This is an unpublished review I wrote in 2002, with some background to the Thai coup.
Thailand has developed into a modern independent capitalist country, where capitalist relations of production dominate both the cities and the countryside, and where the class struggle is played out between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Fifty-six per cent of assets of the 100 largest companies are Thai owned; domestic commerce and industry are dominated by 300 conglomerates; and the CP group have emerged as the first Thai multinational. Of decisive significance is the social weight of the working class. In 1996 out of a total population of 58 million, 13 million were workers (41%) and 13.8 million were peasants – it will not be long before workers are the majority class in the country.
The last seventy years can be summed up as follows. In 1932, the absolutist state was overthrown by a revolution organised and led by a coalition of civilian politicians and military leaders. Thailand was transformed into a constitutional capitalist state, with periods of democratic rule and military dictatorship. Between 1957 and 1973 Thailand had an uninterrupted period of military rule, during which state-sponsored industrialisation facilitated the emergence of the domestic bourgeoisie. On the 14 October 1973, a mass popular uprising, led by students, but significantly involving urban workers, overthrew the military dictatorship.
On 6 October 1976 civil rights were crushed by a military coup. The ruling class were not able to keep up the repression for long, partly because of the level of struggle organised by workers in the city, and because of the activity of the Communist Party of Thailand in the countryside. Gradual liberalisation of the political system took place, partly in order to undermine political resistance from below, and by 1988 Thailand had a full parliamentary democracy once again.
In 1991, the army made a last ditch attempt to maintain significant political influence by staging a coup against a corrupt, but democratically elected government. In May 1992, the military was overthrown, by another uprising in Bangkok. May 1992 resulted in the restoration of parliamentary democracy and the eventual reform of the political system.
The role of workers has been consistently downplayed in the early 20th century. Yet in 1910 the first general strike took place in Bangkok. The 1922 tram strike was significant, as was the agitation by the Labour group and their paper, “The Worker”. The first white-collar strike occurred at the Siam Electricity company office in 1931; a year later the first recorded strike of women workers took place at a Bangkok dye factory. Although the working class did not play the decisive role in breaking the old regime in 1932, unions did participate.
Working class struggle under the military was viciously repressed. In 1959 Supachai Srisati and ten other labour militants were arrested for issuing a democracy leaflet in the name of the Labour Congress of Thailand. As a result, Supachai was executed for being a ‘communist’”. However the pattern of the last 25 years of class struggle clearly shows that the working class is a “force to be reckoned with”. For example, the working class played a vital role in ending military rule in 1973. Between January and October 1973 there were 40 strikes, including a one-month strike at the Thai Steel Company over a victimisation. There were three hundred strikes in the following two months, including the Hara Jeans factory occupation.
On May Day 1975 a quarter of a million workers demonstrated; in 1976 half a million workers took part in general strike over price increases. In the demonstrations that finally finished off military rule in 1992, over half of union reps surveyed took part. Some trade union banners were seen on the marches, and unionised bus conductors let demonstrators on for free. Rail workers planned a strike but it was called off when the military resigned. Although workers tended to take part as individuals rather than as a class, it is clear that Thailand is more democratic today because workers actively fought for democracy”.
Working class organisation is still weak, with union density standing at 3.3%, but public sector unions were banned until 1998 and private sector workers such as those who work in sweatshops face rapacious union-busting multinationals In 1997 there were 270,000 private sector union members and 160,000 in state sector associations; however in public utilities, rail and air 52% density is over 50%, and Thai airways is 70% unionised, including technicians, pilots and stewards.
Within the unions, the development of rank and file groups, known as Klum Yarn, (for example the Coordinating Centre for Workers) is especially important. Already there are a number of expressions that indicate the growing maturity of these groups: trade union officials are known as “stinking water” or “fat pig” bureaucrats and NGOs are pi-lieng, the nannies of the working class.
