Tag Archives: social movements

How can we reduce the power of the military?

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Many people in Thailand are thinking about how to reduce the power of the military and prevent future coups and the never ending destruction of democracy. This is especially important given that the power of the junta will be extended into the future after the next elections. The junta has organised this “Guided Democracy” state of affairs through its constitution, the military appointed senate, the military appointed judges, the election rules and the National Strategy.

In order to make sure the military are unable to intervene in politics we shall have to change the constitution, scrap the National Strategy, replace the generals, judges and appointed senators and drastically cut the military budget. Ending conscription would also help. The abolition of the lèse-majesté law and the de-mystification of the monarchy are also necessary in order to reduce the power of the military because the generals rely on the monarchy as a tool for legitimisation. This necessary and difficult project will have huge implications.

Some are placing their hopes in the election of new political parties which are opposed to the role of the military. But even if these parties manage to win seats, and even form a government, they will not have the power through parliament to reduce the influence of the military.

This is not because of some secret “Deep State” but it is because the military and the conservative anti-democratic sections of the ruling class hold extra-parliamentary power. The military have their power based upon their weaponry and other sections of the conservatives control the large corporations, courts, the senate and the mass media.

This is not just a problem confined to Thailand. In Britain, if Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party wins the next general election, and I hope they will, the government will face an entire conservative establishment hell-bent on frustrating the democratic wishes of the people. Apart from threats of military coups, which may merely be the demented dreams of some backward generals, the business class will try to cause a financial crisis by withdrawing capital from the country. The mainstream mass media will be hysterically anti-Labour and the permanent secretaries in the civil service will try to frustrate the Corbyn government’s policies. The EU and the IMF will also put pressure on the government. This has happened in Britain in the past. The same kind of pressure was applied to the Syriza government in Greece.

The only way in which an elected government can have the power to face up to this kind of extra-parliamentary force from the conservatives is for the government to be supported by mass movements on the streets and in work places. Protests and strikes can balance and push back the power of unelected conservatives.

This is not some wild pipe-dream. In the past it has been the mass movements of 1973 and 1992 which have knocked back the power and influence of the military in Thailand. In South Korea, Argentina, Venezuela and Turkey, mass movements have played crucial roles in preventing coups, cutting the power of the military and even punishing the most brutal dictators.

In Burma, it is Aung San Suu Kyi’s demobilisation of the mass movement in 1988 and her compromise with the military that has allowed the Burmese junta to survive despite the elections. In Indonesia and the Philippines, dictatorships were overthrown by mass movements.

In Thailand if we are ever to get rid of the vast parasitic and authoritarian organisation of the military we need to rebuild a mass pro-democracy movement irrespective of the results of the next elections.

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Verbal Solidarity Is Not Enough

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

As many young activists who have come out against the military dictatorship now face imprisonment or even lèse-majesté charges, it is worth building an understanding of the potential power of social movements and the importance of politics in leading the struggles of these movements. If we do not do this, the activists will languish in jail and Thai society will not be freed from the influence of the military.

It is not enough to praise these young activists and wish them well, as many have quite rightly done. If we remain as mere spectators, viewing some symbolic defiance of the junta by the students or NGO activists, the dictatorship can never be overthrown. It is not merely about pushing the junta to call elections or demanding civil rights in an abstract manner. The whole authoritarian structure of Thai politics, which the military dictatorships have been building needs to be dismantled. This means we must pay attention to “power” and political leadership.

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The latest protest at the Democracy Monument yesterday was a good start, but much more needs to be done to build an organised movement. Rungsima Rome, one of the leaders, was right when he said yesterday that just observing the protest via the internet is not enough. People need to come out and join the protests.

But merely making a call for action does not automatically result in a mass uprising against the military either. Hard work on the ground is necessary in building strong social movements. It may seem too easy for someone in exile like me to state this, but it nevertheless remains true.

We need to learn from the lessons of the 14th October 1973 uprising against the dictatorship, when half a million students and working people came out on to the streets of Bangkok and faced down tanks and guns and beat the military. That uprising was sparked by the arrests of pro-democracy activists. Of course we can all hope that this happens again. But there are some crucial differences between the situation in 1973 and 2018.

