Thailand: Democratic Audit 2014

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Thailand used to be a beacon of democracy in South-East Asia. Its democratic system was never perfect, but decades of struggle by social movements had limited the powers of the military and un-democratic elites. However, today, Thailand has slipped backwards, nestling comfortably with the various despotic regimes of ASEAN, with only the Philippines and Indonesia having some degree of freedom and democracy.

The state of democracy in Thailand has reached a critical low. The reasons for this sorry state of affairs are both historical and current. This Democratic Audit looks at a number of factors which are fundamental to a thriving democracy. Below is a short summary. To read the full audit please go to:

The audit considers the following 9 factors:

1. The right of citizens to choose the government of their own preference in free and fair elections.

The democratic clock has now been turned back to the dark days of the dictatorship in the 1970s. The main obstacle to democracy is the military. The only glimpse of hope is the continued resistance of the red shirts. In the meantime, all those responsible for the shrinkage of the democratic space: the NGO leaders, middle class academics, mainstream media and conservative elites, are all clamouring to advise Yingluk and Pua Thai to compromise with the anti-democratic thugs.

2. Freedom of expression.

The lèse majesté law in Thailand represents a gross attack on the freedom of speech, freedom of expression and academic freedom. It is a fundamental attack on democracy carried out by the military and all the political elites, including Taksin and Pua Thai.

3. Basic standards of justice for all citizens and measures to prevent state crimes.

Thailand’s judiciary only serve the authoritarian ruling elites. They are also protected by a draconian “contempt of court” law, preventing transparency and accountability in the judicial system. There is no jury system and Thailand locks up political prisoners who dare to express anti-establishment views. Standard practices in jails are mainly designed to reduce the humanity of prisoners. Meanwhile there is a culture of impunity for all state criminals.

4. The integrity of public institutions.

The integrity of public institutions in Thailand has always been poor, with a lack of accountability, transparency and justice. But in the last few years since the 2006 coup d’état, the integrity of public institutions has sunk to an all-time low with almost no institutions enjoying any public confidence or respect.

5. The strength of pro-democratic social movements and citizen participation.

The creation and expansion of the red shirt movement was an historic occasion in Thai social movement history. Despite the fact that the red shirts are a pro-democracy mass movement, they have a number of serious weaknesses. The main weakness is that the political leadership is unelected and dominated by supporters of Taksin and Yingluk’s Pua Thai Party. In Thailand, the social movement for democracy has not arisen from the urban middle classes or the NGOs. In fact the opposite is true because the urban middle classes or the NGOs have become an obstacle to democracy.

6. Respect for the dignity of all citizens, gender rights, racism and self-determination for minorities.

The participation of women in Thai society is reasonably high compared to some other Asian countries. However, as with most countries throughout the world, 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. Abortion is illegal. GLBT rights are non-existent, although the status of GLBT people is not illegal. Thailand is an extremely racist society where derogatory words are used for people of other ethnicities on a day to day basis without any challenges. For over a century the Muslim Malay population in the South have been subjected to authoritarian measures by a Thai state with a vicious colonialist attitude. The poor state of dignity and respect for people of all genders or ethnicities is to an important extent the result of a weak left-wing current in Thai politics. Such a current could act as an opposite poll to the conservative nationalism, racism and sexism of those in power.

7. Trade union and labour rights.

Trade union and labour rights are limited, both by repressive laws and actions of the state, but also by the political weakness of the labour movement itself. Migrant workers have even less rights that Thai nationals and they are prevented from joining trade unions or receiving some benefits.

8. Economic equality.

Thai society is a very unequal society. According to the World Bank, in 2010, the poorest 10% of the population had a 2.8% share of total wealth, whereas the top 10% controlled 31%. The Gini Coefficient stood at 39.4 compared to 32.9 for Japan or 26.8 for Finland. A well-functioning democracy requires a good degree of economic equality and social stability in the lives of citizens. This is important for human dignity, quality of life and also for full citizen participation in politics.

