewritten and co-opted by the elites and ignored? This is seemingly an exercise in futility. Furthermore, Constitutions are often tools of disempowerment rather than empowerment, what one is permitted to do is written in an official document and leaves no room for the nuances of reality or shifting relativism.
Although the saying goes “a bad workman always blames his tools”, the figurative tools of Thailand’s 88-year-old Democracy are rusty and ill-fitting for the goal of democratisation. We, the people, the manifestation of popular will, cannot and will not achieve Democracy in a society where the legislative and judicial system is not democratised as well.
Tackling the issues of Education, Civil Liberties, and the Economy requires democratisation in both the Political and Economic planes of Thai Society. To illustrate one interpretation of this struggle, I propose 3 core assumptions:
- The Political is organised around the Economic
- The Economic is organised around Class Interests
- Class Interests drive behaviour
The Economy and Democracy
A study by the Puey Ungphakorn Institute for Economic Research found that only 500 or so people hold over a third of Thailand’s corporate equity. Of these 500 people, each person ends up receiving over 3 Billion baht (more than 100 Million USD) a year in company profits alone. This is in stark contrast to the average annual household income of 10,000 USD. The 2018 Credit Suisse report found that Thailand was the most unequal country in ASEAN with a grotesque 90.2 Gini Coefficient, as a result of that, Thailand was ranked as the 4th most unequal Nation worldwide surveyed by Credit Suisse in 2018.
To add to these quantitative illustrations of Thailand’s wealth inequality, I ask residents of Bangkok, or any major Thai city, to look out the window of your home or your car or the train. Perhaps you live in a part of the city where things are generally all the same, such as the sprawl of suburban moo-baans, but where I live, I can see an embassy, a government ministry, malls, patches of unused land, khlongs and the people living alongside them, the remnants of an old labour camp, as well as recently constructed luxury condos which will never see maximum occupancy. The vast patchwork of the city, though not representative of the rest of Thailand, demonstrates the need for Economic Democratisation.
The interests of the ruling class — made up of powerful elites including the 500 people mentioned before — are centred around the continuation of amassing wealth and power so that they may maintain their lifestyle. This can only be done by exploiting and controlling the underclass — the working class, and parts of the lower middle class. Therefore, there is a conflict of interest, as the underclass — in a moderate scenario — simply wishes to survive and provide for their family and loved ones. In a more ambitious scenario, the underclass may strive to be as successful as their ruling class overlords, however, in either scenario they face difficulty because of a variety of economic barriers that prevent them from reaching their goals.
Not only are wages low and stagnant, but conditions may not be up to standard. Over four decades ago, an important union leader, Terdphum Chaidi said in a 1976 broadcast on the VoPT (Voice of the People of Thailand) radio:
“which among the some 70,000 enterprises and factories in Thailand — especially those owned by big monopoly capitalists, both local and foreign — conform to the labour law? None, none at all. All of them are above the labour law. No official has dared arrest any big capitalist for violation of the labour law.”
That’s it right there, the system no matter how ‘democratic’ in a Liberal sense it can get, will work for neither the people, the workers, nor for you or I. Although this speech was over 40 years ago, both the International Labour Organisation and the Solidarity Center are still finding glaring issues within Thailand’s labour law and its enforcement. It is this point of enforcement that suggests the Justice system requires intense restructuring and democratisation so that it is not swayed by ruling class interests, but is rather in the hands of the people.
However, before we begin considering political changes, economic changes must occur. Workers should be given more of a stake in their company, as it is they who keep it running. An economy is not kept alive by they who host the board meetings, but rather the employees whose lives are tied to the outcomes of the board meetings. Therefore, if workers can control their lives and control their own labour, Thailand will move towards democracy. However, if the Thai worker is beholden to the will of the ruling class, then no matter how Liberal and Democratic our government might be, we will still be oppressed by the dictatorship of the rich.
Essentially, Political Liberty is not Economic Liberty, but as the Political is organised around the Economic, then Economic Liberty is Political Liberty. Allowing someone to speak out against corruption does not mean corruption will end, seizing control of the means to carry out corruption, will. Discourse, though important, is not always translated directly to action.
We cannot touch the intangible concepts of Freedom or Liberty, however, we can alter the material conditions of our society and that includes reorganising the economy to be more allocatively efficient and democratic. Corporations do not know what we want, and even if they did, they only bend to ‘consumer demand’ because it suits their material interests. If we wish to produce what we want and have control of our lives, in a truly democracy sense, we must take control of our economy.
