Thai Paris Debates: Gramsci and building political consensus

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

During the recent Paris seminar on Thai politics, held on the tenth anniversary of the 19th September military coup, there were many interesting debates. I shall comment on the discussion around consensus and divisions in Thai society.

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Somsak Jeamteerasakul explained that in the 20 years up to the 2006 military coup, there was a “royalist” consensus or hegemony among the population, with little divisions in society. Yet since the 2006 coup, Thai society has been deeply divided. This, Somsak believes, is something that does not exist in Western democracies where he claims there is a democratic consensus.

This is obviously a broad view which ignores the continuous discontent among the Malay Muslims in Patani. But in my opinion what appeared as a “quiet period” with little political divisions among the Thai population was merely a shallow surface view. In every society there are divisions based on competing class interests. A brief look at Western Europe or the United States today reveals serious conflicts around the issues of austerity, defending the welfare state, labour rights, support or opposition to the European Union, the issue of war or the attitude to migrants and refugees. This has resulted in growing support for Socialists but also for the Fascists.

The supposed Thai consensus for 20 years before the 2006 coup was a result of economic growth but also the defeat of the Communist Party of Thailand and the weakening of political dissent. Even so, class struggle continued to bubble under the surface with strikes and protests by workers and small farmers.

The point to keep in mind here is that there is no real consensus in any capitalist society and periods of apparent class peace soon end in explosions of discontent. An important factor which ended the quiet period in Thailand was the 1997 economic crisis and the choices made in response to this by various political actors, especially Taksin and his Thai Rak Thai Party. [See http://bit.ly/2d9UUAu , http://bit.ly/2bSpoF2   or http://bit.ly/2cmZkAa  ]

Somsak is now trying to find a way to build political peace in Thai society by seeking a “democratic consensus” between red shirts, other pro-democracy activists, and the middle class. Remember that the middle class has a recent history of outright opposition to democracy and to associated measures which improve the economic status of workers and small farmers, which Taksin’s political parties tried to push forward.

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Somsak, who I regard as a friend, seems to view Marxists like myself as figures of fun who are hopelessly deluded, but he also tries to legitimise his views by quoting Gramsci on the issue of hegemony.

Now this reminds me of the mis-use of Gramsci by the leaders of the Spanish left-wing party Podemos. They claim to be attempting to build political hegemony in Spanish society by moving beyond the concept of “Left” and “Right”. They also wish to ignore the issue of class and class struggle.

Yet Gramsci was a Marxist, who did not in anyway, believe that you could move beyond or ignore class struggle. His ideas about hegemony were about how to counter the prevailing ideas of the ruling capitalist class with ideas which were in the interests of workers and small farmers. This was with the aim of moving towards a socialist revolution. It was not about building cross-class unity.

Instead, Somsak wants to distort the ideas of Gramsci in order to achieve a compromise and political peace between the reactionary middle-classes and the workers and small farmers in Thailand. It would be a pseudo-peace based on giving up the ideals of equality, human rights and democracy. The explanation for Somsak’s views lies with his rejection of the possibility of building mass movements from below. He regards the red shirts as mere foot soldiers of Taksin and can see no way forward in terms of social movements.

Another pro-democracy activist, Rangsiman Rome, from the student NDM, also expressed a desire to “talk to the other side” in a recent BBC interview. Again, this arises from the rejection of a need to build mass social movements. [See  http://bit.ly/2dizkuE %5D and http://bit.ly/2a0A4TK   ]

Yet there is a real potential for building a new mass movement for democracy, independent of Taksin, out of the remnants of the redshirts, from the 10 million people who voted against the military’s constitution, and from the progressive students. This needs determined political and organisational work and also the creation of a left-wing political party. If such a movement became strong in the future it could pull many elements of the fractured middle-classes to support its agenda, rather than capitulating to the current reactionary agenda of the right-wing core of the middle-classes. In the past the Thai middle-classes have been pulled in the direction of supporting democracy or dictatorship, depending on the balance of class forces. This is the same for other countries. [See http://bit.ly/2aDzest ]

The sad fact that the pro-democracy movement is currently weak means that it is highly unlikely that Thai society is “waiting to explode”, as claimed by pro-democracy academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun, who also spoke at the Paris seminar.

