Brazil-Thailand “Neo-Liberalism versus Democracy”

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

A recent book by Alfredo Saad-Filho & Lecio Morais titled “Brazil: Neoliberalism versus Democracy”, describes how the Brazilian elite conspired with the middle-classes and right-wing politicians to destroy the Workers’ Party (PT) government and its pro-poor policies.

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The events in Brazil have a similarity with the destruction of democracy in Thailand.

Obviously the events in Brazil and Thailand are not the same. For a start, the PT was a social democratic party with roots in the trade union movement and Lula, their first president was a former metal worker and trade unionist. Taksin Shinawat is a big business tycoon and his party was not in any way social democratic nor allied to the working class.

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Lula’s PT government, which came to power in 2002, continued to pursue neo-liberal policies which the previous right-wing government had used. Lula had toned down his social democratic policies and built an alliance with national capitalists in order to look respectable. However, the PT needed to reach out to its base among workers and the poor, who were suffering from the effects of neo-liberalism. So when Lula was re-elected in 2007 the government started to use what Saad-Filho & Morais refer to as “Developmental Neoliberalism”. This policy did not abandon neo-liberalism but added to it the role of the state in creating an economic atmosphere beneficial to national private capital. Developmental Neoliberalism also accepted that economic growth could not be sustained unless such growth was reconciled with tackling social inequality. This was the policy which was also used by Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff.

After the 1996-7 Thai economic crisis, which was a symptom of extreme neo-liberal policies in the past, Taksin Shinawat’s party proposed a “dual track” economic policy, combining neo-liberalism with “grass-roots Keynesianism”. This used state funds to raise living standards of the poor and bring in a universal health care system.

Workers’ Party governments in Brazil were lucky because when “Developmental Neoliberalism” was introduced, the Brazilian economy entered a period of rapid growth due to rising prices of raw materials which Brazil exported to China. Increased state revenues were successfully used to fund pro-poor schemes involving health, education, housing, and attempts to eradicate poverty. This caused discontent among the elites and the middle-classes who resented such state policies which they saw as giving “hand-outs” to the undeserving poor. Accusations of corruption were levelled at PT political leaders.

The Thai elites and middle-classes also resented Taksin’s pro-poor policies for similar reasons. The elites also felt that they were unable to compete electorally with Taksin’s mass base.

“Anti-Corruption” is a useful political weapon for the middle-classes because it is difficult to oppose and can be a vague cover for attacking political opponents while ignoring the real underlying class issues. “Corruption” can also be conflated with pro-poor policies and this is what happened in both Brazil and Thailand.

Corruption, both of the legal and illegal variety, is part and parcel of capitalism and mainstream politics throughout the world. Attempts by the PT to become more “respectable” by dropping radical ideas, meant that they decided to do corrupt deals with right-wing politicians and local businesses. The rise of less political PT politicians who emphasised their administrative capabilities, also encouraged corruption. But Saad-Filho & Morais claim with good reason that there is so far little evidence to prove that either Lula or Dilma Rousseff were directly guilty of corruption.

Despite some of Taksin’s odious policies, especially in the field of human rights, and his tax avoidance manoeuvres, there has been little evidence that he was directly guilty of corruption.

In Brazil and Thailand, charges of corruption have been selectively used, ignoring the behaviour of opposition party politicians and the military.

The neo-liberals in Brazil and Thailand also complained about pro-poor policies being against “fiscal discipline”, although in the Thai case, huge military and royal budgets are never subjected to the same complaints.

The PT’s “Developmental Neoliberalism” in Brazil went off the rails after the 2008 world economic crisis and the drastic fall in raw material prices. Cuts were made to pro-poor policies under Dilma Rousseff. This alienated the PT’s base among the poor and was a golden opportunity for the right-wing and middle-classes to overthrow her government and impeach her. A Judicial-Senate coup took place. What was interesting was that Dilma Rousseff was actually removed, not for corruption, but for not adhering to “fiscal discipline”. This is exactly the same excuse used to punish Taksin’s sister, ex-Prime Minister Yingluk Shinawat, in the Rice Price scheme.

After the over-throw of PT and Taksin allied governments, the regimes which replaced them in Brazil and Thailand turned back towards extreme neo-liberal policies.

