History and Class Struggle in Thailand
south-east asia |
opinion / analysis
Thursday May 05, 2005 22:54 by Ji Giles Ungpakorn
From Sakdina to present day
The historical processes that have transformed Thai society, and which
are still in the process of transforming it, are no exception from the general
world trend. Thailand has been changed out of all recognition during the last
150 years. Before the great transformations which occurred in the nineteenth
century, Thai society was dominated by the Sakdina system, a form of Southeast
Asian feudalism. Today, it is a modern capitalist parliamentary democracy.
These changes have not taken place simply because of the wise foresight of
some ruler, or the "civilising" influence of Western imperialist
nations. The changes have taken place in conjunction with great changes in
the productive forces within the Thai economy.
But more important still, a great many people whose names do not appear in
the history books, have consciously and unconsciously played a part in these
social transformations. Capitalist development, and the class struggle associated
with this development, are the engines of change.
Initially, the Sakdina system was transformed into a centralised capitalist
state, under the rule of an absolute monarchy. The monarchy struggled against
the old nobles and local Sakdina rulers. The peasantry continually tried to
avoid forced labour and refused to work as new capitalist wage labourers for
low wages. Extra wage labourers had to be imported from China. Soon these
Chinese workers were forming unions and struggling to improve their conditions.
Finally, a combination of the 1932 economic crisis, and general political
discontent among whole layers of society, led to the revolution which overthrew
the absolute monarchy. Various forms of Constitutional rule followed, mainly
dominated by periods of military dictatorship.
The successful 14th October 1973 mass uprising against the military dictatorship
in Bangkok, shook the Thai ruling class to its foundations. It was the first
time that the pu-noi (little people) had actually started a revolution from
below. It was not planned and those that took part had only vague notions
about the need for democracy, but the Thai ruling class could not shoot enough
demonstrators to protect their regime. In fact the shooting just made people
even more angry. It was not just a student uprising to demand a democratic
constitution. It involved thousands of ordinary working class people and occurred
on the crest of a rising wave of workers’ strikes. Success in over-throwing
the military dictatorship bred increased confidence.
Workers, peasants and students began to fight for more than just parliamentary
democracy. They wanted social justice and an end to long-held privileges.
Some wanted an end to exploitation and capitalism itself. In response, the
Thai ruling class, together with most of the middle class, organised brutality
of the utmost barbarity against workers, students and peasant activists. They
installed a new dictatorship on the 6th October 1976 over the mutilated bodies
of those struggling for freedom.
As they stood proudly to attention while the National Anthem was played, by
order of the government, over public loudspeakers, the Thai ruling class and
its middle class supporters believed that they had won. But meanwhile thousands
were joining the Communist Party of Thailand (C.P.T.), either in body or in
spirit. Thousands went directly to the jungle strong-holds of the C.P.T. The
rest nurtured their burning hatred of the ruling class in the city. This included
most urban workers. Workers’ strikes continued, although subdued by
repression. Society became dangerously polarised for those at the top.
Those who joined the Left now became convinced that armed revolution was the
only option. The tragedy is that they were led by an organisation which took
up arms in order to carry out the "capitalist democratic revolution".
They mistakenly believed that Thailand was a semi-feudal colony of the United
States. This was the typically Stalinist and Maoist policy of the C.P.T. But
Thailand was already capitalist. The only way forward was to struggle towards
what Marx called a revolutionary struggle for socialism. The C.P.T. failed
in its attempt at a democratic capitalist revolution and the organisation
collapsed by the late 1980s.
But the struggle carried out by all those urbanites who joined the party after
1976, and the massive polarisation of Thai society was not in vain. The ruling
class was forced to acknowledge that it could not win the battle against the
pu-noi by violence and coercion alone. They were forced, by the level of resistance,
to liberalise the political system, especially under the rule of Prime Minister
Prem, a military officer who had spent time fighting the communists. They
came to a compromise with the urbanites who had fled to the hills and with
the working class who stayed behind in Bangkok to fight the bosses.
For a while, the ruling class felt that they had overcome their problems and
any threats from below. The economy boomed in the so-called "Asian Miracle"
period of the late 1980s. They were able to mould parliamentary democracy
into a model suited to the needs of the capitalists by a controlled and gradual
liberalisation process. Prosperity and money bought social peace. Money also
bought votes for the various capitalist parties at election time. But then
the first upset occurred when the rulers fell out among themselves. The army
generals were losing out in their struggle to get their snouts in the trough,
in competition with the civilian money politicians.
The generals staged a coup in 1991. This resulted in a massive popular uprising
against the military government in May 1992. Once again, large crowds made
up of workers, students and middle class people, came onto the streets of
Bangkok, faced down an army firing live ammunition, and won. The effect was
to significantly weaken the power of the military and also the power and influence
of those who openly used privilege to throw their weight around in society.
The new 1997 Constitution was both an attempt to buy-off popular discontent,
with the promise of reforms, and to stabilise capitalist class rule in a more
Then, just as the ruling class thought they had survived the May 1992 crisis
without too much instability and damage to their power, the world economic
crisis broke. Financial meltdown started in Bangkok in July 1997. The Suharto
dictatorship was toppled in nearby Indonesia. Malaysia became unstable, with
the dispute between Anwar and Mahathir. Splits and arguments about economic
policy occurred within Thai ruling circles.
The Thai ruling class hopes that the new 1997 Constitution and "Good
Governance" will iron out their problems. But the economic crisis was
not just about greed, corruption and bad governance. It was part of how the
capitalist system works throughout the world. There will be further crises
and the growing working class cannot be continually bought-off by rising standards
of living under such circumstances. The dream of a future Thailand in continuous
economic boom, with the majority of the population becoming middle class,
is total utopia. Meanwhile the Thai capitalist class is engaged in a massive
re-structuring offensive against the working class. Market forces are to be
introduced into state enterprises, state universities and state hospitals.
Down-sizing and efficiency drives are the order of the day.
The pattern of class struggle between the ruled and the rulers in Thailand,
over the last 25 years, has shown that the working class is a force to be
reckoned with. At different periods one side has had the upper hand, at other
times fortunes have been reversed, or compromises have been reached. The struggle
takes place constantly and will never be resolved until the struggle for socialism
has been successful. This is the task of the Thai working class.
By Ji Giles Ungpakorn
Ungpakorn, J. G. (1997) The Sruggle for Democracy and Social Justice in Thailand.
Arom Pongpangan Foundation, Bangkok.
Ungpakorn, J. G. (1999) Thailand: Class Struggle in an Era of Economic Crisis.
Workers Democracy Book Club, Bangkok & AMRC, HongKong.