One of the most important lessons from the 14th October 1973 uprising was that it did not just arise out of thin air. Students and workers in those days had mass organisations and the anger at the military repression fed into those mass organisations and resulted in half a million people being pulled on to the streets. Added to this was the political influence of the Communist Party in building a clear and unified critique of society, even though the party played little role in organising the uprising itself and made serious mistakes 3 years later.

What we urgently need is mass organisation. The Red Shirts were a mass movement, but the Taksin allied UDD leadership has placed the Red Shirt Movement in cold storage. This has destroyed the movement.

It is up to all of us to step up to the challenge and rebuild a democracy movement which is independent of politicians like Taksin.

The absence of a Left political party has also created difficulties. If we look around Thai society we see that the so-called NGO-led “Peoples Movement” is blinded by its post-communist adherence to single-issues. Many even supported the junta in the past. The 14th October 1973 uprising linked discontent with social and economic issues in with the struggle against the military. That was why it was so powerful.

The military junta is busy designing an authoritarian political system similar to that which we see in Burma. This aims to extend the dark shadow of the military into the future, even if elections are eventually held.

Today the challenge for us all, but also for the active students and NGOs, is whether we can all help to rebuild a mass movement for democracy which weaves together all the pressing issues of society and is linked to a newly organised political party built from below.

For more on Thai Social Movements, see this paper from 2015: http://bit.ly/2aDzest

Have the NGOs learnt anything from the past?

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Towards the end of this month, an NGO network called “People Go Network” organised a seminar followed by a long distance march to the north-eastern town of Kon Kaen. The aim of the long march was to publicise the issues of human rights, welfare and political participation to local “villagers”.

Predictably the reaction of the military junta was to use security forces to block the march because it was a gathering of more than 5 people, contrary to the orders of the junta. The marchers then got round this by walking in groups of 5 people along the road. The supply vans servicing the march were temporarily impounded by the police as a form of harassment.  The police then issued warrants for the arrest of the leading organisers.

Naturally, all those committed to freedom and democracy should unconditionally condemn the actions of the junta and its security forces, even though many of the groups and individuals who are involved have a history of welcoming military coups and supporting the overthrow of democratically elected governments. It would be sectarian to not show them unconditional solidarity.

AIDS activist Nimit Tienudom, one of the present leaders of People Go Network, once claimed at a royalist Yellow Shirt rally on 23rd March 2006, that most Taksin supporters “did not know the truth” about his Government, implying that the millions of ordinary people who voted for Taksin were stupid. He later made an unsuccessful bid to become a military appointed senator after the September 2006 coup. In 2009 he denounced the Red Shirt pro-democracy protests on 13th April when soldiers used live ammunition against the protestors. The actions of Nimit are not an isolated example, they represent the views of many NGO leaders at the time.

It is to be hoped that these NGO activists have learnt their lesson about welcoming the military intervention in politics and regret their previous political positions, but none have said so in public.

I must stress that it is a positive thing that the People Go Network is challenging Prayut’s dictatorship. However, there are serious questions about the politics and tactics of these NGO activists even today, and it is the politics of NGOs which mislead them into joining the monarchist, yellow-shirt, anti-democratic camp in the first place.

Firstly, they talk about publicising issues to “villagers”. Yet, who are these “villagers”? Are they the people who voted on mass for Taksin’s parties at election time? The NGOs painted a false picture of these citizens as being ignorant and selling their votes. They also condemned the Taksin government for so-called “populism” when it brought out policies to raise the standard of living in rural areas and provide universal health care. Are these villagers capable of self-organisation without a helping hand from NGOs?

It is also worth questioning why the NGOs talk about “villagers” when they are marching through highly industrialised areas full of unionised workers. No attempt has been made to reach out to these workers. No attempts have been made to include pro-democracy activists such as redshirts or student activists either. This smacks of blinkered NGO ideology and sectarianism. This behaviour, and the organising of a long march over a number of days, excludes the participation by ordinary working people. It is not a strategy for building a much-needed mass, pro-democracy, social movement.

