Tag Archives: Democracy

Ignoring the roots of the Thai political crisis will not bring about democracy

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Today there are people who say we need to move forward and away from the past divisions between yellows and reds, as though the long lasting Thai crisis of democracy was just about people who wore different coloured shirts or merely a dispute between a few political personalities.

This is just political stupidity and intellectual bankruptcy. The crisis occurred, not because some people hated Taksin, but because of the underlying political differences based upon different visions about the future of Thai society. Class is also an important component.

In 2006 the military, the middle-classes, and the various sections of the conservative elites, set about to destroy democracy. Since 2006 there have been two military coups, a number of judicial coups and mass anti-democracy protests by royalist middle-class mobs, supported by the Democrat Party. Over a hundred pro-democracy activists have been shot down in cold blood by the military and Thai jails now hold more political prisoners than they have done for decades. How and why did this happen?

The Asian Economic crisis in 1997 was the spark that exposed the existing fault-lines in Thai society, and the actions of political actors in response to this, eventually led to a back-lash against democracy by the conservatives.

The main reason for the present Thai political crisis can be traced back to this 1997 economic crisis and the attempt by Taksin Shinawat to modernise Thai society and reduce inequality while relying on mass support for his policies at elections. These policies were also designed to benefit big business, increasing profits and competitiveness. Taksin called this a “dual track” strategy, using a mixture of neo-liberalism and “grass-roots Keynesianism”. Among this raft of policies was the first ever universal health care scheme.

Because the Democrat Party, and other elites, had ignored the plight of the poor during the crisis, while spending state finances in securing the savings for the rich and the middle-classes in failed banks, Taksin was able to say that his government would benefit everyone, not just the rich. Taksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party won the first post-1997 elections. The government was unique in being both popular and dynamic, with real policies, which were used to win the elections and were then implemented afterwards. Never-the-less, his government was not unique in the fact that it committed gross human rights abuses. Previously, the old parties had just bought votes without any policies. Taksin’s real policies reduced vote-buying and his overwhelming electoral base came to challenge the old way of conducting politics, eventually angering those who could not win the hearts and minds of the people.

The 1997 economic crisis exposed the material reality of the lives of most Thai citizens whose way of life had developed rapidly over many decades but which was in conflict with an unchanged and outdated “Superstructure”. This is the dynamic of conflict which was harnessed by Taksin.

It would be a mistake to see the present crisis as merely a dispute between two factions of the elite. It has another important dimension that cannot be ignored. We need to understand the role of the Red Shirts who had a “dialectical” relationship with their idol Taksin. There existed a kind of “parallel war” where thousands of ordinary Red Shirts struggled for democracy, dignity and social justice, while Taksin and his political allies waged a very different campaign to regain the political influence that they had enjoyed before the 2006 coup d’état.

The hypothesis that the present long-running unrest in Thailand was primarily caused by a “crisis of succession”, is a top-down view which assumes that the Thai monarch has real power and that it has been constantly intervening in politics. That is just not the case. The present junta is run by powerful generals who have used the monarchy as their tool.

It is simply banal to try to build some kind of political consensus in civil society by ignoring the root cause of the crisis just by bringing in new political faces who are not associated with Taksin’s team or the Democrat Party or the yellow shirts. This is the main idea behind the party of the “new generation”.

Without solving the real contradictions between lives of most Thai citizens whose way of life has developed rapidly over many decades and an unchanged, outdated and conservative “Superstructure”, Thai society cannot escape from a vicious cycle of crisis and coups. What is needed is concrete measures to modernise the country and to drastically decrease inequality between the poor majority and the rich elites.

For further reading on this subject see: http://bit.ly/2bSpoF2   or http://bit.ly/2cmZkAa

 

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Junta implies country never ready for democracy

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Recently, General Chalermchai, head of the Thai army, told the media that the three Thai academics who objected to plain clothes soldiers and police attending the Thai Studies Conference to take notes and photograph people, should stop all political activities and stop all criticism of the junta. He claimed that the country was still in crisis and not ready for political activity.

A media outlet has been punished for calling the government a dictatorship and one of the few decent journalists faces prosecution for writing the truth.

Generalissimo Prayut added his putrid hot air comment to the discussion by saying that Thailand’s democracy had not developed properly “because Thai people had no morals”. Perhaps he was just talking about himself and his gang of anti-democratic criminals?

