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THAILAND: Labour Flexes Muscle with Anti-Privatisation Protests

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Mar 2 2004 (IPS) - A move to privatise Thailand’s state-run power utility has, within the space of a week, prompted the country’s labour movement to mobilise tens of thousands of protestors into street demonstrations, unprecedented during Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra three years in power.

What has triggered this anti-government rage is the move by the Thaksin administration to privatise the country’s state-run monopoly power utility, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT).

The government hopes to register the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) as a public company, and raise 1.8 billion U.S. dollars money through the sale of shares in the Thai stock market.

Bangkok has chosen Apr.30 to launch its plan. But on Tuesday afternoon, an estimated 50,000 protestors led by EGAT’s labour union showed up outside the public utility’s headquarters on the north-eastern fringes of Bangkok to express their displeasure at the privatisation move.

This was the largest crowd the unionists had succeeded in drawing since EGAT’s employees and workers took to the streets on Feb. 23 to publicly challenge the government. On that day, close to 10,000 workers from EGAT and other state enterprises made up the protesters.

During the almost daily protests that have followed, the sympathy for EGAT’s workers have steadily grown with an estimated 30,000 people standing up for their cause on Feb.26.

Swelling the ranks of the anti-privatisation movement have been unionists from 41 state enterprises, labour rights campaigners, grassroots activists, students and the urban poor. Words of support have also come from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that champion democracy and human rights here.

Some demonstrators came armed with placards of protests, such as ”Privatising electricity will destroy Thai society” and ”Service and public welfare before money and profit.”

In addition to opposing the sale of the utility, EGAT’s labour leaders have questioned the lack of transparency in the deal, accused the government of helping politically connected individuals to profit from the sale of shares and expressed concern that the price of electricity may rise after privatisation.

”The protests over the sale of EGAT are showing the government that the Thai labour movement is strong and that it cannot be ignored on this issue,” Junya Yimprasert, coordinator of the Thai Labour Campaign, an NGO that campaigns for workers’ rights, told IPS.

What has also ignited passion among labour rights activists is the lead role taken by unionists in public protests aimed at the Thaksin administration, she added. ”This is the first time that the labour movement has been in the vanguard of such a large street demonstration.”

Till now, most of the protestors that the Thaksin government encountered were small in number – at times in the hundreds or a few thousands – and many came from weak, marginalized groups, such as the rural poor. The issues around which they rallied were the negative consequences of large dams, the planned construction of a gas pipeline, or victims of bureaucratic injustices.

And often, the government, which enjoys an unprecedented majority in parliament, steamrollered over these demonstrators by either dismissing them as irrelevant, accusing them of being manipulated by ‘outsiders,’ or agreeing to negotiate on terms favourable to the state.

It consequently fed the growing image of an administration that brooked no opposition to its agenda from public protestors the way it had come down hard on bureaucrats, academics and sections of the media that did not tow Bangkok’s line.

But Thai political watchers do not expect the government to have it easy with the storm brewing over selling one of the country’s most economically successful state ventures.

”The composition of the people protesting is different this time. They are university-educated, urban middle class or those connected to this class,” Sunai Phasuk, Thailand’s representative of Human Rights Watch, described in an interview. ”They will not be easily defeated by the government’s spin.”

What is more, Sunai and some labour rights activists have detected in the current swelling number of demonstrators a political parallel from Thailand’s past that should be embarrassing to the Thaksin administration. ”It is the biggest demonstration we have had since May 1992,” said Sunai.

In May 1992, hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy advocates took to the streets against the Thai military dictator at the time, General Suchinda Kraprayoon, who had come into power following a military-led coup in February 1991. It triggered a chain of events – despite a brutal military crackdown – that resulted in Suchinda’s resignation.

Some pro-democracy advocates are hardly surprised by the labour unrest brewing over EGAT’s sale given the way a pro-business Thaksin government has pursued its privatisation policy.

”A broader public discussion is needed before the government pursues its neo-liberal policies,” Surichai Wun’ Gaeo, head of the Campaign for Popular Democracy, an independent watchdog, told IPS. ”There is much concern since EGAT is a monopoly.”

And there were signs on Tuesday that the government may consider such a discourse, since the ‘Bangkok Post’ newspaper reported that Thaksin had agreed to talk with EGAT’s union leaders.

It is an about face that comes after the prime minister railed against the unions and declared that he would not deal with the labour leaders. Yet Thaksin still appears defiant that his government would get its way.

”The prime minister said he was not the kind of person who would collapse under pressure so there was no way he would give into the demands from EGAT protesters and their supporters from 41 organisations,” the ‘Post’ reported.

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