Thailand: A challenge to the military dictatorship?

After 5 years of Constitutional wrangling, the military junta that seized power in Thailand in 2014 organised a parliamentary election earlier this year, which resulted in a surprise showing for a new party “Future Forward”.  This week’s sacking of the King’s “consort” and six senior palace officials accused of “extremely evil conduct” and “disloyalty” indicate problems developing within the ruling regime.

By James Clement , Socialist Alternative (CWI in England, Wales & Scotland) 

General Prayuth Chan-O-Cha took power in Thailand after a coup in 2014 that overthrew Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. In the five years since, Gen. Prayut has overseen the persecution and jail sentences of anyone who opposed him accompanied by the closure of large numbers of websites and TV channels.

The election this July was a fraud, designed to keep the military in power. Yet their party, Palang Pracharat, won only 24% of the vote – 115 of the 500 seats in the House of Representatives. The party supporting Thaksin Shinawatra, prime minister from 2000 to 2006 and brother of Yingluck Shinawatra, took 136 seats with 22%. A new opposition party, Future Forward was supported by 18% of voters and gained 80 seats.

However, the 2017 constitution written by the military allowed the military regime to select all 250 seats in the upper house, the Senate. In addition, a system of “party lists” from which the election commission chose who was elected, gave the military party extra seats. To form a government, the combined vote of both chambers are counted. As a result, Prayut continued as “Prime minister”, a title he obtained after the coup.

Despite the election, however Thailand remains a monarchy, ruled by a de-facto military junta. A new factor is King Vajiralongkorn, who succeeded three years ago. While his father let the military rule with a large degree of autonomy, the new King is trying to force the military and business to obey his will concentrating, more power in his hands. At the beginning of October, he placed two army units under his direct control. As far as the new government is concerned, he acts as a godfather, forcing even Prayut to obey his will.

Life under the junta

Since the coup in 2014, many dissidents have fled Thailand to countries like neighbouring Laos or even Japan, yet they still face the threat of violence or murder.

Life for many young, working-class Thais is dire; high unemployment levels remain from the 1997 Asian financial crash, and for many, drug use is the only way to cope with life.

However, the harshness of Thailand’s narcotics laws mean that the country has the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the world. Of the 144 prisons, 143 report overcrowding, with low food budgets meaning many prisoners do not even get proper food.

Thailand’s ruling elite are also facing the so-called “southern problem”, an armed insurgency against the Royal Thai Army by Malay rebels, fighting for autonomy in the Muslim-majority provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala. Thailand’s dictatorship steadfastly refuses any level of decentralisation of power from Bangkok.

Future Forward

Mass discontent has found an expression in the popularity of anti-establishment music and art such as Rap Against Dictatorship, which Thailand’s dictator tried – and failed – to ban. During the election campaign, the junta particularly targeted the new party Future Forward (FF).

Future Forward is led by another “rebel” from the country’s elite, with certain similarities to Thaksin Shinwatra, who was one of the country’s richest men, yet ended up in sharp conflict with the military, whose budget he cut when Prime Minister. Future Forward’s Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit is a billionaire and ex-boss of a big auto parts company. His political career started in 2018 and is mainly built on social media. Now the regime is denouncing him as “anti-monarchy” and “anti-government”. He faces at least 16 criminal charges, among them “sedition”.

Future Forward’s policy platform has gained popularity among young people and has points that would certainly be welcomed. “Comprehensive decentralisation of central government power to give more power to local autonomies, and the protection of LGBT people, the disabled, drug addicts, HIV-positive people, women and prison convicts from discrimination, and encouraging education that promotes understanding of genders, sexualities and classes”.

As well as this, there are commitments to extend workplace rights, paid child and maternity leave, and the ratification of the ILO conventions on the right to organise and collective bargaining.

State and imperialism

However, while these policies would be a step forward, the rest of the programme is very limited, posing more limited reforms as well as an acceptance of the role of the capitalist state and imperialism. For example, FF pledges to “reform the court and the military to adhere to democratic values and international agreements on human rights”.

‘Reforming’ the military and cutting its budget would still leave it intact, and with it the ever-present threat of its use by the forces of counter-revolution. And the following paragraphs from their website show a subordination to the world imperialist system and its organisations: “The Future Forward Party is committed to restoring Thailand’s credibility through international forums by laying the foundations of a strong domestic democratic regime compliant with international regulations, creating a balance with superpower nations to protect Thailand’s interests and promoting Thailand’s role as a guardian of democracy, human rights, tolerance to diversity, promotion of gender equality and elimination of discrimination based on religions and faiths”.

“To achieve those goals, the Future Forward Party will strengthen cooperation among the ASEAN community…  along with pushing ASEAN mechanism as a channel to meditate conflicts in the region and promote human rights, allowing ASEAN to be an important instrument in which Thailand and other member nations can carry out their roles under international standards”.

ASEAN – the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations– includes dictatorships and authoritarian regimes such as Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam. In Vietnam, all political parties other than the ruling Communist Party are banned, while the ruling elite of Cambodia have issued arrest warrants against opposition leader Sam Rainsy, should he ever return to the country. All three countries have seen the harassment and jailing of people for simply making critical posts on social media.

The faith in a bloc like ASEAN to uphold standards of human rights can be compared to a similarly mistaken view of the EU; despite the EU’s dire record on refugees and migrants, many still see it as a guarantor of democracy and social protection.

History of struggle

Thailand has a heroic history of mass struggle; in 1973, a student strike in Bangkok closed more than 70% of the city’s colleges, while that same year saw the largest protest in Thailand’s history of around 500,000 people at Thammasat University. More recently the pro-democracy struggles by the ‘Red Shirts’ and ‘Yellow Shirts’, one of them supporting Shinawatra, the other the monarchist parties shook the country. Unfortunately, the FFP does not have the character of a broad mass movement, instead hinging on leadership personalities.

The Thai establishment is in fear not just of the FFP and the insurgency in the south, but also of a ‘communist conspiracy’, shown by the hysterical comments from Army Chief General Apirat Kongsompong. The ruling elite are also in panic at the prospect of Hong Kong-style mass protests reaching Thailand, after Juangroongruangkit was photographed there with pro-democracy protester Joshua Wong.

A mass movement of that scale is what is needed to overthrow the Thai dictatorship; yet this must be done on a socialist programme. There is also the crucial need to link the struggle of the Thai working class with the working classes across Asia in a common fight against capitalism, landlordism and imperialism. The need for international struggle is shown by the fact that China has given its support to the army in Thailand against the insurgency.

For mass struggle of the Thai working class to bring down the military dictatorship! Link the fight to all the regions of Southeast Asia and beyond – for a socialist confederation of Asian states!