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??
Conservative western academics and royalist Thai commentators like to paint a picture of the 1932 revolution, which overthrew the absolute monarchy, as a “mere coup” with little support from the general population. In the past I have mentioned the work of historian Nakarin Mektrairat in challenging these distortions of history. In addition to this, a book published last year by Nuttapon Jaijing about the abortive Baworadet royalist rebellion in 1933 has some very interesting details.
Prince Boworadet assembled rebel soldiers at Korat in October 1933, ready to move down by train to attack Bangkok and restore the power of the monarchy. The royalists spread propaganda that the government, and especially Pridi Panomyong, were communists who wanted to establish a republic. The rebels planned to assassinate leaders of the People’s Party when they entered Bangkok.
As soon as news of the royalist rebellion reached Bangkok, many citizens volunteered to form an army to fight off the rebellion and defend the constitution. Military reservists started reporting for duty even though the government had not yet issued any orders to report. Civilians also volunteered to help the police in intelligence gathering about those involved with the royalist rebellion. Boy scouts reported for duty to help keep the peace in the capital city and they also played an important role in supplying government troops with ammunition and other essentials.
Trade unionists were prominent in volunteering to fight against the rebellion. Workers from munitions factories, aircraft maintenance workers, Siam Cement workers, boatmen, taxi drivers and railway maintenance workers at the Makasan repair shop, all expressed enthusiasm to join the fight against the royalists.
The Siam Tram Workers Union, led by the radical trade union leader Tawat Rittidet, offered on two separate occasions to go straight to the front to fight Baworadet’s army. The government politely declined the offer, stating that at that moment they had enough soldiers. As a result, the tram workers organised teams to act as guards in Bangkok and also collect intelligence, instead of going to the front. The Siam Tram Workers Union already had a long history of opposition to the Absolute Monarchy and apart from printing a workers’ newspaper, its offices were open for use by radicals who campaigned for women’s rights. After the Baworadet rebellion was crushed, Pridi Panomyong made special mention of the support from the union.
In Samut Sakorn young men assembled to form a volunteer force to fight the rebellion and they also demanded that the government send them arms. There are numerous records of different groups of citizens in the provinces forming volunteer teams. A group of ordinary women in Gang-Koi, near Saraburi, volunteered to help supply the government troops. Even monks volunteered to help the government.
In Kon Kaen troops and members of the public mobilised to stop the rebels from moving north to seize the city and after the rebels retreated from Lak Si, north of Bangkok, they tore up the railway lines and damaged bridges to prevent the rebels from moving north beyond Korat.
The rebels had another centre in the south around Petburi and Hua Hin, near the king’s palace. A low-ranking railway clerk at Petburi railway station organised workmates to secretly empty diesel fuel from locomotives to stop any military advance on Bangkok.
In the end the rebels were unable to advance on the capital city and were defeated at Lak Si where a monument to the victory against the royalists was erected.
Nuttapon Jaijing’s book is an important source of historical research which helps to destroy the right-wing myth that the 1932 revolution was merely a military coup by a small group opposed to the monarchy and that the revolution “lacked legitimacy in the eyes of most Thais”. It is a snap-shot of the radicalisation that was taking place among ordinary citizens at the time.
On 24th June this year, at the Asienhaus Foundation in Cologne, Germany, I had the pleasure of attending a panel discussion on the occasion of the 85th anniversary of the 1932 revolution in Thailand. What follows is a summary of my talk.
The present military constitution has a prologue which praises the great achievements of Generalissimo Prayut in achieving “democratic reform”. It carries on by explaining that the aim is to establish “Thai-style” democracy and repeats the great lie that king Rama 7th “gave democracy” to the Thai people. The pathetic king actually had to be overthrown in the revolution to establish constitutional government!
If Thailand is marching towards Absolutism, it is not the absolutism of any monarchy, but the absolutism of the military. I have explained in other posts on this site about the nature of the 1932 revolution and the fact that King Pumipon never had any independent power. He was a tool of the military and his son is even weaker and not at all interested in Thai politics or society. However, it is necessary to deal with the issue of whether 1932 was an unfinished revolution.
If 1932 was an unfinished revolution, it is only true if we consider it from the point of view of a struggle for democracy. It is not an unfinished revolution in terms of “bourgeois revolutions” like the French Revolution or the English Revolution. Bourgeois revolutions open the way to establishing capitalism and capitalist states and political systems. The successful Thai bourgeois revolution was led from above by King Chulalongkorn, in much the same way as the Meiji revolution ocurred in Japan. New state centralisation, albeit in the European colonies, was also achieved in Burma, Indonesia and Vietnam around the same time. But these were unfinished changes because the nations were not yet independent.
