Thailand’s abortion law needs to be changed

Numnual Yapparat & Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The participation of women in Thai society is reasonably high compared to some other Asian countries. Women have always been part of the workforce in rural and urban areas. Many women can be found in leadership positions in trade unions, social movements and NGOs. Women are also highly active in the modern labour force and in small and medium sized businesses. However, as with most countries throughout the world, despite the constitution stipulating equal gender rights, Thai women are still second-class citizens, subjected to a sexist ideology, subjected to domestic violence and expected to take a dominant role in caring for family members.

The second class status of women is reflected in language. Women are expected to refer to themselves as “Nu”, a term also used by children. It means “little mouse”. In fact the Thai language is extremely hierarchical with different terms used for people depending on their status in the pecking order of society.

The fact that Yingluk Shinawat became Thailand’s first woman Prime Minister was full of contradictions. On the one hand she enjoyed mass popular support from a population who did not think that a woman could not be in such a leadership position. But she was also the sister of Taksin Shinawat and therefore part of his family. There are many such parallels in other Asian countries.

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. These women’s groups also joined the anti-democracy movement in the past.

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. 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 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. 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 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.

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How radical will the new “radical party” really be?

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The announcement of the creation of a new “radical party” of younger activists has caused a stir and raised the hopes of many among the current generation of democracy activists. The party is the brain child of billionaire tycoon Thanathorn Juangroongruangki and law academic Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, who is a member of the pro-democracy Nitirat group. [See http://bit.ly/2CXa3NP ].

In a recent Facebook post, Piyabutr Saengkanokkul indicated that the party would model itself on the new left parties in Europe and would be opposed to neo-liberalism. He mentioned Syriza, Podemos,   La France Insoumise and the Italian Five Star Movement.

The problem is that Syriza, which was elected on an anti-austerity programme, is now implementing vicious neo-liberal cuts to the living standards of Greek workers and pensioners. The question is how the new Thai party will resist the junta’s laws which entrench neo-liberal economic policy in the Constitution and the National Strategy. Will it be able to resist the mainstream consensus in favour of “fiscal discipline” which was previously used against Taksin’s use of state funds to improve the lives of the poor? Will the new party propose a Welfare State funded by progressive taxation of the rich and the large corporations? How would such a policy conflict with the interests of billionaire tycoon Thanathorn Juangroongruangki who is deputy chairman of Thai Summit Corporation? Summit is a leading auto parts manufacturer of automotive, motorcycle, electrical appliance, and agricultural machinery. It also has media holdings.

Thanathorn has stated in public that he had a role in a factory lock-out in order to stop a strike over bonus payments. All employees were sacked and when the factory reopened, only those who agreed to the company’s conditions were allowed back.

Parties like Syriza and La France Insoumise have made serious attempts to link up with the organised labour movement. Will Thailand’s new “radical party” also reach out to the Thai trade union movement? Will it propose scrapping restrictions on trade union rights, raising the minimum wage to coincide with the demands of the unions and reduce working hours? How does this fit with the behaviour of Thai Summit Corporation? The company has a history of opposing effective trade unions.

What is worrying is that in the past Piyabutr has said that class “is not an issue in Thailand”. Is this a way of ignoring the working class in order to build an alliance with a billionaire tycoon? [See http://bit.ly/2Fcp9Fm ].

In the past all mainstream political parties have been run or funded by rich businessmen. Thailand desperately needs a new radical party of the working class and poor farmers. That would truly be something “new”.

In terms of Podemos, the internal democracy of this party can be seriously questioned as ordinary members are not really empowered to determine policy and the leadership is in the hands of charismatic national leaders who appear in the media. When Piyabutr talks of “new” devolved structures of his party, relying on social media, will this denial of a centralised leadership lead in practice to unaccountable leadership by charismatic national leaders who appear in the media such as Thanathorn and Piyabutr?

Podemos has also played a shameful role in defending the Spanish State against the Catalonian independence movement. What position will Thailand’s new “radical party” take in terms of self-determination for Patani?

As far as Italy’s Five Star Movement is concerned, it doesn’t seem to have many real policies. Its main claim is to be “new” and different from mainstream politicians. Yet one of its policies, concerning asylum seekers and immigration, is highly reactionary. What position will Thailand’s new “radical party” take on Rohingya asylum seekers and the terrible treatment on non-Thai citizens and workers within the country?

