Two Versions of Thai Politics: Elite Theory vs Politics from Below

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The recent incident where Taksin’s Thai Raksa Chart party nominated Princess Ubonrut as a candidate for Prime Minister, only to be rebuffed by King Wachiralongkorn, has caused a frenzy among elite and conspiracy theorists. Foreign journalists and academics have been desperately trying to pick over the entrails of the events to look for omens. This is reminiscent of the behaviour of oracles in ancient Rome or Greece. Articles in a whole range of media publications, ranging from the New York Times to the South China Morning Post have regurgitated this nonsense. Thai politics, in the eyes of these academics and Western journalists, is quintessentially different and exotic. The most striking aspect that these commentators wish to emphasise is the supposed “child-like” and “ineffectual” nature of ordinary people in regard to Thai politics. For them, only the juicy drama of the elites really matters.

This elitist attitude was emphasised to me by a debate I had on social media with a couple of expats working in Thailand. At least one works for a media company. They basically told me that Thais “cannot think for themselves because they are denied a decent education.”

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Living in the racist expat bubble

This elitist view has a long history.

In the 1960s David Wilson wrote that the 1932 revolution was merely a dispute among the elites with little popular participation[1]. John Girling repeated this claim in his 1980s book[2]. This view was repeated by David Morell and Chai-anan Samudavanija[3]. Yet there is much research that shows the key involvement of ordinary people in this event.

The daddy of this right-wing elitist view was Fred Riggs, who claimed in the 1960s that Thailand was a “Bureaucratic Polity”, where politics was the exclusive preserve of the elites and totally immune from class struggle or participation from below[4]. This became the political science bible for many conservative Thai academics.

Political Science in Thailand, up to the early 1990s, was dominated by these right wing ideas from the USA. Most mainstream academics agreed with the Structural Functionalist School of democratization[5]. The main ideas were about building “stability” and “social norms”. The emphasis was on crafting democracy from above by enlightened academics. The “people” had to be “educated” to understand democracy. Organisations like the King Prachatipok Institute, named after Thailand’s last absolutist king, took it upon themselves to craft Thai Democracy and educate the people. Today, the Thai military junta and its supporters have maintained the need to “educate” Thai people in democracy!

Academic Thinapan Nakata wrote in 1987[6] that “Most Thais prefer use of absolute power. They are obedient and submissive.” My former boss at Chulalongkorn University, Suchit Bunbongkarn wrote in the same year that Thais have a “non-participatory political culture”[7]. His aristocratic colleague Prudhisan Jumbala also wrote that “Labour associations are all created at the impetus of the bureaucracy”[8]. I am not sure that Prudhisan had ever met an active Thai trade unionist!

In terms of how to relate to the Thai military regime, the views about democratisation among mainstream officials and politicians close to Western governments are heavily influenced by right-wing “comparative politics” theories associated with academics like Guillermo O’Donnell[9]. For these people, democratic transition is all about the behaviour of elite factions and how they manage a stable transition to so-called democracy. They are blind to and terrified of the prospect of mass movements of the working class and the poor rising up to overthrow authoritarian regimes.

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This elitist narrative lives on. In his book The King Never Smiles[10], Paul Handley recycled the ideas of Fred Riggs by claiming that the entire political process in Thailand since the Second World War was determined by King Pumipon, claiming that Sarit was just Pumipon’s puppet. The exact opposite was the case[11]. Sarit and his military allies were responsible for promoting Pumipon and he was grateful and beholden to them. Handley also stated that ordinary Thai people, especially those living in the countryside, are blissfully ignorant of political events. He claimed that when Pumipon became king most Thais were uneducated, did not understand the concept of a modern state and were happy for the king to do everything for them. In fact Pumipon did very little and had no power. Handley also claimed that the 14th October 1973 uprising, when half a million students, workers and ordinary citizens drove out a military junta, was just the work of Pumipon and his advisors. Finally, Handley claimed that the 19th September 2006 coup against Taksin took place because the Palace and the military did not want Taksin to promote Wachiralongkorn as the next king over his sister Princess Sirintorn[12]. This final statement is rather ironic in the light of recent events.