The comparison between Brazil and Thailand reinforces the class and political economic reasons for the destruction of democracy in Thailand. Conspiratorial theories about the role of the Thai monarchy in destroying democracy explain nothing.

 

Further reading on Thailand: “What Led to the Destruction of Thai Democracy?” https://bit.ly/2cGAi1E

“Thailand’s Crisis and the Struggle for Democracy” https://bit.ly/1TdKKYs

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Military Thuggery Rewarded

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Not only do the Thai military killers and thugs enjoy impunity after killing pro-democracy demonstrators, Malay Muslims or human rights activists, they also get promoted.

Army thug Apirat Khongsompong has been appointed as the new Commander-in-Chief of the Army. In early April 2010 he led a group of soldiers to attack unarmed pro-democracy Red Shirts at the Thai Khom Satellite Ground Control Station in Patum Tani. Several Red Shirts were injured in that attack. He can be seen in video footage shooting a handgun at the protesters. Obscenities were also mouthed.

The video can be seen on YouTube (assuming it isn’t removed at the request of the junta). The link is below.

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The Thai military attack unarmed civilians as though they are enemy combatants, rushing forward as though they were involved in great feats of heroism. In fact they behave like cowardly thugs.

Some people have commented that because the new military reshuffle and appointments were done in the name of the king that Wachiralongkorn is somehow in charge of the military. This is just the usual nonsense from the conspiracy theorists. All such appointments have always been carried out in the name of the Head of State.

There is no evidence at all that Wachiralongkorn has any power over the armed forces and the military reshuffle was directed by the top generals and the ruling junta.

Military reshuffles and promotions are an occasion for top generals to get their turn to stick their snouts in the corrupt feeding trough and therefore much behind the scenes bargaining takes place between different factions.

In most European countries where there is a monarchy, top appointments of soldiers, Prime Ministers or judges are usually carried out in the name of the monarchy without the monarchy having any power whatsoever.

General Apirat clearly hated the Red Shirts and this is just another example of how the Thai military can never act as an honest broker between the different political factions.

Military mentality cannot solve traffic problems

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The military junta and its underlings in the police and transport department are proposing amendments to the road traffic law to be considered by the dictatorship’s appointed parliament. Measures include fines of up to 10,000 baht for not carrying a driving licence each time a driver gets into a vehicle and higher fines and imprisonment for not having a valid license. The excuse for this nonsense is that it will encourage more driving discipline and reduce accidents and congestion.

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These measures have been rightly criticised by sections of the public for being ineffective, unfair and encouraging more corruption.

They are unfair because the people who will suffer most will be the poor. If poor people cannot afford to pay the fines they will be sent to already over-crowded prisons. Rich people, however, who know the right people, will be able to bribe their way to reduced payments and easily avoid going to jail. Handing cash to policemen is standard practice for avoiding high fines and the Thai police are notorious for corrupt practices.

The military and their friends love to talk about “discipline” and prefer oppressive measures rather than really trying to solve social problems. This military mentality cannot solve the problems of traffic congestion or the level of road accidents.

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Traffic congestion is not caused by bad driving. It is cause by decades of under-investment in high quality cheap public transport which is designed to link homes to workplaces and schools. This is something which international experts have known for years. Improving the standard of state schools in all areas would reduce the need for children to travel long distances to school by motorised vehicles.

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The inner city railway system in Bangkok was only recently built and falls short of the kind of network and standards required to reduce road traffic congestion. Initially the BTS electric railway only linked high-end residential areas to shopping malls. The ticket price was too high for poor people. The problem has not been fully solved by the building of the underground system in some parts of the city. The state needs to step in and implement a comprehensive public transport plan using state investment. But that kind of thing is an anathema to the extreme neo-liberals in the junta and their middle-class supporters who have constantly denounced such planned investments as being “populist” or against “fiscal discipline”.

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Traffic accidents in Thailand are among the top reasons for early deaths and injuries among the population. Many accidents involve motorbikes, which are the only form of transport available to the poor. Therefore this problem is linked to inequality and poverty in society. The present military junta is not in the least interested in eradicating poverty and those who helped to destroy democracy denounced previous genuine pro-poor policies as “populism” or “vote-buying”.