9. Corruption.

Corruption, defined as the use of public position to amass wealth in an immoral manner, is engrained in Thai elite society, which makes it also pervasive among lower ranking government officials. Corruption goes hand in hand with the abuse of power and the conflict of interest among those who hold public office. “Corruption” has become a much devalued word due to the fact that the anti-democrats use the term selectively to merely attack their political opponents, while choosing to ignore the pervasive corruption among all sections of the rich and powerful. Corruption can only be reduced or abolished through increased democracy and public participation in politics.

On all the 9 major “democratic indices” outlined above, Thailand is suffering from an increased democratic deficit. Top down “reform” by the very people who are responsible for this deficit will never solve the problem. The answer lies with the pro-democracy social movements.


lèse majesté stifles debate and analysis of the crisis

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The recent attempts to charge the red shirt local radio DJ “Kotee” under the lèse majesté law for claiming in a VICE news documentary that a “higher force” was controlling Sutep’s mob, goes to the heart of problems created by lèse majesté. It is my view that Kotee is mistaken in his understanding of the situation, but the use of the draconian lèse majesté law closes down all sensible discussion about the Thai political crisis within Thai society. Anyone trying to argue details about the various ruling class power groups seeking to destroy Thai democracy immediately runs the risk of being charged under lèse majesté. I was charged with lèse majesté for writing a book which opposed the 2006 military coup. The Lawyers Council of Thailand has just taken matters to a new dangerous extreme by accusing the Red Shirt lawyer Robert Amsterdam of lèse majesté for urging reform of the lèse majesté law! This is in the same vein as the ruling by the Constitutional Court that it was “illegal” for an elected parliament to seek to change the constitution and make all senate seats subject to democratic elections.

Open debate and analysis about the political crisis, which involves putting forward theories supported by evidence, in order that others can critique such ideas, is blocked.  As a result people are reduced to discussing rumours and conspiracy theories and making indirect allusions to powerful and absolutist forces which are supposedly controlling Thai society. Whose interests are served by this?

The 2006 military coup against Taksin Shinawat’s elected government was staged by soldiers wearing yellow royalist arm bands. Photos of the generals talking to the monarch were widely publicised. The initial military junta also called itself the “Council for Democratic Reform under Constitutional Monarchy”. There was a crude message in all this. The military has a long history of seeking royalist legitimacy for its destruction of democracy. It is in the military’s interests to stifle any discussion about the appropriateness or truth of these claims to legitimacy. The same can be said for the Yellow Shirts and Sutep’s mob today. Given the grey area covering the roles of the elites, many ordinary people could be forgiven for mistakenly thinking along the same lines as Kotee.

Allusions to unnamed, powerful and absolutist forces which are supposedly controlling Thai society is also beneficial to the conservative elites because it is a message that implies that resistance is pointless. It is also a message that lets the military off the hook. Conversely this also benefits Taksin, Yingluk and Pua Thai because it is such a convenient excuse to hold back on any real change, move towards a grubby compromise with the anti-democrats and calm down the more impatient Red Shirts. This has been the aim of Pua Thai since the election victory of 2011.

Yingluk and Pua Thai’s demands that Kotee be arrested and their continuing support for the lèse majesté law is also useful in countering the conservatives’ ridiculous accusations that Taksin is some kind of “republican”, when in fact he shares the conservatives’ views on the monarchy. Monarchies in Western Europe are useful in supporting the ideology that there is a “natural hierarchy” even in a capitalist democratic society.

Any meaningful democratic reform of Thai society needs to include the removal of the lèse majesté law and the release of political prisoners like Somyot Pruksakasemsuk or Da Torpedo.


