During the period of the democratically elected governments led by Taksin Shinawat, many Thai reactionary academics, NGO activists and Yellow Shirts whined about a “Parliamentary Dictatorship”. This was merely because Taksin’s party had an overwhelming majority in the elected parliament and many of his supporters were also in the fully elected Senate. Of course, it was pure nonsense and it was obviously a ploy to justify opening the door to military intervention.
But now in Thailand we have the real thing. We have a military-appointed Senate and an engineered parliamentary majority for Generalissimo Prayut and his junta, despite the fact that Prayut’s party and various allies, won less votes than anti-military parties. [See https://bit.ly/2Wm6bzI ].
So what are the consequences of the present Parliamentary Dictatorship?
The junta will continue in power and there will be no change to the militarisation of society. Soldiers will act like policemen, hounding and interrogating anyone suspected of having pro-democracy sympathies. Soldiers will muscle their way into public meetings, filming participants at will. They will sit in at negotiations between trade unions and employers and any improvement in wages and conditions will be suppressed by soldiers. Troops will intervene in all forms of protests, from strikes to local village protests over environmental issues.
The militarisation of schools and colleges will continue and pro-military brain-washing of the younger generation will continue through the media and through Children’s Day events.
Military corruption and nepotism will continue and the generals will carry on with their arms shopping sprees, paid for by an ever-bloated military budget.
The use of the draconian lèse-majesté law and the so-called computer crimes law will continue as a tool to stifle freedom of expression. Prisoners of conscience will still spend years in jail. Alternative media will be persecuted.[See https://bit.ly/2wFBxXt Also https://bit.ly/2WCrr44].
Migrants and refugees in Thailand will receive poor treatment and some will be deported back to be jailed or killed by despotic regimes. [See https://bit.ly/2KBFchd ].
The courts will continue to act as agents of the military junta and the National Human Rights Commission will carry on turning a blind eye to government abuses of human rights. Rich people and generals will get away with all kinds of crimes, including encroachment of National Parks, while poor villagers are subjected to stiff punishment.
Violent attacks upon and disappearances of dissidents will continue, both by the junta’s thugs in Bangkok and the junta’s death squads acting across the border in Lao or Cambodia. [See https://bit.ly/2WYJ2aG & https://bit.ly/2WW4dqB ].
The military will still be in charge of policy in Patani, with military suppression of the right to self-determination by the Muslim Malays being prioritised over a political and peaceful solution. [See https://bit.ly/2QTqJ1n , https://bit.ly/2bemah3 ].
The junta will continue its neo-liberal economic policies which favour the rich and increase inequality and any dreams of building a genuine Welfare State will have to be put on hold. The untold wealth controlled by the nasty idiot King Wachiralongkorn will not be curbed. Nor will his disgusting behaviour.
All this will continue unless ordinary Thais get organised in a pro-democracy social movement which eventually overthrows the military junta and the system of Guided Democracy.
Finally we can see the end result of the March 2019 Thai election. As predicted, the junta and its servants have fixed it so that Generalissimo Prayut can continue to be Prime Minister, extending the life of the military junta under a veneer of “democracy”. It doesn’t take a genius to see that this is a system of “Guided Democracy under the Junta’s Jackboots”.
Generalissimo Prayut has taken a lesson from the brutal General Sisi of Egypt. He can now pretend to have been a “democratically elected Prime Minister”, despite the fact that he is not even an elected member of parliament.
Most of us could see this coming for years before the actual election was held.
Prayut’s first act was to stage a military coup, overthrowing a democratically elected government in 2014. Before and after the coup, Prayut’s team brutally suppressed opposition to his regime. The junta then set about designing their “Guided Democracy” system by drawing up the military Constitution, the 20 year National Strategy and the warped election rules. As the election approached, the junta used the Constitutional Court to dissolve one of Taksin’s parties. The junta appointed all 250 of its people to the Senate. It then delayed the count after the election. This allowed the Electoral Commission to take seats from the Future Forward Party and give them to a number of small parties which had won miniscule numbers of votes. This helped to reduce the number of anti-junta seats.
