Din Deng spoke to Baimai, a lead organiser from the FreeYouth protest group, which was one of the main forces behind the nationwide protests on July 18th. We talked about how the recent Covid outbreak has affected protesting and the new presence of workers unions in the democracy movement. 

Last time we spoke, a few months ago, you said the protest movement would likely be very quiet for the next year due to Covid, then last week you had the first large protest since the second Covid wave. How did that happen?

At first, I think many activists were scared of Covid. Actually, they were really really scared. Many had already been arrested and then released after the protests last year, still, they didn’t organise any big protests since then. Well, last year FreeYouth took to the streets towards the end of the first Covid outbreak, so we know what it’s like to protest in a lockdown.

But this year, the Covid numbers are much higher, but the situation is really serious. People don’t have anything to eat, so many people are unemployed. I can feel the anger in the society I’m living in. Like when I talk to children, they all complain about studying online, how it doesn’t work. When I talk to middle-aged people, they’re unemployed, they can’t pay their bills and older people, they’re really really scared of dying of Covid. They don’t trust the government vaccine program. 

And the 18th of July is the anniversary of when we first took to the streets last year. It’s a good place to start, but I don’t want the protest to commemorate it, no, we just want this date to be like a moment that people wake up a bit. It’s a good day and a good time to protest because people are really fucked up with everything right now.

So we (FreeYouth) decided to organise the protest. We talked to some other groups and they were surprisingly interested. So we made some protocols, like violence, a little bit is ok, fight back against the police a little bit… They surprisingly accepted. 

So I think about 4 or 3 days before the protest, people, particularly the liberal groups, were pretty scared about the lockdown and the Covid numbers. They were saying no, don’t protest, we have to be responsible for the masses. So we invited a doctor to our organising meeting and he said you must go to protest, so we took those precautions. 

Because at first some of the more liberal groups wanted it to only be a car protest, but we were like hell no. We told them straightforwardly that not many people have cars, even we don’t have any cars at FreeYouth. Like, if we want to do a protest that is very working-class friendly, then no we can’t afford cars, it’s too expensive. So what’s good about this protest is that we invited a lot of working-class groups, like the Union Riders group, some workers unions as well as the Workers for Human Rights Group.

Who started the car mob concept?

I think we did, but it wasn’t a big thing, actually, we called it a Caravan, there were cars, motorcycles, trucks, like the red shirts used to do it. Really middle-class people like it because they feel safe in their cars with the air conditioner on. 

With the car mob it kind of feels like people are just sitting in traffic in Bangkok like they do normally but this time it’s for a protest. Do you find that a bit cynical?

Yes for sure. For example, an activist group who are older than us, they have jobs, they are very financially stable, they were very against the idea of people walking in the streets. They said no, only car mobs and we told them that we are young and working class, we have no cars!

How many people, in the end, were in their cars, on motorcycles and walking?

I think most people walked, far more. I couldn’t count though, I was carried away with the people walking. I really care about those people. They were the first people to clash with the police, they were the first to get fucked up. But there were definitely people who at first were in their cars, but they got carried away too and left their cars and walked and clashed with the police and got tear-gassed and everything. It was so cool to see them join us like that.

Right now the Union Riders have a lot of momentum and they joined the protest in big numbers. What’s your connection with them?

Initially, we were in a meeting talking about who we should invite. So I proposed the Union Riders and workers union groups. They have a very equal structure in their organisation. Someone from our group attended one of their meetings and their riders were very energetic to protest with us, it was a good sign. I think they wanted to join us because they’re so fucked up with capitalism too. Inside the union, however, there’s a faction that is not ready to get into politics, they’re still apprehensive, which is understandable, they just want to fight with their company.

However, there’s a stronger faction that does want to get into politics and fight with capitalists and the government and their structures. So anyway in the end they did join, we were so happy to have them. Yesterday one of them called me, and they said they’re now going to focus on Foodpanda as well. They said banning Foodpanda won’t work. They want workers to demand more benefits and better pay from their workers as well as accident insurance and use targeting Foodpanda as an example for other workers to do the same. They asked if we wanted to join, and we’re now talking about how we can do that. We’re ready to fight and we’re ready to support them.

What are the plans for future protests?

We’re thinking about another similar protest on the 28th, which is the birthday of someone special. But I don’t know. For us, we’re really trying to get involved with the worker’s groups like Union Riders, they really understand capitalism and class conflict, the people we spoke to are very very lefty, you can see on their page. I think it’s a very new thing for Thai politics, because there are not many working-class groups who criticise capitalism, they only ask for government help, not directly fighting companies. But there are now more working-class groups who understand deeply about capitalism and they’re young and they’re ready to organise and grow. Workers Union is another great group like that. 

Do you think these smaller informal unions are the future of this movement?

It’s hard but we’re trying. The Workers Union, they only accept the platform workers right now, but they want to work with other sectors, so I see the potential. Really I see a lot of potential with the Riders Union. They’re strong, hard guys who want to go and fight. They will expand and grow, just wait a little. Just wait. Until we get democracy I think that this union will be one of the strongest in Thailand. Also, they’re not a legal union which probably helps them, because there are no laws to prevent them from organising because they’re gig economy workers, so I can see the potential there. In a way, capitalism has shot itself in the foot, because the government controlled and regulated unions for so long. But now everyone’s in the gig economy, putting them in a more pure capitalist system you could say, so they don’t have the government (who are always right-wing) constraining them. Again capitalism digs its own grave. I really think this kind of work will grow and so will organising around it.