Despite attempts by Thailand’s elites to cast ordinary Thais as docile, obedient, and uninterested in politics, evidence of resistance to exploitation and domination in the region pre-dates the formation of the Thai state. The popular uprising that spread across Thailand starting in July 2020 traces its lineage back to the Red Shirt political movement that emerged in 2006, resistance to the 1991 military coup, the coordinated student, labor, and peasant struggles of the 1970s, and the Siamese Revolution of 1932 before that. While Thailand was never formally colonized, it was still economically dominated by the British imperial system since being pried opened to British foreign trade with the signing of the Bowring Treaty of 1855. The organizers of the Siamese Revolution ended the absolute monarchy and put Thailand on a path towards economic nationalism and modernization; the political ideology of the organizers was not monolithic, however, and the party would eventually split into civilian and military factions. The military faction along with its royalist supporters would ultimately win the dispute, excising any mention of a welfare state or land reform from the new constitution and ushering in fifteen years of authoritarian rule that outlawed communism. Post-World War II prosperity brought with it a more liberal mood and Marxist ideas gained traction in urban Thai society. Progressive political parties, trade unions, literary movements, and the publication of original Thai socialist ideas – as well as translations of Marxist works in other languages – multiplied from 1946 to 1957. These once-banned ideas inspired a generation of student activists, many of whom would go on to organize protests right up until they were banned yet again by another military coup in 1958.
The quest to contain communism in Southeast Asia brought the US and Thailand into intimate allyship in the 1950s. The cozy relationship was cemented with the US-backed 1958 military coup that put the authoritarian military general Sarit Thanarat in power and revived the monarchy as a symbol of the natural order of class society in Thailand. Thailand opened its economy, banned trade unions, lowered tariffs, suppressed wages, and promoted itself as a good place for foreign investors to do business. In exchange for millions of US dollars in grants, loans, and technical assistance for the expansion of private enterprise, Thailand got 12 US military bases housing several hundred war planes, thousands of US troops stationed on its soil, and millions of troops (US and its allies) passing through for a week of R&R – making Thailand the epicenter of sex tourism that it remains to this day. Additionally, Thailand contributed troops to help the U.S. prop up the South Vietnamese regime and secretly sent troops over the border into Lao. Popular anger about this lopsided nearly-colonial relationship merged with international solidarity in opposition to the Vietnam War, leading to massive demonstrations against the bases and the eventual withdraw of all US troops from Thailand in 1976.
University students – a demographic that ballooned from 15,000 to 100,000 between 1961 and 1972 – played a central role in organizing the resistance to the bases, as well as the October 1973 popular uprising that toppled the military dictatorship of Thanom Kittikachorn. Labor actions were at an all-time high as unions were restored, with 138 new unions formed between 1973 and 1976. Even before all these new unions formed, there were hundreds of strikes in the years leading up to the uprising. During this time of openness, the peasant movement also gained ground, forming the Farmers Federation of Thailand and counting 1.5 million members. Their mobilization with support from the students led to the adoption of the Land Rent Control Act. The movement grew in numbers and militancy as labor, peasant, and student activists joined together to fight for social and economic justice – a development that did not go unnoticed by Bangkok’s traditional elites and growing middle class. On October 6, 1976, at least forty protestors were lynched and murdered by the police and right-wing paramilitary at Thammasat University in Bangkok, their bodies mutilated by a mob and displayed in public. The urban labor and student movements were essentially squashed by the massacre and a staunchly anti-communist royalist judge was installed as prime minister, ushering a return to autocratic military dictatorship backed by the monarchy and its supporters. Strikes and public assemblies were banned until 1981. Thailand’s ruling elite – armed with an expanded military, media censorship, and relentless pro-monarchy propaganda – consolidated its political power over the next decade without an organized Left to check its repression and excesses.