On 5th May, the entire senate obediently raised their hands for Prayut and together with pro-junta parties he was able to claim the post of Prime Minister. He had previously changed the rules so that an unelected figure could become Prime Minister and the Senate and Lower House would sit together to elect the Prime Minister.
This is despite the fact that anti-junta parties had won more popular votes and constituency parliamentary seats than the pro-junta parties. Generalissimo Prayut lost the election, but is now claiming to be a democratically elected leader. No doubt Western governments will use this fig-leaf to restore full and friendly relations with the Thai government and sell it more arms.
Needless to say, the idiotic and nasty King Wachiralongkorn had nothing to do with any of the plans for Guided Democracy or the outcome of this election. To claim that the King is behind all this is to divert attention from the real gangsters in the military. [See https://bit.ly/2EOjsNL ].
Democrat Party prostitutes itself to enter the government
As usual, the mis-named Democrat Party prostituted itself to enter the junta’s government. The party has never won an election and even lied to the electorate before this election that it would not support Prayut, but eventually it showed its true colours and got into bed with the bloody dictatorship. This is the second time that the party has loved up to the military. In 2010, it was part of a military installed regime that shot down a hundred pro-democracy demonstrators in cold blood.
Future Forward and Pua Thai Parties obsessed with playing by the rules
The leadership of the Future Forward and Pua Thai Parties remain obsessed with playing by the junta’s rules. Before the election they promised that merely voting in the junta’s election would result in the end of military rule and an end to the military’s Constitution. When they felt they had been treated unfairly they only resorted to the junta’s kangaroo courts. This strategy has reached a dead-end.
The leadership of the Future Forward and Pua Thai Parties threw away the golden opportunity to use the legitimacy of winning the popular vote to organise a broad-based social movement against the dictatorship. Even now they are refusing to consider building such a movement.
Lessons from Thailand and all over the world show that entrenched dictatorial regimes can only be overthrown by mass movements outside parliament. [See https://bit.ly/2aDzest ]. It will be up to grass-roots activists to build such a movement, independent from the politicians of mainstream parties. This is what I am advocating in my Thai language blog “Turn Left Thailand”.
It is now clear that during the ridiculous 6 week delay in declaring the Thai election results, the Electoral Commission has managed to find a fraudulent formula to keep the junta in power. The pathetic excuse for this delay was the coronation of the odious Wachiralongkorn.
A few days after the March election it became obvious that anti-military parties like Pua Thai and Future Forward Party, along with their smaller party allies, had won both the popular vote and a majority of constituency seats. [See https://bit.ly/307AgpF ].
The result showed clearly that a majority of Thai citizens had voted against the military.
Yet, now, the Electoral Commission has changed the dubious formula for calculating the number of “Party List” MPs for each party. Not surprisingly, the Future Forward Party has lost a number of Party List seats which it originally had. These seats have now been given to tiny unknown parties which never declared their policies towards democracy and the military. Some obtained less than 40 thousand national votes.
Hey presto!! The result is that the overall majority that the anti-military parties originally obtained in parliament has suddenly evaporated!
The small parties that gained single party list seats are not well known to most people and they were obviously ripe to be bought by the junta in order to shore up its bid to form a government. They now say that they will support Prayut’s junta.
In addition to this, key members of the Future Forward Party are facing trumped-up charges in order to try to have them disqualified.
And, as we know, the junta has appointed 250 of its own people to the senate in order to guarantee support for the military remaining in power.
Fraudulent tricks in order to claim “democratic legitimacy” have been used in other countries like Egypt and Burma. No one should be fooled by such manoeuvres.
Dirty deals with the Democrat Party and Poom Jai Thai Party
It is shocking that the so-called pro-democracy parties, especially the Future Forward Party, are considering a dirty deal with the Democrat Party and Poom Jai Thai Party in a pathetic attempt to try to stop Prayut from returning as Prime Minister.
Such a deal with the likes of Abhisit, who murdered Red Shirt pro-democracy activists when he was last Prime Minister in a military backed government, is an insult to all those who have fought for democracy. It is also doomed to fail in terms of restoring democracy and ending the legacy of the military junta, which the Future Forward Party claimed as key policies during the election campaign. Both the Democrat Party and Poom Jai Thai Party have a history of working with military regimes.
