ELECTION VOX POP // Thai and Myanmar residents hope for a common fair future
BANGKOK // “I come here to vote because this is our right as Thai people. I hope that the poll will be fair, because last time it was not the case and we had to wait nine years to express ourselves again. After this election, we should get the right government for the right time”, said a young woman in a polling station in Pathum Wan, Bangkok.
On May 7th and 14th 2023, more than 52 million Thai people were eligible to vote for the general election. The 2023 poll is a very important event for the country’s political stability, which has already seen a soft coup in 2019 by the military who twisted the poll and appointed Prayuth Chan-o-Cha as Prime minister. The general is one of the main protagonists of the 2014 seizure of power by the army but chose to run with another new party, the Ruam Thai Sang Chart. The apparent political crisis within the junta itself could lead to a change of leader, most likely the former army chief and current deputy minister Prawit Wongsuwan, who is the prime candidate of Palang Pracharat, the junta’s party.
The return of the Red Shirts to the Thai political scene through Thaksin Shinawatra’s daughter Paetongtarn Shinawatra is reminiscent of the events that led to the political rise of Thaksin himself. She led the campaign of the Pheu Thai party for the 2023 election to challenge Thailand’s institutional political crisis, as her father initially did in 2001.
But this year, the game-changer was the incredible popularity of Move Forward, the “orange” party led by Pita Limjaroenrat, a charismatic young businessman-turned-politician who graduated from Harvard university and carries a program of change. An alliance with the Move Forward party could be the key for any other big opposition party to form a government coalition with an absolute majority. But Move Forward’s critical view on Section 112, the lese-majeste law, is a thorny issue that no other major party wants to be associated with for fear of antagonizing the palace and risking dissolution. The previous version of the party, Future Forward, was dissolved by the Constitutional Court in February 2020, a year after it won 81 seats in the last election.
Only the 500 seats in the Lower house are up for grabs as the 250 senators in the Upper house were appointed by the military government and will choose the next Prime minister. The Election Commission is also in the hands of the military. People fear a repeat of the situation following the 2019 election, when the Palang Pracharath Party formed a new government despite obtaining fewer House seats than Pheu Thai.
The vote counting started nationwide from 5 to 7 PM and the first results were announced the next day. The government has to be formed 60 days after the poll, that is mid-July. After the poll results on May 14th, the two major opposition parties Move Forward and Pheu Thai along with Prachachart, Thai Sang Thai and the Thai Liberal Party announced that they were discussing a budding coalition in line for more than 300 seats over the 500 Lower house’s that were up for grabs. While the junta-affiliated parties need only 135 seats to be a majority able to be the new government according to the tailored-made Constitution they passed in 2017, the pro-democracy side needs 375 seats. If the 250 military-appointed Upper house senators were to “listen to the people’s wish” in the words of Move Forward’s leader Pita Limjaroenrat, this new government could potentially end the Palang Pracharath Party’s reign, led by the military leaders behind the 2014 coup d’Etat.
In the week preceding the national elections, our team has asked Thai and Myanmar workers and activists about their concerns and aspirations as their respective countries share similar political issues, as well as the threats looming on their unified movement.
# 1 # PATIMA TUNGPUCHAYAKUL
She is the founder and program manager of the Labour Protection Network (LPN), which works directly with migrant workers from Cambodia and Myanmar. The rights organization is established in Mahachai, one of the biggest fishing and marine food processing hubs in Samut Sakhon province, which is located southwest of Bangkok and borders the Gulf of Thailand.
“The Burmese migrant laborers who have lived in Thailand for many years are concerned about the impending Thai election. They want to know how the next Prime Minister would look after their living conditions.
Despite the fact that migrant laborers contribute to more than 80% of the Thai economy, the Thai government does not see them as an integral part of the national strategy. Our extensive fieldwork revealed that there is a labor shortage among Thai Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). However, their application process is extremely convoluted and heavily corrupted.
Not to mention that the entire purpose of registering for migrant workers is currently perceived as paying fees in order to avoid deportation, whereas in reality, paying and registering is supposed to give you access to benefits such as fair pay, healthcare, and freedom of movement.
