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Giles Ji Ungpakorn 2015 The role of Thai social movements in democratisation

The role of social movements in democratisation

A case study from Thailand1
Giles Ji Ungpakorn

There is a confusing array of social movements which claim some kind of

democratic credentials: The Yellow Umbrella movement in Hong Kong, antigovernment protests in Venezuela, The Free Fare Movement of 2013 and the
continuing protests against the government of President Dilma Rousseff in Brazil,
The Gezi Park protest in Turkey, Ukraine's Maidan protests, The anti-Islam Pegida
movement in Germany and The Sunflower Student Movement in Taiwan against
the passing of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, are just some examples.
In recent Thai political history we have had The Peoples Alliance for Democracy
(PAD) or the Yellow Shirts, The People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) 2
1 Paper presented at the International Conference on Human Rights Education,
Soochow University, Taipei, November 2015.
2 The PDRCs full name in Thai was The Peoples Committee to Change Thailand
into a Perfect Democracy with the King as Head of State.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn 2015 The role of Thai social movements in democratisation

and the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) or the Red
There is a long held view that the action of social movements, or civil society
actors, has the effect of expanding the democratic space. Yet social movements
in themselves are not automatically progressive movements for democracy and
civil rights. Nor is civil society, when defined as non-state organisations, and
often made up of middle-class actors, automatically in favour of democracy or of
expanding civil rights and freedom. Obviously we need to study the
circumstances and historical roots of these movements in order to determine
their democratic credentials.

A brief description of the Thai political crisis

The long running Thai political crisis is a result of an unintentional clash between
the conservative method of operating in a parliamentary democracy and a more
modern one. It is equally related to attempts by Taksin Shinawat and his political
party to modernise Thai society so that the economy could become more
competitive on a global level, especially after the 1996 Asian economic crisis.
Thai political leaders since the early 1970s had always adopted a laissez faire
attitude to development, with minimal government planning, low wages, few
trade union rights and an abdication of responsibility by governments to improve
infrastructure and living standards. This strategy worked for them in the early
years, but by the time of the 1996 Asian economic crisis it was becoming obvious
that it was seriously failing. Thailand was facing increased export competition
from other developing economies which were also using a low wage, low
technology export strategy3.
The consequences of this economic crisis are centrally important to the
understanding the Thai political crisis today. The increased inequality in Thai
society as a result of free-market economic growth over the previous decades is
also important in understanding the political dynamics of the conflict between
the two sides4.
Taksin Shinawat, a mobile phone and media tycoon, founded the Thai Rak Thai
Party (TRT) after the economic crisis of 1996. The party was unique in recent
3 Jim Glassman (2003) Interpreting the economic crisis in Thailand: Lessons
learned and lessons obscured. In Ji Giles Ungpakorn (ed.) Radicalising Thailand:
new political perspectives. Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University.
4 Giles Ji Ungpakorn (2011) Thai Spring? Paper given at the 5th Annual Nordic
NIAS Council Conference organised by The Forum for Asian Studies/NIAS. 21-23rd
November 2011, Stockholm University, Sweden.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn 2015 The role of Thai social movements in democratisation

Thai political history in that it actually spent considerable time developing

policies5. They held meetings with different social groups and came up with real
policies at the time of their first election victory in 2001. Thai Rak Thai was a
Populist party which offered pro-poor policies and village level Keynesian
economic stimuli, by pumping state money into local projects 6. The aim was to
create social peace and raise productive efficiency after the crisis so that the
government could increase Thailands economic competitiveness. At the same
time this party of big business also pursued neo-liberal policies such as
privatisation and support for free trade agreements. This was what Thai Rak Thai
called a dual track policy.
The poor, who form the vast majority of the Thai electorate, voted
enthusiastically for the two flagship policies of TRT in the first general election
after the 1996 economic crisis. These were a universal health care scheme (the
first ever in Thailand) and a 1 million baht fund loaned to each village to
encourage small businesses. Because the long established Democrat Party had
previously told the unemployed to go back to their villages and depend on their
families, while spending state finances in securing the savings of the rich in
failed banks, Taksin was able to say that his government would benefit everyone,
not just the rich.
Thai Rak Thai won a second term of office with an overall majority in parliament
in 2005. It is easy to see why. The main opposition party, the Democrats, spent
the whole four years attacking the health care system and other social benefits.
There was of course a very nasty side to the Taksin government. During their first
term of office they waged a so-called war on drugs in which over 3000 people
were shot without ever coming to trial 7. In the three southern-most provinces
they also waged a campaign of violence against the Muslim Malay population.
Taksins TRT was unique in being both popular and dynamic, with real policies,
which were used to win the election and were then implemented afterwards.
Previously, the old parties had just bought votes without any policies and had
relied on local patron-client networks. Taksins policies and his overwhelming
electoral base came to challenge many elements of the old elite order, although
this was not Taksins conscious aim at all. In the last 20 years the Democrat Party
5 For more details see Pasuk Phongpaichit & Chris Baker (2004) Thaksin. The
business of politics in Thailand. Silkworm Books.
6 Kevin Hewison (2003) Crafting a new social contract: Domestic capitalist responses to
the challenge of neoliberalism. In Ji Giles Ungpakorn (ed.) Radicalising Thailand: new
political perspectives. Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University.

7 See Jaran Cosananund (2003) Human rights and the war on drugs: problems of
conception, consciousness and social responsibility. Thailand Human Rights
Journal, 1, 59-87.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn 2015 The role of Thai social movements in democratisation

has never managed to win more than a quarter of the national vote, often it was
much less. Governments were always weak and fractured coalitions of local
personal interest parties. TRTs election victory meant that local political
networks and criminal mafia were edged out of power by Taksins electoral
machine. The military and unelected elites could not compete in terms of
democratic legitimacy and support. The middle classes started to resent the fact
that the government was helping to raise the standards of living of workers and
poor farmers. This is the real basis for the prolonged crisis in Thai society and it
explains why the conservatives, the middle classes and the Democrat Party are
now so strongly opposed to democracy.
Towards the end of 2005 a large protest movement against the Taksin
government arose. But it was a right-wing movement lead by royalist media
tycoon Sondhi Limtongkun. Sondhi Limtongkun was previously a friend and
business partner of Taksin, but they later became bitter rivals. The movement,
called The Peoples Alliance for Democracy (PAD), criticised government
corruption and called for power to be returned to the King, urging the King to
appoint a new government under Section 7 of the 1997 Constitution. They
identified themselves by wearing yellow royalist colours. Undoubtedly the PAD
protests helped to pave the way towards the first military coup of this crisis in
September 2006. The coup makers could be confident that they would not be
opposed by the P.A.D. and its urban middle class supporters.
After staying in power for a year the military junta called fresh elections under a
new military inspired constitution. Taksins party again won an overall majority,
despite the fact that he was now in exile. The PAD renewed its protests by
occupying Bangkoks international airport, with the backing of the military. The
conservative elites then used various judicial means to oust the elected
government and the military installed the Democrat Party in government instead.
In response to this destruction of democracy, the Red Shirt movement arose to
demand genuine democratic elections. The Democrat Party government and the
military responded to this pro-democracy movement by shooting down nearly a
hundred demonstrators in Bangkok in 2010.
In 2011 new elections were held under the militarys watchful eye and again
Taksins party, now called Pua Thai, won an overall majority. Yingluk Shinawat,
Taksins sister, became Prime Minister. Yet in late 2013 middle class antigovernment protests erupted again and when Yingluk dissolved parliament and
called an election, the Democrat Party-led People's Democratic Reform
Committee (PDRC) used violence to wreck the elections. General Prayut
Chanocha then staged the latest military coup in May 2014.