In terms of a failure to establish democracy, the 1932 revolution was a failure because its leader Pridi Panomyong did not understand the need to build a mass political party. Instead he relied on the military, which eventually helped the military to increase its power. Pridi once wrote, when looking back on his life, that “when I had power I didn’t fully understand politics, but when I came to fully understand politics, I had already lost power”.
The march towards “military absolutism”, which may be too strong a word to use, can be seen in the military’s new constitution which attempts to lay the ground for “Guided Democracy”. We see…
The establishment of the junta’s hidden hand which is determining the National Political Strategy for the next decades. This opens the door for the military and its hirelings to use the powers of veto against any decisions made by an elected government and also for the military to take power at any time via a “legalised coup”, if and when it deems fit.
The Prime Minister can be non-MP under certain circumstances, as written in articles 5 & 272.
The military will appoint an all-powerful Senate and Constitutional Court which can veto government policy and remove elected governments that do not conform to the National Political Strategy. So-called Populist Policies which favour the poor are outlawed.
The military appointed Electoral Commission can vet manifestos of political parties standing in elections to make sure they conform to military policy.
The method of calculating MPs from votes after elections favours the military aligned Democrat Party.
It is virtually impossible to amend constitution.
Article 47 destroys the concept of universal health care as the Government only has a duty to provide for the very poor.
Article 54 cuts free education in the final years of secondary school.
It is absolutely amazing that given this clear enshrinement of military political power, that there are some people who still claim that King Wachiralongkorn is amassing absolute power in his hands and creating a climate of fear. In fact Wachiralongkorn has never expressed any real opinions about the above sections of the constitution or any aspect of Thai society. If he were to drop dead tomorrow, nothing would change, just like nothing changed when his father died some months ago.
Thailand was well integrated into the world market in the 1930s and as a result of this, suffered the effects of the 1930s economic depression. The political fall-out from this was that a group of civilian and military state officials, under Pridi Panomyong’s Peoples’ Party, staged a revolution which overthrew the absolute monarchy of Rama VII in 1932. The first declaration of the revolutionaries clearly identified the economic crisis as bringing things to a head, with mass unemployment, cuts in wages and increased taxation experienced by the mass of the population. The Royal Family was notably exempted from these tax increases!
The 1932 revolution was carried out on the back of widespread social discontent. Farmers in rural areas were becoming increasingly bold and strident in their written criticism of the monarchy. Working class activists were involved in the revolution itself, although they were not the main actors, and cheering crowds spontaneously lined Rachadamnern Avenue as the Peoples’ Party declaration was read out by various representatives stationed along the road. The landmark work of Thammasart historian Nakarin Mektrairat details this wide movement of social forces which eventually lead to the revolution. It is important to stress the role of different social groups in creating the conditions for the 1932 revolution, since the right-wing historians have claimed that it was the work of a “handful of foreign educated bureaucrats”. In fact, there has been a consistent attempt by the right, both inside and outside Thailand, to claim that ordinary Thai people have a culture of respecting authority and therefore show little interest in politics.
The 1932 revolution had the effect of further modernising the state and expanding the base of the Thai capitalist ruling class to include the top members of the civilian and military bureaucracy, especially the military. The reason why the military became so influential in Thai politics, finally resulting in 16 years of uninterrupted military dictatorship from 1957, was that the left-wing revolutionary leader, Pridi Panomyong, failed to grasp the need to build a mass political party, choosing instead to rely on the military. In addition to this, the working class was still weak in terms of social forces which could oppose the military. Nonetheless, it would be quite wrong to conclude that class struggle was non-existent.
Pridi wrote the first declaration of the Peoples’ Party, which was strongly anti-monarchy. He also drafted an economic policy paper which set out plans for the nationalisation of land, a super tax on the rich and a welfare state. Yet Pridi’s weakness meant that the economic plan was shelved and compromises were made with the conservatives about the role of the monarchy.
Never the less, the 1932 revolution meant that the role of the monarchy was significantly changed for the second time in less than a century. In the 1870s King Rama V abolished Sakdina rule in favour of a centralised and modern absolute monarchy. Sixty years later, the 1932 revolution destroyed this absolute monarchy so that the king merely became one weak and powerless member of the Thai ruling class. This is the situation today. It is important to understand this, because there has been a tendency by both the left and the right to exaggerate the importance of “long-lasting traditions” about the Thai monarchy. Todays’ monarchy may seem to have the trappings of a “traditional” king, especially to those observers who see the degree to which King Rama IX was revered among huge sections of the population. Yet the influence of this institution has fluctuated over the last sixty years and the “sacredness” of the monarchy has in fact been manufactured by military and civilian rulers to provide themselves with political legitimacy.
