Thailand: return of the mass movement for democracy

Issue: 169

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Large, youth-led pro-democracy protests hit the Thai military junta in autumn 2020. Crowds of up to 50,000 started to gather around the Democracy Monument in central Bangkok in August. By 19 September—an important anniversary marking a military coup against an elected government in 2006—crowds had swelled to over 100,000. Then, on the 14 October, the 47th anniversary of a mass uprising against an earlier military dictatorship, crowds gathered in similar numbers and marched on Government House, demanding the resignation of the dictator Prayut Chan-ocha, the writing of a new constitution and reform of the monarchy.

By then, the stakes had been raised by the military government, which insisted that protests should be cancelled because the king had decided to visit a nearby temple in Bangkok. Protesters ignored this and, again, the numbers had swelled to 100,000 by nightfall as people joined after work. The government conscripted state municipal employees, wearing yellow shirts, symbolising support for the monarchy, to line the roads and welcome the royal cavalcade. They treated these conscripts like dirt—many were transported in open trucks and some literally had to sit in dust carts. Many voiced their displeasure and some were seen making the three-fingered salute used by pro-democracy protesters. Police allowed the queen to be driven through the demonstrating crowds, where she was met with more three-fingered salutes and even a few middle finger gestures. The crowd shouted “my taxes!” at her.

In the days that followed, protesters continued to defy the government, which announced emergency powers in a futile attempt to stop demonstrations. The police also used water cannon mixed with a chemical irritant on one occasion.1 Yet this merely angered people, swelling the protests in the capital, and in towns and cities up and down the country. At one site in Bangkok organisers distributed a truckload of crash helmets, masks and raincoats to the crowd in case the police attacked. Reports from many areas tell of an impressive organisation by rank and file activists. Some leading activists have been arrested, but this seems to have had little effect, demonstrating the strength of the movement.

At the time of writing, it looks as if Prayut and his gang of military thugs are unlikely to go easily. They have spent the years since their 2014 coup putting in place measures to maintain their power, rewriting the constitution, appointing a senate, designing a national strategy and fixing last year’s elections. Prayut already has blood on his hands. When he was commander-in-chief of the army in 2010, he and the military-appointed government of the time ordered the shooting down of unarmed pro-democracy “Red Shirts”. The military have also used death squads against dissidents sheltering in neighbouring countries.

Relatively little has been said by Western governments about any of this. The Thai state was closely allied to the United States during the Cold War but has gradually moved away from this alliance since the end of the Vietnam War. Today the government seeks to balance its relationship between the two main imperialist powers that influence the region: China and the US. It has warm relations with China, from which the military often buys equipment. In an effort to maintain its influence, the US has been reluctant to make any real criticism of the Thai government over its lack of democracy, even during Barack Obama’s presidency. The British government and the European Union also want to maintain cordial relations with the junta so that they can sell arms and access Thai markets. As prime minister, Theresa May had a friendly meeting with Prayut as recently as 2018.

This article will look at the context and challenges for the new movement in Thailand. At the time of writing, early November 2020, the movement had reached a crossroads. Organising flash mobs over and over again risked tiring out protesters, and these actions were insufficient to make the country ungovernable. Either the movement will advance, drawing on more militant and powerful action such as strikes, or the momentum will be lost. Given the high level of public support for the protests, it is important that activists seize the moment, building the basis for workplace stoppages, which would add strength to the movement.

The nature of the movement

The recent protests have been composed primarily of students and workers. They were organised by a group formed mainly of young people and university students, which initially called itself the “Free People”. They originally had three major demands: stop intimidating activists, rewrite the constitution and dissolve parliament. A further set of radical demands were raised by the human rights lawyer Anon Nampa in an attempt to reform the discredited monarchy, and these have now been supported by the movement. People are scandalised and fed up with the behaviour of the new king, Wachiralongkorn.2 For the first time in decades, people have had the confidence to criticise the monarchy in public, despite the fact that there are draconian laws against this. From the platform at a recent rally in the north east of Thailand, a leading student activist asked why the former king, Pumipon, who died in 2016, had supported military coups.3

The Free People has now created a coalition called the “Peoples’ Party”, named after a movement that led a revolution in 1932, toppling the absolute monarchy. The new generation of protest leaders has become acutely aware of the importance of the historical struggle for democracy. This latest movement is marked out from the earlier Red Shirt democracy movement, which emerged ten years ago, by its independence from existing political parties.4 In fact, the mainstream opposition, which wants to divert the struggle into parliamentary reform, has been unable to keep up with the movement—unlike the mobile meatball vendors who turn up at protest sites as soon as people start arriving.

