Mass defiance shakes the Thai regime
Mass defiance shakes the Thai regime)

After protesters waged an extraordinary week of mass defiance across the country, the Thai government on 22 October lifted a state of emergency that had banned all gatherings of five or more people. This is a significant crack in the facade of a military regime with a track record of gunning down pro-democracy activists, driving them into exile and even running death squads to assassinate them abroad. For now, the resurgent democracy movement has stared down the generals, and it has done so in exhilarating fashion.

In the last ten days, there have been daily mass protests across the country, driven by students and including a few large contingents of organised blue-collar workers. Crowds now swear in unison against Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, and even raise demands against the monarchy—scenes that would have been unimaginable just twelve months ago.

The regime made the emergency decree a week earlier, banning several critical media outlets and dramatically increasing the number of arrests. This was supposed to contain the wave of pro-democracy protests that have been surging since February and which have reached the scale of genuine mass upheaval since August. At the very least, the government hoped to intimidate enough people so that any future protests would be small enough for cops and soldiers to beat or shoot off the streets. The cops tried that, unleashing pepper-spray-laced water cannons against young student protesters who were the first to defy the decree.

But the students stood their ground. In fact, they took the fight right up to the riot cops. When images of these scenes flooded social media, it tapped into people’s deep anger, bringing more protesters than ever into the streets. Injured students began turning up at hospitals and, by the next day, hundreds of doctors from hospitals across Bangkok had signed an open letter condemning the government. Day after day since the declaration of emergency, hundreds of thousands of protesters have shut down Bangkok and other cities. After the decree was lifted, the mass protests continued. This is now unquestionably the biggest challenge to the regime since it seized power in the 2014 military coup, and the highest point of the democracy struggle since the Red Shirt uprising of 2010.

The dramatic escalation of protests on 14 October was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the 1973 mass uprising that overthrew an earlier generation of generals. It’s commonplace for mainstream commentators to make flippant remarks about the number of military coups in the decades since. Following the 2014 coup, a Time article typified the pattern, describing Thailand as “the land of coups” and “the most coup-prone country in the world”. Most such accounts painted ordinary people out of history and ignored the underlying mass struggle that has been a feature of the country—in particular, the mass popular uprisings of 1973, 1992, 2010 and now 2020. In between these explosions, generations of Thais organised in now-open, now-hidden fashion and against incredible odds. They were never really beaten, despite the coups. In fact, that ceaseless struggle for democracy against the military has shaped Thai politics more than anything else. 

The heightened political crisis sparked by the 2006 coup famously played out in the following three years as a colour-coded contest between Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts. Many outside Thailand refused to take a side in this battle, insisting the whole thing was just a battle between two factions of the Thai elite. But the Red Shirt rebellion was a mass popular movement for democratic rights, while the Yellow Shirts were essentially fascist mobs. Liberal observers often refused to acknowledge the primacy of the conscious intervention of the masses in trying to forge their own future, to fight for their own voices to be heard and their votes to be counted. Instead, they considered the whole thing a sideshow to the supposedly “real” political battles played out the halls of power and in various palace intrigues. Predictably, they were in no position to understand the mass pro-democracy uprising of 2010, much less to offer solidarity with Red Shirt protesters when soldiers massacred over a hundred of them in central Bangkok.

When the junta finally allowed elections in 2011, the popular Pheu Thai Party won in a predictable landslide. Once again, fascist Yellow Shirt mobs took to the streets to create a protracted crisis. At one point, they even occupied the international airport without any blowback from the military, the police or the courts. Their aim was to pave the way for the 2014 military coup, which again overturned a democratically elected and popular government. The 2019 election was a sham, rigged from the outset by the junta to lend a veneer of democracy on what is at heart an entrenched military dictatorship. After all, the “elected” Prime Minister Prayut is the general who led the 2014 coup. It’s in this context that the 2020 resurgence of the democracy movement emerged. 

The new movement began in February, after Thai authorities dissolved the opposition Future Forward Party. There is a basic pattern here: an opposition party emerges and gains majority support within the population before the military or the courts declare it illegal and dissolve it. It’s happened so many times since the 2006 coup that it’s easy to lose count. But this one’s different in significant ways. While the Future Forward Party was certainly a bourgeois party, it pitched itself as radical, progressive and for equal rights. While it refused to challenge the rules laid down by the military junta, it did at least declare its opposition to military coups. Significantly, the party won 80 seats in the 2019 election (despite the rigged electoral rules). Within twelve months of its founding, the party had established a mass voter base, particularly among young people. So when the military banned the party, it sparked immediate resistance and large student protests.

From initially declaring support for Future Forward, the protests rapidly evolved into a movement against the regime. It was clear that a storm was coming. The pandemic and new bans on mass gatherings slowed the movement for a time. But on 18 July, mass action returned with a large illegal protest at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument. At the time, it was the largest protests since the 2014 coup. And for the first time, protesters raised their three demands: dissolve the parliament, end the intimidation of the people and draft a new constitution.

