Photo Credit: KhaoSod News/CC
Winds of Change
Since the involvement of select labour unions, I have begun to see potential in the protests happening in Thailand today. However, the protests need to rapidly take on a working-class character, they need to be brought to consider economic injustice, and they need to involve the people who live on the edge of Thai society if they are to be successful.
What once started as disillusioned youth protesting against the regime of Prayut’s Junta Party has now grown into a showcase of the different forms of injustice and inequality that plague Thai society. Appropriately, the initial demands put forward by the protest movement have grown in number and variety, now including the reforms on the monarchy and a diverse set of changes being demanded by a range of social groups.
This is all excellent and exciting, but in all of this fervour for social justice, we cannot forget how these injustices and inequalities all relate, come to be, and perpetuate themselves. Injustice and inequality come from an imbalance in power, some have too much, some do not have any at all. If the most powerful people in Thai society also happen to be the richest and most corrupt, is there not then some relationship between wealth and power? And therefore, wealth and oppression?
The wealth gap in Thailand is massive, our problems with corruption are no better, and there is little the average Thai citizen can do to overcome this within our current society. However, restructuring Thai society horizontally and around a greater degree of economic democracy would allow for social groups who have once been marginalized and oppressed to finally gain equal footing and create change as they are no longer held back by a barrier of finance capital.
So whilst calling for women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, education reform, democratic reform, and even reforms on the monarchy— although I do believe we should go further than reform— we should also remember that what fundamentally keeps us all down is the union between the State and Capitalism.
I outlined the relationship between Thailand, the Protests, and Capitalism already here, but with regards to the State, Mark Cogan, associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies in Osaka’s Kansai Gaidai University, recently opined in an article for Thai Enquirer that:
|| “The only path to undermining a regime is through non-violent means, as violence legitimises force by the state and creates factions within a protest movement”. ||
This take seems to consider the protests in a superstructural way, but not in terms of material realities. It recognises that within the structure of the Thai legislative and executive branches, any physical provocation carried out by the public towards a representative of the State can, and usually does, result in the Thai State retaliating. It also recognises that there are indeed ‘moderates’ within the movement who may withdraw their support for the protests if their support is seen as supporting violence— an alternative to withdrawing their support is diverting it elsewhere, creating parallel movements who differ on the use of violence.
I understand these two positions as important, however, they seem to be trapped in the socially acceptable discourse of Thai Society— for a lack of a better phrase, they do not think outside the box. Hence, I wish to respond to both points by offering a more hopeful and holistic view.
Legitimization of State Violence— Fighting on Uneven Ground
Under capitalist modernity, the State has a monopoly on violence. The State commands the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, Police, Border Patrol, and so on. Non-State violence is also under the purview of the State as it can be subject to judgement by the State’s judicial system— through legislation that is set based on the State’s ideology, as well as due to judgement passed by courts set up by the State and judges working for the State.
Following the Base-Superstructure model, this Monopoly on violence can be challenged via one of two ways:
- On an abstract, ideological level— the battleground that Cogan is concerned with.
- On a physical, material level— whereby through the alteration of material conditions, we can improve our chances of succeeding and also take control over the ‘ideological’/’superstructural’ battle as well.
What I mean here is that when you control the material realities that the abstract world is based on, then you can shape that abstraction on an ideological level; if you are a Thai elite, then having more money and material wealth means you have more influence in what laws are passed, what issues are pushed towards the forefront, and what industries get more support, hence the idea of the material influencing the abstract.
Over time, the doctrines and ideologies espoused by people with specific interests (the Monarchy, politicians who come from Money or the Military, and so forth) not only become ingrained in our legal documents and legislation, but also part of how we think. This is why I think Cogan and others warn against violence, not necessarily because they themselves do not see it as a viable tool, but rather because it is likely the majority of the Thai population do not see ‘violence’ in a positive light.
And yes, remaining non-violent should theoretically disable the State from exercising its monopoly of violence, however, it in no way stops those who are ideologically aligned with the State from being violent— i.e. the counter-protesters. As long as the State does not openly associate further with counter-protestors, then just like the paramilitary groups of 1976, the counter-protestors can do whatever they want because they are ‘independent actors’. Whilst the counter-protestors may or may not be funded by the State, they are given silent approval by the State because of what the State and Salim represent ideologically. Hence, there is a war on two fronts, and the fact of the matter is that the non-working class character of the movement detracts from its strength.
Unity for Unity’s Sake— What about the Moderates?
As for the fear of driving off the ‘moderates’, the middling level of support for the protests that exists is indeed precarious if the movement does not grow the same way it did around October. Comparing our struggle to the Hong Kong protests (as many people often do), there are probably fewer people in Thailand who are physically involved in the demonstrations, however, there is also the large contingent of online supporters who are working to conquer the important battlefield that is the internet— namely the Twitterverse. And so if Cogan is concerned with losing the support of the moderates if there is a turn towards violence, then there is a clear alternative to avoiding violence and trying to get the moderates to stick around.
‘Moderation’ or being a ‘moderate’ is usually related to not being completely invested in the outcome or implications of an event, movement, idea, etc. In our case, ‘moderates’ might be those who oppose the leadership of the Junta Party, but are not necessarily against the way the system is— meaning they might not be as interested in the reforms on the monarchy as they are interested in securing economic interests which were jeopardized by Prayut’s economic policy and so forth.
Given how quickly protestors turn to examples like 1973, the idea of creating a United Front definitely applied then. The workers in 1973 carried out a series of general strikes that saw the Thai economy in the hands of the working class for a brief time, but long enough for the general societal discontent to catch up with the student movement. Before too long, Thanom fled and a period of democracy followed. Rather than align with ‘moderates’ or the petit-bourgeois, the 1973 students stood in solidarity with workers and had them to thank for their victory— which in turn was a victory for the Thai people as a whole.