It has been revealed by the military that the student  Pai Daodin is now in jail because he was “stubborn” and refused to attend an “attitude changing session” in a military camp for the so-called “crime” of opposing the military coup. Of course the real criminals are those who staged the coup and now rule the country by dictatorship, denying all rights to Thai citizens. We need more stubborn citizens like Pai to rid us of this vile junta!

 

At the same time the junta has been trying to force prominent people to sign a “Civil Society Agreement” to abide by the junta’s twenty year plan for Guided Democracy. This is supposed to be part of the junta’s “reconciliation” strategy. It is more like reconciliation under duress.

No doubt part of this reconciliation strategy was to jail Red Shirt leader Jatuporn for a year for saying at a protest that former Prime Minister Abhisit had blood on his hands. Abhisit was Prime Minister in 2010 when his military appointed government ordered “live fire zones” to be set up in Bangkok in order to repress the peaceful Red Shirt protest which was calling for democratic elections. Ninety civilians were shot down during this military action. An official report revealed that the military had used 117,923 bullets against Red Shirts, 2120 of which were sniper bullets. The only military or police casualties were due to “friendly fire” from security forces. Abhisit’s deputy, Sutep, commented that the Red Shirts just “ran into the bullets”.

There is documentary evidence that the names of both Abhisit and Sutep appear on the government orders to use force to disperse the protests. Of course these orders would not have been possible with the agreement or even the prompting of the military.

So, yes, Abhisit and his government, and General Prayut, who was the top military man at the time, all have blood on their hands. They are murderers. Yet it is “illegal” to say this in public and the murderers remain free while democracy activists are in jail.

Pai Daodin, a student democracy activist from the north-east, has now been jailed for two and a half years while the royalists who used violence to disrupt elections enjoy freedom. The standards of justice in Thai courts is non-existent.

campaigning for Pai’s release

In general, the effect of being ruled by the present military junta is to destroy basic rights and stifle dissent at all levels of society. A recent seminar at Thammasart University, on the effect of 3 years of military rule on the people of the north-east, revealed that soldiers and local business mafia routinely collaborate to threaten villagers who are campaigning for land rights. Soldiers set up military camps in villagers and treat locals as enemies of the state.

Prominent pro-democracy journalist Pravit Rojanapruk has been accused of “sedition” for trying to speak the truth and TV journalists who interviewed passers by at Bangkok’s Victory Monument about the new proposed election legislation, were approached by military thugs demanding to photograph their ID cards. “We are in charge of this area”, they said, “and you need our permission.”

Even if elections are held next year, they will not be free and fair and any elected government will still have to conform to the diktats of the military.

Answering Generalissimo Prayut about democracy

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

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.

  1. 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”.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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?

Junta Lies and Repression Continue

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Meechai Ruchupan, the Thai military junta’s pet legal expert on the destruction of democracy, has been complaining about people who keep demanding freedom and elections. “If democracy just results in the election of corrupt politicians, why have democracy, he asked.” He trotted out the usual excuses for military rule which have been used by anti-democrats for decades. Thai people are “stupid, backward and don’t have any discipline”, he claimed. “That’s why we can’t have democracy”.

Meechai

Dinosaurs like Meechai always crawl out of the swamp when the tanks roll into town. He, like other members of the elite believe that they are the only ones with any intellect and honesty. But his lies prove otherwise. The Thai military is renowned for its corruption and this always gets worse when they are running the country.  [See http://bit.ly/2nRS0BG ]

He is, however honest about one thing. His rants against democracy reveal that all the so-called “reforms” in which he is engaged are not really designed to restore democracy at all. The aim is bad old, Asian-style, “Guided Democracy”.

As for Generalissimo Prayut, there seems to be no need for a quick return to democracy either. According to his angry exchanges with reporters, he said: “I am a democrat….. If the country isn’t ready for democracy, I’ll stay on longer, even shutting the country off from the rest of the world. Those protesting against the government will be the first to be dealt with.” He went on to explain that “so-called human rights activists complain about people being detained and sent to military camps for attitude changing sessions. If this is an abuse of human rights we can just throw them in jail, how about that?”

The junta shut down the non-government Voice TV station for a week for daring to air programmes critical of the junta. At the same time the junta has been explaining that democratically elected politicians in the past wanted to keep the people ignorant so that they could rule over them with ease. The military want people to “think for themselves”, they claimed. The way to encourage people to think for themselves is obviously to make sure they all think in the same manner as the junta.