It represents an imbecilic obsession with dirty parliamentary politics at the expense of citizen participation. Elected politicians do deals while citizens merely sit and watch. Is this the so-called “New Future” that the Future Forward Party has been talking about? It looks much more like old-style corrupt politics.
Another example of an imbecilic obsession with parliamentary politics is the fact that Pua Thai and Future Forward Parties have threaten legal action in the courts against the Electoral Commission. But Thai courts are tools of the military junta and the conservative anti-democrats. We saw this when the courts were used to stage at least two judicial coups against elected governments in the past. The courts also selectively punished politicians like Yingluck on dubious charges while ignoring the crimes of corrupt military coupsters. The courts also struck down a proposal for a high speed rail project claiming that it would be better to improve fictitious unpaved roads in rural areas.
Not only will relying on the courts to stop the junta’s election fraud be unsuccessful, but it will tie up politicians in long lawsuits while the junta carry on ruling the country. It amounts to a capitulation to the junta.
The Mass Movement is the Key
Instead of these hopeless manoeuvres, the political leaders of the anti-military parties should organise their millions of supporters to attend pro-democracy rallies. This would help build a pro-democracy social movement and put pressure on the military. The lessons from many countries around the world is that democratic rights cannot be won without mass struggle.
If the political leaders of Pua Thai and Future Forward Parties are unwilling to organise their voters into a movement, ordinary activists will have to step in and gradually build such a movement themselves.
After the Thai junta’s recent flawed elections, there are voices of pessimism being raised about the prospects of democracy in the country. Many raise the monarchy as a reason to explain why the pro-democracy side are “always” unsuccessful.
But they ignore the evidence about how little power is actually in the hands of King Wachiralongkorn and more importantly, they ignore Thai history.
Wachiralongkorn is a play-boy puppet of the military junta, who spends almost all of his time living in Germany. He has never expressed a view about politics and society. When he quoted his father, just before the election, to say that people should vote for “good” people, if it was supposed to encourage citizens to vote for the junta party, it did not work. A majority of people voted for anti-military parties and the proportion voting for pro-junta parties corresponded to the number of votes cast by middle-class yellow shirts in the 2011 election. [See https://bit.ly/2EOjsNL ].
The democratic space in Thailand, and in any other society, is never a fixed item. It expands and contracts in accordance with the level of struggle and public opinion. The democratic space in Thailand was expanded after the victories of mass social movements against the military in 1973 and 1992. Even in 2010, when the red shirts were gunned down in cold blood, the actions of the movement forced an election one year later, which Yingluk’s Pua Thai Party won in a landslide victory.
It is interesting to note that in 1991, King Pumipon came out and praised junta head Suchinda. One year later, a mass movement toppled Suchinda from power. So much for the influence of the monarchy!
Often, the voices of pessimism reflect mood swings, from wildly optimistic hopes that the junta and its legacy could be destroyed merely by putting a cross against pro-democracy parties on the ballot paper, and the realisation that this will not be nearly enough.
As I have written before, this is understandable and deep down people knew in their heart of hearts that a long struggle would be necessary to achieve democracy. People were just desperate to believe in an easier route.
But activists need to do better than this. They need to think about Antonio Gramsci’s motto on looking at politics. Gramsci proposed that we should have “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will”.
In terms of current Thai politics this means that we should realise the real obstacles to building democracy. In a nutshell we are faced with a “Guided Democracy” system crafted by the military, which has created a 20 year National Strategy, a military appointed senate and judiciary, and a warped electoral process which favours the junta. The junta is also still using repression against activists.
We also need to realise that in the real world, the only power that can destroy the military’s hold on politics is a mass social movement aimed at expanding the democratic space. We need to see that such a movement, in the shape of the red shirts, was put into cold storage and destroyed by Taksin and his allies, in the mistaken hope that a grubby deal could be reached with the military. Finally, we need to take a hard look at the weak state of the pro-democracy movement since Prayut’s military coup in 2014. It has been fragmented and has concentrated on symbolic gestures by a small number of young activists.