Stalinist left nationalism and anti-imperialism has blighted working class politics in Thailand. The Maoist Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) characterised the country as a “semi-feudal, semi-colonial”, and made the peasantry the revolutionary class – leaving the cities for rural guerrilla warfare. Left nationalist accounts of the 1997 crisis appear to have reverted to this “neo-colonial” designation of Thailand. Trade union publications refer to the IMF as seeking to enslave Thailand to the West, the cause of the crisis was attributed to “globalisation”, which was understood by these commentators as the expansion and penetration of Western multinational companies into south east Asia and the United States is apparently putting the Asian tigers under the yoke of economic colonialism.
These arguments are refuted by the experience of the last 25 years – especially by the growth of the working class. Thailand has had trade disputes with US; US troops withdrew after Vietnam; and foreign ownership of the Thai economy amounted to little more than a quarter. The root problem with the Stalinist conception was a mechanical application of Lenin’s Imperialism onto present conditions. Imperialism was valid when it was written, but does not describe the shape of the modern world economy, nor does it explain Thai history. Modern Thailand exhibits what Trotsky called combined, as well as uneven development.
The role of NGOs does not escape the author’s pen. There are 18,000 registered NGOs in Thailand, and although some have contributed to the establishment of independent trade unions, they have had little success in unionising the sweatshops that have developed in the last generation. NGOs tend to view Thais as poor victims who need paternal help, rather than as workers who can fight for their own liberation. Many NGOs share the same framework as the CPT, and emphasise the countryside and national independence; many are staffed by ex-members or fellow travellers. Many NGOs lack the necessary democratic structures for the input of the workers they are trying to help, exhibiting a kind of anarchism that makes the state per se, rather than employers (including state enterprises) as the main focus of trade unionism. One verdict, which is harsh but hard-nosed, sees NGOs as local fire brigades that reduce class struggle so that capital accumulation can continue smoothly.
The author is rightly optimistic about the prospects for socialism in Thailand. Socialism, defined as the self-emancipation of the working class, cannot be made by liberating armies, or come through parliament, or be made by a small group of dedicated revolutionaries. Instead it will arise out of the class struggles conducted by workers as they react to the pressures imposed by the system of waged labour, including the struggle for reforms. To liberate themselves, workers’ must make a revolution to smash the capitalist state, and create “a highest form of democracy”, a workers’ government based on councils which directly elect, recall and control their representatives. None of this is possible without a party of Marxists who tie together the ideological, political and economic fronts of the class struggle. The Workers’ Democracy group in Thailand is trying to build such an organisation, using the openings there are in the bourgeois democratic system at present. Socialists internationally can both laud these efforts and help the comrades in their work.
There are some points of disagreement that are worth drawing out. Firstly it is not clear whether the social relations that preceded capitalism, known as the Sakdina system, should be called feudalism, although the author acknowledges it was different from medieval Europe. The books also date the establishment of capitalism in Thailand to the 1860s, which seems a little early. Thailand was not comparable with Argentina before the First World War, indeed the author points out that in 1919 there were only seven modern factories in Bangkok. The net effect is to downplay the significance of the 1932 revolution in clearing the path for modern capitalism in Thailand.
More seriously, the books give far too much credence to the SWP “authorities”. Cliff on state capitalism is the root of the mistake on capitalist development, and Harman is cited to explain the crisis in 1997, although the evidence does not support his “theory”. The author also follows the tendency of SWP writers to treat Stalinism as just another species of reformism, allowing them to “recognise” the contribution made by Communists to building working class struggles – and thus downplay the role of Stalinism in cauterising independent working class politics in the 20th century.
Nevertheless, these are criticisms within a common tradition of working class socialism. Socialists internationally can gain great inspiration from the struggles of workers in Thailand, which are part of a great wave of militancy in Asia. Learning from these struggles, and integrating their lessons into a global socialist outlook is part of the struggle to reforge Marxism in the 21st century.
Giles Ji Ungpakorn 1997 The Struggle for Democracy and Social Justice in Thailand, Arom Pongpangan Foundation: Bangkok.
Giles Ji Ungpakorn 1999 Thailand: Class struggle in an era of economic crisis, Workers’ Democracy Book Club: Bangkok.