Migrants: political scapegoats

Numnual  Yapparat

I was very delighted to see the big red shirt rally last weekend. However, we have not seen the progressive demands yet from the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD). However, the UDD response to the latest yellow shirt accusations was not very progressive. The yellow shirts claimed that the red shirt rally was full of migrant workers. In 1976 fascist groups made similar false accusations about students in Thammasat University by saying that they were Vietnamese communist infiltrators.  This helped to legitimise the brutal killing of students and some of them were even burned alive. Today the Anti-Democrats and their friends want to use the same racist tactics again. Sadly, the majority of the red shirts are still under the influence of nationalist propaganda. They fought back by showing their Thai ID cards instead of showing solidarity with migrants. If we want to have equal rights we should see migrants as human beings too because we should believe in human dignity. The differences in language, ethnicity and skin colour should not be a barrier to building a progressive society. Better, more progressive, politics would help us get out of the current political crisis too. Let the yellow shirts breathe their filthy politics but we must not follow their rules. We need to be better in all aspects.

The red shirts should deny the concept of “Thainess”. The politics of “Thainess” seeks to enhance inequality and backwardness in society because it demands loyalty to the Thai ruling class. In reality greater harm is likely to come from the yellow shirts than from any migrants. Ordinary Burmese have suffered for a long time from political repression and they desperately need safe shelter and employment in Thailand. If the red shirts want a better society they need to show solidarity with them.

Migrants in Thailand work in hard, dirty and low paid jobs that Thai workers do not want. Examples are in the seafisheries or domestic jobs. Lots of them are being treated like slaves and some of them are killed by police or employers. There are NGOs groups who campaign for migrants rights but only a few Thais are in sympathy with them.

The migrants make a huge contribution to society which is good for all of us. The majority of migrants are young and therefore they can fill the gap left by older workers who retire. Thailand should legalise all of the illegal migrants and therefore they can pay taxes, have access to health care and education. Big cities in the world are full of migrants and this is an indicator that those countries have healthy economies. If migrants have equal rights in our country it means that our democracy is very strong.  We should welcome migrant workers, not fall into the trap of the anti-democratic racists.

Our political goal should be to fight for a society that belongs to everyone, not only the elites. Migrants are not our enemy but those at the top are. Those who want to destroy democracy and kill citizens who hold different views are our real enemies.

Photo: INN


Festivals for sharing, not for sale

Numnual  Yapparat

There was an absurd piece of news late last month about the Songkran Festival. Some people have raised their concern that Singapore is competing with Thailand to organise the Songkran Festival. Tourists might choose to visit Singapore instead!

The “Songkran-Nationalists” suggested that the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) should apply for a copyright for the Songkran Festival. There has been much discussion in a well-known web board for a while. Not all people agreed with applying for a copyright for the Songkran Festival. Some of them also asked whether we should stop celebrating the Christmas, Valentine and Halloween festivals. The TAT office came out to calm down the debate by saying that they did not have the power to apply for such a copyright. Fortunately the TAT explained Songkran is a common festival in South East Asia as well as some parts of South Asia. “Songkran” itself is a Sanskrit word. This is a good example of why we should oppose nationalist propaganda.

Thai people have been bombarded with invented facts about our own history. The ruling class regard neighbouring counties with contemp. They unconvincingly portray Thai royal ancestors as brave and wise, while painting a picture of the rulers of Burma or Cambodia as barbaric and cowardly. Therefore, the story goes, Thailand could stay gloriously independent, whereas our neighbours became western colonies. However, progressive historians try to encourage students to study our own history by comparing the facts from different point of view, including Burmese and Cambodian accounts.

Not only do reactionary people not study international history or current affairs, but they also shamelessly claim that Thailand “owned” large parts of neighbouring countries. I believe that many readers might experience some Thais trying to shut out different views by arguing that Thailand is “unique” and therefore we cannot make any international comparisons. Unsurprisingly, some of them are awfully prejudiced and stupid, claiming that foreigners can never understand Thailand.

How are we celebrating Songkran these days? Mostly, people just have fun with it by playing with water. Lots of workers take the chance to go back home to their villages because of the long holiday. Thai authorities use Songkran to promote tourism, like at Kao Sarn Road in Bangkok. The ugly face of Songkran is that some men take this festival as a golden opportunity to harass women. We need to promote sexual equality, mutual respect and freedom without falling into the trap of adopting conservative morals.