This is the “pessimism of the intellect”.
But the “optimism of the will” means that after studying the reality of the Thai history of struggle, we can realise that a mass social movement can gradually be built and such movements have beaten the military in the past. But to be successful, lessons also need to be learnt from past mistakes such as allowing people like Taksin to have too much influence over the movement, failing to build the movement among students, young people and trade unions, and relying on static prolonged street encampments rather than individual days of protests and strikes.
The junta can be beaten, but only by building a mass movement guided by ideas grounded in reality which are a result of vigorous and democratic discussions within the movement.
Anek Laotamatat made a name for himself in supporting the flawed mainstream idea that the Thai middle-class was key to building democracy. His paper on the 1992 uprising against the military sang the praises of the key role of the middle-classes, despite the fact that there was evidence of a much more complicated class makeup of the demonstrators. [See also https://bit.ly/1HFxyLM and https://bit.ly/2QQBxk2 ]
On Christmas day 2018, Anek made a confession on Thai PBS TV that when he looked back to the 1973 uprising against the Tanom dictatorship, if he had known what he knew now about how “bad” the democratic electoral system really was, he would have supported the continuation of the Tanom regime. He is now firmly in the camp of those who want to see Generalissimo Prayut and his junta cling on to power after the so-called elections next month.
In many ways, Anek’s political trajectory mirrors that of the Thai middle-classes and one could say that his book “The Tale of Two Democratic Cities”, provides the theoretical justification for Prayut’s system of Guided Democracy.
It is worth reminding ourselves about the political career of Anek Laotamatas through being a former supporter of the Maoist Communist Party, to becoming an academic and finally ending up as an anti-democratic politician.
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 military constitution which restricts the power of any democratically elected governments in the future. It was also the justification for the 2006 and 2014 military coups. Military coups in Thailand have 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 acts and repressive regimes, like the 1976 massacre, the present military junta, and the cold-blooded murder of red shirt demonstrators by the military. The middle-classes also sometimes oppose 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. Today the Thai middle-classes are firmly in the camp of the dictatorship.
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, in his view, 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, Knowingly or unknowingly, followed 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, 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 went on to promote the idea of “Asia Values” in his attempt to justify the military regime. He argued that Thailand needed a “mixed” system where elected governments share power with the King and Thai Rak Thai Populism is replaced by “Third Way” social welfare. Anek was 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 when 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. It is the middle-classes who rely on the patronage of the military strongmen, the monarchy and conservative political Big Shots in order to protect the “old ways” which created the unequal society which we see today in Thailand.
“A Tale of Two Democracies: Conflicting Perceptions of Elections and Democracy in Thailand.” By Anek Laothamatas. In: The Politics of Elections in Southeast Asia. Edited by R. H. Taylor. Cambridge University Press, 1996.
The Thai Junta’s party: Palang Pracharat Party, is going to nominate dictator Prayut for Prime Minister if it wins enough votes at the general election, which is scheduled for early 2019. Given that the junta has appointed the entire senate and given that the senate and lower house can vote on the Prime Minister together, Palang Pracharat does not even need a majority of elected MPs for Paryut to continue his authoritarian rule.
But just in case this scenario does not happen, the junta’s servants have been gerrymandering the constituencies to help ensure an advantage for the junta’s Palang Pracharat. [See https://bit.ly/2EbX685 ].
Then there is the 20 year National Strategy, which I have previously written about, which will tie the hands of any elected government which is opposed to the military junta.
Taksin’s Pua Thai Party has budded off into at least 3 sister parties to try to get round the ridiculous voting regulations which will give smaller parties an advantage in terms of the number of seats they gain from the party list system.
So all in all the elections are likely to be a farce. That is, if they aren’t postponed under some pretext!
The only positive thing to be said about this period before elections is that it has raised interest among the population about alternative policies to the junta and it has exposed a number of politicians for being opportunist mercenaries who have switched allegiance to join up with the junta. No doubt there have been financial incentives promised to them.
In addition to this, when the elections are finally held, the total number of votes for pro-democracy, anti-junta parties, will be of interest in terms of measuring the political pulse of the nation.
