General Prayuth Chan-ocha's vile military junta, which seized power in Thailand last month, is playing the nationalistic and racist card.
Hundreds of thousands of workers from Cambodia and Burma are being persecuted and driven out of the country. As usual the junta claims it is “cracking down” on “illegal” workers. But the Thai ruling class has long used a hypocritical and repressive policy towards workers from neighbouring countries.
Important sections of the Thai economy are reliant on cheap unskilled labour. This demand is met by migrant workers from Cambodia and Burma who do the dirty, dangerous and low-paid jobs in sweatshops, agriculture and fisheries.
Migrants also work in the catering industry and as domestic workers. Many Thai workers, who have developed more skills and are better educated, are no longer prepared to endure such poor working conditions. They work in higher skilled and higher paid jobs. Some Thai workers also become migrants themselves, working in Taiwan, Korea or the Middle East.
There is no question that the Thai economy and Thai capitalists need migrant workers from Cambodia and Burma. To throw them all out on a permanent basis would create an economic crisis.
But the junta is also using migrant workers as scapegoats in racist campaigns. Soon migrant workers will return because they are desperate for work and the employers are desperate for labour.
Intermittent crackdowns on “illegal” workers, together with cruel and pretend schemes to “register” foreign workers legally, is a long-used tactic to keep migrant workers in a constant state of fear and illegality.
The registration process is too difficult and costly for most migrants. This helps to keep down wages, prevents the formation of trade unions and also acts as an obstacle to unity between Thai and migrant workers. This is especially important in factories which employ a core permanent workforce of Thai workers alongside casual contract migrant workers.
Police and gangsters also benefit because they can demand bribes and employers can often deny full payment of wages.
While the junta is playing this racist card against migrants in a pathetic bid to win domestic support, it is also trying to promote a nationalist film about King Naresuan, the 16th century ruler of Siam who led a victorious battle against the Burmese during the Ayutthaya period.
Naresuan is portrayed as a “Thai nationalist hero” who defeated the Burmese king while riding an elephant. Free tickets to the cinema have been given out as part of the junta’s “happiness program”.
What next? Perhaps they will give the population free tickets to boxing matches or even gladiator fights to the death, Roman style. You can see how the military despise ordinary people. But this will never be enough to make the army popular.
The Naresuan story is pure fiction anyway. No such thing as the Thai nation existed in the Ayutthaya period, Naresuan’s father collaborated with the Burmese kings as part of an internal power struggle, and most ordinary serfs who were forced to fight in various wars loathed and hated their exploitative masters who lived off their backs and stole their daughters.
It seems to have escaped the junta that the popularity of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, to which the recently overthrown government was linked, was based on actual policies such as the universal health care scheme, job creation and modernisation of infrastructure.
Free tickets to the cinema and vicious racist gimmicks don’t match this.
[Abridged from Red Thai Socialist.]