Thailands crisis shatters democratisation theories

Giles Ji Ungpakorn 2015 The role of Thai social movements in democratisation

The present political crisis in Thailand has shattered a number of

democratisation theories which were created over the years by mainstream
political science academics.
The theory about civil society, as defined by the middle classes or the
chattering classes and Non-Government Organisations (NGOs), being prime
movers of democratisation, has been challenged. After the end of the Cold War
we were told that a well-developed civil society and a large middle class was the
key to a free and democratic society 8. Yet in Thailand, we have seen the middle
classes and the NGOs take part in many anti-democratic protests, organised by
the Yellow Shirt PAD, and we have seen them welcome two military coups. The
middle classes have organised to protect their privileges and to try to prevent
urban workers and rural farmers from having a say in politics. In 2013 middle
class academics, lawyers and doctors joined the whistle blowing anti-democrats,
led by Sutep Tueksuban and his henchmen in the PDRC, in a successful attempt
to wreck the democratic elections in early 2014. The NGOs have also behaved in
a similar manner for slightly different reasons, which I shall discuss later.
Marxists like myself have always seen the middle classes wavering between
different political poles, depending on the balance of class forces, and also
depending on their own particular circumstances. We have seen pro-democracy
middle class movements, but history also shows that the middle classes are a
potential base for fascism and dictatorship in many other circumstances. We saw
this latter phenomenon in the 1930s in Italy, Spain and Germany, and also in
Thailand in 1976. The middle classes can also join pro-democracy movements at
other times and support working class demands, as in the cases of antidictatorship protests against the European Stalinist regimes in the late 1980s.
But the middle classes are too fragmented and weak to set their own class
agenda. They flip flop between the interests of the business and bureaucratic
elites and the interests of the working class and they rely on more powerful
forces to make political changes.
There are many international examples of middle class support for populist
authoritarian governments such as in Singapore or Latin America 9.
For all the above reasons, the concept of a middle-class civil society, being an
agent for expanding democratic space, is deeply flawed.

8 Kevin Hewison (1996) Emerging social forces in Thailand. New political &
economic roles. In: R. Robison & D.S.G. Goodman (Eds) The new rich in Asia.
Routledge, U.K. Also Lucien Pye (1990) Political science and the crisis of
authoritarianism. American Political Science Review 84(1), 3-19.
9 Garry Rodan (1997) Civil Society and other political possibilities in Southeast
Asia. Journal of Contemporary Asia, 27 (2), 156-178. Jenny Pearce (1997) Civil
Society, the market and democracy in Latin America. Democratisation, 4(2), 5783.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn 2015 The role of Thai social movements in democratisation

Perhaps what we can recue from the civil society theory of democratisation is
the importance of social movements, but not the so-called new social
movements which were widely touted by right-wing academics after the
collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe. We were told then that social
movements were no longer class based and were about life-style politics and
single issues, not about challenging state power. In Thailand the largest social
movement in history was the UDD Red Shirt movement. The Red Shirts were
more or less classed based and had wide political aims involving democratisation
and challenging the unchanging nature of the old state. These issues will be
discussed in more detail later in this paper.
There is another, more conservative, structural functionalist, theory that
democracy can only become stable and well-developed if there is a political
culture of democracy among the people and if political parties and political
structures are mature. But what we have seen in Thailand is that the vast
majority of the population have a democratic political culture while the
conservative elites and established institutions do not. The army is then used by
the elites to frustrate the wish for democracy. We have also seen a long
established political party; The Democrat Party, stand clearly against the
democratic process alongside various state bodies. Democrat Party politicians
led and were deeply involved with the PDRC, which used violence to wreck the
2014 elections and welcome the second military coup a few months later.
The contradiction between the fact that the vast majority of the population have
a democratic political culture, while the conservative do not, means that
blatantly anti-democratic movements, like the PAD or the PDRC, must use the
term democracy in order to whitewash their real aims and try to seek
legitimacy. Even the military junta claims that it is somehow democratic. There
is a long tradition of Thai military regimes trying to use the word democracy
and the Democracy Monument in the centre of Bangkok was built by a military
dictator in the 1930s.
Another democratisation theory claims that developing globalised capitalism
and the free-market somehow encourage the growth of democracy. This has not
happened at all, especially since the latest global recession of 2008. Large
financial and state institutions have either frustrated the democratic wishes of
the people, as in the case of Greece, or they have successfully pressurised
former social democratic parties to accept neo-liberalism and the dictates of the
market. In the latter case this has caused a democratic deficit as there
becomes no real choice for the population at elections. This explains the collapse
in support for mainstream political parties in many Western countries.
Globalised Thai big businesses have supported the conservative elites for years
and the military junta and its friends are extreme advocates of neo-liberal freemarket policies. So is the Thai King with his sufficiency economy ideology. They

Giles Ji Ungpakorn 2015 The role of Thai social movements in democratisation

all have a laissez faire mind-set10. In contrast, it is Taksin Shinawat and his
various political parties which have used a mixture of state funded development
and welfare (grass-roots Keynesianism) alongside neo-liberal market forces.
The conservatives have attacked this as dangerous populism and have used
his policies as excuses for both military and judicial coups.
For much of the last 25 years we have been told that class has become outdated. Yet, the bottom line in reality is that the present crisis is a result of
increased political awakening and confidence by workers and small farmers, a
phenomenon that was seized upon and encouraged by Taksin and his allies for
their own interests. The Thai crisis is a crisis of class society with the
conservative elites and middle classes resenting the rise in opportunities for the
working class and the small farmers.
And what this crisis clearly shows is that strong social movements from below
are the critical key to building and fighting for democracy. Every inch of the
democratic space will have to be fought for and taken from the elites and their
middle class allies in this struggle. Democracy will not be crafted from above by
committees of wise men, lawyers and academics who are appointed by the
junta or anyone else.

