Gabriel Ernst

How free is Thailand really and what use is freedom of speech?

In May of this year, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the liberal newcomer to Thai politics, hailed by many as the saviour of the Thai democratic movement, wrote on his Facebook page: “I would like to call for every citizen to not give in to injustice and to come together to fight for what is right, for the freedom of [the activists] and the people.”

Freedom of the people is an interesting term.

How much freedom does the typical Thai person have? Are they free to go to Kachanaburi Province tomorrow? How about to leave the country or to buy a brand new car? In the abstract sense, yes they all have that freedom. There are no laws in place to stop them from doing so, all of these things are technically possible, but does that mean they can do it? 

Do they have enough money to buy a new car? Can they take the time off of work to travel abroad or go to Kachanaburi? Without losing their job, going bankrupt and being unable to pay their rent and feed themselves. Probably not, I know I don’t. These things are plausible, but often, impossible.

These are the two types of freedoms at play here, abstract and realistic. If we assume the aim of liberal politicians is to increase the freedom of ordinary people, then surely they should be laser focused on increasing the realistic freedoms of those people.

Arguments are made that it is down to the individual to work hard to increase their realistic freedoms. Simply put, with more money comes more freedom and you should work hard to ensure that. However this argument appears to fall short in Thailand.

Earn for your freedom.

Let’s say a factory worker wants to increase their realistic freedoms. An obvious place to start would be unionising their co-workers to create a support system for the staff. The factory workers then could collectively go on strike to demand higher wages and more holiday time, thus increasing their realistic freedoms. This is of course, illegal in Thailand, as striking is virtually impossible in the kingdom.

Furthermore Thanathorn himself, squashed any kind of unionisation when he shut down his Rayong factory in (2006) when his workers tried to collectively demand for better work bonuses. Instead of advocating for workers freedom to organise, his Future Forward Party (FFP) are far more focused on creating a western style welfare state. Even one FFP Member of Parliament and former union leader, Wanwipa “Mod” Maison, has remained virtually silent on the issue. Using her platform to talk about the importance of welfare rather than unions. 

The issue however with western style welfare states is that almost all of the time, the welfare received is variable and dependent on the individual through means testing rather than universal welfare. This results in welfare systems like in the UK, where those on unemployment welfare are forced by the government, to work for private businesses to earn their welfare, which results in private businesses having almost free labour. A system which benefits only private business and offers very little in the way of freedom for ordinary people. 

What they’re offering

The liberal conception of freedom fails to look beyond the abstract, they often talk about freedom of speech and freedom of expression. These are no doubt important rights, but unless these rights can be utilised for gaining actual realistic freedoms they provide no use to helping people increase their quality of life and their capacity to be free.

What’s missing here is freedom of organising. The ability to, as mentioned earlier, unionise workers to help improve the quality of a groups real living conditions. This is no accident. The same intentional omission of this right can be seen repeated worldwide as liberal governments attempt to placate the people by providing them with abstract freedoms, so as to give them the feeling of freedom without the material benefits.

Alienation and Disassociation

In truth, liberal governments show very little interest in granting real freedoms, just the appearance of freedom. This trick works for a while but eventually the illusion wears off, leaving people feeling disassociated and alienated inside. While their leaders offer narratives of limitless possibility that seem increasingly hollow.

In the best case scenario for Thai liberals this future is just on the horizon, unless a more serious and radical voice enters Thai politics. As Thanathorn said “I would like to call for every citizen to not give in to injustice and to come together to fight for what is right, for the freedom of [the activists] and the people.” Thanathorn’s language is vague, non specific and abstract as well as intentional.

I would like this opportunity to call for Thanathorn and those in the democracy movement, to fight for real (not abstract) freedoms for all of the people, not just those who can afford it.