Bad driving is partly a reaction to traffic congestion, with people overtaking on both sides of the road, driving on road-side hard shoulders and desperate measures taken to get ahead. If people could get from “A” to “B” in good time by driving safely, they would not be pressured into such anti-social behaviour.

Traffic accidents are also caused by a lack of safe and affordable long-distance public transport, especially during public holidays. Yet the conservatives in the courts forced the Yingluk government to scrap a high-speed railway scheme. The railways have been starved of investment for years and long-distance buses are not properly regulated.

Only by tackling a number of basic social issues can the problems of traffic congestion and lack of safety be gradually solved. Harsher fines and bullying by the police and government will never achieve this.

Weakness of electoral politics in dealing with the Thai military

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

When an election is eventually held in Thailand, and there is no guarantee that the election will be held next year, electoral politics on its own will be inadequate in removing the military from power.

On this site, I have warned that the military junta is busy designing a “Guided Democracy” system, which will entrench the power of the military for the next 20 years. This is also the view of other commentators. The Guided Democracy system is going to use the National Strategy and the military’s constitution to shackle the policies of any future elected civilian government. The various military appointed bodies, such as the Senate and the courts, will police this system.

It is to their credit that the Future Forward Party have announced for some time now that it is committed to undoing the legacy of the military junta to ensure that military intervention in politics is ended.

However, electoral politics on its own is not enough to abolish the military’s legacy. This is because of the fundamental contradiction between electoral politics and campaigning mass movements.

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Political parties like the Future Forward Party, aim to win as many votes from the electorate as possible. The emphasis on electoral politics means that they will follow existing social trends rather than campaign to get people to change their views and become more radical. The emphasis is not on agitation and leadership but on appealing to a mass audience.

It is very likely that large numbers of Thai citizens are sick and tired of Prayut’s dictatorship and the constant destruction of democracy by the military. Parties such as Pua Thai and Future Forward, who stand on the opposite side to the military, are therefore likely to win significant numbers of votes. But winning votes does not guarantee the power to overthrow the National Strategy or the military constitution. Merely winning votes from the electorate implies a passive response from citizens, who are only required to put a cross in the correct box at election time. It does not mean mobilising huge numbers of people to come out and support a newly elected civilian government on the streets and in the workplaces. But such a mobilisation is exactly what is required in order to destroy the legacy of the military and to abolish the power of the army, the appointed Senate and the pro-dictatorship judiciary.

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photo from BBC

In order to build a mass pro-democracy social movement, the views of millions of citizens need to be challenged by a growing movement outside parliament. Such a challenge requires campaigning to encourage people to change their views. There are millions who want democracy, but how many of those have the confidence to believe that the legacy of the military can be destroyed? How many will be prepared to actively engage in struggle? How many are prepared to go beyond just the formal state of democracy towards a more equal society?

Electoral politics on its own does not mean putting such a challenge to the population. Electoral politics puts pressure on political parties to find common ground even with those who do not wish to totally get rid of the legacy of the military or to facedown the interests of the powerful elites. Electoral politics also means making compromises with prevailing ideas in society.

The prevailing ideas in society are influenced by the media, the conservative institutions and also by fear of those with power. Suggestions about drastically cutting the military budget, sacking and punishing all the high ranking officers responsible for destroying democracy, dismantling the main power structures in society or creating economic equality are usually branded as “extremist views” by mainstream commentators. So are suggestions about abolishing the lèse majesté law, significantly increasing the wages of workers, raising tax levels on the millionaires and corporations by large amounts in order to fund a welfare state, or transforming the country into a republic. Yet none of these examples are in the least extreme and have been carried out in some other countries.

Electoral politics means down-playing any policies which might be classified as “extreme” and trying to find common ground with as large a number of the electorate as possible. It also usually means discouraging struggles by social movements, especially during election time.

What is needed in order to overcome the contradiction between electoral politics and campaigning mass movements, is for people to support progressive parties at elections, but to also build campaigning mass movements simultaneously.