Theorising Thai social movements

Social Movements from Above or from Below?
For outside observers of Thai anti-government street protests, the array of
different social movements could be confusing, especially when they all claimed
to be movements for democracy.
On one side of the political spectrum we saw the Peoples Alliance for
Democracy (PAD), the multi-coloured shirts or Salim 11 which evolved from the
PAD, and then the Democrat Party led Peoples Democratic Reform Committee
Despite their misleading names all the above movements sought to shrink the
democratic space by calling for a military coup or intervention from the king
against elected governments. They claimed that the majority of the electorate
were too stupid and uneducated to deserve the right to vote. According to them
the lack of education and information of the electorate allowed corrupt
10 Giles Ji Ungpakorn (2007) A Coup for the Rich. WD Press. Available to
download here:
11 Salim is a Thai multi-coloured noodle desert, eaten with coconut milk and
crushed ice. It became a slang word for the middle class multi-coloured shirt

Giles Ji Ungpakorn 2015 The role of Thai social movements in democratisation

governments to buy votes by offering pre-election manifestoes which promised

damaging pro-poor policies such as universal health care and village business
These social movements are very good examples of social movements created
from above, mobilised by the ruling class in order to maintain the status quo in
the face of threats to their privileges12. We know that they were mobilised from
above because although the movements themselves were mainly made up of
middle class people, their leaders were top politicians and businessmen with
close links to the military and the Palace. After the 2006 military coup, leaders of
the PAD were seen celebrating with coup leaders and aristocratic types at a New
Year party. The Queen and one of the princesses showed support by attending
the funeral of one PAD supporter who was blown up by a PAD grenade, and both
the PAD and PDRC leaders have enjoyed special preferential treatment from the
military junta and the courts, especially over the occupation of the international
airport by PAD members in 2008 and the violent wrecking of the elections in
2014. In both cases the military refused to intervene and restore order on behalf
of the elected government. Yet the military used deadly sniper fire to kill almost
a hundred Red Shirt protesters in 2010. These Red Shirts occupied a shopping
area to demand democratic elections instead of a continuation of the military
installed Democrat Party government. A top politician in this unelected
government, Sutep Tuaksuban, subsequently led the PDRC attack on the 2014
Those who are mobilised from above like this are often people from the middle
classes or disillusioned unemployed workers. In the case of Thailand today it was
the urban middle classes who were mobilised, but in the 1970s semi-fascist
gangs like the Krating Daeng and Village Scouts mobilised both the middle
classes and disillusioned unemployed workers against the Left and the student
movement, culminating in the 1976 bloodbath at Thammasart University.

New Social Movements and the End of Class?

After the end of the Cold War many academics were quick to announce the end
of class struggle and the birth of so-called New Social Movements. It was
claimed that these movements were atomised movements motivated just by
identity politics, not class, and that they were not demanding any changes to
state power like the Old Left13. This was a myopic, fragmented Post-Modern
view of social movements which totally ignored the big picture. It ignored all
history and any events occurring in other countries. Each movement was viewed
in isolation despite the fact that the Civil Rights Movements, the Womens
Movements and the GLBT Movements were all generated as part of the same
12 Neil Davidson (2014) Right-Wing Social Movements: The Political
Indeterminancy of Mass Mobilisation. In: Colin Barker, Laurence Cox, John
Krinsky & Alf Gunvald Nilsen (Eds) Marxism and Social Movements. Haymarket
Books, Chicago, IL.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn 2015 The role of Thai social movements in democratisation

wave of protests and these identity politics movements also gradually evolved
in the same direction during the subsequent years 14.
Irrespective of the fact that these academics had proclaimed the end of class
struggle, the movements thrown up by the present Thai political crisis are all
about class. For Marxists class struggle is never just some crude and pure
struggle of organised workers against the capitalist class. It involves all those
who feel aggrieved by the effects of class rule and their grievances can be about
a myriad of issues including the lack of democracy, racial discrimination or the
suppression of local cultures.
David Beethams classic work on democratisation also indicates that democracy
always has a socio-economic dimension, rather than merely being about formal
elections and parliamentary processes15. Class is very relevant to this. Without
socio-economic justice and equality there cannot be genuine democracy.
A number of middle class commentators have attempted to categorise the Yellow
Shirt-Red Shirt street confrontations in Thailand as merely the clash of different
elite supporters, much like a clash between supporters of two football teams.
Some have also tried to claim that the Red Shirts or the United Front for
Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) were merely political tools of former
Prime Minister Taksin Shinawat. Yet this is a fundamental mistake. The Red Shirts
cannot be classified as a social movement created from above for a number of
reasons. Firstly, most Red Shirts believed that they were fighting to expand the
democratic space against the entrenched conservative structures of the ruling
class. They wanted an end to the status quo. Secondly, at community level the
Red Shirts were a self-organised movement of working people, both urban and
rural. This is despite the fact that political leadership came from a group of
former politicians in Taksins party.
However, we should not romanticise any large social movement from below for
being one hundred percent progressive. Some sections of the Red Shirts,
especially in the northern city of Chiang Mai, exhibited extreme homophobic
As the Red Shirt movement developed, so did their class consciousness. The Red
Shirts started to call themselves serfs or Prai and many started to question
13 J.L. Cohen & A. Arato (1997) Civil Society and political theory. M.I.T. Press,
U.S.A. A. Touraine (2001) Beyond Neoliberalism. Polity Press, Cambridge, U.K.
Translated by D. Macey.
14 Colin Barker (2014) Class Struggle and Social Movements. In: Colin Barker,
Laurence Cox, John Krinsky & Alf Gunvald Nilsen (Eds) Marxism and Social
Movements. Haymarket Books, Chicago, IL.
15 David Beetham (1999) Democracy and Human Rights. Polity Press, Oxford.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn 2015 The role of Thai social movements in democratisation

the whole elite political structure, including the monarchy. One way of
understanding the dialectical relationship between Taksin and the Red Shirt
movement is to see a kind of parallel war in the Red Shirt struggles against the
conservative elites. Thousands of ordinary Red Shirts struggled for democracy,
dignity and social justice, while Taksin and his political allies waged a very
different campaign to regain the political and economic influence that they had
enjoyed before the 2006 coup d'tat . However, at the same time, Taksin
remained very popular and influential among most Red Shirts.
An important mobilising factor for the Red Shirts was the anger felt by millions of
ordinary people at the way they were being robbed of their democratic rights by
the elites and the middle classes.
The division between the Reds and the Yellows in the current crisis is class.
There is a clear tendency for workers and poor to middle income farmers to
support Taksins parties and the Red Shirts, irrespective of geographical location.
This is because of TRTs pro-poor policies of universal health care, job creation
and support for rice farmers. Urban workers benefitted from the pro-poor policies
which had a positive impact on their extended families in rural areas. It reduced
their financial commitments to these family members. In the provinces and in
Bangkok, the middle classes and the elites tended to vote for the Democrats and
wanted to reduce the democratic space and turn the clock back to pre-TRT times.
But this is not just a simple class struggle. In fact, class struggle in the real world
is seldom simple or pure. The Thai crisis has important class dimensions, but
they are complicated by the political weakness of the Left and the organised
working class. This is why Taksin could dominate and lead the Red Shirts.
The radicalisation of the Red Shirt movement is the main reason why Taksin and
his allies have been gradually demobilising the Red Shirts ever since the election
victory of Taksins sister Yingluk in 2011. Since the May 2014 military coup, they
have placed the movement into deep freeze.
We can explain this by understanding that Taksin and his allies were faced with a
hard choice. Either they had to mobilise their millions of supporters and the Red
Shirts to tear down the old order, or they needed to find a way to make peace
with their conservative elite rivals in the future. Given that Taksin, and his allies
are basically big business politicians, they naturally chose the latter option.
This was not to avoid civil war, but to avoid revolution from below. They had
wanted to use the red shirts as voting fodder and as a pressure group, but not
risk mobilising a self-led mass movement.
Thailands old order is not some semi-feudal state structure. The state and the
conservative elites are part of a modern capitalist semi-dictatorship controlled by
the military, the business class and the top civil servants. They are all united in
their royalism, but Thailand is not an absolute monarchy either. These