Education can then become decided by the community based on what the local needs are, civil liberties can exist so that we can express ourselves now that we are economically independent and not beholden to the Dictatorship of the rich, and the economy will work for us, not for the rich.
I implore that the pro-democracy activists understand that they are representing just one vein of thought in the modern Thai discourse, however, there are people in Isaan, the south, the north, and scattered throughout the industrial hubs of Central Thailand that were historically part of their own generation’s protests and movements that should be drawn from. Their demands were never met but their motivations have not withered away, and they must be incorporated into any subsequent movement. The pro-democracy movement must become a Liberation movement, one that will free us not just from Autocracy, but from Capitalism and hierarchical social structures too.
Furthermore, although COVID-19 has impeded the general movement, the impending doom of Climate Change has not disappeared. Economic Democratisation and worker control will allow Thailand to make leaps and bounds in a more environmentally friendly direction. An economy that is ripped away from the grasp of gas-guzzling corporations can be better organised to not only suit the needs of the Thai people but also prevent massive increases in carbon emissions and plastic output— given the fact Thailand contributes greatly to such issues.
In all, Thailand has the potential to be the first of the Southeast Asian nations to break from the “Khaki Capital” — the militaristic and authoritarian rule of the vast majority of SEA — and utilise the nation as an experiment in rapid democratisation. However, to do so, we require a unified front that draws on the anger of all marginalised and oppressed social and economic groups that constitute Thailand, we cannot rest our hopes solely on the backs of the youth whose reference to protest and revolution are typically the bourgeois revolts of the 21st century. But just to be clear, I wholeheartedly support them in their efforts to remove an unjust and undemocratic regime, I just hope they can draw more inspiration from their 1973 and 1976 counterparts, and not those who fight over 1700 Kilometres away.
(Part 2, How we go forward)
I must admit that I have my reservations about the Thai democracy protests. While attending last month’s protest at Kasetsart University, I was not exactly instilled with the greatest sense of hope for the movement’s theory and praxis. However, the sighting of labour organisers giving speeches at the Thammasat protest and the words of a youth protestor on a live broadcast from the 16th’s Democracy Monument protest have given me new hope. The latter said that if the working class joined with the students and the rest of the protestors, the government would have no option but to capitulate, I couldn’t agree more.
Constitutional Monarchism and Contradiction
However, many youth protestors and others in the movement have referenced the British Constitutional Monarchy and the Japanese Constitutional Monarchy as potential role models for Thailand’s future. The reality is that Thailand is closer to the Japanese model than we think. In 1932, the drafting of the first permanent constitution that was passed in December of that year was essentially an exercise in copying and pasting the 1889 Meiji constitution but with “Japan” scratched out and replaced with “Siam”. Each iteration of the constitution has retained the same borrowed elements about Royalty and therefore any new constitution would need special attention when it comes to how it chooses to treat the institution of the Monarchy.
Furthermore, simply because Queen Elizabeth II has the power to dissolve parliament, yet chooses not to, is less of a testament to her being a better Constitutional Monarch, and rather the result of centuries of Constitutional Monarchism and public pressure ossifying the British Monarch as a figurehead rather than a supreme head of state. The open criticism and fun that is often poked at the British Monarch generate a culture where Elizabeth knows her place, rather than her reminding her subjects of theirs.
Fundamentally, Constitutional Monarchism cannot function in the way we hope because of the imbalance between the power of the Monarchy and the power of the pro-democratic forces. The issue with the term ‘Constitutional Monarchy is based on the following premises:
- The term ‘Monarchy’ refers to the rule of one; it comes from the greek ‘mono’ meaning ‘one’.
- Though not all governments with constitutions are democracies, Aristotle considers both a democratic government and Constitutional government to be ‘governments of many’.
- Pluralistic governments and ‘governments of many’ are inherently democratic as they imply many people in society hold power— thus antithetical to the rule of one.
Then applying the Dialectic we see that ‘Constitutional Monarchies’ are contradictory and therefore cannot be democratic.
- Thesis: The status quo is the Monarchy, it is the rule of one over many.
- Antithesis: The opposite of the rule of one is the rule of many. Therefore, democracies, constitutions, and ‘governments of many’ are antithetical to Monarchism.