In the past, just after the 14th October 1973 uprising against the military, Thailand had a so-called left-leaning “new” party of youth. It was called “New Force”. It had no concrete policies except claiming to be “new”. This was in direct contrast to the Communist Party. New Force disappeared into thin air in a few years.

Any new radical party in Thailand needs to have a policy of scrapping the lèse-majesté law, the immediate freeing all political prisoners, massive public investment in renewable energy and clean public transport and, last but not least, policies which promote gender rights, especially the right of women to choose safe abortions on demand, funded by the public health system.

In the immediate future, it is unlikely that the new “radical party” could win enough seats to form a government and it is a good thing that Piyabutr is aware of this, saying that the party would not just give up after the first election. The question is whether the party will merely concentrate on winning elections or whether it will help build mass movements of people who wish to push forward progressive demands.

One Law for the rich, another for the poor

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Recently Premchai Gunasoot, president of the Italian-Thai Development PLC (ITD) construction company, was arrested in the Tungyai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary, in the west of Thailand, near the Burmese border. He was in possession of skinned carcasses of protected wild animals, including a black Indochinese leopard, a Kalij pheasant, and a common muntjac, also known as a barking deer, as well as three rifles and ammunition. The area was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1972 and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1991.

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Apparently the Wildlife Sanctuary officials gave Premchai and his friends VIP treatment for help with their visit, but it is not thought that the Wildlife staff knew that it was in fact an illegal hunting party. A sanctuary patrol came upon their camp and arrested them. Premchai was given bail and not detained. There are questions about whether he might skip the country.

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Illegal hunting by rich and powerful elites is commonplace, often involving police and military officers. The collection of grizzly trophies from these illegal hunts is much prized by them and they usually get away with it in much the same way that the elites get away with corruption and the cold-blooded murder of pro-democracy demonstrators.

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Many people are now pointing to a poaching scandal involving high ranking police and military officers in the same sanctuary in 1973, which came to light after a helicopter crash. The military junta at the time refused to admit any wrong-doing by anyone. However the incident was one important factor in the rising tide of anger against the military dictatorship, which resulted in half a million people on the streets 6 months later and the overthrow of the regime.

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People are also comparing the treatment of rich and powerful poachers with impoverished villagers who are arrested for foraging for food plants in forest reserves. In 2014 two middle-aged villagers from the north-east were jailed for 17 months for merely collecting wild edible mushrooms in a protected forest. After being released from jail they were left with debts from legal fees with no prospects of earning a decent living.

While not condoning the plundering of forest reserves, it is worth pointing out that the collection of fungal fruiting bodies does not actually kill the plant, which remains buried under the ground or embedded inside rotting wood. It can produce more fruiting bodies at a later date. Foraging can even help preserve plants if villagers try to preserve their food source in a sustainable manner. Activists have long called for the local management of forest reserves by collectives of responsible villagers. There is also a history of the state declaring forest reserves on land which has been occupied for generations by forest dwelling villagers.

Efficient nature conservation in Thailand depends on reining in the arrogant power of the elites and big business, democratising society, and putting in place a system of collective management of natural resources by locals.

How not to struggle for democracy in Thailand

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

In response to the junta crack-down on pro-democracy activists who were protesting against the junta’s postponement of elections, one of the female leaders declared in public that she would willingly go to jail if summonses and charges against other people who attended the same protest were dropped.

Despite this being a brave personal sacrifice, the tactic is highly problematic because she rejects the role of ordinary people and mass movements in the struggle for democracy, seeking instead to build herself into the sole embodiment of the fight against the dictatorship.

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Not only will this not change the minds of the junta leaders who are hell-bent on using repression against anyone who takes part in anti-junta protests, but it is a reflection of the kind of individualistic politics prevalent among some young activists. In practice it could lead to the demobilisation of any further protests, rather than trying to draw more and more people into a pro-democracy mass movement.

In Burma, this was the same kind of tactic used by Aung San Suu Kyi during the great 8-8-88 uprising, when she addressed the crowds and urged them to return home and put their trust in her leadership and the sincerity of the military. After the mass movement was demobilised, the military made sure that the democratic space remained closed off for decades. When they eventually allowed “Guided Democracy” style elections, Suu Kyi had not only become a semi-dictator in her own party, but she totally compromised with the military. She sank so low that she was complicit in the violence against the Rohingya people. This is what happens when leaders are no longer accountable to a mass movement. They make decisions on behalf of millions and can become egotistical.