Giles Ji Ungpakorn 2015 The role of Thai social movements in democratisation

conservatives are also extreme neo-liberals who are in favour of the free
Since the late 1990s, growing conflict was emerging between the realities on the
ground and the old political structures that had a stranglehold on society. Taksin
and TRT played a part in increasing this conflict by proposing modernisation. Yet
Taksins aim was not to pull down the old order, but merely to gently modernise
it. Today Taksin is still determined to protect the main pillars of the old order. He
fears revolt from below more than competition from the conservatives.
Thailand today is not the Europe of 1848, but there are some aspects of Europe
in 1848, as explained by Karl Marx 17, which can help us understand the Thai
situation. Marx wrote that the rising capitalist class in Europe were too cowardly
to finish off the old order by leading a revolutionary movement of workers. The
capitalist class preferred a compromise with the old feudalists rather than
mobilising movements from below which might come to challenge the capitalists
themselves. Marx announced that from then on, workers needed to lead an
independent Permanent Revolution which would sweep away the old rulers and
go on to challenge the capitalist class. Leon Trotsky developed this idea further
by arguing that in under-developed countries workers should lead movements of
workers and peasants to sweep away colonialism or feudalism and not merely
stop at modern capitalism, but move on towards socialism 18. This happened in
Russia in 1917 until the revolution was drowned in blood by Stalin.
Of course the Thai capitalist class has long been entrenched and feudalism was
abolished in the 1870s. But what the theory of Permanent Revolution means
for Thailand is that we should not raise false hopes that Taksin and his allies will
carry out the necessary mobilisations to get rid of the old authoritarian capitalist
order. That task must be led by a social movement from below whose aims
should be to go further than just establishing neo-liberal parliamentary
democracy as seen in the West today. However, such a social movement still
remains to be built.

Independent Leadership and Organisation as Opposed to Co-option of

Social Movements
The fact that Taksin and the pro-Taksin UDD leadership dominated the political
leadership of the Red Shirts raises the important question of leadership and
16 Giles Ji Ungpakorn (2007) Already Quoted.
17 Marx Engels Collected Works, Volume 10, London: Lawrence & Wishart (1978),
p. 280-287.
18 Leon Trotsky (1962) The Permanent Revolution. Results and Prospects. New
Park Publications, London.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn 2015 The role of Thai social movements in democratisation

organisation in a social movement. Marxists have often described social

movements as continuing fields of argument where different forces struggle to
dominate. The tragedy of the Red Shirts is that most of the left-wing progressive
Red Shirts, who had rejected Taksin and the UDD leaders, refused to organise a
coherent alternative political organisation in order to challenge the UDD leaders.
They were influenced by autonomist ideas which became popular after the
collapse of the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT). These ideas rejected the need
to build a united political party from below so that progressive pro-democracy
activists could act in unity. This is why we have only seen sporadic and symbolic
actions by small groups against the current military dictatorship in a period when
Taksin and the UDD leaders refused to mobilise people.
The debate about the relationship between organised and unified political parties
and social movements has a long history going back to the beginning of the
twentieth century19. In this period, the conservative nature of socialist parties,
and their affiliated trade unions, often led activists in the labour movement to
reject politics and organise by excluding political parties. The International
Workers of the World (IWW) in the USA and the Confdration gnrale du travail
(CGT) in France are good examples. Political parties became accepted as a
necessity in the period between the First World War and the end of the Cold War,
especially after the experience of the Russian Revolution. The debate re-emerged
after the collapse of Stalinism and the rise of the World Social Forum movement
in 2001. More recently, autonomist, anti-party ideology, has dominated the
Los Indignados movement in the Spanish State and the Occupy Movements
elsewhere. Yet the instability and impermanence of social movements constantly
challenges those who are opposed to party politics. This can be seen in the rise
of the political party Podemos from its Los Indignados roots, and the rise of
Syriza from various social movements in Greece. However, political parties
may also have their problems, such as creeping authoritarianism or exclusive
concentration on elections to the detriment of struggle. Therefore the debate
If social movements are too closely allied to ruling class political parties they will
end up being led, incorporated and dominated by those parties rather than being
able to push for changes which correspond to the movements own agenda. In
Thailand leading UDD members were either politicians from Taksins party or
quickly became so after Yingluk Shinawats election victory in 2011. This has led
to the gradual decline of the Red Shirts.
A similar problem has been described in relation to Taiwans social movements
because of their close alliance with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) 20. In
the case of South Africa, social movements face the problem of co-option and
19 Ralph Darlington (2008) Syndicalism and the Transition to Communism. An
International Comparative Analysis. Ashgate, U.K.
20 Stephen Philion (2010) The Impact of Social Movements on Taiwans
Democracy. Journal of Current Chinese Affairs 39(3) 149-163.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn 2015 The role of Thai social movements in democratisation

