Interview with Thai activist Giles Ungpakorn: ‘Power to overthrow dictatorial regimes lies with the organized working class’

SR’s Andy Barns spoke recently with Thai writer, academic, and socialist activist Giles Ji Ungpakorn. Ungpakorn fled to Britain from Thailand in 2009 after facing a lèse majesté [committing treason against the monarch] charge for the content of his book, “A Coup for the Rich.” He has written several books, including “Thailand’s Crisis and the Fight for Democracy” (2010). He blogs about Thai politics at Our interview has been slightly edited for clarity.

Q: In 2020, Thailand has seen mass protests demanding democracy. In the past four months especially, tens of thousands have been in the streets. What explains the new mobilization?

Giles Ungpakorn.

A: The revival of the mass movement for democracy comes from the activities of young people and students. The reason why they’ve managed to invigorate the mass movement is that the younger generation does not have the same fear that the previous generation has. Previous pro-democracy activists have a baggage from being through periods when the military shot them down in the streets and arrested people. So they’ve got that baggage and fear with them, young people don’t have this.

But also, young people are fed up with how Thai society hasn’t changed over the years. Which is why one of the slogans is “Let it end with our generation.” The young people have also seen that parliamentary maneuvers don’t bring about any progress in democratization. They’ve seen that they don’t have any prospects with the economic crisis due to COVID. They are very angry with the behavior of the new king, Vajiralongkorn, and they want to seek serious change. School students are also fed up with the entrenched conservative values in the education system. That’s why they’ve managed to draw together thousands in the streets, with at one point over 100,000 in Bangkok.

This is also different from students five or six years ago, where the students were protesting in small groups, because they thought they didn’t need that, since they have social media. The present generation clearly understands the need for mass movements.

What we are seeing in Thailand is similar to what we see in Hong Kong, Chile, Nigeria, the Black Lives Matter movement, climate strikes, and other places where young people are leading a protest for change worldwide.

Q: Has organized labor been taking part in the protests?

A: Organized labor has been in some of the protests, especially when protests were held near factory areas—for example, the eastern seaboard, where auto assembly, and auto parts are manufactured, and also north of Bangkok. Of course, organized labor in Thailand is not just about factory workers, there are trade unions, banks, hospitals, and workers spread across transportation, in the service sector, and so on.

Unfortunately, they haven’t been talking about going on strikes. You haven’t seen the organized working class flex its muscles in terms of strike action. Partly because they are held back by politics of the trade-union bureaucrats, and the politics of the NGOs who come in and influence trade unions.

Where the workers have been taking part in protests, they have been led by more militant sections of the class, which are organized mainly in “area groups,” where there is a high degree of democratic decision making.

Q: Can you describe the nature of the relationship between the military, the monarchy, and the capitalist class?

A: Most people in Thailand, especially the activists in the movement, believe the present and previous kings had enormous amounts of power. So they are saying king Vajiralongkorn is trying to move toward an absolute monarchy. This is totally incorrect, in my view. The monarchy has never had any serious power. What it does represent is an ideology that drills into people that some are born high, some people are born low, some are born to rule, others are born to take orders, and so on.

That’s the purpose of having monarchies in modern capitalism, including in countries like Britain, Sweden, Japan, etc. Thailand is only slightly different in that the military, but also capitalists, have been creating this image of a godlike monarchy, to spread fear among the population so they don’t dare to question the status quo. This fear is reinforced with the iron fist of the military, using the lèse majesté law. The military especially rely on the ideology of the monarchy in order to justify what they are doing. They cannot justify that they are controlling Thai politics on the basis of democracy.

Civilian politicians like Thaksin also relied on the monarchy, but they could also rely on the policies they put to the electorate, and be legitimized by the next election. The military can’t do that. A lot of people in Thailand actually believe in democracy, though what they mean by it is another matter. So democracy is quite an important ideology.

So the monarchy is powerless but is a symbol of the entrenched class society, rammed down the throats of ordinary people. What we’ve seen recently is that people have started to question the role of the monarchy, especially because King Vajiralongkorn behaves in such an outrageous manner, spending most of his time with his harem in Germany, treating women like dirt. Consorts who fall out with him can end up in jail. People are also angry that he is already the richest person in Thailand, but he wants to make sure he can control all the funds associated with the monarchy (some of which were under the control of the ministry of finance). People are calling for the reform of the monarchy, but the monarchy should be abolished, and Thailand should have a republic.

The military have responded to the protests by charging more than a dozen protest leaders with lèse majesté, so you can see that the lèse majesté law, which claims to protect the monarchy, is there to protect military rule and the status quo.

Q: Does the monarchy have any real power?

A: No, the monarchy has no real power. It has the ability to appoint special servants to the monarchy, but in terms of social policy, economic policy, international policy, passing laws that affect Thai society as a whole, the current king has absolutely no interest, and doesn’t actually have any power. His father had no real power either.

I think it’s important to see the present king as being rather intellectually challenged. He failed all his exams when growing up, he can’t string a sentence together, and is only interested in his own personal pleasure and wealth.