Meanwhile the Future Forward Party has been shaken by an internal dispute between the leadership and the youth wing (NGN). Committee members of the youth wing were suspended. The official reason is that they are supposed to have spent money inappropriately. But no details have been given and no real explanation has been offered either. This does not bode well for transparency and internal democracy.
Some commentators have explained that it is a dispute over policy, with the youth wing wishing to engage in more militant activities than the leadership. According to this explanation, the youth wing were trying to emphasise progressive policies while the mainstream of the party was relying more on the personal charisma of business tycoon and party leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit. The Future Forward Party has tended to stress that it is “New” without bothering too much about detail. It also seems to have attracted a diverse group of people with different political stand-points who want to oppose the dictatorship and are disillusioned with Taksin’s parties.
Another explanation put forward by observers is that the youth wing are “left-leaning”, whereas the top leadership are pro-business liberals. The fact that the party has tried to create an image of “moving beyond left and right” may account for left-leaning youth joining a pro-business liberal party. Sooner or later tensions arising from this contradiction and the emphasis on Thanathorn, with its associated imbalance of power between the leadership and the rank and file, were bound to cause problems. Similar tensions may arise between the handful of trade union members and the pro-business leadership. [See https://bit.ly/2IpUUJa ].
It is difficult to see how the democratic space can be significantly expanded if people remain mesmerised by these flawed elections.
This is one of many sharp critiques contained in the “My Country has this” (#ประเทศกูมี) rap sung by the group “Rap Against Dictatorship”, in late October.
Much has been written about this rap, but it is worth roughly summarising the content. The music video is set against a re-created background of the state-sponsored barbaric events at Thammasat University on 6th October 1976. [See http://bit.ly/1TKgv02 or http://bit.ly/2d1iZbj ]. It shows that discussion about 6th October is not just about “history” but it is highly relevant to the political situation in Thailand today.
The “My Country has this” rap outlines almost everything that is wrong with Thailand today. This includes the impunity enjoyed by the rich when they break the law or the impunity enjoyed by junta leaders when they are accused of corruption. It mentions the hypocrisy promoted by the junta and suit-wearing elites who talk endlessly about “good people” and the need to “respect the law” while they engage in corruption and the creation of immoral laws. It describes how Bangkok has often been turned into a killing field, for example in 1973, 1976, 1992 and 2010. It talks about the present “parliament” which is just a lounge for soldiers and various constitutions which are written and then rubbed out by the military jack-boots, where a gun is held to our throats while claiming that we all have “freedom”. It criticised suppression of dissent and state surveillance, but also the fact that many so-called dissenters line up to follow the dictatorship like ants.
When the music video was first released it had a few hundred thousand views. But when the junta’s police threatened to prosecute the artists and production team the number of views shot up to over 55 million by the first week of November. Hundreds of people on social media “thanked the police” for promoting the video. After the junta realised that their response to the video had made them a laughing stock in society, the prosecution threats were withdrawn.
The Military dictatorship have affirmed that a general election will be held around February 2019, but it will hardly be democratic. Continuing threats against dissenters continue unabated. Last week a former whistle-blowing campaigner, who was part of the mob which opposed the 2014 elections and welcomed General Prayut’s military coup, stated that he felt that he had been “used” by both the military and mob leader Sutep Taugsuban. He was paid a visit by a group of soldiers. Around the same time people with calendars bearing the photos of former Prime Ministers Taksin Shinawat and Yingluck Shinawat were taken into military camps for “attitude changing” sessions. Trials of pro-democracy activists, accused of breaking the law by peaceful protests, are still being held in military courts. Political prisoners remain in prison, including those accused of lèse majesté. Some prisoners have not yet been tried in court because the prosecution witnesses “fail to turn up”. Yet they are refused bail. This is the kind of atmosphere in which the so-called elections will be held.
The military’s constitution and their 20 year National Strategy mean that any elected government will be severely constrained within the military’s policy agenda and the powerful military-appointed senate and judiciary are there to police this agenda. New election laws have been designed to discriminate against parties which are supported by the majority of the electorate ie. Taksin’s parties.
