Mass protests in Thailand: down with the monarchy!

Over the weekend, the protest movement that has been shaking the Thai regime for months struck its most powerful blow so far.

Tens of thousands of people, in the biggest demonstration of this movement to date, marched on the Grand Palace in Bangkok. The demonstration began on Saturday but protestors camped overnight in Sanam Luang (Royal Field) opposite the palace, defying police orders to disperse.

On Sunday morning, they laid a plaque outside the palace that declared “This country belongs to the people and is not the property of the monarch as they have deceived us”. One of the protest leaders walked right through a police line to hand a letter to a commissioner of the Royal Guard, demanding fundamental reform of the monarchy. Protestors were chanting “Down with feudalism, long live the people”. One of the leaders addressed the king directly in a speech: “I’m one of the people, who you might see as mere dust under your feet. I’d like to tell you that dust like us have our rights and voices too.” What these words reflect is the mood of anger and indignation amongst the workers and the poor of Thailand.

For decades, the Thai ruling class, headed by the army and the monarchy, have ruled with impunity. But now the tide is turning and the masses are beginning to fight back. The revolutionary implications of this are apparent to everyone.

Rotten monarchy

The present protests are quite unprecedented. They started back in July as the result of corruption scandals, the dissolution of the popular liberal Future Forward party by the state, and the coronavirus pandemic throwing Thailand’s extreme inequality into sharp relief. What began as student protests demanding the dissolution of parliament; an end to the harassment of pro-democracy activists; and a new constitution, have escalated into a direct challenge to the previously untouchable royal family.

Challenging the monarchy is a serious thing in Thailand. In 2015, prosecutors threatened one man with 15 years in prison for sharing pictures of the king’s dog online in a mocking fashion. For decades, the monarchy has been a key pillar of the Thai state, used to justify coups and corruption. Criticism of royal power is criticism of the entire Thai establishment, and the ongoing assault on their authority is becoming very serious indeed.

When the first criticisms of the monarchy were raised by this protest movement, they set off serious alarm bells for the Thai ruling class. In August, at a rally at Thammasat University, protestors read out a 10-point programme for reform of the monarchy. Demands included allowing parliament to investigate any wrongdoings of the monarchy, to allow criticism of the monarchy, to prohibit the monarchy from expressing any political opinion, and to adjust the national budget of the monarchy according to the economic conditions of the country. This was a major and unprecedented escalation in the demands of the protestors.

Bringing the monarchy into the equation created a serious headache for the Thai regime. The Prime Minister and 2014 coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha, who owes much of what little authority he has to royal support, said that he would consider some of the protestors’ demands, but that the monarchy must be left out of the discussion.

Around 28 protest leaders have been arrested and charged with offences such as sedition. Over 2,200 websites and social media accounts criticising the monarchy were shut down before this weekend’s demonstration. According to Lawyers for Human Rights, police seized thousands of pamphlets listing demands concerning the monarchy, due to be distributed this weekend.

The prime minister has repeatedly called on the protestors not to “violate the palace” and has hinted at harsh measures to clamp down on those criticising the monarchy, warning that Thailand would be “engulfed in flames” if the protests went too far.

But none of this has worked. The protestors are increasingly putting their criticisms of the monarchy at the front-and-centre of this movement, as this weekend’s march on the palace showed. Another demand that has now been raised is to boycott Siam Commercial Bank, one of the largest in the country, in which the king has a 23.4 percent stake. They are calling it a “money-pot of feudalism” and asking people to withdraw their money and burn their bank books.

The result is paralysis on the part of the Thai government. Its strategy so far has been to try to wait out the protesters, let the movement lose momentum, and then move in with repression. But the longer they leave it, the more radical the movement is becoming. The anger against the royal family is only increasing. At each step, as the movement gathers confidence, its demands become bolder and more revolutionary. Slogans such as “down with feudalism” are just one step away from “down with the monarchy”, and without the monarchy, the military-bureaucratic regime really has no way of maintaining its position.

The regime is weak. A determined shove could topple the monarchy, the government, and the whole establishment.

Over the weekend, protestors called for a general strike on 14 October: the anniversary of the 1973 student uprising. Clearly their perspective is for escalation – they’re not backing down in the face of threats from the regime. Bringing the working class into this struggle, which was started by students, would be decisive in bringing the regime crashing down.

In order to be successful, this general strike must be prepared. General strike action committees should be set up in every town and every workplace. Systematic agitation in the workplaces is needed and a coordinated effort to mobilise workers’ organisations is essential. This is the work that protestors must organise over the next three weeks.

But the most important part of such preparation is political. Around what demands should this general strike be mobilised? Clear and bold demands are the best weapon for mobilising the working class.

The 10-point programme of demands being promoted by protestors at the moment would clip the wings of the monarchy. They are reforms, which would mark a huge and unprecedented step forward for the Thai masses. But the mood of anger is fast superseding the programme and is creating ripe conditions for demands to abolish the monarchy entirely. The royal family is a money-sucking parasite that contributes nothing to Thai society but corruption, violence and attacks on democracy. Why do we need a king at all?

As a starting point, the movement must raise the slogans of ‘down with the monarchy’ and for the convening of a constituent assembly to sweep away the whole edifice of the Thai regime. To these democratic demands, should be added economic demands for higher wages and better living conditions.

Clear and bold political leadership is required to build for the general strike. The link between the monarchy, the government, and the capitalist class of Thailand must be highlighted and explained. In reality, this feudal relic is the strongest pillar of the capitalist system. A consistent struggle for democracy and against the monarchy can only be the struggle against the capitalist class as a whole.

A question of leadership

But the more emboldened and confident the youth, workers and the peasants become, the more their leaders vacillate. The current official figures at the head of the protest movement are not yet providing the necessary leadership. Panupong Jadnok was one of the four leaders who initially raised the issue of the monarchy in this protest movement. Over the weekend, in a speech to the crowd, he said: “We're fighting to put the monarchy in the right place, not to abolish it.” Another leader, Parit Chiwarak, declared that: “The biggest victory of all is that ordinary people like us can submit a letter to the monarchy.” This indicates the narrowness with which the leaders are currently approaching the question of royal power.

These statements are a reflection, within the movement, of the approach of bourgeois liberals such as those at the top of the new Future Forward party, and of the Red Shirts, who joined the protests over the weekend and whose leadership and parliamentary allies have repeatedly proven themselves unable to remove the regime.

We must break with these elements in Thai society and their influence. The working class, allied with the peasants and the urban poor, can bring down this regime using their own strength. They don’t need bourgeois liberals, a “constitutional monarchy” or anything else to be able to govern their own lives.

Years of corruption, oppression and exploitation have prepared a huge social explosion. As opposed to the liberals, the masses have nothing to lose from the downfall of the regime. For them, the present system offers nothing but never-ending suffering and pain. Revolution lies just beneath the surface. The workers, the youth, the peasants and the poor are all showing signs that they are ready to enter the scene of struggle. Once that happens and the masses begin to move, neither the king, state apparatus, nor army will be able to stop them.

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