Another problematic tactic proposed by a pro-democracy academic is to build a political party like Spain’s Podemos. Dr. Piyabutr Saengkanokkul has suggested that Podemos could be a model for a new political party in Thailand “because it goes beyond the left-right divide which, unlike Europe, does not exist in Thailand.” He also claims that a Podemos-like party could heal the rift between the reds and yellows and would be a “new-style” party.

It is unfortunate that Piyabutr’s analysis is so shallow and out of date. It is simply not true that there is no left-right division in Thailand. The divisions between left-wing and the right-wing politics throughout the world, and over the last 200 years, reflects class and differing class interests in capitalist society. Workers and small farmers in Thailand have and still have profound differences in their class interests with the middle-classes and the business and military elites. What is more, the Red-Yellow conflict reflects this class antagonism with the yellows opposed to using state funds to decrease inequalities of wealth or build a universal health care system.  The Yellows are also in favour of limiting the democratic participation by poorer citizens. Pipe-dreams about uniting Reds and Yellows are neither realistic nor desirable and could only result in a limited form of democracy. [See http://bit.ly/2nAiXvZ ]

The last thing Thailand needs right now is a new political party which does not side with workers or poor farmers, but seeks a populist-type fudge between Left and Right. Since the collapse of the Communist Party, there has been an urgent need for workers and peasants to be represented by a political party. Ironically, Taksin’s Thai Rak Thai was actually a populist party run by big business leaders, seeking to bridge the class divide between rich and poor!

In terms of a “new-style” political party, Podemos has become a top-down party, run by Pablo Iglesias, with little internal democracy. One commentator from Ireland wrote that: “a politics that is neither left nor right is almost always linked to a desire for charismatic leaders. Once charismatic leaders are in place, they must develop an extremely hierarchical and centralised organisation. [See http://bit.ly/2sc9VtP ]

Any party that hopes to be a key part of the struggle for democracy in Thailand needs to prioritise building mass movements over standing candidates in the next election, where the rules set by the juntas are going to restrict the functioning of radical or progressive parties. Unfortunately Podemos has become a party which prioritises elections over principles. It is hardly a good example for Thailand.

For more on Podemos, see http://bit.ly/2nINgj3   and  http://bit.ly/2nJb6vm .

 

Verbal Solidarity Is Not Enough

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

As many young activists who have come out against the military dictatorship now face imprisonment or even lèse-majesté charges, it is worth building an understanding of the potential power of social movements and the importance of politics in leading the struggles of these movements. If we do not do this, the activists will languish in jail and Thai society will not be freed from the influence of the military.

It is not enough to praise these young activists and wish them well, as many have quite rightly done. If we remain as mere spectators, viewing some symbolic defiance of the junta by the students or NGO activists, the dictatorship can never be overthrown. It is not merely about pushing the junta to call elections or demanding civil rights in an abstract manner. The whole authoritarian structure of Thai politics, which the military dictatorships have been building needs to be dismantled. This means we must pay attention to “power” and political leadership.

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The latest protest at the Democracy Monument yesterday was a good start, but much more needs to be done to build an organised movement. Rungsima Rome, one of the leaders, was right when he said yesterday that just observing the protest via the internet is not enough. People need to come out and join the protests.

But merely making a call for action does not automatically result in a mass uprising against the military either. Hard work on the ground is necessary in building strong social movements. It may seem too easy for someone in exile like me to state this, but it nevertheless remains true.

We need to learn from the lessons of the 14th October 1973 uprising against the dictatorship, when half a million students and working people came out on to the streets of Bangkok and faced down tanks and guns and beat the military. That uprising was sparked by the arrests of pro-democracy activists. Of course we can all hope that this happens again. But there are some crucial differences between the situation in 1973 and 2018.

One of the most important lessons from the 14th October 1973 uprising was that it did not just arise out of thin air. Students and workers in those days had mass organisations and the anger at the military repression fed into those mass organisations and resulted in half a million people being pulled on to the streets. Added to this was the political influence of the Communist Party in building a clear and unified critique of society, even though the party played little role in organising the uprising itself and made serious mistakes 3 years later.

What we urgently need is mass organisation. The Red Shirts were a mass movement, but the Taksin allied UDD leadership has placed the Red Shirt Movement in cold storage. This has destroyed the movement.

It is up to all of us to step up to the challenge and rebuild a democracy movement which is independent of politicians like Taksin.