Some new parties such as the Future Forward Party and the Commoners Party have announced that they will oppose the legacy of the dictatorship. But even if they manage to win enough seats in parliament, which is unlikely, they will not have the power to over-rule the National Strategy, the senate and the judiciary. Only a powerful pro-democracy social movement outside parliament could do that. Such movements have been built in Thailand in the past, and it would be possible to do so again. The fact that millions of Thais were able to identify with the “My Country has this” rap is a ray of hope for the future. But there is a danger of people being mesmerised by the prospects of the election without properly thinking about the issue of entrenched military power.
Thais are not the only ones mesmerised by the election. Western governments cannot wait to re-establish “business as usual” with Thailand, irrespective of whether the elections are democratic or not.
The dead Tory tyrant Margaret Thatcher used to bang on about the importance of the Magna Carta in the development of British democracy. This was just a lie designed to ignore the key role of the workers’ movement in fighting for British democracy. The Magna Carta was just an agreement between King John and the nobles to share power.
Two hundred years ago, in the middle of deep austerity, appalling conditions and a total lack of democracy, 60,000 men, women and children gathered in a massive protest at St Peters’ Field in Manchester. This was roughly equivalent to half the population of Manchester. It was a huge mass movement against poverty and for democracy. Other rallies had already taken place in London and other cities.
The Times newspaper reported that in Manchester thousands of spinners and weavers lived in “squalid wretchedness” and “repulsive depravity”. But this ruling class paper also denounced the role played by women in the mass movement: “We cannot conceive that any but a hardened and shameless prostitute would have the audacity to appear on the hustings on such an occasion and for such a purpose.”
Given that the French revolution had erupted less than 30 years ago and radical uprisings were still happening, the British ruling class was fearful of a full-blown working class revolution here. Local magistrates ordered the peaceful Manchester protest to be brutally suppressed. The armed Yeomanry played a key role. They were a paramilitary force drawn from the ranks of the local mill and shop owners. Many were drunk. On horseback, armed with sabres and clubs, they rode through the crowd in an orgy of violence. Many were familiar with, and had old scores to settle with, the leading protesters. Six hundred Hussars, several hundred infantrymen; an artillery unit with two six-pounder guns, 400 men of the Cheshire cavalry and 400 special constables, also took part. At least 18 people were killed, including a two year old child and a pregnant woman. Six hundred were injured. Women were singled out for violent treatment to teach them a lesson about why they should not engage in politics.
This brutal massacre of workers by the British ruling class resulted in mass protests throughout the land. It also shaped the increased radicalisation of the working class Chartist movement that pushed for universal male suffrage. Emmeline Pankhurst’s paternal grandfather had narrowly escaped death at Peterloo and no doubt the story was told to her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, who all became active suffragettes. Sylvia also became a socialist.
Peterloo is not just an interesting chapter of history. It has great significance today in Britain and also in Thailand. Those gathered at St Peters’ Field in 1819 had already learnt the lesson that just petitioning to parliament was not enough. Mass movements had to be built. Today, as a British general election looms, with the prospect of a possible Corbyn Labour government, we need to be aware that the British ruling class will do everything in their power to obstruct Labour’s policies. We will need a mass movement outside parliament, among the trade unions, to defend any democratic mandate given to such a government.
In Thailand, the military junta has said it will hold a general election in February. Yet this election will not be free and fair. The junta’s 20 year National Strategy will empower junta appointees in the judiciary and the senate to overrule and even remove any elected government that does not conform to the junta’s “Guided Democracy” policies.
Liberal bourgeois political parties like the Future Forward Party have stated that they intend to rewrite the military’s constitution and reduce the legacy and political power of the military. Yet even if they manage to get elected and hold a parliamentary majority, they will be hampered by the National Strategy. The only solution will be to build a large pro-democracy social movement outside parliament to push for real change. This movement should be rooted in the Thai working class. The middle class has already shown itself to be supportive of military coups and opposed to all pro-poor policies.
As in Britain, the brutal behaviour of the Thai ruling class is plain to see with the shooting of unarmed pro-democracy activists in 1973, 1976, 1992 and 2010.
The radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote “The Mask of Anarchy” in response to Peterloo …
At present the presumed date for the future Thai elections is sometime in February 2019 and various political parties are going through the process of registering with the Electoral Commission and holding meetings to elect people to leadership posts. However, political parties have been warned by the junta not to declare their manifestos or to start the process of electioneering.
There are a number of parties worth a mention on the anti-military side.
The “Future Forward Party” has a clear policy of reducing the power and influence of the military by scrapping the military constitution and other junta inspired laws, and it is busy pushing its “new look” and claiming to be the party of the new generation. However, it is likely to be a party aimed at sections of the pro-democracy middle classes. It will prioritise the free-market and business interests while also claiming to support the poor in an abstract manner. Its leader, tycoon Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, has stated that it will “protect capitalism for the benefit of the majority”. In the past he has emphasised that business must make a profit before benefits for workers can be improved. It is in favour of devolving power to the provinces and has made sounds about self-determination in Patani. [See https://bit.ly/2Nf7fks and https://bit.ly/2IpUUJa ].
Without an extra-parliamentary mass movement for democracy it will be difficult for any elected party to reduce the role of the military. [See https://bit.ly/2O5ZNNx ].
The “Commoners Party” claims to be a grass-roots party with no big-business backing and it is made up of NGO activists and villagers. It also has a position against the military’s involvement in politics, but so far its policies remain vague. It has recently been involved in a scandal when it was revealed that the elected deputy leader, Akechai Isarata, took part in the anti-election mob in 2014 which opened the door to Prayut’s coup. This stems from the NGO movement’s hatred of Taksin Shinawat and their reticence about democracy and the need to oppose military coups. He has now resigned after members of the party called on him to quit.
The Taksin controlled Pua Thai Party has a long pedigree of being supported by the rural poor and urban workers, which will give it an advantage at the polls. Taksin’s first party, Thai Rak Thai, brought in the first ever universal health care scheme and other pro-poor policies. But Taksin has a reputation for brutal repression in Patani and during the War on Drugs. Pua Thai also enjoys an “anti-military” image from the fact that 4 of its elected governments were overthrown, either by the military or the pro-military judiciary. Yet Taksin and most Pua Thai politicians, with handful honourable exceptions, have done nothing to oppose Prayut’s military junta over the last 4 years. It is known that they would rather do a deal with the military and the reactionaries. [See https://bit.ly/2pI87Ev ].
In the pro-junta reactionary corner, we have the misnamed Democrat Party, which in 2008 became the “party of the military”. Abhisit Vejjajiva was appointed Prime Minister by the military and in 2010 ordered the cold-blooded shooting of unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators. The Democrats have never won a majority in any election and since the Taksin years have taken an extreme free-market position, opposing state spending on the universal health care scheme and job creation programmes. The party now pretends to oppose military coups and Prayut’s continued role in politics. But it has a record of taking part in events which create the conditions for military intervention. There is currently a contest for the leader of the party. [See https://bit.ly/2IrOIAr ].
Also in the reactionary corner, we have the “Action Coalition for Thailand Party” set up by Sutep Tuaksuban and his mates. The Thai name is “Ruam Palang Prachachart Thai”, which means unite together the power of the Thai people. Included among founding party members are members of the Tuaksuban clan; a political mafia group who control areas of Surat Tani province in the south. They were formerly members of the Democrat Party. Sutep Tuaksuban, along with Democrat Party leader Abhisit and General Prayut, are responsible for the cold-blooded murders of Red Shirts in 2010. Sutep was also the leader of the anti-election mob which wrecked the February 2014 elections and paved the way to Prayut’s military coup. [See https://bit.ly/2QjpRS5 and https://bit.ly/2zF2bSS ]. Reactionary academic Anek laotamatat [https://bit.ly/2cPKRjP ] and former “professional student leader” turned PAD Yellow Shirt Suriyasai Katasila, along with Sutep’s lawyer, are also among the list of founding members of the Ruam Palang Prachachart Thai Party.