Duncan McCargo sought to explain the war in Patani and the political crisis involving various coups against Taksin’s party by claiming that it was just an elite dispute between “network monarchy” and “network Taksin”[13]. The genuine sense of injustice felt by the Malay Muslim population of Patani or the activism of millions of Red Shirts was just written out of the plot.

In fact there is ample evidence that the crisis had deep-rooted structural causes and involved the building of the largest pro-democracy social movement in Thailand’s history. [See http://bit.ly/2bSpoF2 ]. There are also many accounts of how the struggles of ordinary people have shaped events throughout Thailand’s recent history. The writings by Katherine Bowie[14], Kevin Hewison[15], Somchai Pataratananun[16], Andrew Walker[17], Mary Beth Mills[18], and Bruce Missingham[19] come to mind. [See also https://bit.ly/2SyK7ok and http://bit.ly/1TdKKYs ].

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trade union mobilisation

More recently the view that the elites monopolise Thai politics to the exclusion of ordinary citizens has been reproduced again by Andrew MacGregor Marshall[20].  Eugénie Mérieau’s analysis in her paper on the “Deep State”[21] also comes from this elite tradition. Most recently, after the events involving Ubonrut, Mérieau characterised the military junta as a military dictatorship under royal absolutist command. What is different for MacGregor Marshall and Mérieau is that unlike Riggs and the other right-wing writers, they genuinely wish to see an end to dictatorship and the building of democracy. However, their analysis is incorrect and an obstacle to this. [See https://bit.ly/2EOjsNL ].

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Apart from totally ignoring the social movements, actions by ordinary citizens and the excitement among Thais generated by new political parties in the run up to the elections, the power of Wachiralongkorn is grossly exaggerated by MacGregor Marshall and Mérieau. [See https://bit.ly/2teiOzQ and https://bit.ly/2oppTvb  ].

Power is not something which people can inherit in a passive manner. If Wachiralongkorn is now an “absolute monarch”, when did he rise to power by destroying his political opponents? Who was in charge during the 5 or 6 years when his father Pumipon was incapacitated and dying? Given that tyrants often get deposed when travelling abroad, why would Wachiralongkorn wish to spend most of his time living in Germany if he had ambitions to become an absolute ruler?

The nomination of Ubonrut by Taksin, was just a pathetic attempt to bargain with the military by claiming that he had a “sacred amulet” equal to the power of the military dictatorship. The power of Taksin’s sacred amulet was soon exposed to be nonsense within hours. [See https://bit.ly/2SHQrZW]. Taksin was using the princess, just like the military and the elites have used Pumipon in the past and are now using Wachiralongkorn. The elitist and conspiracy theorists totally ignored the fact that Taksin’s move had nothing to do with expanding and developing democracy, something which ordinary Thais have achieved in the past.

The real issues for most Thai citizens, as we approach Paryut’s flawed elections in a few days’ time, is how to dismantle the legacy of the military dictatorship and how to build a free and just society. No study of royal entrails will give any guidance for those seeking to carry out this immensely important task.

[1] David Wilson (1962) Politics in Thailand. Cornell University Press.

[2] John Girling (1981) Thailand. Society and politics. Cornell University Press, USA.

[3] David Morell & Chai-anan Samudavanija (1981) Political conflict in Thailand: reform, reaction and revolution. Oelgeschlager, Gunn & Hain.

[4] Fred Riggs (1966) Thailand. The modernisation of a Bureaucratic Polity. East West Press.

[5] Gabriel Almond & Bingham Powell (1966) Comparative Politics: a Developmental Approach. Little Brown, Boston. Gabriel Almond & Sidney Verba (1963) The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. Princeton University Press. Lucian Pye & Sidney Verba (1965) Political Culture and Political Development. Princeton University Press.

[6] Thinapan Nakata (1987) Political Culture: Problems of Development of Democracy. In Somsakdi Xuto (ed)  Government and Politics of Thailand. Oxford University Press Singapore.

[7] Suchit Bunbongkarn (1987) Political Institutions and Processes. In Somsakdi Xuto (ed)  Government and Politics of Thailand. Oxford University Press Singapore.

[8] Prudhisan Jumbala (1987) Interest and Pressure Groups. . In Somsakdi Xuto (ed)  Government and Politics of Thailand. Oxford University Press Singapore.