- Synthesis: Constitutional Monarchies are then made up of Democratic and Anti-Democratic elements, however, according to the Dialectical Law of the Quantitative into the Qualitative, the fact that the Monarchy is more powerful than the democratic forces means that any resulting synthesis of the two would have the initial Thesis— the Monarchy— be more dominant than the Antithesis— Democratic forces. This is similar to how pouring a cup of hot water into a bucket of cold water barely changes the bucket’s overall temperature.
Therefore, any attempt to reconcile any notion of ‘democracy’ with the institution of the ‘Monarchy’ will fail. So far, the pro-democracy activists have been met with pro-monarchy backlash, even though direct opposition to the institution has not been explicit to the point of calling for its dismantlement. However, the institution has been an important part of the Thai political discourse for as long as Thailand has had a ‘constitutional monarchy’ and one specific detractor of the Monarchy is worth revisiting.
The Legacy of the “Red Siam” Manifesto
Giles Ji Ungpakorn, Marxist and lese-majeste induced exile, has written a bevvy of articles and texts on Thailand and its societal woes. His relevance to the ongoing protests is in the demands and desires of the protestors. Recently, the protestors have added a set of reforms on the Monarchy to their demands. The essence of the 10 point reformation of the Institution of the Monarchy is as follows:
- Constitutional reforms— revoking Article 6 of the 2017 constitution and Article 112 of the Criminal Code, both limits on freedom of speech with regard to the Monarchy
- Economic reforms— revoking the 2018 Crown Property Act and adjusting the national budget so that less is spent on the Monarchy and Crown property is seized.
- Structural reforms— the abolition of Royal Officers, Royal Security details and the Privy council, and steps towards auditing of the Monarchy’s assets.
- Societal Reforms— these are attempts to alter how society interacts with the institute of the Monarchy such as: prohibiting the propagation of the Monarchy’s political opinions (including support for future coups) and education reform to change the way the Monarchy is taught in school.
These are all spiritual successors to Ungpakorn’s 4th clause in his Red Siam Manifesto and the rest of the current pro-democracy movement informally encompasses elements of clause 1, 2, 5, and 6— concerning democracy, increased civil liberties, decreasing support for the military, and reformation of the justice system. Ungpakorn wrote the “Red Siam” Manifesto in 2009 in response to the economic and political upheaval at the end of Thaksin’s rule, with special focus on the People’s Alliance for Democracy— who ironically was quite undemocratic. The platform he lays out has been collectively accepted by the current pro-democracy movement, though not through direct expressed by them, the very fact that his ideas remain relevant and part of the conversation today means that Thailand has made little to no progress in the last decade.
The learning point here is that although the manifesto is but 9 clauses long, it is detailed enough to tackle a variety of the issues that plague Thai society today. It is what the pro-democracy movement should be, something that tackles the ills of Thailand on a broad and structural basis, not something that calls for a specific action that has been known to be part of a cycle that continues to fail us.
This is what the movement needs, detailed analyses and deliberate platforms that encourage action in addition to the well-crafted optics and public spectacles that these protests are. Credit where credit is due, the protesters are good at utilising social media and co-opting pop culture in a means to create a wide-reaching network of activists. But what is being shared barely scratches the surface of any potential Marxist critique of Thai society.
The Relevance of Radical Thought
Marxism itself is still a valid lens for societal analysis, despite what some of the activists might say. During the Kasetsart protest, I overheard a conversation behind me concerning university students in favour of Communism. One individual — an older woman — was saying how “communism is outdated and it won’t work in the modern world”, however, this is likely based on a misunderstanding of Communism and the models employed around the world.
I wish to reiterate my previous point for the need for Economic Democratisation and Worker Empowerment to attain Democracy and outline why Communism is not outdated. According to Marxism, Communism is the next stage of society after today’s bourgeois capitalism. Again, I am assuming the following:
- The political is organised around the Economic
- The Economic is organised around Class Interests
- Class Interests drive behaviour
The Military, the Police, and other State forces all fall under the control of the Monarchy, and the Military has infiltrated the political arena, alongside the rich. This results in a quadripartite (The Military, The Monarchy, the Political Class, and the Rich) hold on Thai society, where the rich and powerful dominate the rest of the population. To empower the underclass and the oppressed— politically— they must achieve a level of material— economic— success to compete with the vast resources held by the quadrumvirate. The quadrumvirate divides the control over the nation amongst itself in new ways to convince the rest of us that change is occurring.