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Somsak and Pavin’s “top-down” view of society means that they believe in the political power of the king, which is something with which I disagree. I believe that the king is a puppet of the military. But for Somsak the king’s power comes from the fact that no one can criticise him while he does not necessarily have to give out obvious orders to the military. My answer to this is to say that God can also not be criticised in many societies, yet God, despite not existing in reality, can be used as a puppet by many ruling classes! [See http://bit.ly/2cBnidg ]

Finally, one further interesting point came out of Somsak’s talk about consensus and military coups. He pointed out that a number of military coups in the past have been directed against military governments by their rivals. In other words the military has been highly fractured. For me this is another nail in the coffin of the theory of a “Deep State” opposing Taksin. [See http://bit.ly/29H0FC9 ]

How did we reach this point in Thai politics?

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Ten years ago 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. The country is now run by an arrogant but not very bright military regime. How and why did this happen?

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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.

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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 TRT 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 Thai society which had developed rapidly over many decades but which was in conflict with an unchanged conservative “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.

Despite the fact that many believe that the centre of power among the conservative elites is the monarchy, the real centre of power, lurking behind the throne, is the military. King Pumipon is a weak and characterless monarch who spent his useless and privileged life in a bubble, surrounded by fawning, and grovelling toadies. He is, and always has been, a puppet of the military and the conservative elites. The hypothesis that the present long-running unrest in Thailand is primarily caused by a “crisis of succession”, is a top-down view which assumes that the Thai monarch has real power and that he has been constantly intervening in politics. That is just not the case. There is no absolute monarch in his final years causing a potential power vacuum. All sides have also agreed that the scandal-prone and despicable prince will be the next king. To place the Princess, who has no male partner, on the throne instead, would immediately destroy all the “reinvented tradition” about the monarchy and undermine its mythical legitimacy. What is more the Prince will be even more of a weak and potential tool of the military because he cares nothing about affairs of state. The issue of royal succession is therefore of little relevance here, despite it being fashionable for journalists and academics to use this as a standard explanation for the crisis. [see http://bit.ly/2cju72D ]

The crisis has not been caused by a conflict between the monarchy and Taksin or the supposed presence of an anti-Taksin “Deep State”, either. There is no Deep State in Thailand. In order to argue for the existence of a so-called “Deep State”, the power of the King has to be exaggerated, the involvement of mass movements ignored, and long-running fractures within the military and conservative elites have to be overlooked. Taksin Shinawat, as a member of the ruling class, commanded a great deal of influence over sections of the military and judiciary in his early days as Prime Minister because of his promise to modernise Thailand after the 1997 economic crisis. The conservatives only turned against him when they could not compete with his electoral advantage as they were either not prepared to join him, or were not prepared to offer the population the kind of policies that would improve their lives. Thailand does not have some stable, unchanging core, of conservative reactionaries embedded deep within the state. There are fluid and dynamic bonds between members of the ruling class as the various factions make or break alliances in an opportunistic manner. Some of Taksin’s faction were drawn from the left, while others came from the conservative and royalist right-wing, who took part in attacks against democracy during the Cold War. Samak Sundaravej is a good example of the latter. [see http://bit.ly/29H0FC9]

The results of the referendum on the junta’s draft constitution on the 7th August 2016 were disappointing and are a set-back for democracy. But we should not forget that this was never a democratic referendum and 10 million people voted against accepting the constitution.

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This is not a time to retreat and try to build some kind of political consensus in civil society, as suggested by exiled academic Somsak Jeamteerasakul. Such a suggestion is not only a pipe-dream, but in practice would result in “half democracy”. This idea stems from Somsak’s lack of confidence in the potential power and relevance of pro-democracy social movements.

