Tag Archives: Democracy

Thailand needs a movement like in Hong Kong

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Thailand desperately needs an anti-dictatorship mass social movement like in Hong Kong. When I say “like Hong Kong” I don’t mean that it should be a carbon copy of the Hong Kong movement, but it needs to be a real mass movement aiming to clear away the Prayut parliamentary dictatorship and the legacy of military rule, including the military constitution and all the institutions set up by the junta.

It is now 3 months after the so-called elections and no new government has been set up. But this means very little since the junta are still in charge with Prayut as Prime Minister.

It does not take a genius to see that there is no freedom, democracy or justice in Thailand. Those who cannot see this, chose not to see it because they favour authoritarian rule.

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The recent brutal attack on the pro-democracy activist Sirawit Seritiwat or “Ja New” and the continuing operations of military death squads in neighbouring countries, is one horrific aspect of the state of Thai politics. The fact that Generalissimo Prayut can come out and say recently that he doesn’t want to be forced to stage another coup, is another.

But what is lacking from many pro-democracy activists and politicians is a clear idea of how to bring down the junta. It is long past the time when people can still believe that the elections could change things. We all know that the constitution needs to be amended and the military reformed. But the question is how?

It is a pure pipe-dream to think that this can be done through a parliament which is a result of rigged elections. It shows a lack of responsibility to just say that the constitution or various junta laws need to be amended and scrapped and that the election laws need to be changed without saying how this can be done.

The “Long Coup” from 2006 to the present day, when elected governments were overthrown by the military and the judiciary, with the help of royalist protestors and much of the NGO movement, did not finish when Prayut held false elections earlier this year. We are now in a process of “parliamentary dictatorship”, planned and implemented by the junta. What is important to remember is that this long destruction of democracy was never carried out using an elected parliament, or by respecting the law and the constitution. It was carried out using the brute force of the military in tandem with mass mobilisations of reactionary, anti-democratic, social movements.

For this reason it should be clear that the opposition MPs in the present parliament cannot hope to make any significant changes. The illegitimate rules of the junta cannot be used to get rid of the illegitimate junta.

It is high time for a serious discussion about building a real pro-democracy social movement. Such a mass movement needs to be better than the red shirts that came before. It needs to be independent of establishment parties that seek to control and limit the struggle and it needs to be linked to youth and labour.

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Hong Kong protest movement

It takes real people, meeting face to face, in order to build the networks necessary to construct this movement. The question is: are there enough activists on the ground to achieve this?

 

Further reading:  https://bit.ly/2RTlleU

Study of Thai military factionalism does not explain coup d’états

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

For years there have been people who have made it their job to study the minutiae of military factionalism with detailed explanations of which generals are allied to whom and from which military academy classes they graduated. Paul Chambers’ recent article in New Mandala is the latest example of this [see https://bit.ly/2O4ok2q ]. For years the Far Eastern Economic Review used to publish numerous speculative articles on this subject. With hindsight, they told us nothing of any substance about the nature of Thai politics and society.

Studying military factionalism goes hand in hand with an elite analysis of the gossip about the royal family. It entirely excluded the actions of millions of ordinary citizens.

In my 2010 book “Thailand’s Crisis and the Fight for Democracy”, I wrote that…. “The military is split into squabbling factions which are often a law unto themselves. Those who engage in military watching are often over-obsessed by the various factions and their leaders, forgetting the actions of other societal players. The military factions are purely about self-interest. They are also linked to various retired soldiers, businessmen and politicians. No one is allowed to hold on to top military positions for long…. generals must take their turn at the feeding trough. The military has lucrative commercial interests in the media and in the state enterprises.” [See http://bit.ly/1TdKKYs ].

Military factionalism can only explain who ends up leading a coup, but not the fundamental reasons or causes of these coups.

Since 1958, none of the 6 successful military coups in Thailand can be explained by factionalism within the military. The 1971 self-coup by Field Marshall Tanom was intended to get rid of his parliamentary experiment. The 1976 coup was part of a general crack-down on the rising socialist movement and occurred at the same time as the brutal massacre at Thammasart University. The 1977 coup was staged in order to get rid of the ultra-right-wing Tanin government which had become a liability for the ruling class and was fuelling popular support for the Communist Party of Thailand. The 1991 coup against the elected Chartchai government was staged because the military feared that their influence was being eroded by politicians. The resulting junta was then overthrown one year later by a mass popular uprising.

What is extremely notable is that the last two coup d’états in 2006 and 2014 were only carried out when right-wing middle-class protesters went on to the streets to oppose elected governments. This tells us that the military must rely on some form of popular support among right-wing citizens in order to stage a coup. It means that they are mindful of public reaction. Both the 2006 and 2014 coup d’états cannot be explained by military factionalism or by the attitude of the monarchy. The two coups can only be explained by the long-running dispute between Taksin’s allies and the conservative elites, the background of which is the significant changes to the social and economic conditions of millions of citizens and their unmet political aspirations.

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Now, I know that in 2006 I foolishly ruled out the possibility of a military coup against Taksin’s government, initially missing the fact that the reactionary mass movement of Yellow Shirts was demanding military intervention. Predictions in politics are risky things to do. But I am reasonably sure that the reason for any future coup will not be determined by military factionalism and that if it were to take place it would require a significant level of public support from conservatives.

The Prayut junta had 3 levels of action to maintain their power. The first plan was to get Prayut elected as Prime Minister with the support of the 250 military-appointed senators. The second plan was to restrict the actions of any elected government not headed by Prayut, using the powers of the 20 year National Strategy and various junta appointed bodies like the judiciary and the senate. The third and most desperate action would be another military coup if the election does not give them what they want. But the choice and outcome of any of these 3 actions would not merely be decided in Prayut’s military headquarters and even less so in Wachiralongkorn’s German palace. It will have a real dialectic relationship with the reaction of millions of ordinary Thais. For reasons that I have explained, it seems extremely unlikely that another military coup could take place without significant backing from a right-wing movement on the streets.