Secondary school students up and down the country have staged three-fingered salute protests during the compulsory flag raising ceremony before the start of the school day. They have argued with and defied their teachers. Often young women have been the most militant. At one point, a group of school students left their classes to protest outside the Ministry of Education because the junta-appointed minister had made threats against them. As the minister tried in vain to address the students, he was sent packing with shouts of “lackey of the dictatorship!” There are even reports of a primary school student speaking at one rally.

The three-fingered salute used by the protesters was borrowed from the Hunger Games series of books and movies, becoming a symbol of opposition to the military dictatorship during anti-coup protests in 2014. Thai demonstrations are always full of symbolism. A few student protests have involved “taking the knee”. Similarly, the mass democracy protests of a decade ago used the red shirt as their symbol, while royalist supporters of the military wore yellow shirts. Indeed, the same pro-military reactionaries later tried to pretend that they were non-partisan by simply donning different coloured shirts. They were immediately branded as “salim”, after a multicoloured noodle dessert. “Salim” has now become a widely used derogatory term to describe reactionaries. It was through a middle-class salim-backed coup in 2014 that the present junta came to power. This putsch followed a brutal crackdown against the Red Shirt movement and democratic elections in 2011 that brought to office a Red Shirt-backed government, with Yingluck Shinawat as Thailand’s first woman prime minister.5 Her government was repeatedly undermined by the military and the conservative courts before finally being overthrown by Prayut’s coup.

After Prayut seized power, elections were eventually held in 2019, but under anti-democratic rules and a reactionary constitution. Despite losing the popular vote to anti-junta parties, the military-appointed senate helped to propel the junta back into government, with Prayut as prime minister. The junta’s courts also dissolved two opposition parties. Even the so-called National Human Rights Commission was packed with soldiers and police officers.

Students and young people have managed to enliven and expand pro-democracy protests, which have occurred sporadically since 2014, because the new generation sees that pushing for reforms within the military-controlled parliamentary system has not worked. They are fed up with the entrenched conservatism in society, especially in the education system. The economy is a mess due to the Covid-19 crisis and youth have little hope for their future. Although their feelings of anger and frustration are shared with the majority of the adult population who voted against the military, the youth do not share the fear that is common among older activists who have been through brutal military crackdowns. This is a phenomenon among many young people internationally today—we see it, for instance, in recent protests in Hong Kong, Chile, Lebanon and Nigeria. Protest leaders in Thailand are being intimidated by security officers, who visit their homes. Activists are continually being charged by police with a number of supposed offences. Yet, they are becoming less and less afraid of this intimidation.

Two or three years ago, anti-junta protests were staged by small fragmented groups of university students who claimed that mass movements were no longer necessary in an age of social media. This feeling too has been radically changed by the younger generation who are now convinced of the need to build large protests by using face to face networks of activists.6 The demands of the movement are also expanding as it evolves. LGBT+ and abortion rights activists have joined in, along with activists campaigning for self-determination in the Muslim Malay region of Patani. Older Red Shirt activists have also been drawn back into protests for the first time since the movement was suppressed in 2010.

All ruling classes throughout the world are capable of brutality. Buddhist Thailand is no exception, and the country’s history of repression makes the fearlessness of the protesters more remarkable. Unarmed pro-democracy protesters have been shot down in cold blood on four separate occasions in the past 50 years: during uprisings in 1973 and 1992 and as part of crackdowns against democracy movements in 1976 and 2010.7 The massacre at a university in Bangkok on 6 October 1976 was particularly brutal, and the killing of young Malay Muslims in Patani by suffocation during transportation in military trucks in 2004 was equally horrifying.8 To this day no member of the security forces or government has been punished for these state crimes. Significantly, school students have been attending pro-democracy meetings that highlight some of these past massacres. There is a thirst to learn about history.