[Read more about the good and bad policies of the Future Forward Party in previous articles on this site]

 

 

Mafia style military rule ensures impunity

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Last year I reported that soldiers in Chiang Mai shot down Chaiyapoom Pasae, a 17 year old Lahu activist. This killing was committed in cold blood. A villager who witnessed the event, which took place at a military check point, told Thai PBS news channel that soldiers dragged Chaiyapoom out of his car and beat him up, stamping on his face. They fired two warning shots and then deliberately let him go. While he was running away they shot him dead. [See https://bit.ly/2o4Wq99 ].

After many attempts by lawyers to get the military to release the CCTV footage of the event, which they repeatedly claimed they had, it now appears that the footage has been “lost”. This is despite the fact that a senior military officer, General Wijuk Siribanpot, commander of the 3rd Region Army gave a televised interview saying that if he had been at the scene he would have switched his gun to automatic mode and riddled Chaiyapoom with bullets because “he had drawn a knife and attempted to throw a bomb” at soldiers. How would he know what happened, given that there is now no physical evidence available?

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The “loss” of CCTV footage is no surprise and it paves the way for the continued impunity enjoyed by the thugs in uniform.

Another recent news item reported that Sawai Tong-om, a pro-democracy red shirt protestor, who was shot and seriously injured by troops in 2009, has had his legal case against the military appointed Abhisit government and the military overturned. Initially the courts awarded him damages of more than a million baht. But the court of appeal overturned this ruling, and worse still, ruled that he must pay the military’s legal expenses. His property has now been seized and sold for this purpose.

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So not only do security forces and their political lackeys enjoy impunity for state crimes, the victims have to pay for legal fees.

Witnesses to military killings are intimidated in order to silence them. “Wan” or Nattathida Meewangpla, was a volunteer paramedic who witnessed the military killings of red shirts at Wat Patum in 2010. Because she was a key witness to this event, she was fitted up with terrorism and lèse-majesté charges by the military and she has been languishing in jail for the past 3 years.

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Nattathida Meewangpla

Of course, this kind of thing happens all the time over the situation in Patani, where innocent people end up being abused and jailed while security forces go unpunished. Fa-ist Mayu, a community volunteer from the NUSANTARA foundation, is the latest person to be arrested on questionable grounds by the security forces for a shooting incident in Naratiwat.

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Fa-ist Mayu

Many Malay Muslim students, studying a Ramkamhaeng Open University fall foul of indiscriminate arrests by the police and military. They are then often subjected to torture in order to confess crimes they did not commit.

No politician, military officer or policeman has ever been punished for the disappearance of the lawyer Somchai or the massacre of unarmed civilians at Takbai.

The entire situation makes it feel like the country is being run by the Mafia, with a total lack of justice and no one at the top ever being accountable to the public.

Meanwhile it has been revealed that over the last 5 years the Mafia Bosses in Uniform have spent 1,061,171 million baht on the ever-increasing military budget…..

 

The ASEAN Dictators and their Sham Elections

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The recent sham election in Cambodia was yet another example of the lack of democracy in many countries of South-East Asia. Dictator Hun Sen banned opposition parties, outlawed dissent, controlled the media and then held an “election”. Not surprisingly, Hun Sen’s governing party “won” a land slide victory.

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Generalissimo Prayut, the Thai dictator, must have been following events in Cambodia with interest.

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Another example for him to follow has been the “Burmese Model”. This involved fixing the constitution to ensure that the Burmese military remained in charge, with powers to veto government decisions and step in at any time, regardless of who may win elections. This is the situation under which Aung San Suu Kyi is operating, although after years of opposition to the generals, she seems to have decided to willingly go over to their side and adopt the military’s policies. She has even become a mini-dictator in her own party.

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Of course, the dictatorships of the “Stalinist” communist parties in Lao and Vietnam have been holding sham elections since the end of the Indo-Chinese war in the late 1970’s. Only candidates approved by the ruling party are allowed to stand in elections and there is heavy control and censorship of the media.

Prayut’s much delayed elections in Thailand may or may not take place next year. But what is clear is that the military will still be in charge, whatever the outcome of the election. This will be achieved through the National Strategy, outlining junta approved policies which all governments must adhere to for the next 20 years. The military domination of the Senate and the judiciary will also ensure this.

