All posts by uglytruththailand

We are sick of the hypocritical and dishonest reporting of events by mainstream institutions in Thailand. This non-commercial, activist blog is dedicated to the political struggle for democracy, equality and human rights in Thailand. To contact the main writer please e-mail: ji.ungpakorn@gmail.com

“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between lives of most Thai citizens whose way of life has developed rapidly over many decades and an unchanged, outdated and conservative “Superstructure”, Thai society cannot escape from a vicious cycle of crisis and coups.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.

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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.

A Step forward in Policy towards Patani

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

It is very encouraging to see that the policy of the “Future Forward Party” towards Patani has signs of being more progressive than government policies in the past.

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Premprapat Palitaponkarnpim, one of the party’s spokespersons has stated that the autonomy proposals for Patani, originally suggested by Haji Sulong, more than 60 years ago, should be an important party of party policy. However, it is unclear how many of Haji Sulong’s proposals will actually be adopted and there are already signs that Premprapat has started to backtrack under pressure from the conservatives.

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Haji Sulong was “disappeared” by the right-wing military dictatorship in 1955. He proposed the following 7 point plan which may need some updating.

  1. That the four southern provinces be governed as a unit, with a Muslim governor. For today’s world we should interpret this as meaning a governor who is a local citizen.
  2. That for the first seven years of the school curriculum, Malay be allowed as the language of instruction. Of course there is nothing to stop Thai speakers being taught in Thai in other schools.
  3. That all taxes collected in the four southern provinces be expended there.
  4. That 85 percent of the government officials be local Malays. If this corresponds to the proportion of the population that is Malay today, this would be a good proposal.
  5. That Malay and Thai be used together as the languages of government. This kind of proposal has been opposed by conservatives like General Prem Tinsulanon in the past. But it is standard practice in Switzerland, Canada and even the United Kingdom.
  6. That the provincial Islamic committees have authority over the practice of Islam. That is just devolving religious powers. But Muslim citizens in Patani should also be free to practice their religion in the way they choose.
  7. That the Islamic judicial system be separated from the provincial court system. Some Islamophobes have claimed that this would lead to gay people being caned. This is just nonsense. What it means is that citizens could choose whether to come under Islamic courts or secular courts. What is more, caning is a regular punishment in non-Islamic Singapore.

Recognising and respecting the local culture and promoting self-rule, are important proposals towards building peace. However, these proposals need to be fleshed out and there are other important issues that also need to be considered.

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Firstly, the military and para-military police need to be withdrawn from the region because at present they are an occupying force that is responsible for much of the violence and they are an obstacle to peace. The military should also be excluded from playing a dominant role in any peace negotiations. On this important issue, it is encouraging that the “Future Forward Party” is committed to reducing the political role of the military, although they have said nothing about this in the context of Patani. However, we will have to see whether they can really succeed in cutting down the influence of the military.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit has suggested a separation between religion and the state and an end to state sponsorship of Buddhism. This is fine and should be supported, but it will not solve the war in Patani because it isn’t about Muslims and Buddhists killing each other. It is about the repression from the Thai state.

There was no need for Thanathorn to apologise for this proposal after being criticised by Buddhist extremists. It would make Buddhist citizens throughout Thailand free to practice their religion in a manner of their own choosing. This proposal is not contradictory to what Premprapart has suggested in any way either. The two sets of ideas help to redress the imbalance between the various beliefs in society. In the context of Patani the Muslim way of life has for too long been oppressed.

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One worrying factor is that when Premprapat was asked about how far the party’s policies on Patani could progress, he indicated that anything was possible so long as it “conformed to the Thai constitution”. The Thai constitution stipulates that Thailand is “indivisible”, thus ruling out a federal system or independence for Patani. Such a clause in the constitution does not allow for meaningful discussions about the future of Patani.

Another issue that needs more discussion is the issue of taxation. Patani is one of the poorest regions compared to other provinces and redistribution of tax revenue from the centre is necessary to improve the lives of local people.

Never the less the “Future Forward Party” has stated that they will organise discussions with Patani activists and organisations in order to further develop party policy and this is a positive aim. They should not avoid talking to the separatists when conducting these discussions.

We shall have to follow the evolving policies of this party on Patani and it is to be hoped that they will go beyond the previous attempts by Thai politicians such as General Prem Tinsulanon or Chavalit Yongchaiyudh to co-opt local leaders into supporting the Thai state.

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.