This explains why the junta has been cutting the education budget and always sends round the uniformed thugs to close down any academic seminars or meetings about the political situation in the country.

The junta’s Foreign Minister also criticised a United States report on the lack of democracy in Thailand. He explained that Thailand now had “more democracy than before”. It is a wonder he didn’t go on to affirm that the Earth was flat and that democratically elected politicians in the past had all been aliens from outer space!

While the junta is busy crafting “democracy”, the brutality continues. Following the extra judiciary murder of Chaiyapoom, the Lahu activist in the north, two further extra judiciary killings have taken place in the south, in Patani. [See http://bit.ly/2o4Wq99 about Chaiyapoom.]

In addition to this, the culture of militarism and violence is proving fatal for some young recruits. Private Yutenun Boon-nium is the latest to die after being violently punished for “breaking military discipline”. His mother has vowed not to cremate his body until a proper investigation is carried out. Even if some low-ranking officer is found guilty of this latest crime, which is unlikely, the top commanders will get off scot-free. So will the generals who placed themselves in control of the country. This isn’t just an isolated event. The fact that the junta placed soldiers in charge of every level of society and have created a culture where uniformed thugs can just search peoples’ houses, drag them off for having the “wrong politics” and close down meetings and media at will, teaches soldiers at all levels that they can be as violent as they like.

There will be no freedom and democracy or any civilised society in Thailand until we get rid of the military.

The sorry tale of Anek Laotamatat’s “Tale of Two Democratic Cities”

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

On 12th April 2016 the blood-stained Generalissimo Prayut admitted that he did not trust the Thai people to elect a “good” government. This was his justification for the draft military constitution which restricts the power of any democratically elected governments in the future. It is also the justification for the 2006 and 2014 military coups. It has the support of liberal, right-wing, academics in Thailand.

Liberal academics in Thailand believe that Taksin cheated in elections by “tricking or buying the ignorant rural poor”. For them the rural poor were trapped in a patron-client system. The person who mapped out this view most clearly was Anek Laotamatat in his 1995 book: “The Tale of Two Democratic Cities”.

Anek Laotamatat’s book attempted to claim that the major divide in Thai democratic society was between the rural and urban areas. These were the “two democratic cities” of Thai politics. According to Anek, the divide was not just geographical but it was an issue of class too. In his view, the rural electorate were mainly small farmers and the urban electorate were “middle-class”.

The overwhelming dominance of the rural electorate in various constituencies meant that they had the voting power to elect governments. Anek claimed that these governments were mainly corrupt and deeply involved in money politics. In Anek’s view, the rural people voted for these politicians because they were “patrons” of the poor who had to prove themselves by their work record of helping local communities. Vote buying was a ceremonial part of this “patron-client” relationship and not seen as “wrong” by the rural voters. Anek believed that rural people did not vote by using “independent thought” about political policies, but were bound by ties of obligation to their patrons.

For Anek, the urban middle-classes were well educated and chose their governments and politicians using independent thought and a strong sense of “political morality”. They cast their votes after carefully considering the policies of various parties, and when the governments which were chosen by the rural poor turned out to be corrupt and immoral, they took part in street demonstrations to bring those Governments down.

This was an inaccurate and extremely patronising view of Thai political society. The Thai middle-classes have a history of political opportunism, sometimes supporting barbaric and repressive regimes, like in 1976 and the present junta, and sometimes opposing military dictatorships, such as in 1992. Marxists have long defined the middle-classes as fickle and cowardly, bending with the wind according to strong political currents either from above or from below.

The present anti-democratic position of the middle-classes is based on strong currents from the conservative elites to ditch democracy because it gave too much power to Taksin and too much benefit to ordinary working people in urban and rural areas. Their so-called “anti-corruption” crusade has helped place the military in power. The military is one of the most corrupt institutions in Thailand. Not only this, the main political leader of the anti-corruption crusade, which opened the door to military rule, Sutep Tueksuban, is a longstanding and classical old-style politician of the Democrat Party which uses pure “patronage” and corruption to maintain votes in the south of Thailand. This is because the party has never had any real policies.

