Category Archives: Thai politics

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

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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.

What a surprise!! Thai Elections Postponed to 2019

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The military junta has once again postponed the date of future elections to 2019. Previously it made many promises about elections in 2017 and then in 2018. But as usually, the junta’s promises all turned out to be lies.

Meanwhile General Pig-Face Prawit, Prayut’s deputy, has been crying that he has been unfairly criticised for displaying numerous highly expensive watches on his wrist and not declaring his assets. Generalissimo Piggy claimed that they were all “loans” from friends. People have had a field day on social media making jokes about watches and borrowing items from friends. No one with an ounce of intelligence believes him, especially after his lavish spending on an official junket to Hawaii.

At the same time the minimum wage level for millions of workers has been raised by a mere pittance because the junta are keen that any wage increases should not affect the profits made by their friends in the business community.

Some commentators claim that the junta has no credible exit strategy [ http://bit.ly/2FX1lBZ ]. But this is not the case. They have been planning for the nature of any future elections for some years with the new elections rules and the National Strategy. The whole process is designed to ensure that the reactionary undemocratic ideas of the junta remain in place to control any future “elected” governments and also to ensure that as many obstacles are in place to make political life hard for Taksin’s allies. [See http://bit.ly/2l63Z1I ]

Prayut starting his make-over to look like a civilian

The junta are not really interested in an exit from politics as such. They merely wish to install a system of guided, Thai style, “democracy” under their control. It is a strategy to exit from a military dictatorship to a military controlled civilian government. Included among so-called civilian politicians could be generals like Prayut who merely slip out of uniform and put on a suit. There is even talk of setting up a pro-military party or encouraging many so-called small “independent” parties to fragment parliament and allow Prayut to be chosen as Prime Minister in the future.

Part of the junta’s strategy continues to be the stifling of any criticism. A whole barrage of laws now exist, alongside lèse-majesté, which are designed to limit freedom of expression. A prominent academic has been summoned by the police over a social media post concerning the price of a hand bag belonging to General Prayut’s wife. The satirical “Kai Meaw” internet page which poked fun at the junta, through its cartoons, has mysteriously disappeared. The site enjoyed the highest number of visits among those interested in politics. Naturally the junta has denied all knowledge of this, just like they denied all knowledge of how and why the 1932 revolution plaque disappeared.

What we must never forget, however, is that the strength and the ability of the junta to survive is always inversely related to the strength of pro-democracy social movements. The Egyptian revolution and the overthrow of Suharto in Indonesia were never predicted in advance and events can change rapidly. But what makes the overthrow of the junta and its legacy more likely is a large body of people who are prepared to get organised.

Buddhism and Sexism

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Recently a long-running controversy about Thai Buddhist temples in the north erupted into the public consciousness again. The issue is the fact that a number of temples with golden pagodas in the north of Thailand ban women from entering the inner areas of the pagodas.

This controversy previously surfaced some years ago when a fairly conservative woman senator complained about the signs banning women in these northern temples. She, and those who defended her, were subject to much abuse. We were labelled as being “foreign” or “southerners”.

Those that defend the indefensible vary from the most banal superstitious types to those who defend this scandal on the grounds of local culture.

For the banal superstitious idiots, they claim and actually believe, that women are somehow “unclean” because they have menstruation. This is said to reduce the magical powers of holy relics buried in these pagodas. This kind of mumbo-jumbo would be laughable in the 21st century if it were not for the fact that a number of Thai Buddhists actually believe it!

The more sophisticated, but erroneous, argument is that it is the “local culture” of northern Thailand. Well, slavery used to be a local culture in the area as well and so did the fact that the northern rulers used to rape local young women with impunity. One famous anthropologist described how parents used to have to hide away their daughters or cover their faces with excrement when rulers and their thugs ventured into their villages.

Culture is an ever changing and always disputed human phenomenon. There is more than one local culture and many decent citizens in northern Thailand struggle against sexism. Many decent Buddhists also campaign for women’s rights, some maintaining that women have the right to become monks. This is a struggle against the prevailing Buddhist ideology and the power of the state. The Thai state bans women from becoming monks. It also attacks those Buddhist who do not believe in the state approved version of the religion.

Yet, women actually provide the majority of offerings to monks, ensuring the survival of Buddhism.

Reactionary Buddhists claim that Buddha decreed that women do not have the discipline to become monks. I was taught this at school. Now, I have no idea what Siddharta really said. He quite possibly was a sexist or maybe he wasn’t. But Siddharta and all the reactionary Buddhists today would never have been born if it were not for the discipline of women who endured the pain of child birth. Their uteruses would not have been ready for the implantation of an embryo if it were not for the menstrual cycle.

As Karl Marx once wrote, the real nature of religion is not what is written in the religious texts, but how people actually practice their religion in the real world, in different social contexts. Those Buddhists who believe in equality and human rights need to raise a campaign to get rid of the sexist practices in northern temples.

