After the Irish referendum: Thailand needs a Woman’s Right to Choose

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

After the recent referendum result in Ireland on abortion rights, it is worth revisiting the issue of a woman’s right to choose in Thailand.

The women’s movement in Thailand is weak and conservative, concentrating on issues that have little impact upon most women such as the number of women members of parliament, irrespective of their politics, or the number of women business leaders. In the past these women’s groups joined the anti-democracy movement and helped to usher in the military dictatorship.

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In recent times, the trade union movement has had the greatest role in advocating women’s rights and has won important improvements like maternity leave and child care facilities. Some sections of the trade union movement are also campaigning for the right to abortion on demand, something that has been ignored by most middle-class activists.

Abortion is severely restricted in Thailand because women have to convince clinicians that their physical or mental health will suffer from an unwanted pregnancy. Many clinicians are conservative and seek to impose their moral judgments on women who need abortions. This adds to pressure on women and prevents the right to choose.

Free and safe abortions should be routinely available through the universal health care scheme, but they are not. Even when there are clinics or a few hospital which are willing to perform abortions, workers or the rural poor need to raise large sums of money. It is very difficult for ordinary women to access free and safe abortions. Many women are therefore put at risk from visiting back street abortionists.

In the past there have been unsuccessful attempts to liberalise the Thai abortion law, especially after the 14th October 1973 uprising and later in the 1980s. One of the leaders of the anti-abortion campaign in Thailand was Chamlong Srimuang, a leading yellow shirt activist who called for and supported the military coup which overthrew Taksin’s elected government.

Abortion is about democracy and human rights.

Abortion is a class issue because it is working class and poor women who cannot access free and safe abortions. It is also an issue which affects young people who are more at risk of unwanted pregnancies.

With all the talk about new political parties and the need for a party of the new generation. The inclusion of a policy to liberalise Thailand’s abortion law will be a measure of the real progressive nature of such a party. So far none of the major parties, including the Future Forward Party have said anything about this issue.

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The rise and fall of the Thai Communist Party

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) was established in the late 1920s and played an important role in the struggle against the military dictatorship from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s. The high point of struggle for the CPT was when student activists started to support the party in the 1970s.

Many people are aware of the uprisings around the world in 1968. The struggles by Thai activists also formed part of this wave of radicalism, leading to the 1973 uprising which overthrew the Tanom military dictatorship. On 14th October 1973 half a million people, mainly young school and university students, but also ordinary working people, protested around the Democracy Monument. The wave of student revolts and the activism among young people in Western Europe and the United States were the inspiration which ignited the left-wing struggles in the early 1970s in Thailand. Libertarian left-wing ideas from the Western movements entered Thai society by way of news reports, articles, books, music and the return of Thai students from the West, especially art students in the first instance. The victory of Communist Parties in Indochina, after the USA began to lose the war in Vietnam, and Mao’s Cultural Revolution, also had a massive impact in igniting struggles for a new society in Thailand.

As always, the Thai ruling class reacted with violence against the rising left-wing movement, using armed thugs, soldiers and police. The height of this violence was the massacre at Thammasart University on 6th October 1976. This destroyed the democratic space created by the 1973 uprising and led directly to an intensification of the armed struggle in the countryside led by the CPT. Thousands of urban activists and students travelled to the CPT bases.

But the problem with the CPT’s Maoist strategy was that it more or less abandoned the city and the working class. The CPT argued that since the cities were the centre of ruling class power, a communist victory in Thailand would only come about by surrounding the cities with “liberated zones”. Their Maoist strategy meant that they never at any time planned to resist the right-wing backlash in Bangkok. Yet, since 1932, all significant social changes have taken place due to struggles in urban areas, especially in Bangkok. The CPT was also an authoritarian “top-down” Stalinist party and this did not sit well with the libertarian views of many students. In addition to this, the struggle by small farmers, which the Maoists favoured, was fundamentally a defensive and conservative struggle to survive, not a struggle for a future society.

What was missing from the CPT’s strategy in the late 1970s was trying to build the party among urban workers so that it could organise mass strikes. Previously the CPT had some influence among unions and large strikes had taken place. However, the turn to Maoism changed the party’s emphasis.

The CPT analysis of Thailand was that it was a semi-feudal semi-colony of the USA. The immediate aim of the struggle, according to the party, was for national liberation and capitalist democracy, which was called the “national democratic stage of the revolution”. The aim of building socialism was postponed to some future date. Yet Thailand was never a colony of the USA and feudalism had been abolished during the nation building process at the end of the 19th century. The party adopted a Stalinist/Maoist cross-class alliance policy of working with the military dictators, “progressive capitalists” and nationalists. At one time the CPT even supported General Sarit before he became a right-wing dictator. The repression carried out by the military against the CPT did not change the party’s policies towards “progressive capitalists” and nationalists. It merely meant that the party was forced to fight the military dictatorship, which was now characterised as being in alliance with US imperialism.

