Thailand’s royalist protesters rise up against democracy

  • December 4, 2013

People & Power

The ongoing protests in Thailand are only the latest in a long line of uprisings that have invariably kept the various factions of the right in power.

This article was submitted by an anonymous contributor.

Despite being one of the most historically significant sites of Thailand’s modern history, the large congregation of yellow and white buildings along the Chao Praya River in Bangkok which make up the Thammasat University would not strike the casual observer as anything particularly interesting. Nonetheless, the events which transpired here between 1973 and 1976 not only led to the creation of Thailand’s current pseudo-parliamentary democracy, but also give testimony to how those in power have used violence and intimidation as a means of keeping the country socially and politically conservative.

Between 1968 and 1973, hundreds of thousands of students, supported by workers, businesspeople and many ordinary citizens, took part in protests against the military dictatorship of Thanom Kittikachorn. On October 14, 1973, police opened fire on a large student demonstration. As the military sent troops, tanks and helicopters to Thammasat University, students reportedly commandeered buses and fire trucks in order to use them as battering rams against the tanks. Students fleeing the university campus were shot by military troops while students who remained inside were fired upon by helicopters. It was this atrocity and the following popular outrage which led King Bhumibol to oust the dictator Thanom and replace him with Sanya Dharmasakti, the head chancellor of Thammasat University, as the new Prime Minister of the country.

Under this new government, the political scene remained unstable, as the installment of communist regimes in neighboring Vietnam and Laos — in addition to large general strikes at home — fed fears of the ruling elite that left-wing activists were setting the stage for a communist takeover. These fears were exacerbated by the conservative media controlled by elements within the military. In response, the military started to train tens of thousands of right-wing militias in advanced military drills and combat skills. Subsequently, the royal family invited the former dictator Thanom back from his exile in Singapore, in preparation for a military coup against the government which they saw as being too weak on leftist agitators.

Student Massacre

On October 5, 1976, students and trade unionists occupied Thammasat University to protest against Thanom’s return to the country. The conservative media at the time falsely claimed that the protesters had hanged an effigy of the royal prince, sparking outrage amongst the militias which enjoyed the backing of the royalty. Early the next morning, on October 6, the university was surrounded by thousands of military, police, and militia members. The gates to the occupied university were broken down and the ensuing massacre which followed has been described as a “wild outbreak of kicking, clubbing, shooting, and lynching.” Students were hung, tortured and raped, bodies were burned, and those who jumped into the river, trying to escape, were shot by naval vassals. Following the three-hour long carnage, where over a hundred students were reportedly killed, the military ousted the government to ‘protect the monarchy’, effectively putting the country under martial law.

The aftermath of the massacre forced leftist activists underground as the new royally appointed reactionary Prime Minister Tanin Kraivichien rounded up thousands of suspected leftists, censored the media and made joining a communist organization punishable by death. Even today, decades after the transition to a pseudo-parliamentary democracy, the government still imprisons those who criticize the country’s most undemocratic institution, the monarchy. As a result, the political arena lacks any sort of true egalitarian representation and instead fluctuates from moderate right to extreme right.

Thaksin’s Rise and Fall

In 2001, after years of dictatorship, Thaksin Shinawatra, a business tycoon who made his fortune in the telecommunication industry, was elected Prime Minister of Thailand. His political party, the populist Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais, TRT) party, attempted to address the country’s rampant economic poverty with regulated capitalism. The reforms implemented by Thaksin, when compared to the previous line of ultra-conservative dictators, made him seem like the most progressive politician on the scene, despite his pro-business, authoritarian agenda. Thaksin’s war on drugs led directly to the extrajudicial killings of over 2.500 people in just a few months. He signed major free-trade agreements with numerous nations, meanwhile prosecuting journalists who criticized his policies.

In 2006, Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted by yet another military coup and went into a self-imposed exile in Dubai. He was later convicted on charges of corruption and criticism of the royal family. The military installed one of the King’s Privy Counselors as Prime Minister, but real power remained with the junta until general democratic elections were held at the end of 2007. In opposition against the coup, the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) was formed by Thaksin supporters and others who disapproved of the monarchy’s and the military’s meddling into the democratic process. The UDD are generally referred to as the ‘Red Shirts’.