Since 2008, the Thai PMs have been the following:
- Thaksin Shinawatra— a wealthy businessman with his own company
- Sonthi Bunyaratkalin— former Commander in Cheif of the Army and multimillionaire
- Surayud Chulanot— former Supreme Commander of the Army and Rama X’s Privy Counsellor
- Samak Sundaravej— who was married to a CP financial advisor and was involved in the violence at Thammasat in 1976
- Somchai Wongsawat— Thaksin’s brother-in-law
- Chavarat Charnvirakul— put in place by the Constitutional Court of Thailand (a body that has no elected representatives, yet is responsible for gauging the constitutionality of governmental and royal acts and degrees).
- Abhisit Vejjajiva— a foreign-born, foreign-educated career politician that Human Rights Watch accused of massive censorship who was also Boris Johnson’s classmate and whose first cousin was aligned with the Yingluck cabinet.
- Yingluck Shinawatra— Thaksin’s sister.
- Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan— Vice-Chairman of Thaksin’s Shin Corporation since 2000.
- Prayut Chan-o-cha— former Commander in Cheif of the Army.
This demonstrates that despite changes in leadership, those that are put in power are either members of the quadrumvirate themselves or are placed there by the quadrumvirate. Hence, a Marxist interpretation would argue that the only way to prevent this practice continuing is to replace the dictatorship of the rich and powerful with the leadership of the commoners, the working class, and the marginalised populations of Thai society. If liberal democracy is seen as a preferred alternative to the Marxist road to economic democratisation, worker liberation, and socialism, then there is no way to secure the gains of the pro-democracy movement as the quadrumvirate will persist. Therefore, Communism is not outdated, as for us— the underclass— to secure our interests (namely democracy) we must secure the economic apparatuses and processes of Thailand so that we may achieve our political goal.
Modern Problems Require Older Solutions
Fundamentally, the protests aim to motivate the government to act. This is evidenced by the fact that the movement has demands that explicitly state this. This is in contrast to what the protests could be used for. I believe that rather than gathering the protestors to take direct action that will democratise the nation— through mutual aid networks, exercises in direct democracy, and mass strikes— the protests actually gather concerned citizens to collectively beg and plead the government to give them democracy. The protestors are not ‘putting pressure’ on the government, they are begging them. The government does not have to respond favourably, and historically it has not always done so, therefore, taking cues from other (non-bourgeois) revolutions and movements may prove useful. In fact, there is no need to look beyond Thailand’s own history.
In 1973, in the months leading up to the October 14th popular uprising, 40 general strikes were carried out during a time of great labour repression— the workers were not afraid of breaking laws to move towards a better society. One of the strikes at the Thai Steel Company was particularly successful because other workers from other industries and trades stood in solidarity with them— they recognised that worker solidarity is powerful. This, coupled with the increased progressivism of the growing university student population, allowed for the conditions that led to the incident. Afterwards, Bangkok became a strange Paris Commune style microcosm of mutual aid networks. Boy Scouts directed traffic, people volunteered to clean up the streets, and previously banned books were back in circulation.
The student protests occurred during a period of workers’ strikes, the force from two incredibly powerful and important parts of society is what ultimately caused the regime to buckle under their solidarity’s strength. Strikes and other forms of direct action have been used all around the world to undermine the state government’s power over society. If all of a sudden society is becoming more reliant on itself, and on day-to-day democratic processes that aim to empower the community, then the government can no longer hold our liberty hostage. As of now, the constitution is a gun to our heads and the ruling class can cock it, shoot it, or replace it for a bigger gun at any point in time. Historically, industrial agitators have been able to acquire proverbial guns of their own and were able to hold their own against their oppressors.
Catalonia in the 1930s worked wonders with their direct democratic control over businesses and society— they did not need representatives to speak for them, they spoke and took action by themselves. Rojava today is doing the same, and Mutual Aid networks in Ukraine and Greece have countered their economic and political turmoil. These are examples of taking control back from the powerful, not asking them for a concession that they can take back at any point in time. Perhaps the pro-democracy activists can learn from them. Seizing control of the pipeline that fuels the ruling class through actions like blocking highways, organising strikes, and even shutting down public works and universities will be more effective at getting the government to capitulate whilst simultaneously taking control of Thai society for the sake of the ผู้น้อย (pu noi, little people). It could accomplish that which Free People set out to do, and so much more.
