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Thailand: Youth rising against hated junta
Protest leaders call for general strike on 14 October
Yuva, Sosialis Alternatif (CWI Malaysia)
Since the beginning of this year, Thailand has witnessed the rising up of young people and students, who have launched massive pro-democracy protests in several major cities, colleges, and universities.
Although initially only concentrated in certain higher education institutions, the protests have already begun to spread to the streets and are attracting many working people into action. This movement was interrupted temporarily at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in March, but has resurfaced with a renewed vigour since the start of July.
On 24 September, a reported 50,000 protesters gathered in the capital Bangkok demanding the ousting of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha, the ex-army general who seized power in 2014. The student protest leaders also called for the powerful monarchy to be reformed and for a general strike on 14 October.
The reaction of Thailand's youth and students was sparked when the military-controlled government banned one of the opposition political organisations, the Future Forward Party, which had garnered the support of youth in the last general election.
Although this was the trigger for the latest democracy movement in Thailand, the country had already been in a prolonged political crisis for almost two decades. Since the military coup in 2006 that toppled the rule of Thaksin Shinawatra, the Thai ruling class has not succeeded in establishing a stable government.
In the last 15 years, Thailand has experienced two separate military coups. The first was when the Thaksin government was overthrown, and the second when the government, led by Thaksin's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was overthrown in 2014.
The political figures who fell victim to military repression, such as Thaksin and Yingluck, are representatives of neoliberal capitalists who are hostile towards the crony capitalists under the control of the military and the monarchy. They represent entrepreneurs who are aiming to build a capitalist structure free from the clutches of the monarchy and the military, which is widely seen as hindering the economic development of Thailand.
Meanwhile, the monarchy and the military bureaucracy, who control some parts of the economy, are in a prolonged struggle to safeguard their interests and privileges.
Thaksin and Yingluck, together with their Pheu Thai Party, made use of populist slogans to gain support, especially from the rural communities.
They promised various infrastructure reforms for the poor and provided aid or gifts in the form of money payments, computers, household appliances, food items, and so on, during their rule. As a result, this political wing had managed to gain support from the poor, especially in large numbers from farmers in northern Thailand.
Supporters of Thaksin and Yingluck are dubbed the 'Red Shirt' movement, and in the past launched huge protests that temporarily crippled the Thai economy.
This mass movement was seen to be growing again in the wake of the political coups against both the Shinawatras. But it was repressed by the monarchy and the military.
The traditional political representation of the monarchy and the military bureaucracy is the Democratic Party - led by former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.
Since losing power in the 2005 election, the military bureaucracy has tried several times to reinstate the Democratic Party back into power, but they have failed to gain electoral support. As a result, the military has instead directly held power for a prolonged period. It has also implemented major adjustments to the national constitution to ensure military-bureaucratic control.
Followers of the Democratic Party are known as the 'Yellow Shirts' and have the support of the middle classes, mostly based in Bangkok.
They have even managed to organise a few mass actions in the capital in the past. However, their grassroot support is nowhere as great as that of the Red Shirts. Their strength is still dependent on nationalist propaganda that elevates the monarchy and military institutions.
In 2014, after the election victory of the Pheu Thai Party and Yingluck being named prime minister, the Thai army, under the command of General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, launched a coup d'etat. It took over the Thai government under the auspices of the National Council of Peace and Order.
The junta government has also used its power to ban some opposition organisations, arrest hundreds of activists, and suppress the media.
After five years of military rule, an election took place last year. Various dirty tricks were deployed to guarantee success for the Palang Pracharat Party, established by the military bureaucracy and led by General Prayuth Chan-Ocha.
Nevertheless, the opposition Pheu Thai still managed to get most parliamentary seats, with 136. Palang Pracharat won 116 seats, and the newly formed Future Forward Party won 81 seats.
However, the process for selecting the prime minister was changed from how it was before, and as many as 250 senators, appointed by the military, could also vote to choose the prime minister.
Therefore, despite not getting a majority in the general election, Prayuth Chan-Ocha has managed to secure his position by using the support of the 250 senators.
The candidate who really got the majority in parliament, based on elected MPs, is the leader of the Future Forward Party (FFP), Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit.
Despite this, the government has not managed to achieve the freedom to legislate and act as it pleases. Opposition parties in the parliament have formed an 'anti-junta' bloc.
Among the general population, the Prayuth-led government is seen as corrupt and undemocratic. The military bureaucracy, together with its leader, Prayuth, has also been linked with a massive international corruption scandal ('1MDB') which saw the previous Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak recently sentenced to a 12-year prison term.
The military regime has also been exposed over its failure to handle the Covid-19 pandemic. While the cronies close to the junta are making record profits, the population of Thailand is facing mass unemployment and austerity measures.
Prayuth Chan-Ocha and his regime have begun to increase repression against opposition parties. Leaders of the FFP have been jailed on baseless allegations and the party itself was banned shortly thereafter. This action angered the people, especially the youth, who have sparked the current protest movements.
Although the FFP has the support of the youth, it also represents capitalist interests very similar to other parties, such as Pheu Thai. The leader of the FFP is a multi-millionaire rooted in a wealthy business dynasty.
The FFP wants only to reform the capitalist system so that it can function for the sake of those capitalists who are in tune with them. There are no signs that ordinary people will automatically benefit, especially economically, if the FFP takes control of the government.
