Socialist Worker

Resisting the Thai military’s assault on democracy

by Giles Ji Ungpakorn in Bangkok, Thailand
Issue No. 2020

A military junta in Thailand staged a coup and overthrew the democratically elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra on the evening of Tuesday 19 September.

In the tradition of all Thai military coups for the last 60 years, the dictatorship claimed to have staged the coup in order to “reform politics” and “protect democracy”, and that it had “no interest in taking personal power”.

It claimed it would “return power to the people as soon as possible”. Past experience shows that military dictatorships cannot be trusted.

The last coup in Thailand occurred in 1991 with the same excuses and promises.

The military was only removed from power one year later after bloody clashes with thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators.

The junta has sought and received support from Thailand’s monarchy. This underlines the anti-democratic nature of the monarchy.

The official name of the junta is “the Reform Committee in the Democratic System with a Monarchy as Head of State”.

This is reminiscent of the doublespeak in George Orwell’s novel 1984. It is read out in full every time the junta is referred to by the media.

“Democracy” means military dictatorship and “reform” means tearing up the 1997 constitution, abolishing parliament and independent bodies, and declaring martial law.


Thaksin’s picture is banned from TV. When the BBC World Service shows his image advertisements appear on screen.

Contrary to the officially massaged images of the public welcoming the coup or pictures of happy foreign tourists posing for photos in front of tanks, an opposition movement has begun to organise.

Only 24 hours after the coup a group of students and young activists met to form the 19 September Network Against the Coup. The encouraging thing about this network is its youth.

For years older activists have complained about how young people were passive.

Today, while the youth are defiant against the dictatorship, many of the old activists are backing the military.

The anti-coup network agreed to stage a protest in defiance of martial law on the evening of Friday of last week in the centre of Bangkok, Thailand’s capital.

The protest was announced by word of mouth and emails. Despite the fact that our website was closed down, there was widespread knowledge of the protest among activists.


It attracted huge interest from the foreign and local press and a group of supporters was mobilised to defend those taking part.

The 19 September Network Against the Coup made it clear that we were opponents of the Thaksin government, but that we felt that a coup was not the answer to the problems of Thai society.

Democracy is not protected by coups and political and social reform cannot take place in a climate of dictatorship.

We have three demands – the military should immediately withdraw from politics, the 1997 constitution should be immediately restored and there must be immediate restoration of basic democratic rights, including a free media.

The military decided not to make arrests. Although the military-controlled TV largely ignored the protest, the newspapers carried the story.

We have put down a marker for democracy and we are determined to continue our fight.

Next month we will be organising a Thai Social Forum.

This will be an incredibly important event to discuss the struggle for democracy and social reform.

A left movement is needed to solve problems

The People’s movement was not dormant during the Thaksin government. Some 200,000 workers took action against electricity privatisation in 2004. This helped to delay privatisation plans.

Some 10,000 people also protested against a free trade agreement with the US. Despite these protests, Thaksin’s government retained strong support among the poor because there is no credible left alternative.

Towards the end of last year a large protest movement rose up against the government.

This was a right wing movement led by media tycoon Sondhi Limthongkul – not to be confused with General Sondhi who is now the head of the junta.

It criticised government corruption and called for “power to be returned to the king”.

Unfortunately, the more conservative sections of the people’s movement decided to join forces with the right, creating the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD).

They saw Sondhi’s protests as a way to oust Thaksin because they believed that the people’s movement was too weak to act independently.

Government corruption remained the main focus of PAD.

Human rights abuses, especially in the south where there is a separatist insurgency, and neo-liberalism were largely ignored. The protesters also wore yellow “royal” shirts supporting the king.

Many progressive sections of the people’s movement were very unhappy about this and refused to take part in PAD’s mobilisations.

As the anti-government protests by PAD grew stronger, Thaksin dissolved parliament and called an election in April this year.

PAD and the opposition claimed that this was undemocratic and boycotted the election.

It became a referendum on the government. Some 16 million people voted for Thai Rak Thai, Thaksin’s party – 57 percent of the votes – and ten million abstained.

However, the courts annulled the election after claims that there were irregularities. There is little evidence to support this.

There is a fundamental political argument at the centre of the current crisis.

The right, supported by many in the people’s movement, believe that Thaksin cheated in the election and that he “tricked the ignorant rural poor”.

This is a convenient justification for ignoring the wishes of 16 million people.

This position leads to support for the military coup.

We on the left have always opposed Thaksin, especially for his human rights abuses and neo-liberal policies.

But a military coup that tears up the constitution and tramples on basic democratic rights is not the answer.

We need an alternative party, which campaigns for a welfare state, progressive taxation and opposition to


The southern problem should be solved through peaceful political means.

This should include the right of the southern population’s right to self-determination.

There is a pressing need for the defence of democracy and a strengthening of the people’s movement.

The right wants to destroy policies that aid Thailand’s poorest people

The present crisis has roots that go back to the overthrow of the last military dictatorship in 1992 and the economic crisis that hit the region in 1997.

The 1992 victory against the military was the driving force for a new constitution, which appeared in 1997.

This constitution expanded rights, which were used to legitimise many struggles. Yet the constitution was also heavily influenced by right wing liberal politics.

Workers and peasants were excluded from standing for parliament by regulations stating that all candidates must have university degrees.

The constitution supported the free market and gave advantages to large political parties. This helped Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai party dominate parliament.

Thaksin, a mobile phone and media tycoon, founded the Thai Rak Thai party soon after the economic crisis of 1997.

The Democrats, now the main opposition party, came to power in the wake of the crisis. It used taxes paid by the poor to prop up the financial system. The banks were in crisis due to wild speculation by the rich. In 2001 Thai Rak Thai won its first election.

The party was unique in recent Thai politics in that it spent considerable time developing policies.

Thai Rak Thai was a populist party which offered pro-poor policies. It pumped money into local projects.

But Thai Rak Thai also pursued neo-liberal policies such as privatisation, supported free trade agreements and opposed progressive taxation on the rich.

The poor, who form the vast majority of the Thai electorate, voted enthusiastically for the party’s two flagship policies.

These were a universal healthcare scheme – the first ever in Thailand – and a one million baht (£14,000) fund loaned to each village to encourage small businesses.

Thai Rak Thai won a second term of office with an overall majority in parliament in 2005.

The Democrats have attacked the reforms and supported the coup in the hope that it will destroy Thai Rak Thai.

As well as pursuing neo-liberalism, during Thai Rak Thai’s first term of office it waged a “war on drugs” in which over 3,000 people were shot without coming to trial.

In the three most southern provinces it waged a campaign of violence against the Muslim Malay-speaking population.

On 25 October 2004, 90 young men, who had attended a peaceful demonstration, were murdered at Takbai. Police and army units forced protesters to lie down.

Their hands were tied behind their backs and they were then piled into open army trucks, one on top of the other.

After hours of transportation in the heat, many were dead on arrival at an army camp.

The Thaksin government was also responsible for the murder of defence lawyer Somchai Nilapaichit, who was defending people from the south.

Thaksin and his cronies have also avoided paying tax. Together they netted 70 billion baht (£1 billion) from the sale of their mobile phone company and did not pay a single baht in tax.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a member of the Peoples Coalition Party, Turn Left newspaper and Workers’ Democracy

This is a revised version of a story that appeared online last week

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Article information

Sat 30 Sep 2006, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 2020
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