The way forward is to build a mass social movement against the junta. The rich experience of Thai mass movements defeating the military in 1973 and 1992 and the huge potential of the Red Shirt movement should be revisited. It is time to stop playing symbolic games organised by a handful of self-appointed heroes. Such misguided views arise from a mistaken analysis that in the days of social media we do not need to build mass movements. Ridding Thailand of the influence of the military will take time and determined political organisation.

 

My full paper written for “10 years of Politico-Social Crisis in Thailand”, a seminar organised by “Free Thais for Human Rights and Democracy” at CCFD-Terre Solidaire building, Paris, France, 19/9/2016, can be viewed here: http://bit.ly/2bSpoF2  or http://bit.ly/2cmZkAa

Junta’s referendum on authoritarian constitution neither free nor fair

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The Thai junta’s so-called “referendum” on its authoritarian constitution is not a genuine democratic referendum. It is being conducted in a climate of fear, bullying and harassment. Those wishing to oppose the constitution and campaign for a “No Vote” have been constantly arrested and thrown in jail and their literature confiscated. Even neutral meetings to discuss the constitution have been banned. Independent media have been raided by soldiers. The military controlled media is giving a one-sided, pro-junta view of this appalling constitution and soldiers are being sent into communities to “explain” the “benefits” of the constitution to the public.

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The junta’s paranoia has reached such levels that two 8 year old girls who tore a voter registration list because they wanted its pink paper have been arrested.

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The police will have more difficulty arresting a group of monkeys or the temple dogs that tore up registration lists in two other locations!

Criminal monkeys
Criminal monkeys

The junta’s paranoia is understandable and says much about the Thai political situation. Military coups in Thailand today can only be justified to the public if they claim to be carried out to prevent corruption and to “reform” democracy. The present junta had to say that when they had re-written the constitution they would put it to a referendum and then allow elections. This is because most Thai citizens have a democratic political culture and no longer tolerate permanent dictatorship. Military juntas, past and present, lie that under their rule Thailand is still a “democracy”.

Even generalissimo Prayut cannot just come out and say that he wants to make military rule a permanent feature. Yet that is exactly what their draft constitution aims to do through the back door. This is something which is understood by politically conscious Thais, especially those who are part of groups or social media networks which have analysed the document. So the referendum is a necessary but risky move on the part of the military.

This wretched draft constitution should be rejected because it is drawn up by people who have contempt for democracy and contempt for most citizens. This is reflected in the ridiculous “prologue” which also justifies and white-washes all the actions of the military junta. There are a number of measures which increase the powers of military appointed bodies over elected governments and parliament. It allows for a non-member of parliament to become Prime Minister in certain circumstances and there is a special additional question in the referendum which asks if people would like the parliament and senate to vote together to appoint someone from the junta to be the Prime Minister after the first elections. Of course the senate is to be fully appointed by the junta. In addition, the formula for determining the number of members of parliament favours the Democratic Party.

The constitution is the most neo-liberal constitution ever drafted in Thailand. At a stroke it turns the clock back and virtually abolishes the universal health care scheme and the right to free secondary education. It also entrenches Theravada Buddhism at the expense of other beliefs.

If the majority of voters vote it down it will be a huge slap in the face for Prayut and his junta and they will lose all remaining legitimacy. Yet their climate of fear, bullying and lies might just deliver them a yes vote. We have to be prepared for both eventualities.

Some people may vote to accept the constitution just to be able to move towards an election, hoping that the constitution can be amended in Future. Yet they will be disappointed. The rules for amending the constitution mean that it will be impossible for a democratically elected government to change the constitution without permission from the military and its conservative allies.

There have been some activists who have advocated a boycott of the referendum. However, in the absence of a huge campaign for a boycott, this will be ineffective and hand a Yes Vote to the junta. The best tactic is to support the existing campaign for a No Vote.

