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Protest at the Democracy monument, Bangkok, July 2020. Photo: Supanut Arunoprayote / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0 International, license linked at bottom of article

Protest at the Democracy monument, Bangkok, July 2020. Photo: Supanut Arunoprayote / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0 International, license linked at bottom of article

Demonstrations in Thailand calling for the Prime Minister’s resignation and democratic reforms are unrelenting and it’s terrifying those in power, writes Mick Wattam

Current world events are bringing the class struggle to the fore in many places, including in some unlikely ones. Thailand, a country which has always cracked down on dissent, has seen growing demonstrations throughout recent months.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters, led by young people and particularly students, have taken to the streets week after week demanding greater freedom, real democracy and the reformation of the monarchy.

Street protests, illegal under current law which restricts political gatherings to 5 people, have become regular events in Bangkok and other cities in Thailand. Sustained mass protests demanding the prime ministers immediate resignation, fresh elections and the curbing of royal powers continue growing.

The prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha last week imposed a national state of emergency with severe measures designed to stop the demonstrations to no effect. The stepping up of arrests and use of water cannons and tear gas to disperse demonstrations also failed to curb the will of the protesters.

They have clearly put the government on the back foot as Chan-o-cha realised his impotence in the face of this new militancy and quickly withdrew the measures earlier this week. Yet, the demonstrations continue unabated, and protesters demanded he resigns by Friday. Following his refusal to meet the demand, mass demonstrations are expected on Sunday.

Demands for democracy

No less than 12 military coups have taken place in the country since 1932, the most recent being in 2014. Curfews and the arrest of political dissenters are familiar to the Thai people. That and strict lèse majesté laws which outlaw any criticism of the royal family have ensured the continuation of one of the worlds most archaic and corrupt societies.

Protests began soon after the elections in March 2019 which were supposed to return Thailand to democracy after 5 years of military dictatorship. However, it ended in accusations of vote-rigging and the installation of Prayut Chan-o-cha, the former general who led the 2014 coup, as prime minister at the head of a coalition government. Since then the most vocal of the opposition parties has been declared illegal and its leaders banned from politics for 10 years.

Central to the protesters’ demands has been reformation of the monarchy. The current king, Maha Vajiralongkorn’s actions have succeeded in turning much of the population against the monarchy since his succession in 2016. His well-publicised luxurious lifestyle and succession of wives and mistresses have exposed his disinterest in the plight of ordinary Thai people and has discredited the once-revered royal family.

His antics can be read about in the western media but are illegal to report in Thailand itself. Yet young Thais exposed to the stories online, bypassing state censorship of the internet, have taken to social media in their millions to express their indignation. This is despite the longstanding laws protecting the monarchy and risking the prospect of 15 years imprisonment for their actions. Of course, such large numbers involved has meant there is little the Thai state could do, and therefore importantly, the breaking of this taboo has inspired students to take the struggle into the physical world. 

Centrality of class

King Vajiralongkorn’s incorporation of the huge wealth of the crown estate into his own personal fortune and the transfer of army units over to his sole control caused outrage. He has amassed a personal fortune of $40bn while the minimum wage for Thai workers is $5 a day. One of the demands of the protesters is to limit the amount of public money being used to fund his lifestyle.

Thailands economy has been growing over recent decades due to industrialisation and the growth of export trade, and is now the second largest economy in south east Asia behind Indonesia. A tiny proportion of the country’s 70 million inhabitants have benefited from this as over 40% are engaged in subsistence agriculture. There is little opportunity to escape from poverty, but as tourism has held out a lifeline for many, it has now all but collapsed, leaving an estimated 1 million unemployed in that sector alone. No doubt this has been a major contributing factor to recent unrest.

Thailand was one of the first countries to lock down in the face of growing Covid infections early in the year. Partly because of the rapid closure of borders, the country managed to avoid the rapid spread of the disease. However, the limit on tourism which has accounted for almost 18% of GDP, double the global average, meant the Thai GDP collapsed overnight and has seen little recovery as measures have been relaxed. Current estimates put revenues from tourism this year down 90% on 2019 figures.

This has plunged millions of people into poverty with many being left with no income whatsoever. The lack of any real welfare state has always meant a precarious existence for millions of people, and as usual women bear a large part of the burden in a society where sexism is blatant and often unchallenged. For example, it is commonplace that women in their mid-30s are forced out of their employment for being too old.

The country is also experiencing the effects of global warming, with increased drought and flooding over recent years. Its likely detrimental impact on trade, agriculture and tourism in the region could be devastating for the Thai people, especially those already struggling to make a living.

Crisis for the ruling class

It’s clear that Thailand’s ruling class are terrified by the growth and determination of the protests and aren’t sure how to stop it. The Prime Minister has called an emergency session in Parliament to discuss how to resolve the crisis, but protesters say that he has majority support in the house and whatever he proposes will be far from adequate.

The king, whose first home has been in Germany for many years has recently returned to Thailand after being shown the door by his embarrassed hosts. Officially seen as above politics he has now commented on the situation by unusually connecting with his supporters on an outing to a temple, praising a protester who carried a photograph of his father, the late king Bhumibol Adulyadej. He now stands accused of inciting monarchists to rise against the demonstrators which could escalate the situation into one of violence. This may give the government the excuse to be more confrontational than it has been so far.

It remains to be seen how it will be resolved but at the moment there are no signs of the protesters backing down from their demands. There have been arrests but relatively few given the perceived power of the state, powers which it seems reluctant to use in fear of losing further control of the situation.

The government seem especially terrified of the prospect of a full-scale, Hong-Kong style rebellion. Protesters have already been borrowing tactics from pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, including wearing black to limit the ability of the police to identify leaders.

There is growing international solidarity and the protests will likely have an influence beyond Thailand’s borders. The potential to finally break the seemingly all-powerful Thai state is an opportunity for a new force to be unleashed in the region in the shape of the long-oppressed Thai people given a voice at last. This would improve the lives of millions but would also be key in the fight against climate change and the power of global capital.

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