The lack of progress in the armed struggle, carried out from jungle hide-outs, and the fact that China established friendly relations with the Thai government threw the CPT into confusion. Most student activists were demoralised and returned to the city. The students were also unhappy with the authoritarian nature of the party. The destruction of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the European Stalinist regimes was the last nail in the coffin of the CPT.

Those who left the CPT jungle strong-holds and returned to mainstream society, while still being politically active, became divided into three main groups.

The first group eventually found a home in Taksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party (TRT) and the red shirts. They were attracted to TRT’s pro-poor policies and the Stalinist-Maoist policy of building alliances with “progressive business people” helped legitimise their alliance with Taksin. Pumtam, a prominent TRT politician, boasted that they had now “seized state power” without the privations of living in the jungle camps. Both Weng and Tida, UDD red shirt leaders, were once high ranking officials of the CPT.

The second group of activists set up NGOs and turned their backs on big picture politics. Their aim was to lobby the elites and use foreign funds to help poor villagers. They rejected the idea of the need for a progressive political party, believing that all parties would tend to authoritarianism. They also rejected representative democracy and wished to ignore the state. These anarchistic ideas de-politicised and weakened the NGOs and meant that they failed to build mass movements and any political power. Instead their NGOs functioned like authoritarian small businesses. When Taksin’s TRT came to power and used state funds to improve the lives of villagers in a significant manner, the NGOs turned their anger on the government which was making the previous efforts of the NGOs look irrelevant. But the NGOs lacked a mass movement and any political leverage. They therefore built a reactionary alliance with the yellow shirts and welcomed the intervention of the military against Taksin’s elected government.

The third group of activists who left the jungle became academics. Almost all of them drew the conclusion that “Socialism was finished”, despite the fact that what was really finished was Stalinism and the authoritarian State Capitalist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe. The real world choice was never just between Stalinist State Capitalism and free market Capitalism. There was always a third choice of “socialism from below” as represented by the ideas of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg. Many of these academics became right-wing apologists for the military and some cooperated with the military on anti-reform committees.

But the idea of “socialism from below” remains a living spark in some sections of Thai society, waiting to be ignited.

“Class” really does matter in Thai society

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

In previous blog post I argued that without solving the real contradictions between lives of most Thai citizens whose way of life has developed rapidly over many decades and an unchanged, outdated and conservative “Superstructure”, Thai society cannot escape from a vicious cycle of crisis and coups. I also argued that what is needed is concrete measures to modernise the country and to drastically decrease inequality between the poor majority and the rich elites.

Merely ignoring the root causes of the political crisis and hoping to “move on” will do nothing to solve these deep underlying problems. We also need to be clear that these are “class” problems. Those who deny the importance of class in Thai society cannot hope to get to grips with the problems.

So what kind of political and social reforms would go some way to solving the crisis?

First of all it is necessary to explain that such reforms would be resisted by the conservatives in the ruling class and among the middle classes, much as Taksin’s modernisation programme was resisted.

An important issue which needs to be tackled is the gross economic inequality between the life styles of the rich and the middle classes and the rest of the population. To deal with this Thailand needs to build a well-funded welfare state, funded by progressive taxation. This would give most citizens a sense of security and make them feel that they were stakeholders in society.

Naturally, higher rates of tax for the rich and large corporations would be vigorously resisted by those who stood to lose. But strong social movements could contain such resistance. According to the book “The Spirit Level”, by Kate Pickett and Richard G. Wilkinson, even the rich would eventually benefit from a more equal society, but in the meantime they would have to bow to public opinion.

Apart from constructing a welfare state, workers’ wages need to be raised to a level where they can enjoy a decent life, rather than living from hand to mouth on the inadequate minimum wage, as many are doing today. Strengthening trade union rights would also help to improve living standards and would be a natural part of democratisation.  Small farmers need help to manage and own their own land.

The infrastructure in Thailand needs large amounts of public investment in order to build safe and efficient public transport, both in the cities, but also between cities and the rural areas. This would lower the appalling rates of road accidents and help reduce global warming. Investment also needs to be made in renewable energy generation, especially solar energy. We should be mindful that the conservative judges opposed the Yingluk governments plan to upgrade the railways. They also helped to pave the way for Prayut’s military coup.