This whole controversy exposes the weakness of the Thai women’s movement which long ago disappeared into a cloud of post-modernism and elitism. Many supported the two military coups. It also is a warning for those who uncritically embrace “communalism”. Some communities in northern Thailand have reactionary views about HIV/AIDS or LGBT people. That cannot be defended.

Religion should be separated from the state and all oppressed groups should be free to worship as they choose without being discriminated against.

In terms of religion and women’s rights when applied to Islam, socialists start from an understanding that Muslims are oppressed by Western Imperialism and the Islamophobic rhetoric of Western politicians. This means that we defend the rights of women who choose to wear the hijab in the West and the rights of women in countries like Iran or Saudi Arabia who wish not to wear it. We are also opposed to state sanctions against burqa in the West, while sensitively arguing, when we can, with those women who wear it, that they should not be subjected to the oppression of the burqa. People need to liberate themselves.  [For more on this see:  https://www.marxists.org/archive/harman/1994/xx/islam.htm ]

I am an atheist, but I would always defend the rights of women when it comes to Buddhism. In northern Thailand, those who advocate banning women from pagodas are not an oppressed group. They are oppressing women who wish to worship freely and they do not have the “right” to do so.

Reviewing the past year: Wachiralongkorn is just an irrelevant side show.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Looking back over the past year we can make a number of observations about the political situation in Thailand.

The king’s lavish funeral has been done and dusted and the new king is on the throne. Wild conspiracy theories about a royal civil war for the throne between Pumipon’s son and daughter have proved to be totally untrue. So has the idea that the country would experience instability after the former king’s death. The latter theory was based on the incorrect view that Pumipon had political power, some, like Somsak Jeeamteerasakul, even claiming that Pumipon was the most powerful figure in the country. [See http://bit.ly/2AF9ozT ]

The fact of the matter is that there has been no instability at all in the military junta’s grip on power. They have continued to oversee the building of a future “Guided Democracy” system under their control. Important elements of this consist of the “National Strategy” and various junta-appointed bodies designed to control and fix elections, political parties and the actions of any future governments. [See http://bit.ly/2x1Ov43 ]There is absolutely no evidence that Pumipon ever had any input or opinion about this plan. He was totally incapacitated for some years.

The junta’s Road Map towards “Guided Democracy” and its backward conservative “National Strategy” has not featured in the new King’s role either. Wachiralongkorn has never expressed any opinions about this and he has no interest in such important matters of State. Wachiralongkorn is certainly an odious creature; selfish, nasty and lacking in any respect for others, especially women. But everything that he has done over the last year has been about himself and his quest for pleasure and riches at the expense of the Thai public. [See http://bit.ly/2l63Z1I ]

The change in the person who is now on the throne has not had any significant impact on the nature of Thai society, politics, or economics. It is just an expensive side-show. This is despite the sensational press articles which have claimed that Thailand has been plunged into the dark ages under king Wachiralongkorn.

Some even point to the new fashion for “buzz cuts” in the military and police as “evidence” of the dictatorial power of Wachiralongkorn, as though that was a crucial aspect of politics rather than a demented obsession by the deluded king and those who wish to suck up to him. We shall see whether Generalissimo Prayut and General Pig-Face Prawit follow the same fashion! [See http://bit.ly/2AWacAq ]

Obsession with the monarchy merely diverts attention away from the real democratic tasks ahead.

The real show in town is the continued grip on power of the military and how the policies of the junta are affecting democracy, human rights, social policy and the state of the economy. Their so-called “Road Map to Elections” is like an elastic band, with an unlimited stretch, and even with elections we will still have a junta controlled Guided Democracy.

Generalissimo Prayut seems to be positioning himself to become the next Prime Minister after the fixed elections. Recently he claimed that he was not a soldier, but a politician. Electoral rules are designed to discriminate against large political parties, especially any party associated with Taksin. The idea is that a fragmented parliament, along with an appointed senate could more easily be manipulated into choosing someone like Prayut to lead the country.

The junta represent the conservative, authoritarian, neo-liberal wing of the Thai ruling class. They are dead against rapid modernisation of society, any steps towards basic empowerment of citizens and the use of state funds to address economic inequality. This was at the core of their disagreement with Taksin and his allies. They are also totally opposed to young people becoming more politically engaged and to any notions of justice.

Getting rid of the military and its legacy cannot be left to Taksin and Pua Thai. As I have argued in previous articles on this site, Taksin and his allies have no interest in the kind of upheaval from below that would be necessary. The middle-classes and NGOs cannot be relied upon to carry out this task either. They have shown a preference for authoritarian rule over mass empowerment of ordinary people. What is holding back the real struggle for democracy is the fact that the most progressive people in society, especially students and working class activists, are yet to be convinced of the need to build a grass-roots left-wing political party that can play a significant role in building a much needed independent, pro-democracy, social movement.

Until large numbers of people decided to organise together against the military junta, who represent the real dark forces in society, the Thai Spring will not occur.