On the military coup and martial law in Thailand

By Prof. JOSE MARIA SISON
Chairperson, International League of Peoples’ Struggle

The Thai armed forces led by its Army chief, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, declared martial law throughout Thailand on 20 May 2014, and openly seized power through a coup d’etat two days later, purportedly to restore civil order and break the deadlock between increasingly violent political factions, to protect the economy, and to counter terrorism.

The Prayuth junta, calling itself the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), has suspended the 2007 Thai constitution (except the chapter on the monarchy), dissolved parliament, granted itself wide-ranging powers, and promised to use its powers during the one-year duration of martial law to appoint an interim government, to write a new constitution, and to carry out large-scale public works projects.

In practice, however, the NCPO has used its powers to curtail the people’s basic rights and freedoms; restrict movement through a 10:00pm – 5:00am curfew; effect the arbitrary arrest and detention of leaders and activists of political and other groups; censor media and suspend or block broadcasts and Internet sites deemed critical of martial law; ban gatherings of five or more people; and violently disperse anti-coup protests.

Factors and forces behind the military takeover

On the face of it, the latest episode of military rule in Thailand resulted from the worsening conflict between two factions of the country’s political elite, both of which have taken to manipulating state institutions, street protests and counter-protests often leading to violent dispersals and casualties, use of armed groups and other extra-parliamentary ways to attack each other.

On one side, the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD, popularly known as the “Red Shirt movement”) is led by brother-and-sister tandem Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra, who are said to favor populist policies such as rice subsidy, free education and health care, and decentralized politics, but are also linked to big corporate interests, cases of big-time corruption, and neoliberal privatization. They were ousted from their former positions as prime ministers (in 2006 and 2014, respectively), in both cases leading to a military junta.

On the other side, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD, popularly known as the “Yellow Shirts”) has the strong support of big sections of the top-level bureaucracy, officer corps, conservative Buddhists, and royalist groups around the monarchy, and is a key member of the broader People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC). Sections of the elite supporting or allied to PAD and PDRC are known for their more conservative economic and political platform, have consistently opposed many Thaksin policies, and have agitated for and gained politically from both Shinawatra ousters.

In fact, present junta leader Prayuth was deputy Army chief during the 2006 coup, and was responsible for the Army’s 2010 massacre of more than 90 pro-Thaksin Red Shirt protestors.The continuing political crisis in Thailand, despite its complex twists and turns in the past decade and many actors that played major roles, has in fact showed the consistent role of several key factors that have shaped the country’s social terrain and recent history.

A historical pattern of military meddling, coups, and dictatorships

First, the ruling classes of big compradors and landlords in Thailand have long relied on the Thai armed forces at the core of state power in order to preserve their rule and impart stability, which the civilian bureaucracy and pseudo-democratic parliamentary processes could not always ensure, even despite the well-entrenched monarchy that is supposed to transcend politics and provide a solid ethical foundation for their reactionary rule.

On its own or at the behest of top state leaders, the Thai military has long engaged in political meddling, have staged more than 20 successful or attempted coups over the past century, and have served as base for several long-running, US-backed, and ultra-fascist and corrupt regimes from the late 1940s to the late 1970s, such as the Phibun, Sarit, Kittikachorn, and Thanin dictatorships.

Second, the Thai monarchy plays a special role as the political gyroscope and ethical façade of the ruling system, helping the reactionary armed forces and the bureaucracy to balance the various factional forces, prevent a total collapse, and dampen the people’s aspirations for drastic social change. In this regard, there are indications that the problem of royal succession has complicated the current turmoil. It remains to be seen whether the old and ailing King Bhumibol’s blessings will help consolidate the present junta’s hold on power.

US imperialist control

Third, the Thai ruling system has long been within the ambit of US imperialism and its G7 allies. Although it is the only Southeast Asian country that has never been colonized by Western powers, these same powers led by the US just the same have been extracting strategic benefits from the country’s semi-colonial and semi-feudal situation.

Despite current appearances of economic boom, Thailand’s economy is tied down to unequal trade, multinational investments, and other neoliberal impositions.

Throughout decades of domestic turmoil and armed rebellions, the Thai state consistently kowtowed to US interests in the Asia-Pacific, and hosted major US bases and 50,000 US troops during the Vietnam War. It remains a staunch US ally and a pillar of the ASEAN as a neoliberal tool. There are still about 700 US Navy and Marines personnel on Thai soil. Thailand supports the US military pivot to East Asia, provides US military access to its many bases including the Utapao Naval Air Base, participates in an average of 40 joint military exercises yearly with US troops, and is the recipient of one of the largest US international military education and training (IMET) programs worldwide.