control by the ruling triple Alliance of the African National Congress, the
Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party.
Added to this is the weakness of various movements due to the fact that they are
atomised movements which fail to join together, thus reducing their power to
transform society21.
Heike Schaumberg reports that the Argentinian social movements in the crisis of
2001 even made autonomous disorganisation into a virtue meaning that the
aspirations of the uprisings were difficult to achieve 22.
Even those who argue that social movements need to become more
institutionalised, in order to participate in mainstream politics, with strategic
alliances linked to political parties, see that it is important for those movements
to maintain their identity and autonomy 23.
In Brazil, the Movimento Sem Terra (MST), which represented landless peasants,
built close ties with the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) and had an important role
in bringing President Luz Incio da Silva (Lula) to power. But this was a doubleedged sword, since Lulas government did not fulfil its promises about land
distribution. This led to splits in the MST between those who continued to support
the PT under President Dilma Rouseff and those who continued agitation for land
distribution in an independent manner24. Similar splits occurred in Argentina
among the Piquteros movement on the issue of supporting the government.
In the case of Indonesia Olle Trnquist argues that for social movements to be
effective in the democratisation process, they have to maintain independence
from below and to overcome fragmentation25.
From the above, what can be said is that a balance needs to be established
between political parties and social movements and between grass-roots
21 Patrick Bond, Ashwin Desai & Trevor Ngwane (2014) Uneven and Combined
Marxism within South Africas Urban Social Movements. In: Colin Barker,
Laurence Cox, John Krinsky & Alf Gunvald Nilsen (Eds) Marxism and Social
Movements. Haymarket Books, Chicago, IL.
22 Heike Schaumberg (2014) Disorganisation as Social Movement Tactic: Reappropriating Politics during the Crisis of Neoliberal Capitalism. In: Colin Barker,
Laurence Cox, John Krinsky & Alf Gunvald Nilsen (Eds) Marxism and Social
Movements. Haymarket Books, Chicago, IL.
23 Suh Doowon (2006) Civil Society in Political Democratization: Social
Movement Impacts and Institutional Politics. Development and Society. 35(2)
24 Benedicte Bull (2013) Social Movements and the Pink Tide Governments in
Latin America. Transformation, Inclusion and Rejection. In Kristian Stokke & Olle
Trnquist (Eds) Democratisation in the Global South. Palgrave/Macmillan.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn 2015 The role of Thai social movements in democratisation

spontaneity and political organisation. They are not mutually exclusive and they
depend on each other in order to bring about change.

The Historical Dimension

A Marxist big picture view of social movements often describes various
movements from below as just one big social movement with many arms and
legs, constantly changing through time and always linked to international
movements. This social movement is constantly battling against the system
which is controlled by the ruling class.
This allows us to see the Red Shirts as a continuum of past pro-democracy
movements such as the Peoples Party that overthrew the absolute monarchy in
1932, the pro-democracy uprisings against the military in 1973 and 1992 and the
communist inspired civil war in the late 1970s. Many of the key actors in the Red
Shirt movements were involved in some of these previous movements. Of course
there were also activists from these movements who switched sides and joined
conservative elite mobilisations. But the point is that they switched sides and
supported previous enemies like the military or the monarchy. This is merely an
example of how peoples ideas change through time.
Kristian Stokke and Sophie Oldfield, in their study of South African movements,
write about often overlooked community networks which carry a memory of
struggles from earlier times26. This encourages us to look for historical
dimensions in social movement struggles.
Like all classes throughout the world who are ruled over and exploited by
powerful elites, Thai peasants and workers have either directly confronted their
oppressors or have sought avoidance tactics and small-scale hidden fights in
order to lessen the burden of exploitation 27. Strikes and demonstrations by trade
unions and peasant movements have occurred on a regular basis during the
twentieth century and large scale popular uprisings against dictatorial rulers
have occurred in the 1970s, 1990s and in the present crisis.
25 Olle Trnquist (2013) Assessing Dynamics of Democratisation. Transformative
Politics, New Institutions and the case of Indonesia. Palgrave/Macmillan.
26 Kristian Stokke & Sophie Oldfield (2013) Social Movements, Socio-economic
Rights and Substantial Democratisation in South Africa. In John Harris, Kristian
Stokke & Olle Trnquist (Eds) Politicising Democracy. The New Local Politics of
Democratisation. Palgrave/Macmillan.
27 James C. Scott (1985) Weapons of the weak: everyday forms of peasant
resistance. Yale University Press.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn 2015 The role of Thai social movements in democratisation

Sometimes these struggles have been struggles led by the oppressed classes
themselves, independent of elite actors. A good example is the 1970s
mobilisation against the military dictatorship, which was accompanied by
economic strikes and protests, and then followed by a guerrilla war led by the
CPT. At other times, sections of the ruling class have built strategic alliances with
the oppressed in a struggle against their elite rivals. The alliance between the
peasantry and King Rama 5th in the bourgeois revolution from above of the
1870s, the alliance between the new State bureaucrats and the workers and
peasants in the 1932 revolution, or the alliance between Taksins TRT and the
Red Shirts are good examples28. But we should not assume that in such alliances
the elite factions totally control the movement. Instead we should see these
events as two-dimensional forms of class struggle, with intra- and inter- class
antagonisms occurring simultaneously, along with elements of independence
and dependence.
The 1970s upheavals were a result of the rapid growth in the working class, and
especially the growth of the student population, which became impatient with
the military dictatorship that tried to keep the low-waged conservative society
unchanged. The Cold War and the 1968 revolts around the world fed into this
domestic contradiction. The result was a decade of mass popular uprisings and a
civil war between the CPT and the Thai State.
The last major political settlement before the present crisis, which determined
the nature of the ruling elites and their relationship with the rest of society,
occurred in the early 1980s after the collapse of the CPT 29. The settlement was
lubricated by the economic boom in East Asia which started in this period and
ended in the crisis of 1996. This boom helped to damp down class antagonisms.
Because these cycles of struggle all included elements of discontent by workers
and peasants, there have always been demands which challenge the interests of
the elites present in each case. The 1932 revolution saw Pridi Panomyongs
manifesto or blue print for a new Thai economy. This proposed a form of Welfare
State. The uprisings in the 1970s saw demands for socialism and the abolition
of capitalism30. On both these occasions the conservative elites hit back with
28 Giles Ji Ungpakorn (2010) Thailands Crisis and the Fight for Democracy. WD
Press, U.K. Available to download here:
29 Giles Ji Ungpakorn (2010) already quoted, Chapter 4. Giles Ji Ungpakorn
(2006) The Impact of the Thai Sixties on the Peoples Movement today. InterAsia Cultural Studies: 7(4) December 2006, 570-588. Giles Ji Ungpakorn (2001)
The political economy of class struggle in modern Thailand. Historical
Materialism 8, Summer 2001, 153-183.
30 Despite the Stalinist-Maoist distortions of these concepts.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn 2015 The role of Thai social movements in democratisation

coup dtats and violent repression. The present crisis saw the conservative
elites staging a coup dtat in 2006, and again in 2014, in response to basic
welfare and pro-poor policies which were very popular among the electorate who
voted for TRT.
Of course, due to the complex nature of these disputes and the various classes
involved, demands which serve the interests of the poor and oppressed were
never the only demands which were present. Those sections of the elites which
were challenging the old order or their rivals also had their own agendas.