At the same time, the Thai junta is harassing opposition parties for organising meetings or making statements in the media. Both the Future Forward Party and Pua Thai are facing such repression through bogus legal sanctions. If necessary the junta can even convict party leaders on trumped-up charges and get them banned from politics. Incidentally, this latter tactic is a favourite of the ruling party in Singapore, yet another ASEAN dictatorship.

Prayut himself has not ruled out running in the elections, although this could be risky. Quite a few “politicians for hire” are jumping over themselves to join the military party.

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Democracy difficult for Prayut to swallow

At a recent junta event, the police issued “guide lines” to the press on how to approach the “Dear Leader”. No one was to approach him at a distance of less than 5 metres, journalists were told to bow and scrape before taking pictures or asking questions and no unflattering photos were to be taken. After an avalanche of amusement on social media, with people referring to Prayut as a dangerous wild animal who should not be approached, he relented and ordered the police to scrap the guide lines. But he hates being brought to account by some sections of the media.

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Prayut talking to a frog

There are some in ASEAN who oppose Prayut’s dictatorship. A recent article in the Jakarta Post argued that Thailand should not be allowed to be the next chair of ASEAN, given that Prayut has not stepped down to hold free elections [see https://bit.ly/2vHiHOM ]. It is good that this article was published, but it is doubtful that it will prevent Prayut from being the next chair of ASEAN. It is interesting to note that Indonesia is the most democratic of all ASEAN countries at the moment.

Of course there are many voices of opposition to the destruction of democracy from within Thailand and these voices, should they succeed in mobilising large numbers of people, will be key to achieving democratisation. At the same time we need to condemn the various European governments, and that of the United States, for deciding that it is “business as usual” in their relations with Thailand.

Junta’s repression and double standards regarding forest conservation

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Three villagers in the north-east province of Chaiyapum have been given prison sentences and fines for supposedly encroaching on forest reserves. Another woman is due to be sentenced early in August. This is all part of the military junta’s so-called policy of “taking back the forests”.

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Previously other villagers have been sentenced to jail for collecting mushrooms in forest reserves.

This contrasts with the treatment of those who have power and wealth.

A government funded housing scheme for senior judges on the forest slopes of Doi Sutep, in Chiang Mai, has caused public outrage, both for the damage to the forest, but also for the ugly scar left on the hill side. The junta has refused to stop the scheme and demolish these houses, claiming that they would face law suits from contractors.

The houses of poor villagers are often demolished by forestry officials and soldiers without any care for the effect on peoples’ lives.

As previously mention on this site, encroachment of forest reserves and the shooting of protected wild life by the rich and powerful takes place with impunity. Premchai Gunasoot, president of the Italian-Thai Development PLC (ITD) construction company, was initially arrested by forestry officials in the Tungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary, in the west of Thailand, near the Burmese border. He was in possession of skinned carcasses of protected wild animals, including a black Indochinese leopard. Yet, unlike poor villagers, this rich businessman is not in prison [See https://bit.ly/2mLFh4W ]. Pol Gen Srivara Rangsibrahmanakul was even photographed apparently grovelling to Premchai.

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This same policeman was involved in further controversy when he warned the volunteers trying to rescue the football team from the cave that they must not break the law by trying to drill down to find an alternative access to the boys.

The military junta and previous governments have not been reluctant to grant forest land to large companies for them to exploit various resources. What has never been on the agendas of governments is the provision of housing and land for poor farmers to use.

There has been a long-running problem regarding forest reserves which were often declared in the past with no recognition of the fact that villagers were already living and working there. Apart from Thai villagers, those from ethnic minority groups are particularly vulnerable.

Over fifty years ago Thailand had a small population with large amounts of unsettled land, much of it forests. It was normal practice for villagers to move in and clear land for agricultural purposes.

Typical of any military dictatorship, the present junta’s “taking back the forests” policy is carried out with a heavy hand, disregarding the needs of ordinary people.

A sensible and just way to manage Thailand’s forests would be to turn them into social forests where local people have a collective and important role in managing and conserving forests together with government organisations. But the culture of officialdom dictating policy in a top-down manner is preventing this from happening. Having a military dictatorship in charge of the country only makes things worse, especially when military personnel are now in charge of every facet of public life at a local level.

Thai politics