A much needed debate starts among Thai NGOs

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Cracks are now starting to appear in the NGO movement which up until now has tended to support the anti-democratic forces of the yellow shirts and even welcomed the two military coups.

Witoon Lianchamroon has resigned from the national NGO Coordinating Committee (NGO COD), criticising it of lacking any real political position on the state of “Democracy”, “Justice” and “Participation” under the present junta. The North-eastern NGO COD has also criticised the national NGO body for failing to defend North-eastern NGO activists who have been summoned by the military for declaring that they will take no part in the military’s so-called reforms. At the same time local social movements of villagers have been threatened by the army for wanting to stage a march highlighting their problems. Some leaders have been arrested.

One week before this, Kingkorn Narintornkun Na Ayuttaya, a prominent NGO leader, wrote an open letter criticising fellow NGO activists who were taking part in the military junta’s anti-reforms.

All this debate is a welcome development in a movement where NGO elders usually stifled open political discussion and channelled political disagreements into personal conflicts.

Ever since the collapse of the Communist Party, the emerging NGOs tended to turn their backs on political theory and political organisation in an anarchistic fashion. They have also taken a position against “representative democracy” and government spending on welfare. This allowed them to join up with reactionary yellow shirts who were against the Taksin government. What is worse is that while formally “rejecting politics” they embraced neo-liberal economic and political theories without any criticism.

So when Kingkorn Narintornkun Na Ayuttaya criticised some NGO people for taking part in the junta’s anti-reforms, she still claimed that Taksin’s “Populist” policies were problematic, echoing the right wing critics of democracy. She also made the ridiculous claim that Taksin’s government was a “parliamentary dictatorship” because it held a large majority of elected seats in parliament. Both these false claims were used by the anti-democrats to destroy democracy and justify the military coups.

If a real debate and reassessment of the role of NGOs does actually take place it will be a very welcome development. But it will come to nothing if it remains in the confines of criticising “Populist” policies or “Representative Democracy”. It will also come to nothing if the NGOs fail to make a clear stand against the military dictatorship and the repressive lèse majesté law.

Taksin’s pro-poor policies which provided health care, created jobs and supported rice farmers and the urban poor, were long over-due in Thailand. But they were not nearly enough because he turned his back on progressive taxation of the rich and the building of a genuine welfare state. His government was also guilty of gross human rights abuses just like Abhisit’s government and the present military junta.

What is needed is more class politics; more discussion of socialism, and the building of an independent political party and political movement of the working class and small farmers. This means that the Red Shirts also need to open up a debate and reassess their politics.

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