Recently a number of NGOs in Thailand, including Amnesty International and many local groups, have been announcing “demands” on the military junta. One would have expected that the number one demand would be for the junta to resign and make way for free and fair elections immediately. The Second demand ought to have been the immediate release of all political prisoners. Not so, these NGOs seem to think they can work with the junta and spend time lobbying them like they were a normal and legitimate government. Of course, in the past some of the NGO activists even went as far as to support the overthrow of democratically elected Thai governments.
The first group of NGOs “demanded” that the junta and private businesses respect human rights according to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. There was no mention of trade unions or trade union rights among the list of demands.
The second group of NGOs “demanded” that the unelected junta “reform” the police. This is at a time when the police are controlled by military units who act as policemen in local areas and force their way into people’s homes.
It is difficult to know whether to laugh or to cry at such naïve calls from these NGOs!!
The present ruling military junta shot its way to power by murdering pro-democracy demonstrators in 2010, encouraging the judiciary to undermine elected governments and allowing anti-democratic mobs to wreck elections. After taking power, Prayut’s junta has continually detained those who oppose the dictatorship, forcing them to attend “attitude changing sessions” in military camps. More and more people have been jailed under the notorious lèse-majesté law, often after appearing in military courts. Academic seminars and political meetings have been banned or forcibly shut down. Social media and the internet are constantly monitored and the junta has attempted to censor posts and video clips. The junta’s servants have drawn up a new constitution with the specific aim of installing a system of Guided Democracy under the control of the military. And yet there are people who seem to believe that the bunch of thugs now ruling Thailand will somehow respect human rights and reform the police?!
And why should the junta listen to these “demands” by people who cannot or will not build mass social movements? What bargaining power do the NGOs have?
In order to believe the NGO fairy-stories you have to be extremely short-sighted about politics, even to the point of closing your eyes to the real world. This mind-set is helped by a single-issue obsession and a rejection of political and economic theories. [See http://bit.ly/1UpZbhh ]
Another current issue is that the present junta is trying to destroy the universal health care system which was brought in under the first Taksin government. High up on their agenda is an attempt to bring in “co-payments” for health treatment which is currently free. It is good to see that NGO health activists and their supporters have been on the streets opposing this. It is a credit to these groups that they have mobilised around this issue.
Yet, even these NGO activist suffer from single-issue politics and the rejection of theory. One of their demands is to maintain the purchaser-provider split, in other words they support the internal market in health care. The internal market has been helping to wreck the health service in Britain by allowing privatisation and funding cuts and the destruction of family doctor services in local communities. It is also extremely wasteful, leading to the employment of thousands of accountants and administrative staff instead of employing more clinical staff. That is why the British Labour Party is talking about abolishing the internal market which was brought in under Margaret Thatcher.
One particular Thai NGO leader has even called for the private sector to play an important role in health care! This is just aping the right-wing ideology of the neo-liberals throughout the world.
The internal market in health is the opposite to a universal health care system which prioritises the needs of all citizens irrespective of wealth. Profit-seeking by private companies should never have a place in the provision of health care.
The health NGO activists also see themselves as “representatives of the people” without having ever stood for elections. They distrust representative democracy. Yet the real democratisation of health care, with elected representative taking part in the management of local hospitals and health budgets would be a significant step forward in Thailand. Of course, none of this could be achieved under a military junta.
Recently the dictator Prayut addressed some arrogant and stupid questions to the Thai people about democracy. I shall try to answer them, although I am not convinced he would understand the answers.
Do you think at the next election you will get a government committed to “Good Governance”?
Answer Well, whoever gets elected cannot be worse than the present government made up of uniformed bullies and thugs who have abolished the democratic rights of citizens through violence. This despicable government is headed by yourself, a mass murderer, who is responsible for the deaths of nearly a hundred pro-democracy demonstrators, who were shot in cold blood.
But on the question of “Good Governance”, this is a contested concept, with different people having different ideas about what it means, mainly depending on one’s social class or political perspective. It might come as a surprise to you that some puffed-up murdering general does not have a monopoly on defining “Good Governance”.
If you don’t get a government committed to “Good Governance” what will you do?
Answer It may also be a new concept for you that there are democratic ways to protest against and even remove what the majority of folk regard as a “bad government”. This involves street protests, strikes and the building of mass movements. Those committed to democracy do not wish to call on some tin-pot generals to sort out their political problems for them, despite this being the preferred practice of the whistle-blowing middle classes.
Elections are an important part of the democratic process, but is it enough to just have elections without considering the future of the country, political reform and the need for a national strategic plan?
