In Thailand, a radical alliance between leftist student groups and freshly unionised gig-economy platform workers is bringing a new dimension to the battle against dictatorship, capitalism and the monarchy. In the words of one leading activist: “We want to bring socialism to the table, not just [to] be anti-dictator, but to propose something deeper.” The movement echoes the events of 1973, when a similar alliance led to the toppling of a dictator and a brief flourishing in leftist organising, politics and culture in the kingdom.
In July 2020, street protests erupted in Thailand against political repression, extra-judicial killings, a brutal covid response, harsh economic conditions and a longstanding resentment towards the Thai monarch, King Vajiralongkorn and his prime minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha. Prayut, the king’s quasi-military dictator, was voted into power after dubious elections in 2019, having originally taken power in a coup in 2014. It was the fight against the king and his prime minister that turned into the main rallying cry for protesters and the once all-powerful monarchy was, for the first time in recent history, facing not only open criticism but a genuine challenge to its authority from the masses. The three demands, symbolised by the Hunger Games-style three-finger salute, were the resignation of the prime minister, the rewriting of the constitution and the reformation of (or abolition of) the monarchy. The final demand carried extra weight given the harsh lese-majeste laws in the kingdom, outlawing criticism of the monarchy.
Several groups took turns organising protests, with their leadership constantly in and out of jail. The Thammasat group became the darlings of the liberal western media, as activists Penguin and Rung took centre stage, parroting the typical western line on democracy and human rights. However, it was the ‘leaderless’ FreeYouth group that proved to be the most effective organisers, bringing hundreds of thousands of young protesters out on to the streets. By not putting their faces to the movement, FreeYouth sought to democratise the protests. They also did this through snap polls in their Telegram group chats, allowing protesters to choose when and where to show up.
At first, FreeYouth were adored by the liberal media elite in Bangkok. However, this quickly soured in December last year when, after a significant lull in the protests, they revealed the logo for their new Restart Thailand (RT) campaign, an R and T clearly shaped like a hammer and sickle. FreeYouth’s posts dramatically changed in tone, in line with their new explicitly communist aesthetic. Previously their social media posts were simply focused on where and when protests were happening, but now they were not only critiquing the monarchy, but the kingdom’s capitalist structure as a whole, whilst suggesting radical alternatives.
“You can only work with liberals for so long without going crazy,” Baimai, a lead FreeYouth coordinator and recent university graduate, told Novara Media at the time. “We were fed up [with] concealing our beliefs, so we decided, ‘fuck it, let’s be openly commie’.” They also expanded on the wider calls for democracy, looking beyond the classic electoral system to talk about workplace democracy and collective decision-making.
Students and workers unite.
At the same time, elsewhere in Bangkok, platform-worker food delivery drivers at the Lala Move company quietly began organising an informal union. One of the co-founders, who asked us to call him Ray, tells Novara Media: “When I started working as a rider (driver) it was so clear that we were being exploited, we had no contracts, no security, we even had to pay a fee to sign up to work”. Riders in Thailand, almost all of them on motorbikes, also face the second deadliest roads in the world. Serious injury and death are a constant threat with no remuneration from the company.
Ray reached out to a labour NGO for advice. “They responded immediately, I was so surprised, so a bunch of other younger rider guys and I formed the union and it grew rapidly”. The Lala union won their first battle, to scrap signup fees, but now Ray had developed a taste for organising and he quickly set his sights on the larger Lineman food delivery service.
By June, as Covid-19 cases were skyrocketing, the Lineman union had ballooned, with different localised groups springing up across the country. When a group drove down to Bangkok to protest outside the Lineman headquarters – where they were totally ignored by management – this piqued the interest of Baimai. “After that [protest] I suggested we invite the riders union guys to join one of our protests,” he says. “Their riders were very energetic to protest with us, it was a good sign. I think they wanted to join us because they’re so fucked up with capitalism too.”
On 18 August, Ray found himself talking on stage at a FreeYouth organised democracy protest. Today the union has expanded to include all delivery riders in Thailand and it’s regularly represented in the major street protests. “We have to understand that everything is politics,” Ray says. “Of course unions are about politics and democracy too. We built this union all by ourselves. This is how we can build power for ourselves, the workers.”
For many, this new student-worker alliance echoes the popular uprising of 1973, which, at the height of cold war tensions in Southeast Asia, toppled the US-backed military dictatorship of Thanom Kittikachorn. The next three years saw a blossoming of progressive movements and experiments with democracy in the kingdom, however, following the fall of South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to insurgent forces, there was a rise in rightwing Thai militantism and the US pushed to reinstate the exiled Thanom, who eventually retook power in a coup, resulting in the massacre of hundreds of students at Thammasat University, with many more raped and brutalised.
Following the massacre, many radicals fled to the mountains and joined the Communist party of Thailand’s rural insurgency, which was essentially defeated with a peace deal in 1983 after China cut off their support. The party was banned and renounced by many former cadres who went on to enter mainstream politics, some of them even joining the ultra royalist parties. Ever since then, there has existed a trope in Thailand of ‘the embarrassed comrade’, referring to those who gave their lives to a revolution that never materialised, and leftist politics has spent decades in deep hibernation.
Leaders of today’s movement believe they can reawaken the radical left, but some are sceptical of comparisons to the 1970’s. Professor Soravis Jayanama, a political science professor associated with FreeYouth, believes the political infrastructure that supported the 1973 uprising is missing today. “At that time there was an active communist party and support from allies abroad. But now, after that movement was crushed, we’ve lived through four decades of capitalist realism and neoliberalism, and the global capitalist system is far more hegemonic,” he says. “The world has swung (even) further to the right. In some ways, it’s beneficial because we have an opportunity to ‘begin from the beginning’. Although of course, being in uncharted waters and without international support, it also tactically makes it a lot more challenging, certainly the current movement has a lot of hurdles”.
Those on the left of the movement are adapting many of the tacticals of the past to current conditions, however conceptually they’re still playing the classics. Ray, tells us “You could call me a socialist sure.” Quoting Marx, he says “Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks… I haven’t read Marx’s books but I like that quote”. Baimai tells us “I see a lot of potential with the Riders Union. They’re strong, hard guys who want to go and fight. They will expand and grow, just wait”.
Gabriel Ernst is a writer and editor for Din Deng and international coordinator for Thammasat University Marxism Studies.