If a No Vote is successful there should be mass protests to demand the ousting of the junta. But nothing is automatic and such protests need to be built. If the Yes Vote wins, we need to be clear that neither the referendum nor the constitution have any democratic legitimacy. The struggle for democracy must therefore continue.

The importance of strategy and tactics

Giles ji Ungpakorn

The mass uprising against the attempted military coup in Turkey has opened up a debate about the tactics of defeating military coups and military dictatorships in Thailand.

Chaturon Chaisang, one of the most principled Pua Thai politicians, has praised what he calls the “Turkish Model”. He and I share the belief that mass movements are needed to prevent or topple military dictatorships.

Of course, in my opinion, the mass opposition to the Turkish coup was to be celebrated. But the way that the Erdogan government has used this as an excuse to restrict democracy and human rights is expected and needs to be opposed. But this does not detract from the importance of the anti-coup mass movement. The fact of the matter is that the mass movement swung the balance of forces against the military coup in Turkey. It offers a possibility of using this force to expand the democratic space. Yet there are those who decry this and condemn the “mob”. The logic of this is to say that the mass movement was always under the control of Erdogan and it would have been better if the military coup had been successful. Those progressives who remember the legacy of military rule in Turkey would quite rightly disagree.

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There is a clear parallel with the situation in Thailand. There were those who decried the Red Shirt movement as being “merely” pawns of Taksin Shinawat, rather than celebrating the existence of a mass pro-democracy movement. Many among the Thai middle classes thought that a military dictatorship was better than a democratically elected Taksin government. The Taksin government was similar to the Erdogan government in Turkey because it was a pro big-business government which offered a better life for working people and the poor. Both governments abused human rights, but the alternative of military rule was worse. Both governments were opposed by entrenched conservative elites among the military, judiciary and civil service. The Turkish elites were anti-religious “Kemalists” while the Thai elites were royalists. Both used their ideologies to oppress those who disagreed.

When the need to find ways of rebuilding pro-democracy mass movements is raised in Thailand, especially after the events in Turkey, there have been three negative responses.

Firstly, there are those who say that the events in Turkey are different from Thailand because in Thailand the king is the power behind the military and the king is so powerful that he cannot be opposed. This is a big lie and a big excuse for doing nothing. The view that the king is all powerful is a wonderful excuse used by people who want to chatter and gossip about the royals but do nothing. In actual fact the king has always been a weakling, dependent on the military. Today he is totally incapacitated by old age. The real anti-democratic power lies with the military, not unlike in Turkey.

Secondly, there are those who claim that it is not possible to oppose the military in Thailand because they shoot down pro-democracy activists. Yes, they do, and so did the Turkish coup plotters. So did the Thai military in 1973, 1976, 1992 and 2010. Yet the mass movement beat the Turkish military in 2016 and the Thai military in 1973 and 1992. The real question is how to build an affective mass movement and how it relates to the power of working people. The other side are always prepared to use violence. But violence can be overcome by mass movements.

Thirdly, there are those who want to silence debate about strategy and tactics. Some claim that this is necessary in order to build “unity”. Unity built on stifling debate is a false unity which disrespects debate and wants to close its eyes to all discussions about seeking the best way of overthrowing dictatorships. Others are offended by criticisms of “holy sacrifices” made by sincere but misguided young students in the NDM who turn their backs on building mass movements. They are offended by criticism of symbolic and elitist gestures by a handful of people. These actions are elitist because ordinary people cannot afford to go to jail repeatedly to make a point. But Thais have shown repeatedly, that if conditions are right, and there is good organisation, they are prepared to join huge mass movements for democracy and face down the military.

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The red shirts were the biggest pro-democracy mass movement in Thailand’s history. The tragedy was that they were demobilised by the UDD leadership along with Taksin. The answer is not to celebrate powerless symbolic gestures by a few dedicated people who rely on the internet, but to rebuild a mass movement with independent leadership based among grass roots activists in the working class and poorer sections of society. A further discussion about this is sorely needed.