In the interest of developing the capitalist economic system, the political structure of Thailand is being torn apart.
There is a major conflict between the crony capitalists who have traditionally ruled the country and the internationally linked capitalists who want to open up the Thai market and establish a different kind of government.
Workers and poor people, who have been the victims of economic crises, government violence, and iron-clad rule by the military regime, do not have political leadership that truly represents their interests.
Earlier this year, Thailand was the country most severely affected by the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic in South East Asia. This lead to the collapse of its tourism industry on which the Thai economy so heavily depends. As a result, the Thai economy is expected to decline by almost 10% this year.
The unemployment rate in Thailand is also expected to reach as high as 25%, not counting the millions of unregistered informal workers who are losing their livelihoods daily. The people are now also facing a political crisis that will spark further tensions and create situations of instability.
In the past, and again today, Thai people have shown a tremendous capacity to fight, even without a clear leadership. The students have taken on the military with their own bare hands, risking prison and even death.
Mass workers' party
The working class of the cities and poor of the countryside in Thailand need a mass workers' party that can unite all the struggles of the people and fight for the will of the majority.
All the parties that exist in Thailand, including anti-junta organisations such as the Pheu Thai and the FFP, are simply representative of one wing or another of the capitalists and are at odds with the interests of the working-class majority.
Ultimately, the so-called progressive parties will also exploit the Thai working class and oppress them upon gaining power.
The anger of the people will only be used as a tool to shape a different form of oppressive structure, even if it is a 'clean' rather than openly corrupt capitalism.
These capitalist political organisations offer no real solutions to the perils facing the Thai majority and will be subordinated to the will of the capitalist class all over again.
The fight ahead
Young people and students who are protesting in the streets have become more courageous in raising anti-monarchy demands in addition to the demand for democracy. The actions of these youth are incredibly bold considering that in Thailand, any criticism of the monarchy could result in severe prison sentences and was a very rare occurrence in the past.
Technically, the protests led by young people and students over the past months were deemed to be illegal by the Thai regime under the Covid-19 emergency laws, and hundreds of arrests followed a brutal crackdown on protests.
Despite only two reported Covid-19 infections in September, Prayuth attempted to politicise the virus by criticising on TV the recent mass pro-democracy demonstration for potentially creating new infections. However, even the UK government has recently lifted quarantine restrictions on travellers from Thailand.
The bold action by the students and youth who are defying a notoriously repressive regime is inspiring the Thai population. Thai youth have pledged to continue their struggle under the 'Free Youth' umbrella and are planning various actions, including one scheduled to take place in Thammasat University at the end of September.
They are determined to carry on with protest action until their demands are met - for the prime minister to resign and dissolve parliament, for the constitution to be amended to include democratic practices, and to stop the government repression towards political opponents and critics immediately.
Thousands of Thai protesters have taken to the streets in an unprecedented fashion, chanting "Down with dictatorship!" and "The country belongs to the people".
Already, these protests have forced the government to hold a parliamentary dialogue forum to discuss all the students' demands and proposals, including issues surrounding the monarchy.
This will be the first time in recent memory where issues regarding the reform of the monarchy will be raised in parliament and a challenge made to arbitrary punishment meted out for 'lèse-majesté' (offending the king).
However, no concrete solution can be achieved simply through parliamentary means. The government is dominated by pro-capitalist forces on all sides. In order to gain any kind of reform which will be beneficial to the masses, the existing structure of capitalist politics must be challenged by formulating a clear alternative to the system.
The current mood of the masses in Thailand is ripe for a successful battle with the oppressors, and the youth movement should be harnessed in the direction of replacing the capitalist system, rather than depending on one or other of the capitalist representatives who are unable to deliver any meaningful change.
At the same time, the youth must also raise their demands and formulate an economic and class-based programme to attract the workers and poor farmers into this democracy movement. It's a big step forward that the student leaders are calling for a general strike on 14 October. However, this must be concretised with working-class organisations, in particular, the trade unions.
Thailand also needs the establishment of a revolutionary party that can bring a clear political perspective to the mass movement and the working class. A meaningful change for the people cannot be achieved as long as the capitalist system is enslaving the Thai people.
The alternative, socialism, which would materially benefit the majority in society, should be the aim of the mass movement. Only with a planned economy, democratically controlled and run by the working class, will a complete redistribution of wealth and sustainable economic growth be ensured in Thailand and internationally.
Flouting his wealth while the majority suffer
After the death in 2017 of King Bumiphol - a popular figure - the Thai army began to lose its credibility, especially since Bumiphol's successor, his son Vajiralongkorn, is generally very unpopular.
Vajiralongkorn is considered an irresponsible leader, and his name is often connected with various scandals that have been exposed worldwide.
The king of Thailand is the richest monarch in the world, with his wealth estimated at $45 billion.
Recently, the new king made headlines when he flew in his private Boeing 737 jet to a 'quarantine vacation' in an exclusive retreat in Germany. He was accompanied by an entourage of over 100, including his harem. This took place at the end of March, at a time when the Thai population was being strangled by the crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
There was also an internal conflict within the monarchy after the death of Bhumipol. In the 2019 general election, the sister of the king, Ubolratana, was named as the prime ministerial candidate for a new party that opposes the military junta government. However, this attempt was ridiculed and criticised heavily by Vajiralongkorn and the government banned Ubolratana from contesting altogether.
In The Socialist 23 September 2020:
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