[9] Guillermo O’Donnell, Philippe C. Schmitter, Laurence Whitehead (1986) “Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Comparative Perspectives.” JHU Press.

[10] Paul Handley (2006) The King Never Smiles. Yale University Press.

[11] Thak Chaloemtiarana (1979) Thailand: The Politics of Despotic Paternalism. Cornell University Press.

[12] Paul Handley (2006) “What the Thai Coup was really about” 06 November 2006 Asia Sentinel website.

[13] Duncan McCargo (2005) Network Monarchy and the legitimacy crisis in Thailand. The Pacific Review 18(4) December, pp 499-519.

[14] Katherine Bowie (1997) Rituals of national loyalty. Columbia.

[15] Kevin Hewison (1996) Emerging social forces in Thailand. New political and economic roles. In: Robison, R. & Goodman, D. S. G. (eds) The New Rich in Asia. Routledge, UK.

[16] Somchai Pataratananun (Phatharathananunth) (2006) Civil Society and Democratization. Social Movements in Northeast Thailand. NIAS press.

[17] Andrew Walker (2008) The rural constitution and the everyday politics of elections in northern Thailand. Journal of Contemporary Asia, 38:1, 84 -105.

[18] Mary Beth Mills (1999) Thai women in the global labor force. Rutgers University Press.

[19] Bruce Missingham (2003) The Assembly of the Poor in Thailand. Silkworm Books.

[20] Andrew MacGregor Marshall (2014) “A Kingdom in Crisis”. Zed Press.

[21] Eugénie Mérieau (2016) “Thailand’s Deep State, Royal Power and the Constitutional Court (1997–2015).” Journal of Contemporary Asia 46(3).

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Thai Politics: If you want titillation just follow Conspiracy Theories. If you want analysis you need to look elsewhere.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

A few weeks ago, the Thai Conspiracy Theory networks were humming about goings on among the royals. We were told that top serving military generals were summoned to Wachiralongkorn’s villa in Germany and that the junta heads were not invited. We were told that the movement of tanks towards Lopbury was the beginnings of a military coup. There were dire warnings about a possible “civil war” between troops supposedly commanded by Wachiralongkorn and his opponents.

Yet, a less sensationalist explanation would be that the top generals were going to see the King about the final arrangements for his coronation in May, while Prayut, now a retired officer, concentrated on fixing the election. The armoured vehicle movements were part of the Cobra Gold military exercises with the US.

In terms of the civil war, we’ve been here before with similar dire warnings about a war for royal succession between the troops of Wachiralongkorn and those loyal to the Princess Siritorn (Sirindhorn). Of course this never happened.

Before this, the Thai Conspiracy Theory networks drove themselves into a climax by discussing the relationship between Ubonrut, Taksin and Wachiralongkorn. What was totally ignored was the discussion of the need for a mass social movement for democracy in order to end the legacy of Prayut’s military junta. Without such a movement, the flawed elections in March will not bring an end to the dictatorship. But this is not the kind of reality that excites and titillates the Thai Conspiracy Theory networks.

Some weeks have passed since the supposed “earth quake” in Thai politics, which resulted from the nomination of Ubonrut. But there has been no coup or civil war or attempt at a Palace Coup against Prayut. In any case, an “earth quake” in Thai politics cannot result from the petty manoeuvrings among the elites. An earth quake would look like the Arab Spring or the 14th October 1973 uprising in Bangkok or the fall of the Berlin Wall.

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During the election campaign, when Sudarat Keyurapan from Pua Thai Party proposed a cut in the military budget, General Apirat Kongsompong, army chief, suggested that she listen to an ultra-right song from the 1970’s which was used to mobilise thugs to kill leftists. Apirat is the son of General Sunthorn Kongsompong, who led the 1991 coup against an elected government. The resulting junta was overthrown by mass popular protests in 1992. The reactionary tirade by General Apirat, and his father’s coup in 1991, was a symbol of the military’s wish to monopolise politics and the power struggle between the military and civilian politicians. It was certainly not a result of following orders from Wachiralongkorn!