The International Dimension

In addition to this historical big picture, we need to look beyond the borders of
Thailand to understand the various influences which shaped the Thai social
movements. International factors, such as the dominance of neo-liberal
economic policies, which increased inequality, and the oppression from
authoritarian regimes, were triggers for both the Arab Spring uprisings and the
rise of the Red Shirts, despite the many different local factors.
In countries like Egypt and Tunisia the political super-structure which had been
established some 30 years ago was in deep contradiction with significant
changes which had taken place in society. The population had become more
urbanised and more confident through education and through the experience of
strikes and struggles. They were no longer prepared to put up with the old
monopoly of power exercised by the elites. Added to this was the fact that the
governments in the middle-east had been pursuing neoliberal growth policies
since the 1980s, which resulted in a widening gap between rich and poor.
Economic issues can be very important, but not in a crude cause and effect
manner. It is the manner in which economic life is organised that affects peoples
lives and fuels grievances which are then linked to other social and political
Political crises often have causes and components which go far beyond their
superficial surface appearances. It should be remembered that the rise of
Taksins popularity was a result of the neo-liberal economic crisis that hit
Thailand in 1996 and his grass-roots Keynesian response to this which diverged
from the traditional laissez-faire doctrine of the conservative ruling elites.
Historically many changes have taken place in Thai society while the structures
of power and attitudes of the ruling class have not kept up with these changes.
In 1954 88% of the working population were involved in agriculture 32. By 2002, at
the beginning of the TRT Government, this figure had declined to 37%, with 63%
31 John Krinsky (2014) Marxim and the Politics of Possibility: Beyond Academic
Boundaries. In: Colin Barker, Laurence Cox, John Krinsky & Alf Gunvald Nilsen
(Eds) Marxism and Social Movements. Haymarket Books, Chicago, IL.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn 2015 The role of Thai social movements in democratisation

in industry and services33. Even those people classified as working in agriculture

were in fact involved in occupational multiplicity, mixing farm jobs with offfarm jobs34.
In 1960 no more than 20% of the population attained lower secondary school
qualifications, with men enjoying marginally better education than women 35. By
1999 the Ministry of education reported that 84% of all 12-14 year olds were in
lower secondary school. In the education system as a whole, girls or women were
achieving marginally better than boys or men.
People do not need to be educated at school or college in order to understand
democracy, human rights or social justice, as many Thai conservatives try to
make out, but education can increase self-confidence to get organised and stand
up and fight36. The proliferation of secondary education in Thailand can help to
partly explain why the Red Shirt movement became the largest social movement
in Thai history.
There is no question that the Thai economy experienced real economic growth in
the past. In 1960 GDP per capita was $100. By 1996 this had risen to $3000 and
in 2008 it was $400037. Yet this growth was not distributed evenly. Real wage
growth between the end of the Second World War and 1975 was minimal and did
not reflect rises in labour productivity 38. In the 1975 the Gini coefficient for
Thailand stood at 0.4339, but in 2009 this had increased to 0.54, indicating
growing inequality. This compares with a Gini Coefficient of 0.42 for China and
32 James C. Ingram (1971) Economic Change in Thailand 1850-1970. Stanford
University Press.
33 Thailand National Statistical Office.
34 Andrew Walker (2008) The rural constitution and the everyday politics of
elections in northern Thailand. Journal of Contemporary Asia, 38:1, 84 -105.
35 J.C. Caldwell (1967) The Demographic Structure. In T. H. Silcock Thailand.
Social and Economic Studies in Development. ANU Press.
36 For an anthropological account of the political thinking of villagers in the
north, see Andrew Walker (2008), Already quoted.
37 World Bank data at current US$ rates.
38 Jim Glassman (2003) Already Quoted.
39 Jonathan Rigg (2001) Southeast Asia. The human landscape of modernization
and development. Routledge.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn 2015 The role of Thai social movements in democratisation

0.37 for India40. In 2009 the share of national income owned by the top 20% was
59% while the share of the bottom 20% was only 3.9%. Even the middle 20%
owned only 11.4%41.
The sense of economic injustice among the people who voted for Taksins parties
did not arise from absolute poverty. It was more about most people not gaining
from the benefits of economic growth as much as the top elites. TRTs
announcement that they believed that the poor were not a burden but stakeholders in development appealed to the majority of people. Therefore the
military coup dtats in 2006 and 2014, and various actions by the conservative
elites to exclude TRT politicians from office, causes a real sense of anger. This
anger was fuelled by a general discontent with the hierarchical and conservative
nature of Thai society.
We see little snap-shots of the links between the Red Shirts and the Arab Spring
uprisings by looking at pictures of some Thai demonstrators holding French bread
sticks, Tunisian style, and the large poster which appeared on one Red Shirt
demonstration claiming to be from the Egyptian branch of the UDD located in
the north-eastern province of Chaiyapoom!
Previous links between Thai movements and those in other countries occurred in
the early 1970s when the Thai democracy movement was clearly influenced by
the 1968 movements in the West. The 1973 student-led uprising against the
military in Thailand also acted as a boost for Greek students protesting against
their own military dictatorship. Greek students could be heard shouting
Thailand! Thailand! during the Athens Polytechnic uprising.
A perverted international link influencing the Thai anti-democratic middle class
movement was the adoption of Guy Fawkes masks used by the Occupy
movements in the West. Instead of these masks being worn by oppressed people
struggling against the rich and powerful, in Thailand they were worn by royalists
calling for a military coup!

The Importance of Organised Labour to Thai Social Movements

The Red Shirt-backed Pua Thai Party, which won the elections in July 2011, made
a clear promise to increase the daily minimum wage to 300 baht. This was aimed
at winning over industrial and low paid service workers and also designed to help
stimulate domestic demand. Never the less, the vacuum on the Left inside the
Red Shirt movement, and its mainstream leadership who were often ex-TRT
politicians, meant that no real attempts were ever made to organise among the
labour movement. The working class was also too weak, in political terms, to
force its way onto the stage of Red Shirt mass protests. The inability to organise
40 The Economist 20 July 2011 and World Bank.
41 Wolfram Mathematica 2011.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn 2015 The role of Thai social movements in democratisation

mass strikes in support of the Red Shirt demands in 2010 was a serious
weakness which helped the regime to violently crush the street protests 42.
In contrast, the labour movement strikes in Egypt in early 2011 were a significant
factor in the fall of Mubarak. For years activists of the Egyptian Left had worked
underground among workers and they were present in the great strike wave of
200643. This strike wave raised the issue of the need to build new unions,
independent of the State, and to start to oppose the authoritarian State
politically. In post-Mubarak Egypt, before the military counter-revolution, the
newly established independent trade unions formed a Democratic Workers and
Peasants Party. The new independent unions also declared that it was a
fundamental principle of independent unions to oppose funding from outside
bodies or NGOs. In contrast, many Thai unions receive funding from foreign
NGOs and no such political party of the trade union movement has been
proposed in recent years. The lack of a clear pro-democracy political current
within the Thai unions is a fundamental weakness in the Red Shirt struggle for
participatory democracy and social justice.
Thai trade union membership stands at less than 4% of the workforce. However,
such an average figure can be misleading. Most State Enterprises and large
factories in the private sector are fully unionised or at least dominated by unions.
This includes some offices, especially the banks. Apart from this, unionised
workers are mainly concentrated in Bangkok and the surrounding provinces of
the Central region and the Eastern industrial Seaboard. Such concentrations of
working class organisations allow for more influence than would be supposed
from just looking at the national figures for unionisation. Strikes occur on a
regular basis and trade union membership has expanded in manufacturing on
the Eastern Seaboard, especially in auto-parts, electronics and auto assembly
In Thailand, as in other countries, trade union bureaucrats enjoy a better
standard of living than their members. However, networks of unofficial rank and
file activists, independent of top leaders, exist in Area Groups. Even official
groupings, such as the Federation of Textile, Garment and Leather Workers
Unions, are able to bring together different unions at rank and file level,
independent of the various bureaucratised peak bodies and congresses. These
area groupings are considerably more democratic than the peak bodies. The
entire committee of the group is usually elected every year and made up of men
and women lay-representatives covering different workplaces and industries.
42 Reactionary, anti-democratic elements among the leadership of some state
enterprise unions gave the false impression that the labour movement backed
the royalists and the military. This was not the case. See: Giles Ji Ungpakorn
(2011) Already Quoted.
43 Joel Beinin (2009) Workers struggles under socialism and neoliberalism.
In: Rabab El-Mahdi & Philip Marfleet (Eds) Egypt. The Moment of Change. Zed
Books, London & New York.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn 2015 The role of Thai social movements in democratisation