In summary, unless there is a newfound emphasis on how the economic interests of the ruling class constrict the liberties of the youth, the poor, the working class, the LGBTQ+ community, and the ethnic minorities of Thailand, a new liberal democracy means nothing and stands for little more than Prayut does. But as long as the pro-democracy activists stand in the face of oppression, power to them.
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.
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.
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
Reflections on Thailand in the context of the BLM movement
In the midst of ostensibly good-faith discussions on Racism in the United States, and more importantly for myself, regarding Thailand, I have found that several key points about Thailand’s systemic racism are often overlooked. I have seen, supported, and engaged in discussions about why we need to hold each other accountable on an individual basis, however, I fear that talking will not solve our societal injustices permanently outside of a brief ‘feel-good’ period where individuals try to reforge culture before material conditions that shape society— and culture— creep up on us and scuttle our brief successes.
If in the United States, the police are shown to uphold systemic racism, what are some sources and examples of systemic racism in Thailand? Here Capitalism leads to the exploitation of migrant workers, the State alters attitudes towards Chinese people due to National Agenda changes, and the country’s history of Fascism is linked with the erasure and exclusion of communities outside a manufactured ‘national identity’.
To paraphrase and repurpose a Kwame Ture quote: in order for your discourse to be successful, whomever you target your discourse at must have a conscience— i.e. the capacity to think. You cannot talk to a construct; you cannot sit down and convince Capitalism to stop favouring Racism. Capital Accumulation is dependent on lowering the cost of production. If a Capitalist intends to turn a larger profit, he will not decrease the quality of his machines, the quality of his raw resources, nor the dividends and profits destined for his or his shareholder’s pockets. It is more likely for him to slash wages or find labour willing to work for less. In Thailand— and in much of the world— this translates directly to Racism through the existence of cheap migrant labour.
Capital, Labour, and Racism
I pose a simple question: what distinguishes the Thai Labourer from the Burmese Labourer or the Khmer Labourer? I find the answer is not their self-worth, not necessarily their skill, but rather it is their ability to be pushed around and exploited.
The International Labour Organisation and the Solidarity Center have been working with Thai Unions and workers to ensure that the government upholds international labour standards. However, years ago, the spotlight was shone on what is essentially slave labour in the Seafood and Fruit industries as migrant workers were getting their documents seized in order to force them into work— slavery was common in Siamese history, however for it to be present in ‘modern’ Thailand is shameful.
Even today I have yet to hear of legislation allowing migrant labour to form unions— even though there was some pressure from the United States just two years ago. Thailand’s Labour rights are dodgy at best and nearly non-existent for migrant labour, even with the 2017 NCPO Foreign Work Order, as courts often take the side of the company due to corruption and the capitalist profit motive which forces social institutions to unite against exploited and oppressed people in the defence of the accumulation of capital.
Essentially, aside from Thai society’s subtle racist and xenophobic attitudes, Thailand’s institutions also systematically reinforce and disadvantage those of other nationalities and races— namely Burmese and Khmer in terms of migrant labour.
However, these issues link to people coming from outside of the nation’s borders, what about the oppressed who exist within? Thailand’s many ethnic minorities have gone from successful communities to shadows of their former glory due to the Sakdina system (Siamese caste system) and Siamese auto-imperialism that laid the foundations for Luang Phibunsongkhram’s fascist dreams and his Palingenetic Ultranationalist efforts that included state-sanctioned Sinophobic sentiments and cultural mandates that undermined the diversity of the citizens of both historic Siam and ‘modern’ Thailand.
State, China, and Racism
On that point of Sino-Thai relations, Thailand’s strange relationship with China goes to demonstrate the relationship between the State and Capital Accumulation and how Racism is necessitated by leaders who desire a strong national identity and increased state power.
The ethnic majority of Thailand, the Tai, came from Guangxi in modern-day China. Over time they started developing a distinct culture from the Tai that spread into modern Vietnam, Laos, and so forth. Over time, Thailand benefited from an influx of Chinese migrants that included a lot of manual labourers and rickshaw drivers— a lot can be learned at the Thai Labour Museum near Makkasan Station. Over time, this economic boom soon turned sour as the Chinese labourers rose to become powerful and influential members of society and ethnic Thais became more and more hostile towards their success. In 1914, under a fake name, King Rama 6 (whose statue adorns the entrance of Lumpini Park) published an article called “The Jews of the East”, an anti-semitic and sinophobic rant about how the ethnic Chinese are loyal to their race and money, rather than their King or country.