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leftist student being lynched in Bangkok 1976

These are uncertain times in Thai politics and it is not possible to predict what will happen after the March election. However, the military have 3 levels of action to maintain their power. The first plan is to get Prayut elected as Prime Minister with the support of the 250 military-appointed senators This means that his party only needs 126 elected MPs out of a total of 500 seats in the lower house. The second plan is to restrict the actions of any elected government not headed by Prayut, using the powers of the 20 year National Strategy and various junta appointed bodies like the judiciary and the senate. The third and most desperate action would be another military coup if the election does not give them what they want. But the choice and outcome of any of these 3 actions will not merely be decided in Prayut’s military headquarters or even in Wachiralongkorn’s German palace. It will have a real dialectic relationship with the reaction of millions of ordinary Thais.

Recently, a British socialist posted a comment on the so-called “Jewish Conspiracy”, so beloved by the Nazis. He wrote that “conspiracy theories can take hold when people find themselves incapable of explaining the malign features of our social existence and feel they lack any genuine democratic control over their daily lives. These theories act as an indispensable substitute for a genuine opposition to the real power in society.” This could equally apply to what has been happening in Thailand.

Those who are addicted to Thai conspiracy theories are not interested in helping to build a mass social movement for democracy. Those who claim that Thailand is run by Wachiralongkorn’s absolutism, which controls the military and a supposed “Deep State” are in the same boat. They dismiss the possibility that ordinary people can make “earth quake like” changes to society and instead shrink into gossip about the royals and various conspiracies. And foreign news outlets, looking for juicy exotic news about Thailand, are also happy to lap up all this nonsense. The Thai political crisis is seen as just an elite dispute and mass activity to expand the democratic space is dismissed as impossible. The result is apathy and helplessness.

But as I have previously written; “People who spend their time looking up at the view above risk stepping in dog shit”. The crisis that has divided Thai society for the last decade is about the significant changes to the social and economic conditions of millions of citizens and their unmet political aspirations.

In a previous article I wrote that… “The 1997 economic crisis exposed the material reality of the lives of most Thai citizens whose way of life had developed rapidly over many decades but which was in conflict with an unchanged and outdated “Superstructure”. This is the dynamic of conflict which was harnessed by Taksin. [See https://bit.ly/2I9WcLO ].

This crisis is part of an on-going struggle between ordinary Thai people and the elites who lord it over them. [See https://bit.ly/2SyK7ok ]. If we draw the correct lessons from the struggles of the past, we can begin to organise the overthrow these elites.

Conspiracy theories concerning the elites totally ignore these important issues and cannot begin to explain the complexities of the changes in Thai society. Instead they prefer to discuss Thai politics as though it was some kind of fairy-tale or sensational soap opera.

Thai Military and NGOs cannot build peace in Patani

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Following news of the fatal shooting of Buddhist monks at Wat Rattananupab in Su Ngai Padi district of Naratiwat, the reactionary Buddhist nationalists in Thai society have been up in arms. These people are not interested in seriously analysing the causes of violence in Patani. The Thai military has also used the event to be even more strident in its attitude to those opposing the Thai state.

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Yet, in Patani, ever since it was partitioned between Thailand and the British Empire, there has been an on-going war between the Thai state and those who want independence. The violence associated with this war is a direct result of the oppression of Malay Muslims by the Thai state. Patani is occupied by Thai soldiers like a colony. [For further reading see https://bit.ly/2bemah3 ].

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The actions of the Thai military are a serious cause for the continued violence. The military’s extreme nationalism means that since the military coup of 2014, so-called peace talks have stalled. The Thai military is not really interested in solving the problems that have led to the on-going war. It is only interested in talks as a means to get the independence fighters to surrender.

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Thai State Crime at Takbai in 2004

When considering the tragic events at Wat Rattananupab, one of the worst aspects is the reaction by Thai NGOs and Human Rights Watch. A long list of Thai NGOs was attached to a declaration condemning the events and calling on the Thai state to bring the perpetrators to justice. Human Rights Watch called the independence fighters “war criminals”. In effect, this means that the NGOs have publicly sided with the Thai state in the war because they see the military as having legitimacy to “bring the perpetrators to justice”. None of this is very surprising since many Thai NGOs welcomed the recent military intervention in Thai politics to overthrow democratically elected governments. [See https://bit.ly/1UpZbhh ].