Two countries two methods

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Both Thailand and Turkey have experiences of long periods of brutal military rule. In both countries the conservative elites have opposed democratically elected governments that have enjoyed the support of the poor. The judiciaries of both countries have tried to subvert the election process. In Turkey the Western-leaning middle-classes have usually allied themselves with the military, supporting “Kemalism” which is used in an attempt to suppress those who dare to criticise the old order. In Thailand the royalist middle-classes have allied themselves with the military, supporting the oppressive lèse majesté law, used against dissidents. In both countries the democratically elected governments had support from the poorer sections of society. But these government were not bastions of freedom and democracy and were prepared to use violence to oppress sections of society outside the mainstream. In Turkey the elected government oppressed the Kurds, dissident youth, journalists and the left. In Thailand the elected government oppressed the Muslim Malays in the south and waged an extra-judicial campaign of murder against drug users and small time drug dealers.

Supporters of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, protest in Istanbul's Taksim square, early Saturday, July 16, 2016. President Erdogan told the nation Saturday that his government was working to crush a coup attempt after a night of explosions, air battles and gunfire across the capital. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)
Supporters of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, protest in Istanbul’s Taksim square, early Saturday, July 16, 2016. President Erdogan told the nation Saturday that his government was working to crush a coup attempt after a night of explosions, air battles and gunfire across the capital. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

But one thing that stands out in stark relief today is the manner in which mass action by ordinary people in Turkey prevented the military coup on the night of the 15th July 2016. This should be compared to the almost laughable symbolic gestures of the New Democracy Movement in Thailand. (see picture below)

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However, the actions of the New Democracy Movement are not really laughable for two reasons. Firstly it is a tragedy that they sincerely believe that by making the news or by staging personal sacrifices, they can bring down the dictatorship. This is a kind of Ghandi-style or Aung San Suu Kyi style protest where the potential power of mass movements is reduced to the actions of a single handful of “heroes” or “heroines”. Look what is happening in Burma today where the military are still in power, fronted by a Suu Kyi government.

Secondly, it is not laughable because by ignoring the power of mass movements and by refusing to build such movements, the Thai military junta and its influence over society will never be fully destroyed.

Naturally there are always differences of detail in different eras and different countries. In Turkey Erdogan called for people to come out on the streets to oppose the military. In Thailand Taksin and the Red Shirt leaders have always called for calm in an attempt to demobilise the movement. In Turkey the military was split, but these splits can be built upon and magnified by mass protest movements. In Thailand the Red Shirt leaders called on people to place their faith in Taksin or pro-Taksin “water melon “military men or police. Such faith was misplaced.

In Turkey, my comrades in the Revolutionary Socialist Workers Party (DSİP) quite rightly called for mass opposition on the streets to the coup, but also made it clear that people should not have any illusions in Erdogan or the AKP. The struggle for democracy against the AKP must continue.

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In Thailand the experience of the mis-led Red Shirt movement and the autonomist or atomist ideas of the young students has meant that opposition to the junta is confined to weak symbolic gestures. The rich experience of Thai mass movements defeating the military in 1973 and 1992 and the huge potential of the Red Shirt movement have been laid to one side.

Yet the important strand of truth that we can get from events in Turkey and Thailand is that only mass movements can defend and extend democracy.

No such thing as the “Deep State” in Thailand

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The theory of the “Deep State” often wrongly presupposes that there is such a thing as a “regular state” which is visible, accountable and serves the people. The Deep State is supposed to be a unique set up in some countries appearing as “a state within a state” which is unaccountable to democratically elected governments. This flies in the face of reality.