So rather than trying to appease a group of people who might cause the movement to betray its values and core goals, we should expand the themes of social justice, increased liberty, and increased democracy to include the issues and topics that concern the majority of the Thai people. We must create a genuine connection with those who are suffering the most at the hands of the State and Capitalism and invite them to join the struggle, at the forefront, not as a tokenized symbol of situational unity. Because at the end of the day, why try and preserve the current level of support when you can go out and generate more support? Through bolstering our numbers with the working class, we can ensure a growing movement in case anyone does get turned off by the protests.
Please Proletarianise the Protests
I beg of you, please proletarianize the protests. We don’t have to call for the People’s Republic of Siam, or completely destroy Southeast Asia’s Military-Capitalism, but the few unions who are already involved in the protests won’t be enough— given the low levels of unionisation and the general aversion that many labour groups (most of which are associated with international labour groups— the ILO, the Solidarity Centre) have towards militancy and agitation.
Hence we must extend our hand towards the workers themselves, but rather than espouse the standard Chula Liberal rhetoric of struggling for a more democratic country we should keep our ears to the ground and hear out their concerns first. To illustrate this, consider how over half of the Thai workforce is involved in either industrial or agricultural labour. Further still, consider how migrant labour in Thailand is exploited by companies operating locally, and given access to operate within Thailand by the State. Consider if the workers of Thailand might be more invested in ensuring they can achieve decent and liveable wages than whether hair can be short or not at Thai schools.
Specifically, I recall that last year that farmers and agricultural workers were threatening protests in response to an economic policy that negatively impacted them and curbed their rights. This is an example of what matters to the worker, not whether Pornhub is blocked or not— although I am aware that Pornhub themed protests are symbolic.
The symbolic battle against censorship is an example of focusing on the superstructural and in the abstract realm of ideology, rather the worker is concerned with the material. Struggling against symbols does not completely eliminate the institutions and systems that create said symbols. For example, ultraroyalist forces in 2017 might have removed the commemorative plaque for the 1932 Revolution, and protestors might have recently installed a pro-democratic plaque, but at the end of the day neither act has done much to alter the quality of democracy or how the State functions— rather the State continues to behave the way it has since 2014 and beyond regardless of what plaque adorns Sanam Luang.
This is not to say that the working class is not concerned with the state of democracy in Thailand. However, when you consider the negative effect of neoliberal Capitalism on the average Thai worker and the average Bangkokian living in, let’s say, Thong Lor, then one is likely to have their immediate economic and material interests in mind, whilst the other has the capacity and capital to spend more time not engaging in wage labour.
But whilst Capitalism claims that you are the owner of your own labour, if you work for companies like CP you are likely under direct control of not only the interests of the rich but also the State as they are known to collude. Prayut’s Junta Party is strongly supported by CP, Thaibev, Central Group and other large players from the Thai ruling class, yes there has been criticism of this during the protests, but I do not think there has been enough. Also if you are uncertain whether groups like CP would also, therefore, be against the protests, do remember that they ran advertisements against the Hong Kong protestors, and since everyone continues to compare Thailand’s protests with Hong Kong’s and drone on and on about the Milk-Tea Alliance, then would it not be safe to say that CP also disagrees with our protests?
Another example of when we should be more considerate of the working class and their needs is how we discuss the common theme of taxation. Despite the criticism of the PRPP’s use of taxes, we must recognise that taxation comes as a secondary cost to many of us. For example, if someone is earning the minimum daily wage in Korat, then they are not making enough money to even be taxed. However, they may be spending more on other things such as education, transport, food, medicine, purchases for work, and other necessities— expenditures that are exacerbated if they are the main/sole breadwinner.
Naturally, if they were working another job or found a higher paying job, then all of the above would likely still apply, however, now they also must pay taxes. This indicates that for those of us living in nice homes in cities like Bangkok, we are oxymoronically fortunate to be complaining about taxation, but we cannot forget that the way we should judge our society is by the way we treat our poorest, and the downtrodden of Thailand deserve our support. Hence, we must make it known that this movement is a Thai movement and that those who peddle the conspiracies that these protests are being pushed by some shady bankrollers are only trying to divide us more than the ruling class and the State already do.
So whilst abstract ideas like ‘democracy’ may not be as relevant as economic security to the majority of the country who live outside the larger cities, they can become relevant if we become aware of the working class as a group to be united with— like the United Front that brought down Thanom in ‘73— and work tirelessly to facilitate their integration and, ideally, leadership in our struggle.
At the end of the day, we must think of ourselves living like the person from Korat, and we must decide whether we will give more importance to the question of “can I put food on my table for my family?” or the question of “can I watch Pornhub?”.
Under No Pretext…
Finally, to unite the two themes of State violence and broadening the movement to be more accommodating of the working class, we must consider the role of violence in a revolutionary context. Granted, this does not mean we must immediately take up arms, but State violence cannot be matched on a 1:1 basis in the current circumstances as not only do the agents of the State have control over tools of violence, they also control the justice system and the ‘official’ narrative(s)— evidenced by their denial of the use of live rounds.
I would argue that to remain both safe and effective, any use of violence by the anti-government camp must be done with great secrecy, efficiency, and care. Whatever that manifests itself into, is to be seen, and not for me to say. But the lesson here is simple, opening our arms to the plight of the workers secures us a base of support that is greater than any physical or violent threat the State can levy against us— in a word, win over the workers, win the war.