The general elections of 2007 were won by the People’s Power Party (PPP), which had become a refuge for a great number of former Thai Rak Thai MPs after their party had been abolished in May of that year. In reaction to the PPP’s victory, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), commonly known as the ‘Yellow Shirts’, launched massive street protests in the first months of 2008, eventually culminating in the overthrow of the government and the dissolution of the PPP.

Red Shirts Rise Up

Four years of high tension, bombings, and protests followed the coup: in 2010 more than one million Red Shirt protesters took over major locations throughout the capital and occupied them for up to three months. The protests were met with incredible violence as the military used teargas and live ammunition on the crowds. Dissidents were either assassinated or arrested. Major clashes broke out between Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts, and at the end of the three months eighty civilians and six soldiers were dead.

Under immense pressure from the international community and out of fear of more protests, the ruling institutions held elections the following year. While Thaksin remained in self-imposed exile in Dubai, his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was elected prime minister by a landslide. Today, Yingluck remains in power, implementing pro-business reforms while attempting to navigate the political landscape, which remains heavily influenced by the military, the aristocracy, and above all, the monarchy.

Thailand’s Tea Party Revolutionaries

In May 2013, a small neo-reactionary party was formed calling itself the “V for Thailand” movement. Very similar to the Tea Party in the US — in the sense that their main objective was to push the mainstream Yellow Shirts further right — the new party called for the ousting of the current government, which they considered to be heavily controlled behind the screens by Thaksin, and the return to a completely religious and monarchical rule. What seemed so contradictory and yet at the same time so fitting was the party’s appropriation of Anonymous’ Guy Fawkes mask as their symbol. This was truly an embrace of the historical Guy Fawkes (a religious zealot who advocated a return to religious tyranny) and yet at the same time a strategic appropriation of Anonymous’ David versus Goliath reputation.

In August this year, Yingluck introduced a highly controversial amnesty bill, which would apply to offences committed in the aftermath of Thaksin’s ousting from power in 2006. The bill passed the lower house, but was rejected by the Senate in November. The bill, if passed, would effectively dissolve Thaksin’s criminal record and release all political prisoners involved in the 2010 violence. It would also dissolve any criminal charges brought upon government and military officials who were behind the 2010 wanton shootings and assassinations of protesters.

Suthep’s ultra-nationalist and royalist agenda

On August 3, 2013 the outraged Yellow Shirts held a small rally and occupied a major park in Bangkok. The encampment was designed to call upon images of the global revolutions of the last several years. Out of fear of instigating further tensions, the government went out of their way to leave the encampment alone for several months, but as the amnesty bill was revised and reintroduced to the senate, the Yellow Shirts — led by the former deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban of the Democratic Party — strategically allied with other groups critical of the amnesty bill. This increase in support only furthered the resurgence of factional tensions. Only a couple thousand protesters showed up at the August 3 rally at Lumpini Park but on November 25, over a 100.000 protesters met for a rally in the center of the city.

Bowing to the increasing pressure, Yingluck agreed to scrap the amnesty bill, but it was already too late as protest leaders declared that only her resignation and the dissolution of the “Thaksin regime” would lead to peace. In response, an arrest warrant was issued for the protest leader Suthep, fueling the already palpable tensions. Suthep declared to a crowd of thousands that he was not going to jail and his supporters should peacefully storm all the government ministries and provincial halls in the country.

The government, in an attempt to avoid conflict that could lead to a military-monarchy coup, allowed protesters to occupy ministry and provincial hall buildings. This hands off approach seems to have done little in quelling the protests and only reinvigorated Suthep, whose stated goals now exists of overthrowing Yingluck’s government, elevating the role of the monarchy and abandoning electoral democracy in favor of a government run by “figures of integrity and moral authority”. Suthep’s uncompromised support for the monarchy has fed speculations of him being in favor of an absolute monarchy. Some regard Suthep’s continued call for protests and his encouragement of the protesters to storm government buildings as an attempt to force the military to intervene, dismantle the government and abolish parliamentary democracy.

Since the 1973 and 1976 massacres of leftist students and trade unionists at Thammasat University, Thailand’s left has either gone underground or into exile abroad. The current conflicts are not between the right and the left but instead are between a broad spectrum of conservatives who have become tools in the hands of those fighting for authoritarian rule. Sadly, regardless of how many innocent people are killed in the coming weeks, months, and years, Thailand will remain an undemocratic country lacking social justice until it allows people to openly criticize its powerful institutions — government, military and monarchy.

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