These rank and file union groupings are a way in which "enterprise unions" can
build solidarity with one another across workplace boundaries.
Trade unions and strikes have existed in Thailand for many years, but it is
ideological factors which have held back the working class. This is due to a
number of factors. Firstly, the CPT, which originally organised urban workers in
the 1940s and 1950s, took a Maoist turn away from the working class, towards
the peasantry, in the 1960s. For this reason there has been a lack of left-wing
activists willing to agitate among workers for the past 30 years. Unlike South
Korea, where student activists had a long tradition of going to work in urban
settings with the aim of strengthening trade unions, Thai student activists
headed for the countryside after graduation. After the collapse of the CPT we can
see the labour movement influenced by NGOs, using funds from U.S. and
German foundations, and more recently the arrival of international
bureaucratic union federations. This is the second main factor which accounts for
the ideological weakness of the Thai labour movement.
Labour-NGOs run by Thais receive funds from international foundations such as
The American Center for International Labor Solidarity or the Solidarity
Center, funded by the AFL-CIO and The Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, funded by the
German Social Democrat Party (SPD). In recent years highly bureaucratised
international unions have organised recruitment drives in some Thai
workplaces. The aim is to increase membership of these international bodies, not
to increase the combative and political nature of Thai unions. These NGOs and
international unions have a number of commonly held beliefs. They actively
support trade unions and workers struggles, as long as they stay within the law.
Thai labour law stipulates that trade unions must remain non-political and most
NGOs are totally opposed to trade unionists taking up socialist politics or forming
political parties. Thai labour law also makes it hard to carry out strikes. Yet a
pamphlet on trade unions, issued in Thai, by the Solidarity Center, managed to
completely avoid mentioning strike action or how to organise strikes. The
Friedrich Ebert Stiftung promoted seminars on Third Way Social Democratic
acceptance of the free-market. Thus the main thrust of NGO and international
union ideology is to try to promote good industrial relations and professional
trade unions, which concentrate only on economic issues. Some NGOs also
support tripartite committees of unions, bosses and government officials.
NGO activists are known as Pi-lieng (Nannies). These nannies, help child-like
workers to organise unions, to know their rights under the labour laws, and to
conduct themselves properly in labour disputes. When a dispute arises at a
workplace, various NGO nannies will be sent out to stay with the workers
mob44 in their picket tents. On some occasions, more rebellious workers will be
scolded like children.

44 The word mob has become a commonly used term in Thai to describe mass
pickets and street protests.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn 2015 The role of Thai social movements in democratisation

While such NGO and international union activity has resulted in more trade
unions being established, it also breeds worker dependency on outside funding
and socialises union representatives into a life-style made up of seminars in
luxury hotels and foreign trips to conferences.
In the past, the State has also tried to intervene in trade unions by funding them
directly or by using Security Service funds to control unions. More recently,
political parties like TRT have also sponsored trade unionists. In the light of this,
and in the light of the NGO ideological influence which shuns political parties or
politics, many active trade unionists who wish to fight in a more politicised
manner have turned to militant Syndicalism.
Militant Syndicalism in the present day Thai context means engaging in the class
struggle, supporting and organising strikes and being against cooperation with
the State or the elites. These militants opposed the 2006 coup dtat and the
PAD and continue to oppose the military dictatorship today. The Rangsit Area
Trade Union Group and the Red Workers Group for Democracy are good
examples of this. But Syndicalists are also very anxious to protect their
independence while being wary of all political parties or of forming political
organisations. This means that Thai Syndicalists were wary of cooperating too
closely with the Red Shirt movement.
The ideological weakness of Thai unions and the lack of interest in the labour
movement by most Red Shirts meant that there was a gulf between the Red
Shirts and the labour movement.

The Role





Like most countries throughout the World, Thailand went through a process of
mass radicalisation in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The high point was when a
mass movement of students and urban workers overthrew the military
dictatorship in October 1973. The Maoist Communist Party of Thailand (CPT)
was the organisation which gained most from this radicalisation, especially after
the ruling elites killed scores of protestors and students in October 1976.
However, the Maoist strategy of the CPT eventually failed. Into this vacuum on
the Left stepped the NGOs.
Initially, in 2001, the NGOs warmed to Taksin's Thai Rak Thai government. They
believed that it was open to NGO lobbying, and it was. Thai Rak Thai (TRT)
45 Giles Ji Ungpakorn (2009) Why have most Thai NGOs chosen to side with the
conservative royalists, against democracy and the poor? Interface: a journal for and
about social movements 1 (2): 233 - 237 (November 2009) Ji Giles Ungpakorn,
'NGOs: Enemies or Allies?' International Socialism Journal 104 Autumn 2004, U.K.