Apart from improving the material aspect of people’s lives, the huge inequalities in status between the rich and powerful and most working people have to be significantly reduced through a process of promoting “equal citizenship”. This would involve ended the enforced grovelling to people of higher status, including the royal family. A change in the use of language, especially pronouns, to encourage equality, is also necessary. Part of this process should also involve the removal of uniforms, especially those worn by teachers and civilian civil servants. Local people should also have the right to elect representatives to run schools, hospitals and manage natural resources.

Yes, this is a big “wish list” and would take hard struggle by social movements and radical political parties of the left for it to be achieved. But for those who really want to “move on” from the crisis, it is necessary to face up to the long hard tasks of reforming Thai society, rather than just ignoring them and hoping for some kind of abstract solution.

Ignoring the roots of the Thai political crisis will not bring about democracy

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Today there are people who say we need to move forward and away from the past divisions between yellows and reds, as though the long lasting Thai crisis of democracy was just about people who wore different coloured shirts or merely a dispute between a few political personalities.

This is just political stupidity and intellectual bankruptcy. The crisis occurred, not because some people hated Taksin, but because of the underlying political differences based upon different visions about the future of Thai society. Class is also an important component.

In 2006 the military, the middle-classes, and the various sections of the conservative elites, set about to destroy democracy. Since 2006 there have been two military coups, a number of judicial coups and mass anti-democracy protests by royalist middle-class mobs, supported by the Democrat Party. Over a hundred pro-democracy activists have been shot down in cold blood by the military and Thai jails now hold more political prisoners than they have done for decades. How and why did this happen?

The Asian Economic crisis in 1997 was the spark that exposed the existing fault-lines in Thai society, and the actions of political actors in response to this, eventually led to a back-lash against democracy by the conservatives.

The main reason for the present Thai political crisis can be traced back to this 1997 economic crisis and the attempt by Taksin Shinawat to modernise Thai society and reduce inequality while relying on mass support for his policies at elections. These policies were also designed to benefit big business, increasing profits and competitiveness. Taksin called this a “dual track” strategy, using a mixture of neo-liberalism and “grass-roots Keynesianism”. Among this raft of policies was the first ever universal health care scheme.

Because the Democrat Party, and other elites, had ignored the plight of the poor during the crisis, while spending state finances in securing the savings for the rich and the middle-classes in failed banks, Taksin was able to say that his government would benefit everyone, not just the rich. Taksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party won the first post-1997 elections. The government was unique in being both popular and dynamic, with real policies, which were used to win the elections and were then implemented afterwards. Never-the-less, his government was not unique in the fact that it committed gross human rights abuses. Previously, the old parties had just bought votes without any policies. Taksin’s real policies reduced vote-buying and his overwhelming electoral base came to challenge the old way of conducting politics, eventually angering those who could not win the hearts and minds of the people.

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.

It would be a mistake to see the present crisis as merely a dispute between two factions of the elite. It has another important dimension that cannot be ignored. We need to understand the role of the Red Shirts who had a “dialectical” relationship with their idol Taksin. There existed a kind of “parallel war” where thousands of ordinary Red Shirts struggled for democracy, dignity and social justice, while Taksin and his political allies waged a very different campaign to regain the political influence that they had enjoyed before the 2006 coup d’état.

The hypothesis that the present long-running unrest in Thailand was primarily caused by a “crisis of succession”, is a top-down view which assumes that the Thai monarch has real power and that it has been constantly intervening in politics. That is just not the case. The present junta is run by powerful generals who have used the monarchy as their tool.

It is simply banal to try to build some kind of political consensus in civil society by ignoring the root cause of the crisis just by bringing in new political faces who are not associated with Taksin’s team or the Democrat Party or the yellow shirts. This is the main idea behind the party of the “new generation”.

Without solving the real contradictions between lives of most Thai citizens whose way of life has developed rapidly over many decades and an unchanged, outdated and conservative “Superstructure”, Thai society cannot escape from a vicious cycle of crisis and coups. What is needed is concrete measures to modernise the country and to drastically decrease inequality between the poor majority and the rich elites.

For further reading on this subject see: http://bit.ly/2bSpoF2   or http://bit.ly/2cmZkAa

 

How can we reduce the power of the military?

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Many people in Thailand are thinking about how to reduce the power of the military and prevent future coups and the never ending destruction of democracy. This is especially important given that the power of the junta will be extended into the future after the next elections. The junta has organised this “Guided Democracy” state of affairs through its constitution, the military appointed senate, the military appointed judges, the election rules and the National Strategy.