What has often been missing from declarations of outrage is the fact that 3 Muslim clerics were murdered a few months before the events at Wat Rattananupab and that an assassination attempt was made against another cleric in January. Thai army death squads are known to target Muslim clerics and activists, who they claim are part of the separatist struggle. Those who cannot be found guilty in open law courts are often “eliminated”. In addition to this a leader of the separatist BRN was recently killed by a Thai army death squad in Naratiwat.

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Luckily, among the nationalist rants and the stupidity of the NGOs, there have been some voices of reason. Two recent articles sought to provide a more balanced understanding of events. Surapot Taweesak wrote that Buddhist monks have been closely connected to the Thai state for a long time. In Patani the military have a history of getting soldiers to become monks and some carry weapons. Soldiers are also stationed in temples and walk beside monks when they beg for food in the mornings. It is therefore not surprising that the Buddhist establishment is viewed as part of the Thai state. Surapot is a respected scholar of Buddhism and has long been an advocate of the separation of religion from the Thai state. [See https://bit.ly/2RRkMG3 ].

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Assistant Professor Channarong Boonnoon from Silapakorn University wrote that those who are enraged by the shooting of monks, and raise questions like “why kill monks?”, are seldom interested in the answer. He explained that despite many individual monks being innocent, the Buddhist Establishment has never distanced itself from those in power and never criticised any wrong-doing by the state. He also confirmed that Buddhist monks in Patani have a history of being close to the military. [See https://bit.ly/2WryRIX ].

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After the temple shootings, Thai army rangers took the opportunity to raid a Malay Muslim “Pondok” religious school in Patani. They arrested a number of young men. One was photographed covered in a net like a hunted animal. The military claim that these men were carrying out “unarmed combat training” and that some were illegal Cambodian migrants. Local villagers dispute the military’s story. They believe that the young men, some of whom seem to be under 18 years of age, were just exercising after a long day of studying. The fact that all but the Cambodians were later released, shows that there was no evidence that any combat training took place. The Cambodians were detained on immigration charges and deported.

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It is worth noting that many Muslim Cambodian citizens are ethnic Chams. The Chams originally had an empire in southern Vietnam and Cambodia. For hundreds of years they have travelled to and sometimes settled in Malaysia, Indonesia and Patani. In modern times they are drawn to Patani because of their common Malay language and their religion and the fact that Patani Pondoks are highly regarded. It is also worth remembering that Cambodian and Burmese migrants are the favourite scapegoats of Thai nationalists and the Thai military has a history of harassing people in religious schools.

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Those who are genuinely interested in building peace in Patani know that for there to be peace there has to be justice for the local Malay Muslim population. Locals of all religions and cultures who are living in Patani have the right to collectively determine their future and they have the right to separate from the Thai state if they so decide. But this cannot happen when religion is not separated from the state and the military continue to control the future of Patani.

Unfortunately, the Thai political parties who are now canvassing for votes are reluctant to propose radical progressive solutions to the war.

Other articles on Patani can be read here: https://bit.ly/2HHTwVN , https://bit.ly/2UqtRCc , https://bit.ly/1QCoOWs , https://bit.ly/2tZG5JK , https://bit.ly/1RmdMZs , https://bit.ly/2eBAzDj and https://bit.ly/2bemah3 .

See also, this report: https://bit.ly/2S2qx3N

Junta’s idiotic solution to Bangkok air pollution

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

For some weeks now the air quality in Bangkok has reached crisis proportions with smog becoming an everyday occurrence.

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The junta’s only solution seems to be to spray water from some tall buildings in a pathetic attempt to clear the air of polluting particles! They also talk about tightening up on regulations. But it always remains as mere talk.

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Part of the reason for the current air pollution is the construction of the extension of the raised electric railway system. This was also a problem when the first sections of the overhead railway were being built 20 years ago. Tightening up on construction standards would be useful and it would probably have been better to build the entire system underground. However, this is a temporary problem and not even the main cause of pollution.

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A recent research article published by the Economic Intelligence Center of the Siam Commercial Bank, written by Dr Sivalai Khantachavana outlines the main causes of the dangerous levels of particles in Bangkok’s air [See https://bit.ly/2B9AUrK ].