The ruling class love to control women and claim to be our moral defenders. In 2011, there were drunken girls who had a topless dance on a car in public. The media and the authorities condemned their behaviour hysterically. They accused the young girls of destroying Thai tradition. Yet, the elites own and control strip bars where women are exploited on the very same street. In the previous year many red shirts were killed by the military and the anti-Democrat Party because they demanded democratic elections. But in this case the media and those moralists in power stayed silent. Hypocrisy is the dominant traditional culture among our rulers!

Painting by Sompop Budtarad


The politics of superstition

Numnual  Yapparat

I have seen clairvoyants play a major role in a number of issues, such as family life or even politics. When I was doing my women’s studies course, one of my fellow students, who had given birth, told us that she chose to have a caesarean birth so that she could choose the right auspicious time for her baby. Therefore, the baby’s future would be filled with good prosperity. She came from the middle class with a well-educated family background. I was perplexed why they were so superstitious.

A scary example of superstition is a coach driver who he drinks a can of beer before setting off. When his assistant expresses concern, the driver tells them that everything will be okay because he has got lots of monk medals in front of his seat!

In Bangkok, lots of modern offices buildings have spirit houses where the employees can confide their hopes or sadness. The office management regularly place bottles of warm Coca Cola for the spirits to drink, but only the ants seem to like it. Newly appointed government ministers, before entering the ministry building, have to worship the spirits first. They place pig’s heads and joss sticks in front of the spirit houses, praying that they can enrich themselves before they get transferred.

Every year, we have the Ploughing Ceremony where the oxen will predict the rainfall in coming months and the quality of the harvest. So there is obviously no need for modern agricultural science to maximise crop production. The Thai ruling class seem to think that oxen are more intelligent than humans.

Why does Thai society still believe in mumbo jumbo? Who is benefiting from this superstition?

It is understandable if people live in an insecure society where governments give no guarantee at all about citizen’s futures. Ordinary working people have to find comfort from something among this insecurity. The superstition will fill this gap. Karl Marx explained that religious superstition was “a heart in a heartless world”. It isn’t that poor people are ignorant, stupid or lacking education. It is more a sign of desperation. In advanced countries the number of people who believe in religion is decreasing steadily. The exception is the United States, where there is no welfare state. In Western Europe they have welfare states which provide necessary security to citizens.

Superstition in Thailand is a great tool for the ruling class. People who believe in mumbo jumbo are less likely to question inequality or injustices that they face in their daily lives. If they suffer they might blame fate or “Karma” rather than confronting the establishment. Superstition reinforces the “natural order” in society. The elites and the middle classes need to believe this and that is why they are extremely superstitious themselves.

Were there any groups that challenged superstitious ideology? Traditionally, only the Left challenged this superstition. The Communist Party of Thailand stood for scientific thought. Kularp Saipradit, writing under the pen name “Si Burapa”, wasa famous left-wing intellectual after the Second World War.  He wrote the novel “Lare Bai Kang Na” (Looking to the future) to criticise the old order under the absolute monarchy which was steeped in superstition. In “Lare Bai Kang Na” one of the elite ladies tells the protagonist that in the natural order serfs cannot have doctors like their masters. Kularp asks the question “who invented these customs”? Kulap also criticises those villagers who believed that the cause of illness came from ghosts. He was arguing for scientific thought in the new Thailand.

The strength of superstition and mumbo jumbo in Thai society is a symptom of the weakness of the Left and the rampant inequality between the rich and the poor. It is also a symptom of a lack of democracy.

The power of the people is real but the Constitutional Court is disposable

Numnual  Yapparat

There is no magical smoke and mirrors that will be able to disguise the real nature of the Constitutional Court (CC) and the old order alliance. The CC is a recently invented institution. It has a long record of violating democracy principles. We did not have it in the past and in a better future we will not have it.

The constitution is less important than the will of the people. If the constitution has been written to benefit the few and it is against the interests of the majority, then we should tear down the constitution. We have to draw up a new draft that suits our goal; the goal of regarding all citizens as equal. The best way to guarantee fairness in society is the participation of the people. We need to smash the myths about “the experts know best”. No they do not. If we look at the CC we know they are the liars and reactionaries who want to destroy democracy. Ordinary people can understand complicated issues if they have a chance to do so. This is not medicine or engineering where we need expert explanations for diseases, epidemics or mechanical failures.