In order to make sure the military are unable to intervene in politics we shall have to change the constitution, scrap the National Strategy, replace the generals, judges and appointed senators and drastically cut the military budget. Ending conscription would also help. The abolition of the lèse-majesté law and the de-mystification of the monarchy are also necessary in order to reduce the power of the military because the generals rely on the monarchy as a tool for legitimisation. This necessary and difficult project will have huge implications.

Some are placing their hopes in the election of new political parties which are opposed to the role of the military. But even if these parties manage to win seats, and even form a government, they will not have the power through parliament to reduce the influence of the military.

This is not because of some secret “Deep State” but it is because the military and the conservative anti-democratic sections of the ruling class hold extra-parliamentary power. The military have their power based upon their weaponry and other sections of the conservatives control the large corporations, courts, the senate and the mass media.

This is not just a problem confined to Thailand. In Britain, if Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party wins the next general election, and I hope they will, the government will face an entire conservative establishment hell-bent on frustrating the democratic wishes of the people. Apart from threats of military coups, which may merely be the demented dreams of some backward generals, the business class will try to cause a financial crisis by withdrawing capital from the country. The mainstream mass media will be hysterically anti-Labour and the permanent secretaries in the civil service will try to frustrate the Corbyn government’s policies. The EU and the IMF will also put pressure on the government. This has happened in Britain in the past. The same kind of pressure was applied to the Syriza government in Greece.

The only way in which an elected government can have the power to face up to this kind of extra-parliamentary force from the conservatives is for the government to be supported by mass movements on the streets and in work places. Protests and strikes can balance and push back the power of unelected conservatives.

This is not some wild pipe-dream. In the past it has been the mass movements of 1973 and 1992 which have knocked back the power and influence of the military in Thailand. In South Korea, Argentina, Venezuela and Turkey, mass movements have played crucial roles in preventing coups, cutting the power of the military and even punishing the most brutal dictators.

In Burma, it is Aung San Suu Kyi’s demobilisation of the mass movement in 1988 and her compromise with the military that has allowed the Burmese junta to survive despite the elections. In Indonesia and the Philippines, dictatorships were overthrown by mass movements.

In Thailand if we are ever to get rid of the vast parasitic and authoritarian organisation of the military we need to rebuild a mass pro-democracy movement irrespective of the results of the next elections.

Future Forward Party blurs the difference between Right and Left

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

In a recent Reuter’s article about the Future Forward Party, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was compared to France’s Emmanuel Macron [See https://reut.rs/2ugDj39 ]. This seems to make sense since both Macron and Thanathorn claim to be “new blood politicians”. Macron has set his sights on destroying trade union rights and workers’ living standards in France, while Thanathorn has a record of suppressing the Thai Summit union and preventing strike action through a management lock-out. Thanathorn also told Reuters that his policies include business deregulation and he distanced himself from the so-called “populist” policies of Taksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party.

Thanathorn claims that he wants to get rid of business monopolies that have a strangle hold on the economy and he wants to introduce more free-market forces.

In an international context, business deregulation is a right-wing neoliberal agenda to improve corporate profits by cutting back on state regulations which protect workers’ rights, safety and environmental protection. It changes the balance of power, favouring big business at the expense of workers and ordinary citizens. In the Thai context it would be difficult to see how business could be given more power and freedom since corporations already have a free hand to repress workers’ rights, ignore safety standards, ignore environmental issues and conduct their business activities by encroaching on villager’s land. This is all thanks to the legacy of military rule over the last 60 years and the lack of any parliamentary political parties representing workers or small scale farmers.

By flagging up business deregulation and distancing himself from Taksin’s previous pro-poor policies, such as universal health care, job creation funds and debt relief for poor farmers, Thanathorn has clearly indicated that he believes that The Future Forward Party should be a right-wing, business-friendly, neoliberal party that opposes military dictatorship.

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Yet his co-organiser Piyabutr Saengkanokkul has previously stated that the party should be built in the mould of left-wing parties such as Syriza, Podemos and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise!! How are the two founders of the party going to square the circle?

The only way out is to totally ignore real politics and blur the differences between right-wing and left-wing politics. Piyabutr has previously claimed, incorrectly, that the concept of right and left wing politics is not applicable to Thai society. That would imply that there are no differences between the interests of ordinary working people or poor farmers and the big corporations; no differences between the poor and the rich. This is despite Thailand being an extremely unequal society! Such a position from a university law academic is beyond belief. It appears like an attempt to perpetuate the widespread ignorance among many people regarding contested issues of political economy and political theories. For decades the Thai ruling class and the military have stated that there are no alternatives to the right-wing conservative narratives.

All too often, denying the real differences between Right and Left has been used as a cover for those who want to maintain mainstream pro-business politics. It is similar to claims by those on the right that they are “non-political”.