In some ways the flowering of student activism today is similar to the political mood among young Thai people in the early 1970s, when the influence from the 1968 movements in the West and the defeat of the US in Vietnam sparked a huge rebellion against the military dictatorship of that era. This led to a massive expansion of the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT). However, the influence of the Maoist CPT had negative as well as positive elements. It made a shift to guerrilla warfare in the countryside instead of attempting to build strong urban struggles. Nevertheless, the Communists did organise many workers, and their influence among students helped to bring down the military regime in 1973.

The Thai monarchy

Since the activist lawyer Anon Nampa raised a number of criticisms of King Wachiralongkorn, anger over the arrogance of this thuggish and rather foolish monarch has emerged into the open. The king spends his time with his harem in Germany and has changed the constitution in order to preserve this lifestyle, for instance, by allowing him to live abroad. When his consorts fall out of favour they can often end up in jail. People are angry about laws that prevent the monarchy being subject to criticism or even accountability, and they are also infuriated that he amended the constitution to bring all wealth associated with the monarchy under his personal control. The demands to reform the monarchy reflect a feeling that its influence and privileges should be checked.

Many activists in Thailand believe that they live under an absolute monarchy, but nothing could be further from the truth. Since the 1932 Revolution the monarchy has had little power in itself. Instead, it acts as a willing tool of the military and conservatives. Although criticism of the monarchy can weaken the junta and hasten the long overdue day that Thailand becomes a republic, the military dictatorship remains the main enemy.

Elites have ruled Thailand for decades through a conservative-royalist network that cultivates an image of the king as an all-powerful god.9 Yet the previous king, Pumipon, was always weak and characterless, and his power a fiction. Over the years, Pumipon was happy to play this role, benefitting from all regimes, whether military dictatorships or elected governments. Under the elected Taksin Shinawat government (2001-6), for instance, the king praised the government’s extra-judiciary killings in its “war on drugs”, in which many hundreds of people were murdered. Pumipon’s rambling speeches used obscure language and were reproduced by the elites like sacred texts, but the words contained little substance until they were interpreted in the media by the conservative members of the ruling class in order to suit their own interests. The people with real power among the Thai elites are the army, high-ranking state officials and business leaders. They prostrate themselves on the ground and pay homage to the king on televison, but it is they themselves that exercise the real power, using it to enrich themselves. This is ideological theatre, acted out in order to fool the public. The fact that it is in any way believable is a good example of what Karl Marx called alienation. When people feel powerless, it is easier to believe the nonsense fed to them by their rulers.10

According to ruling class ideologues, the Thai monarchy is an ancient “Sakdina-Absolutist” institution, yet it is simultaneously argued that the country is a constitutional monarchy.11 Students of Thai history will know from the works of historian Thongchai Winichakul, political scientist Thak Chaloemtiarana and journalist Paul Handley that the Thai monarchy evolved in a constantly changing environment full of political tensions.12 It cannot be claimed that the institution remains the same as that which existed centuries ago. What all modern monarchies throughout the world have in common is their ideological role in supporting the status quo. After the Thai absolute monarchy was overthrown in the 1932 Revolution the country was ruled for a period by anti-monarchy civilians and generals. In the 1950s, during the Cold War, the monarchy was revived and promoted by military dictatorships. This “return” of the monarchy mirrors Christopher Hill’s description of the restoration of Charles II in England after the English Revolution: “Charles was called ‘king by the grace of God’, but he was really king by the grace of the merchants and squires”.13 Similarly one could say that the Thai king is king by the grace of the generals and capitalists.