Finally, Wachiralongkorn is hardly the “Absolute Monarch” that some would have you believe. Such a tyrant is hardly going to choose to spend most of his life living abroad where he cannot hope to control events within Thailand.

In a recent opinion article in the Bangkok Post, Chulalongkorn University academic Thitinan Pongsudhirak wrote that the “army-backed junta now appears to be the most powerful force in Thailand above and beyond any other entity”. He went on to write that the symbiotic relationship between the military and the monarchy had changed from the Pumipon era. [See https://bit.ly/2VYq3cg ].

 

Monument Wars #2

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

In 2017 I wrote an article about “Monument Wars” after the disappearance of the metal plaque celebrating the 1932 revolution against the king. The latest casualty is the Lak-Si Democracy Monument, north of Bangkok, which commemorates the military victory against the Boworadet royalist rebellion one year after the revolution. This monument was removed at night, under the watchful eyes of soldiers, in late December. A democracy activist who took pictures of the removal on his phone had his phone confiscated for 24 hours by police.

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The history of the crushing of the royalist rebellion shows why the royalists wish to destroy the monument. In 1932 Prince Boworadet assembled rebel soldiers at Korat 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. This fight ended in defeat for the royalists and forever ended their dreams of restoring the absolute monarchy. [See https://bit.ly/2uXDfAT ].

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Historians have described the importance of monuments in modern day to day political struggles. This is part of what Gramsci would have called “the War of Position”. It is an ideological war between different sides or classes. The recent disappearance of the metal plaque celebrating the 1932 revolution and the removal of the Lak Si monument are part of this war.

The fact that these monuments were removed while leading members of the junta and various authorities all deny knowledge or responsibility, raises some interesting questions. Those who have questioned these acts have been harassed by the police and military.

A study of the works of Thai historians shows that the Democracy Monument, in the centre of Bangkok, is also part of the continuing Monument War. The Democracy Monument was in fact built by the military dictator Pibun in the 1930s as an anti-royalist monument. Pibun was a nationalist republican who favoured dictatorship over democracy. The monument was built in the middle of the “King’s Avenue”, a bit like giving the “middle finger” to the monarchy. It is worth visiting this monument to look at the modernist imagery which does not contain a single reference to the monarchy.

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The Democracy Monument in Bangkok is interesting because it shows that through popular struggle the meaning of monuments can change. Ever since the days of the royalist dictator Sarit, who overthrew Pibun, Thai citizens have seen this monument as a symbol of democracy. So far no dictatorship has ever dared to demolish it because of the strength of the democratic ideology among Thai people.

When Sarit came to power, he promoted King Pumipon in order to give himself more legitimacy and power. He never had any intention of giving Pumipon any power and Pumipon was never powerful. We need to remember that “political power” is concrete. It determines social and economic policies and international relations. Neither Pumipon nor his idiot son have or have ever had this kind of power.

Conservatives have constantly tried to cover up and dismiss the history of the 1932 revolution. That is why most Thais probably have never heard of the 1932 plaque or the Lak-Si monument. That is also why the conservatives built the moment of the deposed king Rama 7 in front of the present parliament after the 6th October bloodbath in 1976. It is like building a monument to King George in front of the US Congress!

In this Monument War, the progressives have fought back by building monuments to those who were killed by the military in 1973 and 1976. The latter monument is inside Thammasart University, which is also the location for a monument to Pridi Panomyong, founder of the People’s Party and a key leader of the 1932 revolution.

This is truly a “Monument War” in Thailand’s War of Position.

How to access my publications

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

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The Failure of Stalinist Ideology and the Communist Parties of Southeast Asia (1998). https://bit.ly/1OEfsJo 

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Thailand: Class Struggle in an Era of Economic Crisis (1999).   http://bit.ly/2kPNX9E  Book about the Thai labour movement.

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From the city, via the jungle, to defeat: the 6th Oct 1976 bloodbath and the C.P.T. http://bit.ly/1TKgv02   or   http://bit.ly/2d1iZbj

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A Coup for the Rich (2007).  https://www.scribd.com/doc/41173616/Coup-For-the-Rich-by-Giles-Ji-Ungpakorn or http://bit.ly/2aE7zc6  Book written in response to the 2006 military coup.

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Why have most Thai NGOs chosen to side with the conservative royalists, against democracy and the poor (2009).   http://bit.ly/1UpZbhh

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Thailand’s Crisis and the Fight for Democracy (2010).  http://bit.ly/1TdKKYs  Book written during the continued crisis of democracy.

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Thai Spring? Structural roots of the Thai political crisis (2011). http://bit.ly/245WxhD

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Lèse Majesté, the Monarchy, and the Military in Thailand (2011) http://bit.ly/1cLbFtr or http://bit.ly/2cexlW1

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The Festering Sore: Thai State Crimes Go Unpunished (2012)   http://bit.ly/1qGYT9r

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The Bloody Civil War in Patani (2013) http://bit.ly/2bemah3

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The role of Thai Social Movements in Democratisation (2015). http://bit.ly/2aDzest

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What led to the destruction of Thai democracy? (2016). http://bit.ly/2cmZkAa or http://bit.ly/2bSpoF2

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Thai Military Re-adjusts its Relationship with the Monarchy (2017).  http://bit.ly/2xGDiSu Paper which looks at the role of the military and the monarchy after Pumipon. Also discusses the 20 year National Strategy for “Guided 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

 

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.

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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?