This does not bode well for those who are hoping that the Future Forward Party will be a new progressive party. Instead it looks like it will be an anti-military, neo-liberal, party of the middle classes. But without building links to the working class and poor farmers, the party will never be able to reduce the power of the military.

Comparing Thai Rak Thai and the “Future Forward” party

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

With all the talk about a “new” political party of the “new generation”, it is worth comparing what little we know of this party with Taksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party which was formed after the 1997 economic crisis. The reason for this is that Taksin and his team used the slogan “New Thinking, New Implementation” in their first election campaign. In other words both TRT and the “new generation” party have emphasised their “newness”.

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We have to be fair to the “Future Forward” party because the military junta has prohibited and publications of party manifestos at this point in time. Why this should be the case is unclear, but it may be that the junta want to set the rules for what policies are allowed through the National Strategy, which is designed to create the junta’s system of “guided democracy”.

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Never the less, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and Piyabutr Saengkanokkul have given a number of interviews about their political beliefs which give some insight into any future policies. One thing which is clear is that the “Future Forward” party is absolutely opposed to the intervention of the military in politics and any attempts by the junta to extend its power and build “guided democracy”. They also say that they will defend human rights.

In contrast, most of Taksin’s allies in Pua Thai, with some honourable exceptions like Chaturon Chaisang and Watana Muangsuk, have sought to compromise with the military. When Yingluk was Prime Minister, she failed to cut General Prayut down to size and appeared in public with him on many occasions.

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Chaturon Chaisang
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Watana Muangsuk

Thailand desperately needs a political party opposed to the military, but winning seats in parliament will not be enough. What is required is the building of mass social movements. Thanathorn and Piyabutr have so far failed to mention the need for such an extra-parliamentary movement. This is unlike the stated aims of the “Commoners Party” which identifies itself with the poor and the “movements”. Taksin’s political allies also built the Red Shirt movement which was once the largest pro-democracy social movement in Thai history. But they then demobilised and destroyed it after the Prayut coup in 2014.

Piyabutr has indicated that he wishes to build an anti-neoliberal  party similar to Syriza, Podemos, La France Insoumise and the racist 5 Star Party of Italy. At the same time he has indicated that he believes that the division between left and right does not exist in Thailand, implying that there are no class issues in Thai politics. This is a highly contradictory position, but what seems to be emerging is the fact that he is aiming for young middle-class activists, rather than trying to build a party of the left allied to the labour movement or the poor. Piyabutr has said that he wants the party to “develop the welfare system for all”, from cradle to grave. But this has been said by people like Taksin before. Piyabutr remains unclear as to whether he wants to see a Welfare State, paid for by progressive taxation of the rich.

The fact that one trade union leader, Surin Kamsuk, was present at the launch of the party, does not indicate that the Future Forward Party will be a party of the working class in any way. Thai Rak Thai also had a trade union leader within its ranks. Satarporn Maneerat, from the electricity union, even became a government minister.

Thanathorn, who is a millionaire businessman, has admitted that he played a role in a factory lock-out to crush a strike and weaken trade unions at a Thai Summit factory. This does not bode well for reforming Thailand’s repressive labour laws, inherited from previous military dictatorships, or strengthening the rights of workers.

Thanathorn, talks a lot about the new generation. But apart from his obvious opposition to the military and the old elites, the only concrete proposals he has made so far are to devolve health and education to the provinces and let each province raise their own taxes. This is a neo-liberal policy which goes against redistribution of wealth from rich regions to poorer regions and would increase the gross inequality which already exists in Thailand. In contrast to this, Taksin’s TRT and also Pua Thai were in favour of using central government funds to pay for health and education and also to raise the living standards of the rural poor. They brought in the first ever universal health care system for the country.  Yet TRT committed gross human rights abuses in its war on drugs and in Patani. So some statements by “Future Forward Party” members about Patani, if they proves to be true, would be one improvement.

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People have stated that it is a good thing that a millionaire businessman with new ideas, like Thanathorn, has entered politics on the side of the people. But we have been here before and it is nothing new. Taksin also built a party with new ideas which won the hearts and minds of the majority of rural and urban working people. Yet Taksin proposed and implemented a whole raft of pro-poor and modernisation policies after extensive meetings with grass-roots people.

Thanathorn and Piyabutr ‘s party will have to do much more if it even hopes to match this record of achievement.  It will need to reach out to workers and small farmers and build a grass roots base. But it is doubtful if they have this in mind. We shall have to see what concrete proposals they come up with in the coming months.

Without such policies their new party will merely be a right-wing liberal party of big business and the middle-classes.

Thai politics