Many intellectuals rely, consciously or unconsciously, on the old Maoist analysis, originating with the CPT, that underdeveloped countries such as Thailand have yet to complete their “bourgeois revolutions”, which would pave the way for the full development of capitalism. According to this view, these countries are therefore “semi-feudal”.14 However, as Neil Davidson has explained, bourgeois revolutions can take two main forms. There are revolutions from below, as was the case of England, America and France, and revolutions from above, led by a section of the old feudal order and common in late-developing countries such as Germany, Italy, Scotland and Japan.15 Thailand’s revolution can be counted among the latter and took place in response to European colonial encroachment into South East Asia. This process includes, but did not end with, King Rama V’s revolutionary transformations in the 1870s. However, the absolute monarchy stage of this transition proved to be an unstable one, leading to the 1932 Revolution and the establishment of a constitutional monarchy under capitalist control.16

Roots of the present political crisis

The roots of the present crisis lie in the events leading up to the earlier 2006 coup against the elected Taksin Shinawat government. Many commentators try to explain the ruling-class conflict between the conservatives and Taksin in terms of “the old feudal order” fighting back against “the modern capitalist class”, but this is not what that conflict was really about. Both Taksin and his conservative opponents were royalists. The conservatives are not feudal, but rather authoritarian neoliberals. In supporting the monarchy, they are also supporting one of the largest capitalist corporations in Thailand. The present military junta is the strongest faction among these conservatives. They used force in order to seize power in the interests of capital, personally enriching themselves in the process. The Thai military itself owns a large bank, various media outlets and a network of other companies.

Taksin is also a wealthy capitalist who started out in the computing sector and became the owner of one of Thailand’s leading telecommunications networks. At one point he owned Manchester City Football Club. Taksin was prepared to use “grassroots Keynesianism” in combination with free-market policies at a national level to modernise the country. He called this his “dual-track” approach. In the early years of his government, he received widespread support from all sections of the elite because he pulled the economy out of the Asian economic crisis, which began in Thailand in 1997 before spreading to other countries in East and South East Asia.

What gradually turned the conservatives against Taksin was their fear that they would lose their privileges in the face of his widespread modernisation project. His programme involved large infrastructure projects and pro-poor policies. The power of Taksin’s political machine came from the fact that his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party could win the hearts and minds of the electorate through genuine anti-poverty policies. His government introduced the first ever universal healthcare scheme, created funds for job creation in rural areas and offered debt relief for farmers. Taksin had mass support from the electorate, and the conservatives’ neoliberal ideas could not challenge this strong political base at the polls. That is what drove the conservatives eventual recourse to a military coup.

Prior to Taksin’s TRT, mainstream parties had not relied on real policies in order to win elections. They merely claimed that they would “work hard” for the benefit of the nation and relied on buying influence among local bosses who could bring in the votes. Taksin was threatening old networks of money politics, which had resulted in weak political parties that governed the country through corrupt and unstable coalition governments. He upset the apple cart by proving that the electorate were responsive to genuine pro-poor policies. Other governments had used massive amounts of public funds to prop up the banks and financial firms in order to protect the rich after the 1997 economic crisis. The unemployed were told to “go back to their villages” and depend on their already poor relatives. Those in work were expected to take pay cuts. The elites also ignored the crying need to develop Thailand’s chaotic transport and communications infrastructure and to improve healthcare and education for the majority. Taksin was neither a socialist nor a principled democrat and advocate of human rights; his vision was to build a modern society where the state and big business could incorporate the majority of the population in a capitalist development project. He looked to countries such as Singapore for inspiration.

As the conflict between Taksin and the conservatives developed, a parallel war emerged at grassroots level between those who had voted for Taksin’s government and the conservatives. In the wake of Taksin’s overthrow, thousands of ordinary Red Shirt farmers and workers struggled for democracy, dignity and social justice, while Taksin and his political allies waged a very different campaign to regain the political influence that they had enjoyed before the 2006 coup. The present mass movement against Prayut’s junta is independent of Taksin’s political apparatus and, like that earlier grassroots movement, aspires to equality, freedom and social justice. Taksin himself has been permanently exiled since 2008 and has no intention of supporting a mass uprising. Since the 2006 military coup, the military have been firmly in the driving seat, aside from a brief interlude when Taksin’s sister, Yingluck, won democratic elections and formed a government from 2011 to 2014.