Answer Free and fair elections are a fundamental part of democracy which you have sought to frustrate and abolish. But yes, just electing the government is not enough. We need to elect the Head of State, top judges, generals and CEOs of companies. Without such elections for all public offices, there is a danger of having an unelected king who is a moron and only interested in his own pleasure. Without electing judges and generals there is a risk of having a biased and unaccountable judiciary and military men who are megalomaniacs. Without electing those who make investment decisions we can only have half a democracy.
Your junta’s so-called reforms are merely an excuse to restrict the democratic space and pave the way for your dream of Guided Democracy.
Again, the question of what constitutes “reforms” and what is a good plan for the country depends on your class and political persuasion. The fact that you fail to grasp this basic democratic concept probably means that you are long over-due for an “Attitude Changing Session” in a boot camp run by democratic citizens.
Do you think that “bad” politicians should have the right to stand for elections and if they get elected who will step in to solve the problem?
Answer One thing is clear. Murdering military men who stage coups and have no respect for the democratic rights of citizens and who use their power to line their own pockets should never be allowed to run the country. Unfortunately that is the exact description of your junta. The fact that you claim to be a “good person” merely reinforces the fact that the definition of good and bad politicians depends on where you stand. These things need to be debated openly so that the mature and thoughtful citizens of this country can consider who they want in government and if they are disappointed with those they elect, they can throw them out and elect someone else. The last thing we need is for some egotistical military thugs to shoot their way into office, claiming that they are “saving the country”!!
Powerful idiots like Prayut are not used to the ideas of freedom and democracy, having grown-up in a military bubble. But if he is so cock-sure of himself, why doesn’t he stand in a free and fair election?
Three years ago I wrote about how Big Brother Generalissimo Prayut Chan-ocha had pushed forward the militarisation of politics, economics and society. The aim was to create Thailand’s New Order, Suharto-style, with a double function for the military. What Suharto called “Dwifungsi”, was designed to enshrine the political and social role of the military in addition to the usual defence functions. As with Indonesia under the dictator Suharto, the long-term aim of the Thai junta is to install “Guided Democracy” in the interests of the conservative elites.
The latest chapter in this militarisation is the enforced “induction” of state employed doctors, dentists and pharmacists, within the central region, in a military camp. According to reports, these new health care professionals are forced to undergo military style training while soldiers shout, insult and scream at them. The so-called induction involves standing in the sun and rain for hours, crawling through mud, jumping over fires and being humiliated by Drill Sergeants. Participants have described it as a form of torture. It is obvious that this has nothing to do with instilling the ideals of “patient centred care” or respect for future patients. It has nothing to do with democracy. But the military block-heads who are running the country would never understand such ideals anyway.
At the same time, pictures have been published from an elite primary school in Bangkok of soldiers brain-washing little kids from years 3 and 4. The children were taught how to march like soldiers and no doubt had their heads filled with anti-democratic ideals.
Three years ago the junta made sure that all government ministries were controlled by military personnel. Top civil servants who were in post before the coup were replaced by those who were loyal lapdogs or cronies of the junta.
New executive board members were appointed to state enterprises, with military men on every board and with HE Generalissimo Prayut as overall chairman. Civilian cronies were carefully chosen from among the ranks of the whistle-blowing middle class mobs who hate democracy. Historically the military has always used the state enterprises as cash cows to line their own pockets. This is especially the case with the profitable ones like the Petroleum Authority or the Airports Authority. This corrupt tradition started with the dictatorships in the 1950s.
Prayut also put himself in charge of the economy, ensuring that it took a nose-dive while the generals enjoyed huge benefits. Those who are poor have been insulted for “being lazy”.
Conveniently, the so-called Counter Corruption Commission stated at the time that junta members did not have to declare their ill-gotten earnings before and after holding office, unlike previously elected politicians.
In every region, military officers carry out normal policing duties and some people are still being tried in military courts.
Three years ago schools were having to change their curriculums to follow the dictates of the junta. Discipline, nationalism and love of Big Brother were emphasised in the new moral code. State employed teachers now have to strictly adhere to uniform dress-codes. But education must be done on the cheap in order to fund the bloated military and junta budget.
Three years ago the junta reassured the mass media that sending in troops to sit in their offices was “nothing to worry about”. According to the uniformed thugs, the media were “free to report the news”. They just had to avoid reporting anything critical of the junta. Now the junta has drafted a new law to heavily control the media in the future.
After his 2014 coup, Prayut ensured that the country had a military constitution and he packed the so-called “reform committees” with lackeys of the military in order to enshrine his dream of Military Guided Democracy.