The sinophobia only got worse as Siam observed its transition to a ‘constitutional monarchy’ in 1932, but in 1938 Phibun became Prime Minister and tried to counter the economic power of the ethnic Chinese, despite being of Chinese descent himself. This racism towards ethnic Chinese was state-sanctioned and came as a result of his other ultranationalist and fascistic tendencies and edicts. After his removal, and his coup to reinstate himself, Phibun realised that he had an opportunity to further his ideological agenda by allying himself against Mao and the eventual People’s Republic of China. However, one might characterise this as an anti-communist stance, but this foreign policy was coupled with a domestic policy of shutting down Chinese schools, social associations, and the limiting of Chinese immigration, and is, therefore, more in line with an Ultranationalist stance. Therefore, the point of the Anti-Chinese sentiments during Phibun’s time was to divorce any notion of Tai heritage from the exodus from Chinese lands. This further aims to add to the National Mythos which not only deified past Kings, but also tries to assert that Thai society is not only homogenous, but also unique and does not have any roots outside of the borders of the State (which I believe is evidence to support the claim that Phibun’s Nationalism incorporated Palingenetic Ultranationalism, but that’s for another time). I would also argue that Phibun did this to disassociate ‘Chineseness from communism’. There was a similar practice in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Since then, Thailand has grown cosy to the Chinese— as demonstrated by the massive yearly intake of Chinese tourists. You might argue that the sinophobia dissipated over time, however, I would argue that the sinophobia was necessitated by Rama 6 and Phibun’s consolidation of state power and the ossification of national identity. Bismarck engineered war against France as the final move to unify Germany under a single Germanic identity— it is the same here. Pinpointing the ‘Chinese’ as the ‘them’ or the ‘other’ makes it easier for Phibun to manufacture a sense of ‘us’ within the Thai nation-state. Hence, Racism has been employed in the not too distant past as a State tool in Thailand. Furthermore, the PRC supported the Communist Party of Thailand and therefore the anti-communist doctrine of Thailand made it so relations with China would not benefit Thailand as it was aiding the USA in their bombing campaigns in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.
Today, the sinophobia has been switched off because of the efficiency of the Chinese economic machine, and the other benefits that come with Chinese investment in Thailand. In the pursuit of Capital Accumulation, the State and the ruling classes have agreed that manufacturing positive relations with China— and the Chinese community— are necessary to ensure economic success (given that Thailand knows it could be completely destroyed by China if relations were to deteriorate).
Ultranationalism, Phibun, and Racism.
Aside from the sinophobia associated with Phibun’s administrations, there is also the matter of his 12 Cultural Mandates that worked to strengthen the national identity mentioned before. 12 is quite a few to unpack, but here are the mandates that focus on the cultural homogenisation of the country. The four mandates that relate to the question of cultural homogenisation are mandates 1,3,9, and 10.
Mandate 1 says: “The country, people and nationality are to be called ‘Thai’.” “Thai” has been argued to mean many things from “People” to “Free” to even “Free People”. However, it is first and foremost a reference to the ethnic Tai people who migrated here from China. Etymologically various countries are the same, with “Land” (or their language’s equivalent— i.e. the Central Asian ‘stans) as a suffix to the root word which denotes an ethnic group or a “people”. This is how the term “Thailand” was indeed constructed by Luang Wichitwathakan. Do remember that Thailand is locally referred to as ประเทศไทย, transliterated to: The Country of Thai, the Thai Country, or even The Country that is Thai. If that doesn’t qualify as directly linking the Nation-State with Race, then I don’t know what does. Phibun did this in the knowledge that individuals within the border of the nation come from a vast and varied set of cultures and ethnic groups— ranging from the Lisu in the north to the Maniq in the south. The reference to a singular ethnic group as representative of a collection of heterogeneous people is State-sponsored racial erasure.