Classes and movements

There is a mainstream myth that “civil society”, centred on the middle classes and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), is a necessary force to build and maintain democracy in countries such as Thailand.17 From this viewpoint, only the “educated classes” have the ability to think independently, unlike poor peasants and workers, and NGOs are required to empower the poor because they are unable to organise themselves. Many among the Thai middle classes felt uncomfortable that Taksin was favouring the poor and were worried that their advantageous position in society would be undermined. The NGO activists were worried that the government’s pro-poor policies were diminishing their influence with villagers. Thus the middle classes and some NGOs took part in anti-democratic protests and welcomed two military coups.18 Marxists have long seen the middle classes as being a potential base for fascism and dictatorship.19 We saw this in the 1930s and also in 1976 in Thailand. However, the middle classes can also join pro-democracy movements at other times and support working-class demands. What is consistent is the fragmentation and weakness of the middle classes, which are unable to set their own class agenda. Instead, they flip flop between the interests of the business and bureaucratic elites and the interests of the working class and the poor.

Throughout the recent development of capitalism in Thailand there has been a steady decline in the peasantry and a corresponding increase in the modern working class. This is a phenomenon found in all developing countries, especially those in South East Asia.20 Since the mid-1990s, less than half the Thai population has been engaged in agriculture and by 2019 urban settings accounted for over half of the population.21 The working class is rapidly becoming the largest class in Thai society.

Of course, the potential power of the working class is only expressed through its organisation into bodies such as trade unions and political parties. At present there are no political parties of the working class, although the mainstream opposition Future Forward Party has tried to co-opt more militant trade unionists into its “worker section”.22 Thai trade union membership stands at less than 5 percent of the workforce. However, such an average figure can be misleading. Most state enterprises and large factories in the private sector do have active unions. This includes some offices, especially in the banking sector. Unionised workers are mainly concentrated in Bangkok and the surrounding provinces of the central region and the eastern industrial seaboard. These concentrations of working-class organisation indicate greater influence than might be inferred from the national union density figures. Strikes occur on a regular basis and trade union membership has expanded in manufacturing on the eastern coast, especially in auto parts and auto assembly factories.

Trade unions and strikes have been part of Thai society for many years. Nonetheless, a number of ideological factors have held back the working class. Firstly, there is the historical influence of the CPT, which organised urban workers in the 1940s and 1950s, but which, as noted above, took a Maoist turn away from the working class and towards the peasantry in the 1960s. This legacy means that there have been few left-wing activists willing to agitate among workers. Unlike in South Korea, where student activists had a long tradition of going to work in urban settings with the aim of strengthening trade unions, Thai student activists headed for the countryside after graduation.

Secondly, since the the collapse of the CPT, the influence of NGOs has grown. These often use funds from US and German foundations, although more recently Thailand has seen the arrival of representatives of large international union federations, dominated by union bureaucrats with little rank and file involvement. These NGOs and international unions have a number of commonly held beliefs. They actively support trade unions so long as they stay within the law. Thai labour law stipulates that trade unions must remain apolitical and most NGOs are opposed to trade unionists taking up socialist politics and forming political parties. Thai labour law also makes it hard to organise official strikes.

NGO activists are often referred to as “pi-lieng” (nannies), helping supposedly childlike workers to organise unions, to know their rights under the labour laws and to conduct themselves properly in labour disputes. When a dispute arises at a workplace, pi-lieng are sent out to stay with the workers in their picket tents. On some occasions, more rebellious workers will be scolded like children. NGO and international union activity has resulted in more trade unions being established; nevertehless, it also breeds worker dependency on external funding and socialises union representatives into a lifestyle of seminars in luxury hotels and trips to overseas conferences.23

In Thailand, as in other countries, trade union bureaucrats enjoy a better standard of living than their members. However, networks of independent unofficial rank and file activists are organised in “klum yarn” (“area groups”). These exist in many industrial areas in and around Bangkok, for example, in Rungsit, Nawanakorn, Saraburi, Ayuttaya, Prapadaeng and Omnoi-Omyai, and also in the industrial estates of the eastern seaboard. These area groups are considerably more democratic than the leading union bodies and their congresses. The entire committee of each group is usually elected every year and made up of lay representatives, men and women, who cover different workplaces and industries. Area groups were initially established in the mid-1970s by activists from the CPT and, later, by NGO workers. Along with these networks, official groupings such as the Federation of Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Unions are able to bring together different unions at rank and file level, independent of the various bureaucratised leaderships.