Thailand’s first democratically elected prime minister rose through the ranks of the military dictatorship to assume the position in 1998, but the rampant corruption of his administration resulted in yet another military coup in 1991. There was an immediate public backlash, however, and a popular revolt involving hundreds of thousands of protestors finally toppled the military dictatorship the following year, leading to a new (and more progressive) constitution. The 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and its fallout created an increased demand for transparency and reform among the ordinary Thai people who bore the brunt. It was out of this man-made economic disaster that free-market nationalist and prominent tech mogul Taksin Shinawatra rose to power, enjoying a landslide victory in the 2001 election. Taksin’s policies can be described as a combination of grass-roots Keynesianism and the free-market (neoliberal) at the national level. He also instituted Thailand’s universal healthcare program that remains popular to this day. These reforms were hardly radical, but they were the first time in memory that Thailand’s poor were considered stakeholders, which threatened the Thai elite. The anti-Taksin People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) began organizing disruptive protests in February 2006. Taksin was finally deposed by a coup in September 2006, carried out with broad support from Bangkok’s middle class and the PAD. They wore yellow to show their allegiance to the king. Taksin’s supporters, a diverse pro-democracy coalition, wore red.
The Red Shirts is the unofficial name given to The United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), Thailand’s largest pro-democracy movement to date and the most recent antecedent to the 2020 pro-democracy uprising in Thailand. The Red Shirts included both rural and urban agricultural workers, industrial and service workers, as well as students, parts of the urban middle class who opposed dictatorship and royal nepotism, and even many Buddhist monks (most of whom hailed from Thailand’s poorest regions). The Red Shirts first appeared on the scene in 2009 with a series of confrontational demonstrations that broke out after Taksin called for a “people’s revolution” in protest of the newly-installed prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. The protestors succeeded in shutting down the ASEAN summit, but ultimately dispersed as the military cracked down – injuring over 120 UDD supporters, killing at least two, and allegedly disappearing a few others. Changing tactics, the Red Shirts re-emerged in the spring of 2010, urging supporters into the streets with music blaring, mopeds parading, and vendors selling food as if it was a massive street party. At its peak there were over 100,000 Red Shirts in the streets of Bangkok, including protestors that traveled from other provinces to add their voices to the call for democracy and fresh elections. It wasn’t just the demand for free and transparent elections that brought the Red Shirts out, but also a shared sense of resistance to Thailand’s ossified hierarchy that justified elite privilege and demeaned rural and working class Thais as mere peasants. In much the same way that US conservatives accuse Black Lives Matter protestors of being paid to protest by George Soros, Thai elites accused the Red Shirts of being paid to protest. They responded with the slogan mai tong chang ku ma eng (there is no need to hire me, I came of my own accord), which they printed on banners and t-shirts.
The military responded to the protests with violence in April and May of 2010, leaving 91 unarmed protestors dead and more than 2000 injured. Riots broke out in response that resulted in several buildings in Bangkok being set aflame, including Thailand’s largest shopping mall, Central World. Protestors charged with the arson would eventually be acquitted. Hundreds of Red Shirts were arrested while Thai media continued to censor and downplay the conflict. Injured but still resisting, Red Shirts gathered again in September to commemorate their fallen comrades, to recognize the 17 political prisoners still held captive, and mark four years since the coup that deposed Taksin. Actions in solidarity with the September rally spread to the other provinces and across the world. The Red Shirts dissipated over the following months, but the spirit and resilience of the pro-democracy movement remained, incubating for ten years and inspiring the next generation of student activists that would pick up the struggle in the summer of 2020.
When Covid-19 arrived in Thailand, just 500 people – out of a population of 69,625,582 – held 36% of Thailand’s corporate equity. Meanwhile King Rama X – worth US$34billion himself – socially distanced with his entourage at a lux hotel in the Bavarian Alps. It turns out that a free market can perform rather well without democracy or a shared understanding of “right livelihood”. This is why even in Thailand – where the collectivist impulses of Buddhism are deeply ingrained in the culture, where a tangle of complicated rules attenuate the business and migration desires of even the richest foreigners, where 90% of the population earned less than US$10,000 a year before Covid – you will find corrugated tin settlements filled with construction, agricultural, and domestic workers from Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia – other Buddhist-majority nations with average wages even lower than Thailand’s. That tired old antagonism at the heart of capitalism thrives in Thailand, concentrating ever greater sums of wealth at the top of a hierarchy dominated by the royal family and shielded from criticism by the junta. I’m reminded of Bong Joon Ho’s comments on the universality of his film Parasite, which takes place in Seoul, Korea – “while on the surface the film features very Korean characters and details, in the end it’s as if we’re all living in this one country of capitalism” – same same but different.
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