Regarding the fishing industry, which heavily relies on migrant labor, political parties tend to adopt nationalist populist policies that prioritize Thai citizens’ interests over ASEAN citizens’ interests.
The new generation of Thai voters hope that this election will be a game changer. But Thailand cannot survive if a nationalist politician who mistreats migrant workers becomes Prime Minister again.”
# 2 # A MIGRANT WORKER LIVING IN THE SOUTH OF THAILAND *
“After the May Day protest, the Thai government warned the Thai bosses to “not let Myanmar people involved in politics, and if they try to get involved, they will be sent back to their country”.
We are far away from the cities, so nothing much happens, but I heard that the protestors who were involved in the Bangkok event are being investigated and arrested. Our boss told us not to do such things from the beginning, so we are still safe here. But those who were at the protest are being chased by the police, and some people who did nothing also got arrested by officers on the simple basis of suspicion because of their Burmese nationality.
That’s why we can’t say anything about the Thai national election. Also, this is not our own country and they told us not to get involved so there is no hope for us of having any say in this poll. Our country is in a very bad situation so we have to stay in this neighbouring country, but we cannot do anything here because it’s ‘their country, their rule’. If we make something happen then every Myanmar people and especially the ones who don’t own any legal documentation, will get impacted.”
* This person wishes to stay anonymous for safety reasons
# 3 # CHONTHITA KRAISRIKUL [NEAB]
She is an active member of the Labor Network for People’s Right, an organization created in 2020 that gathers people in Thailand who believe in democracy and fight for their rights in the workplace.
“On May Day, for International Labor Day, like many other workers groups, we had a protest in Bangkok to express how we suffer under the military government and what we expect from the next upcoming election.
Thai and migrant workers joined the protest together. A leader made a speech about how he was poorly treated as a migrant worker and the need for state welfare for all.
But behind him, there was a signboard with the message “Reform Monarchy”. So the media captured this image to make it seem like he was saying bad things about the royal institution.
Then the Ministry of Labor posted on its Facebook page that if migrant workers are found to be guilty of having breached the Article 112 of the criminal-code, which is the lese-majeste law, their work permit will be canceled. So it instigated even more fear among the migrant workers.
During Covid-19, migrant workers were already badly impacted by the Thai government’s regulations. Thai people got some financial help, but migrant workers got nothing. And policemen guarded the compound of their accommodation camps on the pretext of limiting the spread of the virus. We had so much fake news and misconceptions to fight and explain about.
Migrant workers cannot participate in Thailand elections but there are policies that will definitely affect them. One party made a campaign poster saying that they want to eliminate migrant workers because they are stealing Thai people’s jobs.
We hope that the next government will be democratic and committed to defend labor rights, not only for Thai people but also for migrant workers. I don’t think we will be able to organize a protest on Election Day. All we can do is go out and vote for a party that cares about labor rights for everyone.
As a member of my organization, I cannot openly support a specific party but I hope that such a party will be elected in the next government and solve the problem.”
# 4 # WITCHAYAPORN TUNGKASEN [BEAUTIE]
The 22-year old student has been actively engaged in the pro-democracy movement. She showed her solidarity with the migrant workers who have recently been threatened by the Thai Minister of Labor of having their work permit withdrawn for their participation in May Day rallies. The authorities and some right-wing media reported on the action as anti-monarchy, a criminalized action in Thailand.
“I worked part-time in a restaurant and the Burmese workers who were in the same position got paid less even though they had been there more for many years before me. This is not right.”
According to Thai Labour law, migrant workers have rights to be paid equally with Thai workers, yet they have been taken advantage of by many employers and it is not easy for workers to go public about it.
“Politics definitely matter for non-Thai people. If the elected ministers are biased against the migrant workers, it would be horrible.
I hope that this new election in Thailand will help improve our societies and everyone from us Thai citizens to the migrant workers get fair benefits.
I would like to invite my Burmese friends to keep an eye on this upcoming election in Thailand as we’re a neighbouring country, we’re not that different.”