From here, the movement exploded. University and high school students across the country have spent most of the last four months organising protests. In one amazing incident in August, 400 high schoolers calling themselves the “Bad Students” besieged the offices of the education minister. When he came out to address them, they unleashed a barrage of heckling, rightly accusing him of being a pathetic flunkey of the military. In a country where school students are still subject to corporal punishment and are expected to defer silently to authority, this was breathtaking! The Bad Students continue to be the heart of the rebellion, touring from school to school in a mural-covered truck, making impromptu speeches at school gates and calling on other students inside to come out and join them.

The youthfulness of this movement has also drawn a range of existing social justice campaigns under its umbrella. For example, at a mass protest on 25 July, thousands of LGBTI activists staged a pro-democracy protest under the rainbow flag. They’ve had contingents at every protest since. This is an important development because in the early years after the 2006 coup, and again after 2014, the junta did make some token efforts to pinkwash itself. As thousands of LGBTI activists call for the government’s downfall, it’s fair to say that the effort was unsuccessful. Likewise, the pro-democracy protests have attracted pro-choice activists pushing for abortion rights. And of course, veterans of the 2010 Red Shirt uprising, many of whom still have bullets and shrapnel in their flesh from the crackdown, are again on the streets.

Since August, the movement has displayed more strident opposition to the monarchy, expressed in ten additional demands including for an end to all interference in politics by the monarchy, the release of all political prisoners, an end to the lèse-majesté laws (which make it illegal to insult or defame the royal family), the end of royal immunity to prosecution and more. In openly attacking the rights and power of the monarchy, the movement is engaging in a profound challenge to the key ideological pillar of the Thai ruling class. The military remains the key barrier to democracy in Thailand, but the military uses the monarchy as weapon to foster nationalism and acquiescence on the one hand, and to silence, imprison and murder any serious opposition activists on the other hand—not least because any opposition to the regime can be painted as an insult to the king.

On 19 September, the anniversary of the 2006 coup, more than 100,000 pro-democracy protesters gathered in Bangkok’s Sanam Luang, the large public park adjacent to the Royal Palace. They stormed through police lines and marched to the palace gates. Many tens of thousands stayed in the square protesting overnight. This was easily the biggest protest Thailand has seen in more than a decade and marked a decisive escalation of the pro-democracy movement. Such was its scale that, in the light of the following morning, police and soldiers had to stand awkwardly by while protesters held a ceremony in which they cemented a bronze plaque into the footpath outside the palace. The inscription was incendiary: “At this place, the people have expressed their will: that this country belongs to the people and is not the property of the monarchy as they have deceived us”. Authorities removed the plaque 24-hours later, after the crowds had well and truly dispersed. Then they arrested some of the young activists who had led the action. But the plaque has joined the iconography of the movement, appearing on t-shirts and posters everywhere. 

But the moment also heralded the beginning of a crackdown, with 81 activists arrested in the following month. Alongside student activists, the arrestees include a number of older pro-democracy figures, including Somyot Pruksakasemsuk, a trade unionist and journalist who spent seven years in jail for lèse-majesté in 2011–18. Police have now charged Somyot with sedition and have denied him bail.

While the arrests are a worrying sign, it’s also true that the movement is winning small but important victories. The same day the regime lifted the emergency decree, courts ordered the release of prominent student activist Patsaravalee “Mind” Tanakitvibulpon, noting that she should be free to sit her exams rather than languishing in a cell. This is a remarkable turn of events, indicating again that the government’s situation is potentially fraught. Reports on social media suggest that at least 78 of the 81 activists have now been released on bail. 

In the apparent or possible absence of some way of derailing the movement or co-opting its leaders, the regime’s main tool remains its guns. At this stage, the pro-democracy movement’s biggest weakness is that Thailand’s working class is mostly unorganised. Notwithstanding the amazing ongoing mass protests, it’s worth noting that the students called for a general strike on 14 October, which didn’t eventuate. They are in no position to organise one, no matter how much they may want it to materialise. To make matters worse, through the long political crisis since 2006, some of the most organised sections of the working class are in white-collar industries whose unions have, disgracefully, been supporters of the military coups and opponents of democratic reform.

This week’s small glimpses of workers’ organised participation in the pro-democracy movement needs to be built on. The socialist movement suffered heavily from the deadly crackdown on radical students in 1976 and has since been either obstructed by years of military rule or swamped by mass movements well beyond its capacity to influence. The pressing need remains the building a revolutionary socialist party.

In terms of the overall movement, pro-democracy activists have laid down a deadline for the regime to meet their demands. Full points for bravado! But it seems there are three possibilities. The movement could win some reforms, hopefully dramatic and radical ones. The regime could stand firm and the protest movement lose momentum. Or the regime could intensify its crackdown. While the struggle has a long road ahead, and the regime has no intention of giving an inch, the 2020 rebellion has ensured that things will never be the same.

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