Pollution particles with a diameter smaller than 2.5 microns (PM2.5) are the cause of respiratory and other diseases and can have serious consequences for people exposed to these particles, especially young children. The risk factor to humans of breathing PM2.5 is higher than for smoking tobacco.

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Twenty-six percent of Bangkok’s PM2.5 pollution comes from diesel engines. The emissions from these engines are made up of 90% PM2.5 particles.

Although the use of diesel engines causes 26% of PM2.5 pollution in Bangkok, another 25% comes from burning organic matter. This originates from forest and peat fires and the burning of fields after harvesting. This is a serious problem in other towns and cities across South-East Asia. Measures to control these fires are possible if there is better enforcement and new methods of agriculture are used.

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picture montage by Chub Nokkaew

Another source of PM2.5 particles comes from factories, construction and other sources dust. Building regulations and environmental controls of factories need to be properly implemented. A recent article by Anusorn Tamajai, Dean of the Faculty of Economics at Rungsit University, exposes the shameful fact that the military junta’s new factory regulations law does the exact opposite. It reduces pollution controls and inspection standards for factories!

Phasing out coal-fired power stations would be a great help and would reduce CO2 in the environment. Thailand should be producing much more electricity from solar energy and wind.

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But to achieve these changes requires democratically elected governments that are sensitive to environmental issues. That also means strengthening social movements.

The problem of diesel engine pollution is made worse by the use of poor quality diesel fuel and the age of vehicles on the roads. There are a total of 2.7 million diesel engine vehicles on Bangkok’s roads, making up nearly half the total number of vehicles (not including motorcycles). Nationwide almost 60% of vehicles (10.8 million) have diesel engines.

Motorcycles, mainly used by the poor, are also a source of pollution.

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A majority of diesel buses and trucks on Bangkok’s roads are over 7 years old and the standards of emissions are very low. The solution, of course, is not to penalise the poor by forcing people with older vehicles off the roads, or reducing state subsidies on diesel, without providing alternative solutions.

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The solution to this is to promote the use of cheap and good quality public transport. Free public transport and the use of new electric railways and electric buses would not only drastically reduce air pollution, but it would help solve traffic congestion. Pua Thai Party has proposed buying a fleet of new electric buses instead of the junta’s planned purchase of tanks from China. This is a good step forward, but a comprehensive public transport policy is still required. This would require a drastic change in government policy, which in the past has promoted private vehicle transport and ignored the need for state-sponsored mass-transit systems. It would mean raising taxes on big corporations, the rich and the Palace and it would require cutting military spending. It would also mean using economic policies which recognise the problems of a free-market driven economy.

Unfortunately, none of the political parties have made significant concrete proposals to tackle these problems.

 

Post-Script on Ubonrut’s Nomination

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

[This article should be read together with my previous post “Politics of the Sewer” https://bit.ly/2SHQrZW ]

Now that King Wachiralongkorn has scuppered Ubonrut’s nomination as Thai Raksa Chart’s candidate for Prime Minister, it is worth looking at what the incident exposed.

Firstly, most of the analysis concentrated on the politics of the top elites without raising the question about how a military dictatorship can be brought down in order to achieve real democracy.

People who spend their time looking up at the view above risk stepping in dog shit.

So once again we had people claiming that if Ubonrut became Prime Minister that this would reinforce the supposed growing power of the “Absolute Monarchy”. They were soon proved totally wrong when it became obvious that Wachiralongkorn and Ubonrut did not see things in the same way.

Those who have always been mesmerised by the monarchy and conspiracy theories about a “New Absolutism” have been twisting their theories into a contradictory muddle. Some claim that Ubonrut “must have” consulted the king beforehand since he holds absolute power. Is this really the case?

The question which has been posed now is why Wachiralongkorn intervened to stop his elder sister from entering politics. The most likely explanation is that he was politely “ordered” to stop Ubonrut by a junta agent who pretended to grovel to him. The reality is that the military are Wachiralongkorn’s golden meal ticket. Without them, his position would be very weak. The military were very annoyed by Thai Raksa Chart’s move, which threatened their monopoly on power. If possible they would prefer not to do a power deal with Taksin, which was the aim of Ubonrut’s nomination in the first place. But Wachiralongkorn would not be threaten by Taksin at all. After all, Taksin had paid off his gambling debts in the past. It is true that the competing egos of Wachiralongkorn and Ubonrut and their wish “to be number one” might have helped to persuade Wachiralongkorn. But that was not the key issue.