The CC shamelessly nullified the 2nd of February Election. This action is helping to precipitate a new level of the crisis. There were positive reactions from pro-democrats who expressed their anger against the CC. Pro-democratic academics openly released their statements to declare that the CC judgement was illegitimate. I was deadly scared that Pua Thai might kowtow to the CC but fortunately they also issued their statement to condemn the CC.

Ajarn Worajet Pakeerat, from the Nitirat group, fiercely criticised the CC and explained that their judgements have been carried out without any base in law. Worajet said that the CC’s ruling was also destroying the options that the law can provide to break the political deadlock.

Worajet went on to say that “we can only talk about law if we use reason, but the CC are people who do not use reason”. Can we abolish the CC? To answer the question, Worajet said that “under the current constitution, no, because the various independent bodies have the power to make that decision”. He suggested that only political struggle can save us. We needed to maximise the number pro-democracy activists and expand democratic values.

Surely if the old order wants to move forward towards the destruction of the democratic process, they will not be able to rule smoothly. When the anti-Democrats Party were the government, they could not govern at all. Everywhere the anti-Democrats like Abhisit went, they would be confronted by the red shirts. The red shirts also protested against and chased traitor politicians who helped the anti-Democrats form the military backed government in 2008.

The main issue at the moment is how we can prevent Pua Thai from compromising with the old order. One way of doing so is that the progressive rank and file must draw up their own demands such as the release of political prisoners immediately. Another useful demand would be to scrap the Lèse-majesté law and charge state murderers who killed innocent red shirts. We need to have our constitution which states clearly that all politicians and all those who hold public positions need to be elected. At this stage we need to brainstorm and sketch the new society that we want. We can discuss what sort of morals should be the core principles in our new society. We need the kind of morals that enhance human dignity and freedom. We do not need religious morals that legitimise the elite’s oppression of citizens. We need to start thinking now. Otherwise the experts in hypocrisy and politicians who lack any back-bone will draw up their own reactionary road maps.

Kangaroo-Constitutional Court helps wreck 2nd Feb elections

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The notorious Constitutional Court has once again worked hand in glove with the anti-democrats, ruling that the 2nd February 2014 election was “unconstitutional”. This is a re-run of the ruling that the election on 2nd April 2006 was null and void. The 2006 ruling, along with anti-democrat protests, led to a military coup and the continuous destruction of Thai democracy. Previous court rulings abolished Taksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party and brought down the elected Palang Prachachon Party government in 2008. Recently the court also ruled that the government could not proceed with plans for a high speed rail link.

The excuse for wrecking the 2nd February elections was that many constituencies had no candidates and were unable to hold elections. But there was no recognition of the illegal acts of Sutep’s mob in using violence to prevent voting and the unconstitutional boycott of the elections by the un-Democrat Party because it knew it would lose. Nothing was mentioned about the fact that the military, known for its repeated unconstitutional coups, stood by and did nothing to ensure security during the election.

In demanding a new election, the court stated that it did not care that Sutep’s mob had promised to disrupt any future elections.

The elite appointed courts and non-“independent” bodies have been working hand in glove with Sutep’s mob. They along with the middle classes, hate the democratic process which gives the majority of the population some say in politics. They view most ordinary Thais with contempt.

The anti-democrats now hope that throwing the ball back to the biased Election Commission and the government will allow more time to push out Yingluk and start a process of changing the election rules to reduce the democratic space. Many academics and NGO leaders in the anti-democrat camp are hoping for a compromise and make dark predictions about “civil war”. But such a compromise would give the same weight to a minority of anti-democrats as to the majority of citizens who want democracy. A compromise between democracy and dictatorship can only lead to “half democracy”.

The only way to defend the democratic space is a total mobilisation of the red shirts and other progressive forces. But unfortunately the UDD leadership cannot be relied upon to do this.

Thai politics