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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.

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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 .

 

Thailand Towards Absolutism? Or Military Guided Democracy? Watch the video

One discussion you will not find at the Thai Studies Conference in Thailand!!

Watch the talk and the debate from Cologne on the 85th anniversary of the 1932 Revolution organised on 24th June 2017 here.

 

This kind of discussion could never be held in Thailand under the military dictatorship or the Lèse Majesté law. The military dictatorship and the new king will be the elephant in the room that everyone pretends not to see during the Thai Studies Conference. So what of substance are the academics at the Thai Studies Conference talking about??

Death of a Tyrant

Special article on Singapore by Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Lee Kuan Yew was a repressive and corrupt leader of Singapore. His death will not be mourned by all those who believe in democracy and social justice. Lee came to power by courting the British and offering them an “anti-communist” alternative at a time when the Left were very influential in the labour movement and society in general. He used the mass base of non-communist socialist organisations to win his first election and then turned on them and destroyed and repressed the entire Left. Lee rebuilt his electoral support among civil servants instead. He was not shy to use internal security laws to detain activists without trial and torture his opponents. He was a master at using the corrupt courts to ban opposition politicians from running for office. Singapore was also a firm supporter of the Burmese junta.

Elections in Singapore were sham pretences in democracy with constant manipulation of the electorate, government spies in social housing blocks and the use of development budgets to keep people loyal to his People’s Action Party.

Lee Kuan Yew and his friends often boasted that Singapore had very tough anti-corruption laws, but high level government corruption occurred by legal means. His government manipulated elections in order to stay in power and then they voted themselves huge salaries. Singaporean politicians are paid more than U.S. politicians. In 2012 the present Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew’s son, Brigadier General Lee Hsien Loong, helped himself to an annual salary of $US 1.69 million. Government cronies and relatives of ruling party bosses gain wealth and influence from managing state enterprises or controlling those which were later privatised.

Lee and his cronies justified their repressive regime by claiming that it conformed to “Asian Values” and that so-called “Western” democracy was not suitable. This has been the excuse of tyrants in many Asian countries, including Thailand.

Despite the much publicised housing and social benefits system for citizens, many workers who work in this city state come from outside and are not regarded as citizens. Even workers who are citizens earn poor wages compared to top politicians, business people and the middle class. Singapore is an unequal society; it has a higher Gini Coefficient than India, Indonesia, Japan, and Western European countries.

The legal system in Singapore is extremely backward. There are laws punishing people for not flushing the toilet, chewing gum or performing oral sex, and school students and adults found guilty of petty crimes are regularly flogged.

That is the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew.

The roots of the Thai crisis

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

This long running Thai crisis is a result of an unintentional clash between the conservative way of operating in a parliamentary democracy and a more modern one. It is equally related to attempts by ex-Prime Minster Taksin Shinawat and his Thai Rak Thai Party (TRT) to modernise Thai society so that the economy could become more competitive on a global level, especially after the 1996 Asian economic crisis.

Thai political leaders since the early 1970s had always adopted a laissez faire attitude to development, with minimal government planning, low wages, few trade union rights and an abdication of responsibility by governments to improve infrastructure and living standards. This strategy worked in the early years, but by the time of the 1996 Asian economic crisis it was becoming obvious that it was seriously failing. The consequences of the 1996 economic crisis are important to the understanding the Thai political crisis today. The increased inequality in Thai society as a result of free-market economic growth is also important. The top 20% now have a disposable income, after deducting living costs, of more than 10 times that of the general population.

In the first general election since the 1996 crisis, Taksin’s party put forward a raft of modernising and pro-poor policies, including the first ever universal health care scheme. Because the conservative Democrat Party had previously told the unemployed to “go back to their villages and depend on their families, while spending state finances in securing the savings for the rich in failed banks, Taksin was able to say that his government would benefit everyone, not just the rich. Taksin’s TRT won the elections and his party, under various names, has since won every single election held after that. In 2011, Taksin’s Pua Thai Party won an overwhelming majority and his sister, Yingluk Shinawat, became Prime Minister. Previously TRT had been renamed as the Pua Thai because of various judicial coups.