The image of a powerful king is an example of what Marx and Lukacs called “alienation.” People believe things that are the reverse of the truth when they are under control and power of a ruling class—for example, images of Thai generals groveling in front of Vajiralongkorn are created to make people fearful and insecure. But that changes when people go into struggle; people can start to see things for what they really are. This is something we can see in Thailand, the process of alienation and how to get over this alienation.

Q: Historically, the loyalty or disloyalty of the rank-and-file soldiers has played an important role in potentially revolutionary situations. Is there any evidence of dissent in the ranks of Thai soldiers? Are there Thai soldiers who sympathize with the protests?

A: In order to get soldiers over to the opposition of the mass movement anywhere in the world, the soldiers have to have the confidence that the mass movement is on the verge of winning. Otherwise, they face charges of treason and could easily end up being shot or jailed.

At the moment, the Thai movement has potential power but hasn’t used this potential power to make the country ungovernable. In order to do that the movement needs to go to the Thai working class, (both white-collar and blue-collar workers) and argue with them, in order to give them the confidence to go on strike. That would make the country ungovernable and put immense pressure on the military dictatorship. But that isn’t happening, and therefore, any reports of soldiers’ changing sides are rather early and speculative.

Q: How dependent is the Thai capitalist class on imperialist powers? Do you see the U.S., EU countries, or China intervening?

A: The U.S., EU, and China aren’t really interested if Thailand is a democracy or not, and they aren’t interested in human rights. If they do claim to have such an interest, it’s only in order to get an advantage in their imperial rivalries with other countries.

Thailand is sandwiched between Chinese imperialism and U.S. imperialism in the region, and the Thai state seeks to play off both sides. They buy arms from China and have been keen to maintain good relations with China. The U.S. is keen to maintain its military relationship with Thailand, and EU countries as well have sold arms to Thailand. None of these foreign imperialist powers are a potential ally to the pro-democracy movement. In terms of the world imperialists, Thailand is a small power. Thailand has a few multinational companies of its own, but it can only puff itself up and try look powerful compared to Southeast Asia.

Q: Thailand has seen several reformist parties recently, including the now defunct Future Forward Party, and its replacement, the Move Forward Party. In Thailand, are these parties a help to the democracy struggle or an obstacle to it?

A: Well, the MFP is at present debating its stand on the lèse majesté law, which tells you something. Basically, they didn’t have a principled stand against it. They also have what they call a “workers wing,” where they sought to co-opt some trade unionists. But this is no social democratic party, this is no labor party. In some senses, the politicians from parties like MFP are useful in standing bail for people who are arrested, or they are useful for raising questions in parliament, although the military have a cast-iron majority in parliament, because they are appointed to the senate and fix elections.

The opposition parties are a hindrance for the movement because they are not prepared to really talk about reforming the monarchy, or really push for mass movements. It’s mass movements that will make change in Thailand, not parliamentary maneuvers in a fixed parliament.

Q: There is no organized socialist party in Thailand at this time. Is it possible for a new Thai left to organize a socialist party legally?

A: Yes, it’s possible to organize a socialist party legally. The electoral commission may quibble about its name, but that’s a minor point. I was part of setting up a revolutionary socialist organization, not big enough to call itself a party. But we had some serious knock-backs, since I had to go into exile in the UK.

There are people who call themselves socialists, and younger people who are interested in the ideas of socialism and Marxism. Problem is they need to be organized in a political party, not necessarily one that registers with the state, but one that acts as a political party and is rooted in the working class but also within the youth mass movement. All of this is possible, but whether or not it takes place is another matter.

Q: What can the international working class learn from the pro-democracy struggle? Are there lessons in Thailand that are applicable to other situations?

A: There certainly are lessons. The first lesson is not just from Thailand but also from Hong Kong, Sudan, Belarus, or wherever we see similar struggles. It is that the power to change and overthrow dictatorial regimes lies in the hands of the organized working class. If the organized working class can start flexing its muscles to go on strike, then you can shake the ruling class. The fact that in Thailand there is no indication of this as yet means the movement is weak, and the struggle may end up in a nasty compromise, where only a few clauses in the constitution get changed but not the bulk of the demands of the movement.

The second lesson is that the movement claims that they don’t have any leaders—that “we are all leaders,” they say. There are similarities to Podemos in Spain, or the Occupy movement. But while claiming there are no leaders, there clearly are leaders. On the one hand, this means that when the military regime arrests them, the activity can carry on in the rank-and-file level, and that’s a good thing. Its a good thing that the movement isn’t under the control of a bourgeois party, and therefore has orders coming down from high. But the real disadvantage is if you claim there are no leaders, and yet have them, the leaders are not accountable, they are not democratically elected, and there are no democratic structures to discuss the way forward. That is a serious weakness because, in the end, there is a handful of people deciding what to do, rather than relying on the wisdom of the masses.

Top illustration by General Strike Graphics.

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