Some racist foreign observers, who repeat all the conspiracy theories and are not interested in searching for the truth, just laugh smugly at the stupidity of Thai citizens and the bizarre nature of Thai politics. These people should be treated with contempt.

There were many other people who claimed that Ubonrut’s nomination was a clever chess move to beat Prayut. No sooner had they said this than the junta’s side shouted “checkmate”!! People who seek short cuts in order to win in politics often come unstuck.

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After Pumipon’s death many Red Shirts deluded themselves that Wachiralongkorn would turn out to be a friend to their side and might even abolish lèse majesté! If they hadn’t already realised how wrong this myth was, they do now.

Many former Red Shirts and Taksin supporters defended Taksin and Thai Raksa Chart’s role in this chapter of the “Politics of the Sewer” because they mistakenly believe that the junta is all powerful and there is nothing that ordinary people can do.

This bring us to the main issue which has almost totally been ignored by the dog-shit-stepping, star-gazers: How can a military dictatorship be brought down in order to achieve real democracy? This is a key question because the coming elections are rigged in favour of the military and their 20 year future influence on politics. [See https://bit.ly/2RIIvrD ].  It is also a key question because most people who support Taksin’s parties want genuine democracy, even if that is not the priority for Taksin and his team.

The answer is that there are no short cuts. Ridding Thailand of military influence and building democracy means building a pro-democracy social movement which coordinates its struggle with pro-democracy parties. We know from Thai history that such a movement can be built and can be successful so long as it is not controlled by elites. If this reality is rejected and the role of ordinary citizens is denied, the result is a political farce where a royal is posed as an alternative to Prayut’s junta.

Politics of the Sewer

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The nomination of Princess Ubonrut, eldest daughter of the late Pumipon, (full name: Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi), as a candidate for Prime Minister by Taksin’s Thai Raksa Chart Party, is a new low for Taksin and his fellow politicians in all his parties, for the former Red Shirt leaders in Thai Raksa Chart, and for people who should know better like Chaturon Chaisang. But worse than all that, it is a symbol of the total degeneration of the Thai electoral system into the politics of the sewer, especially after the interventions of the military.

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Most people with half a brain and an ounce of democratic principles will not need to ask themselves about Ubonrut’s qualifications for the position of Prime Minister. But this might need to be spelt out for some Thais. Has Ubonrut ever been in touch with the lives of the majority of poor people in the country? Has she ever said anything progressive? Has she ever supported the struggle for democracy and justice? Has she ever condemned the military? Has she ever opposed the backward idea of hereditary public positions? The answer is clearly No! The only experience she has had in recent years is to promote herself in rubbish TV programmes while living her life in a bubble of luxury.

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The nomination of Ubonrut by Thai Raksa Chart is a slap in the face for all the Thai people who made huge sacrifices in the struggles for democracy, equality, justice and human rights. It spits on the memories of the 1932 revolution, the 14th October 1973 uprising, the 6th October 1976 massacre, the 1992 uprising and the great Red Shirt movement. Many people sacrificed their lives during these events. Ubonrut’s nomination spits on the very idea of democracy and peoples’ participation by saying that ordinary citizens cannot make any social changes and that the only person that can challenge the military has to come from the royal family. It is an exact mirror image of what the Yellow Shirt PAD protesters believed when they were trying to unseat Taksin.

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But there is a background to all this. Taksin deliberately destroyed the Red Shirt mass movement, the biggest pro-democracy movement in Thai history, after the election of Yingluk. He, along with the donkeys that led that movement, put it into cold storage and killed it so that it could no longer oppose the military. It is a terrible shame that progressive Red Shirts were unwilling or unable to build an alternative leadership of the movement.