Many active trade unionists who wish to fight in a more politicised manner have turned towards militant syndicalism. In the present day Thai context this means engaging in the class struggle, supporting and organising strikes and opposing cooperation with the state and the elites. These militants, who are mainly in the private sector workplaces, oppose the military and the royalist Yellow Shirts. Although syndicalists are characteristically wary of forming political organisations—preferring to use unions as the primary vehicle for struggle—some have been wooed by the Future Forward Party, rather than seeking to build an independent revolutionary party of the working class.

In recent months syndicalist militants have turned up to support the youth-led pro-democracy demonstrations as individuals and as part of trade union groups. On the eastern seaboard, with its automobile assembly, vehicle parts and electrical machinery plants, the Eastern Relations of Labour Group, a rank and file trade union organisation, has coordinated worker rallies against the junta. Textile workers in Sarabury, just north of Bangkok, have also organised a rally. But the influence of these militants remains limited.

The Thai working class is much more than factory workers in the textiles and auto industries. There are white collar workers in offices, banks and universities. There are transport and hospital workers. To build for strike action against the junta, youth activists need to link up with worker activists and visit workplaces to discuss how to get rid of the dictatorship.

Lessons from the 1970s and from the defeated Red Shirt protests ten years ago show that the expansion the movement into the organised working class is urgently needed. The working class is the main location of our side’s power. The lack of a significant organisation of the left in Thailand will make the task of mobilising workers more difficult, but it is hoped that militants will step forward to try and achieve this. A call for a general strike on 14 October was made without any concrete work being done among the working class. Socialists know only too well that it is far easier to make abstract calls for general strikes than to actually do the necessary organisational work to bring one about. A few individual socialists do exist in Thailand and it is the job of such people, no matter how small in number, to encourage the spread of radical ideas in the working class and to strengthen workers’ struggles. This work will be all the more effective if combined with attempts to build the beginnings of a revolutionary socialist party.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a Thai socialist. He lives in exile in the Britain after being charged with lèse-majesté. He blogs about Thai politics at


1 Khaosod English, 2020.

2 This name is often Romanised as “Vajiralongkorn”, althought there is actually no “V” sound in the Thai language.

3 Pumipon is often Romanised as “Bhumibol” in the mainstream media, leading to gross mispronunciation.

4 See Ungpakorn, 2010, 2014.

5 Yingluck Shinawat (often unhelpfully spelt as Shinawatra) is Taksin Shinawat’s sister. See the section “Roots of the Present Political Crisis” below.

6 Twitter, 2020. The Thai state has also been using social media to hit back. Twitter uncovered a network of 926 accounts taking part in “information operations” linked to the army. These accounts were amplifying pro-military and pro-government content, as well as targeting prominent political opposition figures.

7 Ungpakorn, 2010, 2014; Sopranzetti, 2012.

8 Ungpakorn, Giles Ji, 2010.

9 Duncan McCargo has termed this a “network monarchy”, although he implies that the king is more powerful than I believe to be the case. See McCargo, 2005.

10 See Lukács, 1971.

11 The Sakdina system was the local form of feudalism.

12 See Winichakul, 2005; Chaloemtiarana, 1979; Handley, 2006.

13 Hill, 1959.

14 Ungpakorn, 1998.

15 Davidson, 2004; Davidson, 2012.

16 Kesboonchoo Mead, 2004.

17 Pye, 1990; Clarke, 1998; Cohen and Arato, 1997; Laothamatas, 1996.

18 Ungpakorn, 2004. See also, Ungpakorn, 2009.

19 Trotsky, 1975.

20 Elson, 1997.

21 World Bank, 2019.

22 For more on the Future Forward Party, which renamed itself the “Move Forward Party” after being dissolved by the junta’s courts, see Ungpakorn, 2018.

23 The royalist Yellow Shirts also gained some influence in the trade union movement, although this was strictly limited to sections of workers in state enterprises. Here a mentality of putting more faith in talking to sympathetic managers or politicians, rather than organising and building a mass base, helped to entrench right-wing views.


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