Sutep’s “Ruam Palang Prachachart Thai Party” supports the military junta and it might well vote for Generalissimo Prayut to become the next Prime Minister. Prayut has refused to rule out extending his role in politics and the military constitution allows for a non-MP to be nominated as Prime Minister in some circumstances. However, anyone wanting to vote for the junta can now directly support the “Palang Pracharat Party” (power of the citizens party). It has been set up by Prayut’s cronies and is stuff full of junta officials. Naturally, when the reactionary parties talk about “the people” they really mean the military and the elites.
Of course, we have to be absolute clear that these elections will not restore democracy to Thailand, as the political agenda is going to be tightly controlled by the military’s National Strategy and their powerful appointed supporters in the senate and the judiciary. However, this system of “Guided Democracy” will be enough satisfy Western governments who have never cared about freedom and democracy in most parts of the world.
When an election is eventually held in Thailand, and there is no guarantee that the election will be held next year, electoral politics on its own will be inadequate in removing the military from power.
On this site, I have warned that the military junta is busy designing a “Guided Democracy” system, which will entrench the power of the military for the next 20 years. This is also the view of other commentators. The Guided Democracy system is going to use the National Strategy and the military’s constitution to shackle the policies of any future elected civilian government. The various military appointed bodies, such as the Senate and the courts, will police this system.
It is to their credit that the Future Forward Party have announced for some time now that it is committed to undoing the legacy of the military junta to ensure that military intervention in politics is ended.
However, electoral politics on its own is not enough to abolish the military’s legacy. This is because of the fundamental contradiction between electoral politics and campaigning mass movements.
Political parties like the Future Forward Party, aim to win as many votes from the electorate as possible. The emphasis on electoral politics means that they will follow existing social trends rather than campaign to get people to change their views and become more radical. The emphasis is not on agitation and leadership but on appealing to a mass audience.
It is very likely that large numbers of Thai citizens are sick and tired of Prayut’s dictatorship and the constant destruction of democracy by the military. Parties such as Pua Thai and Future Forward, who stand on the opposite side to the military, are therefore likely to win significant numbers of votes. But winning votes does not guarantee the power to overthrow the National Strategy or the military constitution. Merely winning votes from the electorate implies a passive response from citizens, who are only required to put a cross in the correct box at election time. It does not mean mobilising huge numbers of people to come out and support a newly elected civilian government on the streets and in the workplaces. But such a mobilisation is exactly what is required in order to destroy the legacy of the military and to abolish the power of the army, the appointed Senate and the pro-dictatorship judiciary.
In order to build a mass pro-democracy social movement, the views of millions of citizens need to be challenged by a growing movement outside parliament. Such a challenge requires campaigning to encourage people to change their views. There are millions who want democracy, but how many of those have the confidence to believe that the legacy of the military can be destroyed? How many will be prepared to actively engage in struggle? How many are prepared to go beyond just the formal state of democracy towards a more equal society?
Electoral politics on its own does not mean putting such a challenge to the population. Electoral politics puts pressure on political parties to find common ground even with those who do not wish to totally get rid of the legacy of the military or to facedown the interests of the powerful elites. Electoral politics also means making compromises with prevailing ideas in society.
The prevailing ideas in society are influenced by the media, the conservative institutions and also by fear of those with power. Suggestions about drastically cutting the military budget, sacking and punishing all the high ranking officers responsible for destroying democracy, dismantling the main power structures in society or creating economic equality are usually branded as “extremist views” by mainstream commentators. So are suggestions about abolishing the lèse majesté law, significantly increasing the wages of workers, raising tax levels on the millionaires and corporations by large amounts in order to fund a welfare state, or transforming the country into a republic. Yet none of these examples are in the least extreme and have been carried out in some other countries.
Electoral politics means down-playing any policies which might be classified as “extreme” and trying to find common ground with as large a number of the electorate as possible. It also usually means discouraging struggles by social movements, especially during election time.
What is needed in order to overcome the contradiction between electoral politics and campaigning mass movements, is for people to support progressive parties at elections, but to also build campaigning mass movements simultaneously.
[Read more about the good and bad policies of the Future Forward Party in previous articles on this site]