For a start, states in the modern world today exist in order to facilitate the dominance of the capitalist ruling class over the majority of the population who are working people. This can be seen in many ways. For example, the state enshrines the so-called “right to manage and own” whole sections of the economy by business leaders. There is no requirement for them to be elected by the population or the workforce. Investment decisions affecting millions of people are never subjected to democratic control. The so-called “hidden hand” of the free-market attempts to claim that this is the “natural order”. The views of business leaders are given much more importance than the views of ordinary citizens. The media is mainly controlled by big business. Police and the military are used to break up strikes by trade unionists who try to redress the balance of power. These armed bodies of men are never used to arrest CEOs for closing factories, sacking staff, cutting their wages or moving investments out of communities.

In most Western countries which claim to be democracies, the secret services, top civil servants, judges and military commanders are not subjected to democratic election and are mostly a law unto themselves. In the past, the policies of elected governments, such as Labour governments in Britain, have been frustrated by these sections of the state, working with big business. It is a myth that controlling parliament means controlling the state.

The use of the term “Deep State” might be useful when talking about core remnants of the security apparatus which originated from a repressive authoritarian time and still exist under parliamentary democracy. The term has been applied to Turkey and some Latin American countries. However it is extremely questionable whether it is a useful term in Thailand. Yet, Eugénie Mérieau, in a recent article in the Journal of Contemporary Asia, and also at a seminar at the London School of Oriental and African Studies, has attempted to use this concept in analysing the Thai political crisis.

[See http://bit.ly/25RMW44 ]

In order to argue for the existence of a so-called “Deep State” in Thailand, the author has had to exaggerate the power of the king, overlook the long-running fractures within the military, ignore the fact that the Thai judiciary have never been strong nor independent of those in power and write mass movements out of Thai history. Her theory is yet another one-sided top-down view of Thai society, much favoured in the past by right-wing academics.

The author seems to imply that the so-called Deep State always opposed Taksin. Yet, she has to ignore the fact that Taksin Shinawat, as a member of the ruling class, commanded a great deal of influence over sections of the military and judiciary in his early days as Prime Minister. He was very popular among nearly all sections of the ruling elite because of his promise to modernise Thailand after the 1996 economic crisis. The king even praised his brutal extra-judicial killings in the War on Drugs. The conservatives only turned against him when they could not compete with his electoral advantage because they were either not prepared to join him, or were not prepared to offer the population the kind of policies that would improve their lives. The conservatives are extreme free-market neo-liberals.

It is not some Deep State that is fearful of the loss of privileges, as claimed by the author. Taksin never threatened privilege nor wealth. He was no socialist. But he did threatened their share of political power by his overwhelming electoral base. Instead, it is the whistle-blowing crazed middle-classes who saw the rural electorate as a threat to their privileges. Yet the middle-class do not appear in this paper.

Thailand does not have some stable, unchanging core, of conservative reactionaries embedded deep within the state. There are fluid and dynamic bonds between members of the ruling class as the various factions make or break alliances in an opportunistic manner. Some of Taksin’s faction were drawn from the left, others came from the conservative and royalist right-wing who took part in attacks against democracy during the Cold War.

Mérieau argues that the Deep State is trying to use the judiciary as a surrogate king as Pumipon nears his last years. She implies that the “power” of the king is being transferred to the judiciary. Yet, Pumipon has never been powerful. He is, and always has been, a tool of the elites, especially the military, who turned him into a semi-god for their own purposes. The king symbolises the conservative ideology which gives legitimacy to the authoritarian actions of the military and their allies. It is a double act of military “power” and royal “ideological legitimacy”. In this double act the weak-willed King has no real power, but he is a willing participant. Taksin also used the king during the time that he was Prime Minister. His Government took part in the hysterical promotion of the King around the 60th anniversary of his reign and started the “Yellow Shirt Mania”, where everyone was pressurised into wearing royal yellow shirts every Monday. Both the Taksin and Yingluk governments were keen to use the lèse-majesté law. All evidence points to the fact that Taksin is a royalist.