The absence of a Left political party has also created difficulties. If we look around Thai society we see that the so-called NGO-led “Peoples Movement” is blinded by its post-communist adherence to single-issues. Many even supported the junta in the past. The 14th October 1973 uprising linked discontent with social and economic issues in with the struggle against the military. That was why it was so powerful.

The military junta is busy designing an authoritarian political system similar to that which we see in Burma. This aims to extend the dark shadow of the military into the future, even if elections are eventually held.

Today the challenge for us all, but also for the active students and NGOs, is whether we can all help to rebuild a mass movement for democracy which weaves together all the pressing issues of society and is linked to a newly organised political party built from below.

For more on Thai Social Movements, see this paper from 2015: http://bit.ly/2aDzest

Have the deep divisions between Reds and Yellows in Thailand been healed?

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

When Generalissimo Prayut staged his military coup to overthrow the elected Yingluk government, he claimed that it was in order to bring about reconciliation in a country deeply divided between Reds and Yellows. He also claimed that the junta would push through political reform and end corruption. No thinking person ever believed him and, today, what seems to be the main achievement of the junta is the self-enrichment of its members.

“Reform” is a much abused word and is mainly used for what should rightly be called “anti-reforms”. This is true of Thailand, but also of the neo-liberals in the West who want to destroy trade union rights and the welfare state.

I have discussed the crafting of a system of military “Guided Democracy” by the junta in number of articles on this site, so I will address the question of whether the junta has healed the deep divisions between Reds and Yellows in society. [See: http://bit.ly/2hDTT6S ]

The fact that a number of former Yellows are now critical of Prayut’s junta might indicate that a Red-Yellow reconciliation might be possible. The exiled academic Somsak Jeeamteerasakul certainly feels that this is something worth serious consideration.

However, I have always argued that it is not possible or desirable to have unity between those who believe in freedom and democracy and those who believe that democracy has to be limited because the “wrong” people get elected by an “ignorant” electorate.

This is still the case despite the fact that not all Reds are totally committed to freedom and democracy in the strict sense of the word. Some hold narrow-minded views about Patani and GLBT people. Some supported the so-called War on Drugs. The reason why Reds can be regarded as generally pro-democratic is because they have maintained a position against military coups and unelected political bodies, while the Yellows have supported “any means necessary” to overthrow Taksin’s governments, even if it means supporting military coups. What is more, pro-democracy activists who have dared to challenge the military in recent times have generally sided with, or been sympathetic to, the Reds.

I have deliberately used a colour short hand to describe the two sides in Thailand’s political crisis. I have not used the term “Red Shirts” as this movement no longer exists, having been destroyed through deliberate neglect by Taksin and his allies. The Yellow Shirts also morphed into the multi-coloured shirts (“Salim”) and then into Sutep’s street thugs.

It is very unlikely that the mistrust and hatred of those who participated in the destruction of democracy can so easily be forgotten by the Reds and why should it be? This destruction of democracy continues with the junta’s plans for Guided Democracy. In practice it means that the kind of government favoured in the past by the majority of the population will be ruled out by the military’s constitution and its electoral rules. In the past his kind of government had many flaws but it was also forward looking, pro-modern and serious about some degree of poverty reduction. This means that if nothing changes in the near future, Thai citizens will be saddled with a neoliberal government which treats people, especially poor people, in a patronising manner while improving the lives of the rich.

Yet at the same time, what the junta, together with Taksin’s allies, have achieved is a demoralisation of hundreds of former pro-democracy activists. This has been achieved by both repression by the junta and neglect from Taksin’s people.

So an explosion of opposition to the military is not on the immediate horizon, although we must always be aware that in the right circumstances, things can change very quickly, especially if there is a new generation of activists who are determined to fight.

Have the NGOs learnt anything from the past?

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Towards the end of this month, an NGO network called “People Go Network” organised a seminar followed by a long distance march to the north-eastern town of Kon Kaen. The aim of the long march was to publicise the issues of human rights, welfare and political participation to local “villagers”.

Predictably the reaction of the military junta was to use security forces to block the march because it was a gathering of more than 5 people, contrary to the orders of the junta. The marchers then got round this by walking in groups of 5 people along the road. The supply vans servicing the march were temporarily impounded by the police as a form of harassment.  The police then issued warrants for the arrest of the leading organisers.