The earlier Thaksin regime and the recently deposed Yingluck leadership enjoyed the full support of the US government and business groups. In turn, Thaksin followed the neoliberal dictates, privatizing the Thai petrochemical industry, sending Thai troops to support US aggression in Iraq, and allowing rendition on Thailand soil. He also tried to push the US-Thai Free Trade Agreement which was opposed by the public.

Since the 22 May coup, officials of the US State Department and the Pentagon have gone through the motions of calling on the Prayuth junta to clear the path to elections and “to restore democratic rule”, while making a big show of cancelling scheduled top-level visits, exchanges, and joint exercises. The US government also announced a token suspension of US$ 3.5 million in military aid to Thailand, which after all it is required to do under the Foreign Assistance Act.

There are clear indications, however, that the US is merely following the same script it adopted as when Thaksin was ousted in 2006. As revealed later by Wikileaks, Thaksin’s ouster had US prior approval, and did not significantly affect continued US aid apart from a few cosmetic cuts. Apparently, the common fear by the US and Thai reactionaries is that the domestic turmoil, if left uncontrolled, may revive deeper forms of social unrest and even revolutionary mass movements as in the period of the 1960s to 1980s.

Long record of Thai people’s struggles against imperialism, feudalism and fascism

In recent decades, the factional struggles among Thailand’s reactionary elite have appeared to pit big sections of the people against each other, as evidenced by massive Red-Shirt street protests countered by equally massive Yellow-Shirt rallies. These, however, are merely the overflow of reactionary infighting which ripples across Thai society, creating eddies in the much wider arena of mass unrest.

Earlier, particularly from the time the Communist Party of Thailand arose to lead the revolutionary movement in the country, the Thai workers, peasants, student-youth, women, minorities, and other oppressed and exploited classes and sectors have been fighting for their aspirations of genuine national independence, democracy, and social justice.

At certain junctions, such as those made famous by the 1973 and 1976 uprisings, they rose up in their millions to fight and help overthrow a series of US-backed fascist dictatorships. Thousands of activists would later troop to the countrysides, strike deep roots among the Thai peasant masses, and join the Thai People’s Liberation Army so they could more effectively fight for national and social liberation.

The Thai revolutionary mass movement was put down in a combination of US-backed counter-insurgency programs and the Thai state taking advantage of internal leadership failures, eventually gaining successes through its 1982 amnesty campaign, pseudo-democratic schemes of the Prem Tinsunalonda regime, and US-style NGOs dominating the civil society scene.

Under the pretext of enabling the cooperation of the Cambodian revolutionary government and the Thai authorities, the Dengist ruling clique in China also collaborated with the Thai reactionary clique in throwing obtacles at the borders of China and Thailand against the Communist Party of Thailand and discouraging its relations with other communist parties of Southeast Asia.

ILPS calls for resumption of mass movement vs fascist regime and US backers

In the past decades, the disempowerment of the Thai people has worsened, making it possible for the various elite factions to misrepresent, deceive, and inveigle them into joining the narrow, shallow, and senselessly violent Red-vs-Yellow struggle for power.

Increasingly, however, there are more grassroots voices and organized groups among Thailand’s workers, peasants, student-youth, women, minorities, and professionals who are rediscovering the traditions of anti-imperialist, anti-feudal, and anti-fascist mass struggles as in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

Many are not cowed by this latest ruling fascist clique nor deceived by the narrow Red-vs-Yellow dichotomy, and are taking renewed steps to pursue the people’s struggles against martial law and violations of human rights and civil liberties, against imperialist neoliberal impositions and destructive projects, against corruption and neglect of public services, against low wages and unemployment, and against agrarian exploitation. The proletarian revolutionaries of Thailand are considering how to resume the people’s democratic revolution through protracted people’s war.

The ILPS therefore calls on Thailand’s people and all anti-fascist, progressive and patriotic forces to unite and fight against the current military regime, to persevere in their anti-dictatorship mass actions and organizations, and to put forth a common political program and united-front agenda for ending martial law, ousting the fascist regime, repealing all repressive laws, returning the Army to barracks, pursuing the demands of the various oppressed classes and sectors, and taking all steps towards achieving genuine national independence, democracy, and social justice.

The ILPS calls on all its chapters, especially those in East Asia, to stage various protest actions and use all possible channels to broadcast the demands and aspirations of the Thai people as they resolutely and militantlly engage in mass struggles against the Prayuth fascist junta.

Finally, the ILPS commits itself to take steps in extending more concrete forms of assistance to the Thai people’s struggle, including practical help in developing mass resistance through mass media channels, organizational links, research and information services on human rights, and sectoral issues.

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