If the oath of allegiance of judges to the Thai king is evidence that the king controls the judiciary, as claimed by Mérieau, then Britain must be ruled by an absolute monarchy! We need to understand the ideological and ceremonial roles of monarchies in the modern world.

It is also rather too simplistic for many people to make glib conclusions that middle class demonstrators who hold up pictures of the king or military officers who wrap yellow ribbons around their troops are acting “on behalf” of the king or that they are under his command.

The only difference between Taksin and his supporters and the yellow shirts and the military is that Taksin’s side could use economic and political policies to legitimise their role alongside royalism. The yellow shirts and the military could only use royalism.

Mérieau’s Deep State theory about Thailand is just another way to express the opinion that the king has been an all-powerful figure at the centre of the state. The dominant academic view which sees the king as all powerful, includes Paul Handley, Duncan McCargo, Same Sky (Fa Deaw Kan) Press, Kevin Hewison, Michael Connors and Niti Eawsriwong. There is a suggestion by these academics that Pumipon organised the 2006 coup and had been manipulating politics since the 1970s. Many of these intellectuals rely, consciously or unconsciously, on the old Maoist analysis, from the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT), that under-developed countries like Thailand had yet to complete their bourgeois revolutions and were therefore “semi-feudal”. This analysis sees the major confrontation among the elites as being between the old semi-feudal order and the new rising capitalists. It is a mechanical and banal application of the 1789 French Revolution to Thailand in the 21st century.

This school of thought ignores the fact that the ruling class networks which support the monarchy also include the major bankers and industrialists, including Taksin. They also ignore the capitalist nature of the king’s vast investments. They therefore believe the Yellow Shirt accusation that Taksin and TRT are crypto-republicans. This is the logic of Duncan McCargo’s network conflict and the logic of those who believe in the 2006 “Royal Coup”.

[See http://bit.ly/1UjXEaX   p107 onwards]

The Thai judiciary, civil service and bureaucracy have always been weak and under the control of whoever was in power at the time. Those with power or influence can always intervene in the bureaucracy and subvert the rules in order to obtain what they want. This is the reason for a total lack of any standards of justice and also the reason for rampant corruption among the entire bureaucracy. The mountains of paper work associated with the Thai bureaucracy only prove that all the individual petty bureaucrats are fearful of making any decisions themselves and hide behind red tape, passing decision making responsibilities up the ladder.

The military have always been divided by factionalism. This has often limited its power, although the military are the only force that was able to topple elected governments in recent years. Some military leaders accept democratic elections and others are more authoritarian. Some military leaders were against the monarchy in the 1950s, and others have shown leanings towards left-wing politics. Prayut’s faction is the extreme right-wing of the military today. This is not a unified part of a so-called Deep State. What affects the power of the military more than anything is the strength of social movements. Thailand’s political history since the early 1970s is a history of struggle from below against the power of the ruling class. Periods of democracy were the result of the strength of pro-democracy movements. Ironically, the present period of dictatorship has also been determined and influenced by the social movements. Firstly, because many social movement activist called for military intervention, but also because the conservative elites are still mindful of the democratic current within society. The democratic current means that the present junta need to write a constitution that fixes elections rather than just returning to the days of the dictator Sarit. Eugénie Mérieau acknowledges that this democratic spirit means that judiciary intervention is a preferable choice for the conservative elites to direct intervention by the military or even the king. But the key role of mass movements is totally ignored. For Mérieau it is almost as though the elites granted democracy to the plebs as some kind of experiment.

The concept of a Thai Deep State may appear to be an exciting, sexy, new fad in the rarefied world of academia, but it does not help us understand the Thai political crisis.

Further reading:  http://bit.ly/1WKss8d, http://bit.ly/1HFxyLM,  http://bit.ly/1Uu6oZz , http://bit.ly/1TdKKYs

 

Prison conditions in Thailand are a crime against humanity

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

In mid-June 2016 Somyot Preuksakasemsuk wrote a letter exposing the shocking deterioration of conditions for prisoners in Thai jails.

Since March 2016 the Department of Prisons has issued a number of new regulations that have reduced the standards of life and well-being for prisoners. This amounts to a gross abuse of human rights.

Firstly, the prison authorities have removed all mattresses, pillows and blankets from prisoners and destroyed them. The excuse for this act of barbarism was that the authorities were searching for drugs. These items of bedding and blankets were originally sold to the prisoners by the prison. The new regulations state that prisoners will now only be allowed 3 extremely poor quality blankets given to them by the authorities. Such actions are having a negative impact on the psychological and physical well-being of prisoners, many of whom are in poor health or are elderly. Often at night, Thai prisoners are chained together in small rooms.

A couple of years ago Surachai Darnwatanatrakun, another activist who was also jailed for lèse majesté, described the disgusting conditions in Pataya jail. The prison was built for 600 inmates but was housing 3600 people. There was not enough space on the floor to sleep, so some had to sleep on cardboard covers over the toilets. Even then, 5-10 prisoners had to take turns to stand and sit during the night. Surachai was kept in a room 5X10 metres with 60 inmates at night. They had to build shelves to sleep on. Water was cut off except for 2-3 hours from 10 am to noon. No toilet paper was supplied and many prisoners had skin diseases. Fortunately, Surachai has been released, but Somyot is still in jail because he refuses to plead guilty and ask for “forgiveness”.

Thailand has the 17th highest proportion of citizens in prison in the world, with 340 prisoners per 100,000 people. This compares to 64 for Norway and 94 for France.

Secondly, Somyot reported that the prison authorities have now imposed further restrictions on access to news and reading material. Newspapers are now banned and prisoners can no longer buy books or magazines. Relatives of prisoners are only allowed to bring a total of 3 books or magazines per month from a tightly restricted list of “approved” reading material. This gross abuse of prisoners is designed to keep them totally in the dark about events in the outside world and is especially cruel to long-term prisoners. Such actions mean that prisoners are totally unprepared for life outside when they are finally released.

Finally there are new restrictions on the amount and frequency with which prisoners’ relatives can deposit money in prisoners’ accounts. Since Prayut’s military coup two years ago the number of people allowed to visit each prisoner has also been severely reduced.

Somyot is a Thai political activist and magazine editor who in 2013 was sentenced to eleven years’ imprisonment for lèse majesté over articles that he did not write. He was arrested on 30th April 2011 and has been in jail ever since. What is remarkable about Somyot is that he has continued to be an active advocate for justice even while in prison. Twenty years ago he was a trade union organiser who successfully organised a number of textile factories north of Bangkok.

As with most countries, Thai prisons are full of poor people, mainly on charges related to theft and drugs. There is not enough discussion in Thai society about the role of prisons and the human rights of prisoners. Naturally, the Thai ruling class does not even regard ordinary people as “citizens with rights”. They are made to grovel to the rich and powerful and prisoners are treated even worse.

Punishment in the Thai judicial system is totally out of proportion. People get just a few years in prison for murder or violence, while lèse majesté prisoners are sentenced to anything between 20 to 40 years. Those at the top of society who commit mass murder of demonstrators enjoy impunity.

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Defendants in trials are shackled and forced to wear inhuman prison uniforms. This means that they are abused before the outcome of the trial and have to attend court looking like “criminals”. This results in miscarriages of justice. In lèse majesté trials you can be found guilty even if what you said and wrote was factually true. Many political trials under the present junta are held in military courts. There has been a crack-down on those trying to campaign against the junta’s new constitution in the upcoming so-called referendum.

Young democracy activists, shackled and barefooted, being led to a military court
Young democracy activists, shackled and barefooted, being led to a military court

When a country like Thailand is ruled by a bunch of military gangsters who destroy freedom and democracy, those at the bottom of society are not even treated as human beings.

Watch this video:

Read also: http://bit.ly/28VRjzE

Thai politics