Interestingly, Anek’s solution to the problem of political patronage which he claimed resulted in corrupt politicians being elected from rural areas, was to get the state to increase rural development projects so that these areas became more urban-like and linked into the capitalist market through technological advances. Equally important was the need for political parties to develop clear policies and propose new solutions. The book was written before Taksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party was ever established and it appears that TRT followed closely all the major points put forward in the book for developing Thai politics. Not only was TRT the only party for over two decades to take the issue of party policies seriously, the party took a keen interest in winning votes from the rural and urban poor on the basis of such policies. The 30 baht Universal Health Care Scheme was typical. The Taksin Government then proceeded to actually honour its election promises and use state funds to develop rural areas so that they could be linked to the world market. The Village Funds and “One Tambon One Product” (O.T.O.P.) are a good examples. In short, Taksin and TRT followed Anek’s prescriptions to the letter and therefore the rural voters started to vote for clear pro-poor policies, while reducing their personal attachment to local political patrons or bosses.

This is supported by the work of Australian anthropologist Andrew Walker who found that rural voters were carefully weighing up policies of various parties at election time.

Yet during the Yellow Shirt PAD campaign against Taksin before the 2006 coup, liberal academics and some social activists often quoted Anek’s book to “prove” that the rural poor were too stupid to understand democracy and that they were tied into Taksin’s new “patron-client system” via TRT’s populist policies. This was reinforced by Anek himself, who claimed, in a later book that TRT had built a new patron-client system and that this showed that Thailand could never have fully functioning democracy.

The very concept of a “patron-client system” is not about a political party which offers populist policies to the entire national electorate, carries them out and then gets overwhelmingly re-elected on a national ballot. Political patron-client systems are about individual relationships between a local political boss and the boss’s constituents. The relationship results in preferential treatment for some. It is pure nonsense to state that TRT was building a new strong patron-client system in the countryside on a national level. For those who genuinely believe in democracy, governments and political parties ought to carry out policies which the people want.

Anek Laotamatat is now promoting the idea of “Asia Values” in his attempt to justify the military regime. He argues that Thailand needs a “mixed” system where elected governments share power with the King and Thai Rak Thai Populism is replaced by “Third Way” social welfare. Anek is an ardent admirer of the British academic Anthony Giddens, favourite of Tony Blair.

The reality in Thailand is that the “two democratic cities” are made up, on one side, of the elites and middle-classes who hate democracy because it threatens their privileges, and on the other side, the urban and rural working people who cherish freedom and democracy because it is in their class interests to do so.

Can the Red Shirts rebuild Thai Democracy?

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The simple and brutally honest answer to this question is NO.

Ever since Pua Thai’s election victory in 2011 and even more so since the same Pua Thai government was overthrown by the military in 2014, the Red Shirts have become a spent force. This is because Taksin and his allies in the UDD Red Shirt leadership have prevented the movement from being part of any serious pro-democracy struggle.

When social movements like the Red Shirts are frozen out of activity and starved of the oxygen of struggle, they die.

This is one reason, among a number of reasons, why the military’s draft constitution was accepted in the recent referendum.

Many people might wonder why the Red Shirts and their leaders seem to be paralysed in the face of violent and criminal actions by Prayut’s military junta and by the anti-democratic mobs who set the scene for the 2014 military coup.

The reason why Pua Thai and the Red Shirts are paralysed is that Taksin and his allies in the political leadership of these organisations were faced with a hard choice. Either they had to encourage a mass uprising in response to the coup, which would have involved the mobilisation of millions of Red Shirts, or they could choose to go for a grubby compromise with the conservatives and the military in the future.

To put it more bluntly, either Pua Thai and the UDD had to mobilise their millions of supporters to tear down the old order, or they had to make peace with their conservative elite rivals. Given that Taksin, Yingluk and Pua Thai are basically “big business politicians” wishing to return to the fold of the elites, they have naturally chosen the latter option. This is to avoid revolution from below which risks sweeping them all away.

Thailand’s “old order” is not some semi-feudal state structure. The state and the conservative elites are part of a modern capitalist semi-dictatorship controlled by the military, the business class and the top civil servants. They are all united in their royalism, but Thailand is not an absolute monarchy either. These conservatives are extreme neo-liberals who are totally opposed to spending state funds on improving the lives of ordinary people. They denigrated Taksin’s “dual-track” economic policies, which were a mixture of grass-roots Keynesianism to help the poor and free-market policies at a national level. They also hated the electoral advantage which Taksin had over them because of his pro-poor policies.