Naturally, all those committed to freedom and democracy should unconditionally condemn the actions of the junta and its security forces, even though many of the groups and individuals who are involved have a history of welcoming military coups and supporting the overthrow of democratically elected governments. It would be sectarian to not show them unconditional solidarity.

AIDS activist Nimit Tienudom, one of the present leaders of People Go Network, once claimed at a royalist Yellow Shirt rally on 23rd March 2006, that most Taksin supporters “did not know the truth” about his Government, implying that the millions of ordinary people who voted for Taksin were stupid. He later made an unsuccessful bid to become a military appointed senator after the September 2006 coup. In 2009 he denounced the Red Shirt pro-democracy protests on 13th April when soldiers used live ammunition against the protestors. The actions of Nimit are not an isolated example, they represent the views of many NGO leaders at the time.

It is to be hoped that these NGO activists have learnt their lesson about welcoming the military intervention in politics and regret their previous political positions, but none have said so in public.

I must stress that it is a positive thing that the People Go Network is challenging Prayut’s dictatorship. However, there are serious questions about the politics and tactics of these NGO activists even today, and it is the politics of NGOs which mislead them into joining the monarchist, yellow-shirt, anti-democratic camp in the first place.

Firstly, they talk about publicising issues to “villagers”. Yet, who are these “villagers”? Are they the people who voted on mass for Taksin’s parties at election time? The NGOs painted a false picture of these citizens as being ignorant and selling their votes. They also condemned the Taksin government for so-called “populism” when it brought out policies to raise the standard of living in rural areas and provide universal health care. Are these villagers capable of self-organisation without a helping hand from NGOs?

It is also worth questioning why the NGOs talk about “villagers” when they are marching through highly industrialised areas full of unionised workers. No attempt has been made to reach out to these workers. No attempts have been made to include pro-democracy activists such as redshirts or student activists either. This smacks of blinkered NGO ideology and sectarianism. This behaviour, and the organising of a long march over a number of days, excludes the participation by ordinary working people. It is not a strategy for building a much-needed mass, pro-democracy, social movement.

Any serious discussion of welfare or of a welfare state cannot take place without a clear position against the free-market and neo-liberalism. Yet the NGOs are not interested in political theory or general “big picture” politics. Some even support the free-market. See http://bit.ly/2sLhk21 and http://bit.ly/1UpZbhh

Secondly, the NGOs are being coy about directly opposing the military dictatorship and its plans for Guided Democracy. When they mention human rights they do not mention the lèse-majesté law. The NGOs have not displayed any solidarity with lèse-majesté prisoners or pro-democracy activists who are constantly hounded by the military, unless they are part of the NGO network.  They also have a history of lobbying the military and wanting to collaborate with the junta on so-called “reforms”, as though the junta were a legitimate government.

On the issue of lèse-majesté, it appears that there are two classes of those accused of breaking this law. Sulak Sivaraksa was recently acquitted of his lèse-majesté charge for questioning the role of an ancient king of Ayuttaya. The charges were ridiculous in the first place. However, Sulak, a self-confessed royalist, has since boasted that he wrote a begging letter to the odious king Wachiralongkorn. According to Sulak, Wachiralongkorn “graciously” asked the courts to acquit him. No such “graciousness” has be granted to other lèse-majesté prisoners like the student activist Pai Doa-Din, who is in jail for sharing a BBC article on the life of this wretched king.

Lèse-majesté is an attack on the fundamental right to freedom of expression and democracy. It should not be up to the likes of Wachiralongkorn to “graciously” grant mercy. The monarchy and the lèse-majesté law should be swept away. But this can only be achieved through the overthrow of both the military dictatorship and any plans for a future Guided Democracy. Accommodating to dictatorship, sucking up to the monarchy or inviting the military to stage coups cannot achieve liberation.

Yesterday another group of mainly young activists calling themselves the  “Democracy Restoration Group” staged a protest in Bangkok about the way the junta has continued to reschedule elections. Around a hundred supporters turned up to this positive event. However, in the future, these young activists will need to be serious about reaching out to other activists to build a concrete united front which can grow into a mass social movement. Merely announcing an event in the press or social media is totally inadequate. In the past they have relied too much on symbolic protests involving a handful of people. See http://bit.ly/2FlU3Xa and  http://bit.ly/2FnVvbt

Liberation is dependent on building a broad-based mass movement which understands the importance of big picture politics. Hopefully the NGOs and other activists will come to understanding this in the near future.

Thai politics