Giles Ji Ungpakorn 2015 The role of Thai social movements in democratisation

adopted the idea of a universal health care system from progressive doctors and
health-related NGOs. But then, the NGOs were wrong-footed by the
government's raft of other pro-poor policies that seemed to prove to villagers
that the NGOs had thus far only been 'playing' at development. What is more,
the increased use of the state for providing welfare and benefits by the TRT
government went against the anarchist-inspired NGO idea that communities
should organise their own welfare.
The Thai NGO notion of community self-sufficiency, separated from state and
market, was an abstract utopian idea which was not particularly popular with
rural people. As a result there was always a danger that NGOs which advocated
such ideas would become elitist in outlook, and start to convince themselves that
the villagers were hopelessly misguided. Since the poor voted on mass for Thai
Rak Thai, the NGOs became viciously patronising towards villagers. In fact, there
was always a patronising element to their practical work. Many Thai NGO leaders
are self-appointed middle class activists who shun elections and believe that
NGOs should literally 'nanny' peasants and workers.
Post-modern and autonomist rejection of politics and any big picture
analysis, after the end of the Cold War, allowed post-CPT activists, such as those
in the Thai NGOs, to forget about class, the oppressive state and the need for
political organisation. Their interest was merely in lobbying those in power,
whether they be elected or authoritarian. Parliamentary elections, and especially
elected parties with parliamentary majorities, were viewed as the dictatorship of
parliament. Eventually, the idea went together with a failure to defend
parliamentary democracy. This degeneration of politics explains why many Thai
NGO activists, and the movements which they influenced, moved dramatically to
the right, ending up supporting military coups and the shrinkage of the
democratic space.
At the start of the anti-Taksin protests, many NGOs joined the royalist PAD
demonstrations. It was legitimate to protest against the excesses of the
government, but NGO involvement in the royalist PAD, and then with the military
junta, soon went far beyond anything that can be classified as genuine support
for social justice and democracy.
After the 2006 coup, Thai NGO leaders like Rawadee Parsertjaroensuk (NGOCoordinating Committee), Nimit Tienudom (AIDS network), Banjong Nasa
(Southern Fisher Folk network), Witoon Permpongsajaroen (Ecology movement)
and Sayamon Kaiyurawong (Thai Volunteer Service), among others, put
themselves forward in the hope that the military would select them as appointed
Senators. Nimit Tienudom claimed at a PAD rally on 23 rd March 2006, that most
of Taksins supporters 'did not know the truth' about his government, and he
effectively treated Taksin's supporters as ignorant and incapable of sound
political judgement. This patronising attitude mirrors the attitude of many middle
class anti-democrats.


Giles Ji Ungpakorn 2015 The role of Thai social movements in democratisation

For all their apparent initial good intentions, leading members of the NGO
movement have been increasingly drawn to reactionary right-wing politics and
are now seriously compromised in terms of their ability, or even their intention,
to defend and expand democracy 46.

Post-coup Social Movements

The most striking thing about the initial reaction to the May 2014 coup dtat
was the speed and size of the anti-coup protests. For 3 days immediately
following the coup, mass protests of ordinary people simultaneously erupted in
many areas of Bangkok but also in Chiang Mai and other towns.
These protests were spontaneous but it would be a mistake to think that they
were unorganised. For years pro-democracy activists had been creating their
own fragmented grass roots networks, which were independent from Taksin,
Yingluk, Pua Thai and the mainstream UDD Red Shirt leaders, and it is these
people who formed the core of the protesters. Naturally many UDD-supporting
Red Shirt activists also took part.
It was not easy to defy a military junta and stand in front of armed soldiers who
in the past had not hesitated to shoot down unarmed protesters. Some activists
were arrested and taken away. Others were taken from their homes. Many people
were ordered by the junta to report to army command centres for attitude
changing sessions. Some were incarcerated in army camps. Those who were
charged with offences faced military courts and prison. Some were charged
with lse majest47. Eventually the protests petered out.
Then in the first half of 2015 student protests started to happen. Young prodemocracy student activists, who called themselves the New Democracy
Movement and the Dao-Din students, threw down a challenge to all prodemocracy activists. In a statement read out the day before they were arrested
and sent to a military court for peacefully demanding freedom and democracy,
they made the following call:
We understand very well that you may not feel ready to come out and fight in
the open. We understand if you have fear in your hearts. We also harbour that
fear. But you can no long remain silent and inactive because by doing that in the
face of the juntas illegitimate use of power, you end up condoning the regime by
46 For a similar account in the case of Haiti, see: Peter Hallward (2007) Damming
the Flood. Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment. Verso.
47 For more details about this law, see: Giles Ji Ungpakorn (2011) Lse Majest,
the Monarchy, and the Military in Thailand. Paper given at the Department of
Peace and Conflict Studies (Pax et Bellum), University of Uppsala, Sweden, 29th
April 2011.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn 2015 The role of Thai social movements in democratisation

your silence. Our struggle today will be meaningless if you remain passive. You
might not feel that the state of affairs has had a negative impact on you right
now, but we all know that this cannot remain the case forever. Do not wait until it
is too late and there is no one left who is prepared to fight.
It is not enough to praise these brave young activists and wish them well, as
many have quite rightly done. If we remain as mere spectators, viewing some
symbolic defiance of the junta by the students, the dictatorship can never be
overthrown. But merely making a call for action, in the way that these activists
have done, does not automatically result in a mass uprising against the military.
We need to learn from the lessons of the 14 th October 1973 uprising against the
dictatorship, when half a million students and working people came out on to the
streets of Bangkok and faced down tanks and guns and beat the military. That
uprising was sparked by the arrests of pro-democracy activists. But there are
some crucial differences with today.
There is a mistaken view among some of the student activists who believe that
the difference between 1973 and today is the power of the media and the
internet. Certainly there was no internet in those days, but people still knew what
was going on through the traditional media and by word of mouth. The internet is
a powerful communication tool, but it is no substitute for real organisation on the
One of the most important lessons from the 14 th October 1973 uprising was that
it did not just arise out of thin air. Students and workers in those days had mass
organisations and the anger at the military repression fed into those mass
organisations and resulted in half a million people being pulled on to the streets.
Added to this was the political influence of the Communist Party in building a
clear and unified critique of society, even though the party officially played little
role in organising the uprising itself.
What we urgently need is mass organisation rather than fragmented networks.
The Red Shirts were a mass movement, but the UDD leadership has placed the
Red Shirt Movement in cold storage. It is up to all of us to step up to the
challenge and rebuild a democracy movement which can eventually respond to
the call by the students.
The absence of a Left political party has also created difficulties. If we look
around Thai society we see that the so-called NGO-led Peoples Movement is
blinded by its post-communist adherence to single-issues. Many even support
the junta. But the Dao Din students, who were involved in local community
issues, went beyond single issue ideology. They campaign for land rights and
48 Jodi Dean (2009) Democracy and other Neoliberal Fantasies. Communicative
Capitalism and Left Politics. Duke University Press, Durham & London. Chapter 1.
Jonny Jones (2011) Social media and social movements. International Socialism
130, Spring 2011. Martin Upchurch (2014) The internet, social media and the
workplace. International Socialism 141, Winter 2014.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn 2015 The role of Thai social movements in democratisation

against the dictatorship at the same time. Such an approach is of vital

importance. The activists involved in the 14th October 1973 uprising linked
discontent with social and economic conditions with the struggle against the
military. That was why it was so powerful. We need such a movement today.
The military junta is busy designing an authoritarian political system similar to
that which we see in Burma. A new constitution is in the process of being
drafted, although the latest draft was rejected in September 2015. Various initial
versions, which have already been published, show that the junta aims to extend
the authoritarian hand of the military into the future, even if elections are
eventually held49.
Today the challenge for pro-democracy activists is whether we can all help to
rebuild a mass movement for democracy which weaves together all the pressing
issues of society and is linked to a new organised political party and the labour

49 For a brief analysis of the latest draft charter which was rejected in
September 2015, see: