Left Wing Student Activists in Thailand

A review of The Rise of the Octobrists: Power and Conflict among Former Left Wing Student Activists in Contemporary Thai Politics, by Kanokrat Lertchoosakul.

Karl Marx once stated that “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please in circumstances they choose for themselves; rather they make it in present circumstances, given and inherited” (Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Mark Cowling and James Martin (eds). London: Pluto Press, 2002, p. 19). The history of political development in Thailand has also been written by men, and through a variety of social classes contesting with each other in the pursuit of their own class interests. Among a voluminous amount of literature on contemporary Thai politics, the dissertation by Kanokrat Lertchoosakul has placed itself as an alternative and notable account of “men” (more specifically groups of men) that have had a significant involvement in Thai politics since the 1970s: the so-called Octobrists. The Octobrists were young student activists in the 1970s that became active social forces in politics (both inside and outside parliament) from the 1980s until the recent crisis in the post-Thaksin era in 2006, and this dissertation studies them in relation to the politics of culture and the political environment in Thailand since the 1970s.

In the first chapter, the author sets out the dissertation’s aims, theoretical framework, and its research methodology. At least two aspects make this work distinct from other studies on the Octobrists and contemporary Thailand: new social movement theory offers theoretical space for the author to deal with the Octobrists as more than just a social-political agency distanced from the social relations that conceal them, by also providing a ‘political opportunity structure’―a mobilising structure of resources in a social-political movement―and a framing process for discursive practices. Within this theoretical perspective, the author overcomes the limitations of the existing literature in the field through considering the Octobrists to be dialectically related to the changing political environment, and by dealing with both material and ideological matters in the social-political practices of each Octobrist social group. Another aspect that makes this research distinct is its method of inquiry, in which the author combines discourse analysis and document-based research with intensive in-depth interviews which, importantly, represent different groups of Octobrists. This in-depth method of inquiry provides a sophisticated picture of Octobrist movements that other works in this area cannot offer.

The next two chapters of the dissertation comprise one on the historical background of the Octobrists and its decline in the 1970s, and another on the resurgence of the Octobrists post-1970s. In chapter 2, the author not only provides a comprehensive historical background of the emergence and politics of radical student activists in the 1970s, but also offers a crucial foundation for understanding the political assets and troubles that influenced the Octobrist movements. The 1970s marked the birth of the Thai Octobrists, who emerged as a result of the dramatic industrial development that Thailand had been undergoing since the late 1950s. Resentment of the corrupt and inefficient authoritarian governments along with the global New Left gave rise to the radical student movements that reached their peak in the 14 October 1973 incident―the student-led demonstration against the corrupt authoritarian regime. Nevertheless, the radical activities undertaken by students in urban areas were ended by the 6 October 1976 massacre. Most radical students then joined the armed struggle of the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT), which they anticipated would renew their movement. However, the radical movement had gradually declined as the students clashed in their ideological stances, and after the collapse of the CPT in the mid-1980s and the amnesty granted by the Thai government, students returned home to continue their lives. However, the author shows in chapter 3 that the Octobrists transformed their political identities from failed radical student activists to democratic fighters, and retained their good public image and reception. In doing so, the Octobrists democratised the incidents of 14 and 6 October, as well as normalising their historic-ideological backgrounds from the 1970s. The Octobrists’ success in the politics of culture also provided them with the grounding to occupy places within Thai politics in the decades to follow.

After regaining their importance between the 1980s and 1990s, the Octobrists established several positions for themselves within Thai politics, both in parliamentary (chapter 4) and extra-parliamentary positions (chapter 5). Through analysing the ‘political opportunity structure’ framework, the author argues in chapter 4 that the changing political environment led to rising political liberalisation, and encouraged some Octobrists to enter electoral politics. However, being a democratic fighter alone is not enough of an asset to survive in parliamentary politics, and the Octobrists that entered this arena had to adapt in order to mobilise support from other non-radical political factions. In addition to their parliamentary involvement, some Octobrists also took part in related organisations, such as the National Human Rights Commission. Nevertheless, the author suggests in chapter 5 that the social and political lives of the Octobrists do not rest upon the formal political channel, as they have their own places in Thai society: in the business world and the media, as singers and writers, and in NGOs and civil society organisations. Several factors that stimulated the Octobrists to be at the fore after the failure of the CPT are also considered in this chapter, and the author views the wide-open political environment together with the Octobrists’ capability to mobilise resources to have been the primary factors that shaped their role in Thai society.

The following two chapters in this dissertation deal with Octobrists’ roles in the more recent Thaksin era (chapter 6), and the controversial roles of the Octobrists during the political conflicts among the pro- and anti-Thai Rak Thai (TRT) factions (chapter 7). By combining different interests and ideas, the Octobrists were initially one of the main social forces to take an important role in establishing the Thaksin/TRT government in the late 1990s. The Octobrists provided broader connections with the TRT constituency through both rural grassroots social groups and urban middle class forces. Under the powerful Thaksin regime between 2001 and 2005, some of the Octobrists attempted simply to survive and to maintain their political status, whilst others attempted to push progressive policies forward. Some ex-radical student activists were reunited in the TRT, and had come to share broadly progressive and democratic ideas in place of their 1970s radicalism. However, the successful period that the Octobrists enjoyed from the 1990s through to the early 2000s came to an end together with the decline of the Thaksin regime. The fragile Octobrists in the hostile TRT government clashed with their former colleagues outside the TRT without hesitation. This led to another phase of cultural politics being pursued by the Octobrists, and the achievement of their hegemony within the new political environment in late 2005.

Within the struggle between the Yellow Shirt movement (the conservative and non-democratic social group) and the Red Shirt movement (who defended their elected government), Octobrists on both sides had endeavored to re-define the term “Octobrist” in order to legitimise their own interests and to delegitimise their opposition. The polarisation of the Octobrists within the political crisis during the post-2006 military coup illustrated the new outlook of the Octobrists, and their past as radical student activists is hardly discernible from this new representation of themselves. In the last chapter, the author provides her overall analysis of the Octobrists from the 1970s through to the crisis of the Yellows and the Reds, assessing their successes and failures using the three major theoretical frameworks discussed above: political opportunity structure, mobilisation structure, and framing process.

In conclusion, Kanokrat Lertchoosakul’s work provides an excellent contribution to the understanding of contemporary Thai political development. As Marx noted, men make their own history, and this rich and lively dissertation shows how the Octobrists are one of the most significant social actors writing Thai political history. I strongly recommend this work to anybody interested in contemporary Thai politics, and believe that this work could reach a wide readership once it is published as a book.

Watcharabon Buddharaksa
Department of Political Science and Public Administration
Naresuan University, Thailand

Primary Sources

28 in-depth interviews
Thammasat Archive Centre
Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science
Library of the Senate House
Library of École française d’Extrême-Orient (Chiang Mai Centre)

Dissertation Information

The London School of Economics. 2012. 311 pp. Primary Advisor: John Sidel.

Image: Display at the Memorial to 14 October 1973, Bangkok. Wikimedia Commons.

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