Historical experience from Thailand, and elsewhere, shows that so-called “clever manoeuvres”, which involve adopting the reactionary ideology or views of opponents, always end badly. Ubonrut’s nomination will not destroy the power of the military, its 20 year National Strategy or the extreme political and economic inequality in Thailand. Even now, the mainstream Thai media is still using outdated and feudal Royal Language when referring to Ubonrut, although we are led to believe that she is a commoner. Worse still, the nomination opens the door to a “government of national unity”. All this merely represents another attempt at an elite settlement between Taksin and his opponents.

Some people seem to confuse “form” with “content”. Ubonrut’s nomination is not a consolidation of any mythical absolute monarchy. This is confirmed by the fact that King Wachiralongkorn has now come out against Ubonrut’s nomination, claiming that it drags the monarchy into politics.

It is a process which was aimed at cementing a conservative alliance between Taksin and the military within the framework of “Guided Democracy”, leaving out any space for democracy or participation by Thai citizens.

For those of us who are totally opposed to this “politics of the sewer”, we must redouble our efforts to build a progressive mass movement and to oppose the reactionary ideology of the ruling elites.

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Military rule has increased inequality

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The shocking levels of increasing inequality in Thailand have been recently revealed by the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook 2018 [See https://bit.ly/2RxcMFM , https://bit.ly/2QKpW63 ].

The report shows that inThailand, the richest 1% own and control 66.9% of all wealth. This compares to 51.5, 57.1, 46.6, 32.6, 24.6 and 35.3% for India, Russia, Indonesia, China, the UK and the USA, respectively. The Gini coefficient, which is a measure representing the income or wealth distribution of a country, also shows the stark inequality in Thailand. A value of 100% indicates absolute inequality, whereas 0% would indicate total equality. Thailand’s Gini coefficient stands at 90.2% compared to 63.1, 85.4, 84.0, 76.7 and 65.8 % for Japan, India, Indonesia, Finland and Australia, respectively.

Writing in the Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia in 2015, Kevin Hewison wrote that “Economic and political inequalities in Thailand are mutually reinforcing conditions that have resulted from the ways in which the gains of rapid economic growth have been captured by elites. Preserving these privileges produces a political structure that is exclusionary and dominated by an authoritarian elite.” [See https://bit.ly/2Ac81L6].

Since the 2006 military coup against the elected Taksin government, I have argued in my book “A Coup for the Rich” that the Thai political crisis has its roots in the way that Taksin’s party responded to gross inequality and the 1997 economic crisis. This response gave him a huge electoral advantage and threatened the status quo [see https://bit.ly/2aE7zc6 ].

It is hardly surprising that military intervention in Thai politics has increased inequality since the ruling class faction represented by the military and the royalist conservatives are extreme neo-liberals.

With the upcoming elections, it is good that some political parties, like the Future Forward Party, are talking about the need for a welfare state. But their proposals do not go far enough, as they do not advocate a supertax on the 1% of the richest Thais. Prominent among this 1% is the Thai monarchy, which is obscenely wealthy. The wealth of the Thai monarchy is part of a deal struck by the military since dictator Sarit’s time. In return for allowing the King to control such wealth he was expected to toe the line and support and legitimise military dictatorships and all manner of authoritarian behaviour by the elites. The military and the elites then use the lèse-majesté law to protect themselves and their puppet king. This arrangement has continued under Wachiralongkorn. But it is not just the monarchy that makes up the 1%. It is comprised of the owners of top Thai multinationals such as the CP Corporation.

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To tax this 1%, the power of the elites, which is ultimately guaranteed by the military, has to be broken. This means taking on the military. It means being able to talk about the monarchy by scrapping the lèse-majesté law.

In addition to this, the minimum wage needs to be raised to civilised levels, perhaps raising it by more than 100%. Other wages need to be raised too. This requires the building of a strong trade union movement, something which has been ignored for too long. Even the Future Forward Party has not made any commitment to this; not surprising since the party leader is a business tycoon.

What should never be forgotten is that social equality is fundamental to building participatory democracy. Those who worry every day about how to make ends meet often struggle to become politically active in order to bring about change.

Apart from strong trade unions, we need a socialist party of the working class in order to advocate progressive policies which go well beyond the achievements of Taksin’s Thai Rak Thai or the promises of the Future Forward Party.

Thai politics