The Marxist theory of Permanent Revolution explains that we cannot hope or trust mainstream political parties of the business class to launch a serious fight for democracy against the conservatives. This means that we should not raise false hopes that Yingluk, Pua Thai or Taksin will ever carry out the necessary mobilisations to get rid of the old authoritarian order. That task must be led by a movement from below whose aims should be to go further than just establishing capitalist parliamentary democracy as seen in the West or just turning the clock back to Thailand’s political system before 2008.

If the Red Shirts are now a moribund force for change, it does not mean that individual activists from the movement cannot form an important part of a new movement for democracy.

Unfortunately, those claiming to be a “New Democracy Movement” in Thailand today do not take the important task of building a mass social movement seriously. They falsely believe that symbolic actions can “expose” the lack of democracy and lead to change. They are not serious in their analysis of power in society. This is a failure of politics. For too long now, activists in Thailand have rejected the need to study and debate political theory and to see the importance of class. They still reject the need to build a political party of the left.

Lessons from Thai history show that the power to take on the military and the elites lies with mass movements. The power of mass movements can be boosted to significant levels by building roots within the working class and utilising this economic power to confront the elites.

It is clear from the experience of the Red Shirts that we cannot rely on people like Taksin. We need to build a mass movement from below with links to the organised working class.

Further reading: http://bit.ly/1NsZDDa , http://bit.ly/1syU03r , http://bit.ly/245WxhD

Western governments’ responses to Thai referendum: predictably weak

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

In this blog I have long argued that while any “international bad press” about the Thai junta, generated by the comments from Western governments is welcome, especially when they demand the release of political prisoners, none of these governments can be relied upon or trusted to maintain a principled stand against the military dictatorship. Democratic change can only come about by building mass movements of ordinary people within the country to overthrow military rule.

After the referendum results it was interesting to read the official responses of the United States and the European Union.

The United States ambassador to Thailand issued the following statement. “Given (the result of the referendum), we, the United States of America, as a long-time friend and ally of Thailand, urge the government to return to civilian democratically elected government as soon as possible. As part of moving back to civilian elected government, we strongly urge the government to lift restrictions on civil liberties, including restrictions on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.” [http://bit.ly/2aPzqGY ]

The European Union also issued a statement. “During the campaign period, however, there were serious limitations to fundamental freedoms, including restrictions on debate and campaigning….It is essential that the current restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly are lifted to allow for an open, inclusive and accountable political process. The EU continues to call upon the Thai authorities to create the conditions for a genuine democratic transition leading to early general elections.” [http://bit.ly/2auzDR7 ]

What is obvious here, if we read between the lines, is that the West are not demanding that the authoritarian constitution, which will prolong military domination of Thai politics, be scrapped or amended. That is the aim of all democratically minded Thais. The legitimacy for such a call comes from the fact that the referendum was neither free nor fair and that the military’s new constitution will not lead to a genuine democratic transition.

The governments of the West are ready to accept elections held under this constitution so long as the government lifts restrictions on the civil liberties of freedom of expression and assembly. The EU statement goes on to say that “all main stakeholders in Thailand need to engage in an inclusive dialogue and work together peacefully towards this aim.”

In practice this means that the EU would like to see pro-democracy activists cooperate with the military and the conservatives in the run up to elections, which, incidentally, may not be held until 2018. Talking about the need for “civil liberties” is also vague. Does it mean the abolition of lèse-majesté? Probably Western governments will not call for this. Does it mean that the military should stop banning demonstrations under the pretext of protecting national security? Given that governments in the West such as France and the United State do the same thing, it will not be serious issue.

The nice sounding pronouncement from Western governments, which in the main are right-wing pro-business governments, are there to legitimise future good relations with the Thai government, irrespective of whether we have genuine democracy or not. The pronouncements are as mainly for internal consumption within the West.

They are not really interested in freedom, democratic rights and social justice for the majority of the Thai population. They are blind to and terrified of the prospect of mass movements of the working class and the poor rising up to overthrow authoritarian regimes.

The lesson from this is that it would be a waste of time to believe that any foreign governments, especially those in the West, would ever be an important factor in bringing about democracy in Thailand. For them, their only interest is being able to conduct business with Thailand. They want to be able to “keep the lines open” to talk to the elites.

[See also http://bit.ly/22sCo67 ]