Mandate 3 states that citizens of Thailand will “use the name ‘Thai’ to refer to all Thai people, without subdividing them”. This further adds to the points raised from Mandate 1, but also demonstrates a standardisation of “Thainess”. “Thaification” is a process where various ethnic groups and non-dominant cultural practices are replaced by behaviour and practices that are enforced by the dominant Thai ruling class. Given that the seat of governmental and royal power lay in Bangkok and economic power centred around Capital Accumulation is centralised in Bangkok, Central Thailand became Thailand. The dialect spoken by the Central region was enforced Nation-wide, the customs and the traditions of the Central region was enforced Nation-wide, subservience to the State and King was enforced Nation-wide; more erasure. Thankfully, the erasure was unsuccessful and there is still a varied set of traditions around the nation, yet one only wonders what was lost in the erasure process.
Mandate 9 is quite long, and has two main points. The first point concerns the Thai language and how “Thai people must extol, honour and respect the Thai language, and must feel honoured to speak it” as well as ‘teach’ —albeit in a rather ‘condescending’ and linguistically colonial way— Thai to those who do not speak it. Secondly, combining treatment of the Thai language and the erasure of regional and cultural differences, the mandate also states “Thai people must not consider place of birth, residence, or regional accent as a marker of division… Thai people must consider it their duty to conduct themselves as good Thai citizens should, and … instruct those who do not yet know and understand their duty… to … the Thai nation.” Reading this mandate, one might think that it promotes a sense of unity amongst Thai people, but much like the German unification project, this mandate only serves the creation of an idealised single sense of “Thainess” out of an existent plurality of vibrant and diverse cultures. There is a clear attempt to normalise erasure and exclusion of those who speak other dialects (non-central Thai) as well as the other languages spoken by non-Tai ethnic groups.
Mandate 10 further works towards Phibun’s dreams of bringing european-style fascism to Thailand. It states that “Thai people should not appear at public gatherings, in public places, or in city limits without being appropriately dressed”. This is not only an example of increased State control, but also the state-sanctioned erasure of culture through the imposition of an ‘appropriate’ style of dress that invalidates the customs and cultures of citizens within Thailand who did not desire to subscribe to european customs. The mandate further states: “inappropriate dress includes wearing only underpants, wearing no shirt, or wearing a wraparound cloth”. This strengthens the argument that the mandate is hiding racial antagonism, as we see that his attitude towards Tradition is neither consistent nor genuine. The ‘wraparound cloth’ (ผ้าขาวม้า) to which I assume he refers to is a staple of Thai clothing of both the Central-Thai and the regional-Thai, and through the invalidation of a cultural practise, he has tried to further build the one-ness of the Thai national identity— all in an attempt to build the Fascistic Ethnostate with the aid of the Palingenetic Ultranationalist notion of ‘national rebirth’.
All of this to say, Thailand has not treated its ethnic groups with much respect. Today, it is the same. An activist for the Karen people, Polajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, was found burned in an oil drum which was dumped in a reservoir in a nature reserve. The last time I heard about oil drums and killings, it was when the Thai state captured and killed Communists in the 70s, so it is no stretch to imagine that this was orchestrated by the State or those loyal to it. The reality is that local activists are suppressed and ethnic minorities are often trivialised and turned into tourist attractions— which does economically benefit some ethnic communities, however, not all are turned into lucrative tourist attractions which disadvantages these groups, as there is no national push or safety net to preserve these cultures.
In conclusion, not much has really changed in terms of power structures in Thailand’s social and economic organisation, therefore it stands to reason that issues of Racism are still present in Thai society— if not as a result of ignorance, then as a result of centuries of systematic racism that probably started as a group of displaced peoples trying to forge an identity and a home for themselves. With that in mind, those that have and still identify as non-Thais/non-Tais whilst residing within the country’s borders should be given the same rights and respect that a self-identifying Thai would.
If it’s a better Thailand you want, Thailand can only do better upon its Liberation from that which oppresses the supposedly “Free People” (i.e. Crown, State, and Capital). In terms of what we can do for those protesting as part of the BLM movement, make sure you pitch in wherever you can and listen to the instruction and expertise of those who know more than you—i.e. Black activists and Black intellectuals like Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and Assata Shakur. Changing the material conditions for these oppressed people will allow them to better break their chains, and it would be a disservice as an Asian not to say: Yellow Peril Supports Black Power.
The Origin of Modern Official State Ideology in Thailand by Eji Murashima, 1988
Pibulsongkram’s Thai Nation-Building Programme during the Japanese Military Presence, 1941-1945 by Thamsook Numnonda, 1978
Nationalism and Anti-Statehood in Thailand by Gabriel Ernst, 2019
The Art of Not Being Governed (An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia) by James C. Scott, 2009