Taksin’s policies, and his overwhelming electoral base, came to challenge many elements of the old elite order, although this was not Taksin’s conscious aim at all. Claims by the Democrat Party, the military and the conservative elites that Taksin’s party “bought votes to win elections” are a complete distortion of the truth. These claims are also linked to criticism of his populist policies by the neo-liberals who say that they “wrecked the economy and society”. The neo-liberal conservatives would like to turn the clock back to the bad old days of laissez faire policies.

The Democrat Party has never won an overall majority in any election. The military could not compete in terms of democratic legitimacy and support. The middle class started to resent the fact that the government was helping to raise the standards of living of workers and poor farmers. This is the real basis for the prolonged crisis in society and it explains why the conservatives, the middle class and the Democrat Party are so strongly opposed to democracy. For these people democracy and voting got the “wrong” results.

Taksin went into exile after the first coup d’état in 2006, yet his parties continued to win the 2007 and 2011 general elections, which were held under military control. The previous junta wrote a military constitution in 2007 and packed the so-called “independent bodies” like the Senate, the judiciary and various commissions, with loyal supporters. The idea behind these changes was that the people needed to be “saved from themselves”. The policies of democratically elected governments needed to be reined-in by elite conservative “experts”. These anti-democratic bodies worked hand in hand with Sutep Tueksuban’s Democrat Party mobs on the streets to bring down the Yingluk government just before the May 2014 coup d’état.

This time round, after the second coup, the junta want to make sure that Taksin and his allies do not win another election. All government ministries are now controlled by military personnel.  Civil servants who were in post before the coup have been replaced by those who are loyal lapdogs or cronies of the junta. Conveniently, the so-called Counter Corruption Commission has stated that junta members do not have to declare their ill-gotten earnings before and after holding office, unlike previously elected politicians. The commission is desperately trying to find a dubious corruption charge to stick on former Prime Minister Yingluk. This would be the “legalistic” way to bar her and fellow Pua Thai Party politicians from politics. Maybe there would be chance of dissolving the Pua Thai Party too.

The junta is also looking to an appointed Burmese-style Constitutional Drafting Assembly, made up of soldiers and anti-democratic civilians, so that any future elections can be fixed in favour of the military and the conservatives. This explains the warm reception which the Burmese military representative received from the Thai junta in Bangkok this July.

Elections to local municipal and provincial councils have been abolished because the junta believe that local politics helped to build the support base for Taksin’s parties.

The Latest sin of the Constitutional Court

Numnual Yapparat

The Lawyers’ Council of Thailand appealed to the Constitutional Court about Sutep Tueksuban’s anti-government protest, claiming that it was against the Constitution, since it called for a change from parliamentary democracy. Sutep called for an appointed parliament, contrary to the Constitution. He also called for the restoration of the Absolute Monarchy. The Lawyers’ Council also stated that Sutep’s supporters illegally occupied numerous government buildings, and consequently, public servants and workers couldnot do their jobs.

Sutep, a long-time member of the Democrat Party, wants to set up an appointed Peoples’ Assembly in order to draft new bills on how to rule Thailand. This is the very same concept that the absolute monarch, King Rama VI, suggested in order to avoid real democratic changes.  He set up the infamous “Democratic School” in which a few privileged people were invited to attend. However, such rotten concepts could not survive for long. Thereafter, the next Thai monarchy (Rama VII) was overthrown in the 1932 revolution. Disgustingly, the right-wing manipulated history and made him into an icon of Thai democracy. His statue is in front of parliament. But in London, Oliver Cromwell’s statue is in front of the Houses of Parliament! Unsurprisingly, Sutep and Abhisit put Rama VII as their number one hero!

The Red Shirts and pro-democracy activists are raising their concerns about the attempt by Sutep’s gang to dismantle the democratic system.

Nasty as usual, the Constitutional Court proclaimed that Sutep and his people have demonstrated “legally”. The Constitution Court turned a blind eye to the fact that the protests were often violent. Personally, I think the Constitutional Court should be abolished because they pose a great harm to democracy.