Any serious discussion of welfare or of a welfare state cannot take place without a clear position against the free-market and neo-liberalism. Yet the NGOs are not interested in political theory or general “big picture” politics. Some even support the free-market. See http://bit.ly/2sLhk21 and http://bit.ly/1UpZbhh

Secondly, the NGOs are being coy about directly opposing the military dictatorship and its plans for Guided Democracy. When they mention human rights they do not mention the lèse-majesté law. The NGOs have not displayed any solidarity with lèse-majesté prisoners or pro-democracy activists who are constantly hounded by the military, unless they are part of the NGO network.  They also have a history of lobbying the military and wanting to collaborate with the junta on so-called “reforms”, as though the junta were a legitimate government.

On the issue of lèse-majesté, it appears that there are two classes of those accused of breaking this law. Sulak Sivaraksa was recently acquitted of his lèse-majesté charge for questioning the role of an ancient king of Ayuttaya. The charges were ridiculous in the first place. However, Sulak, a self-confessed royalist, has since boasted that he wrote a begging letter to the odious king Wachiralongkorn. According to Sulak, Wachiralongkorn “graciously” asked the courts to acquit him. No such “graciousness” has be granted to other lèse-majesté prisoners like the student activist Pai Doa-Din, who is in jail for sharing a BBC article on the life of this wretched king.

Lèse-majesté is an attack on the fundamental right to freedom of expression and democracy. It should not be up to the likes of Wachiralongkorn to “graciously” grant mercy. The monarchy and the lèse-majesté law should be swept away. But this can only be achieved through the overthrow of both the military dictatorship and any plans for a future Guided Democracy. Accommodating to dictatorship, sucking up to the monarchy or inviting the military to stage coups cannot achieve liberation.

Yesterday another group of mainly young activists calling themselves the  “Democracy Restoration Group” staged a protest in Bangkok about the way the junta has continued to reschedule elections. Around a hundred supporters turned up to this positive event. However, in the future, these young activists will need to be serious about reaching out to other activists to build a concrete united front which can grow into a mass social movement. Merely announcing an event in the press or social media is totally inadequate. In the past they have relied too much on symbolic protests involving a handful of people. See http://bit.ly/2FlU3Xa and  http://bit.ly/2FnVvbt

Liberation is dependent on building a broad-based mass movement which understands the importance of big picture politics. Hopefully the NGOs and other activists will come to understanding this in the near future.

Reviewing the past year: Wachiralongkorn is just an irrelevant side show.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Looking back over the past year we can make a number of observations about the political situation in Thailand.

The king’s lavish funeral has been done and dusted and the new king is on the throne. Wild conspiracy theories about a royal civil war for the throne between Pumipon’s son and daughter have proved to be totally untrue. So has the idea that the country would experience instability after the former king’s death. The latter theory was based on the incorrect view that Pumipon had political power, some, like Somsak Jeeamteerasakul, even claiming that Pumipon was the most powerful figure in the country. [See http://bit.ly/2AF9ozT ]

The fact of the matter is that there has been no instability at all in the military junta’s grip on power. They have continued to oversee the building of a future “Guided Democracy” system under their control. Important elements of this consist of the “National Strategy” and various junta-appointed bodies designed to control and fix elections, political parties and the actions of any future governments. [See http://bit.ly/2x1Ov43 ]There is absolutely no evidence that Pumipon ever had any input or opinion about this plan. He was totally incapacitated for some years.

The junta’s Road Map towards “Guided Democracy” and its backward conservative “National Strategy” has not featured in the new King’s role either. Wachiralongkorn has never expressed any opinions about this and he has no interest in such important matters of State. Wachiralongkorn is certainly an odious creature; selfish, nasty and lacking in any respect for others, especially women. But everything that he has done over the last year has been about himself and his quest for pleasure and riches at the expense of the Thai public. [See http://bit.ly/2l63Z1I ]

The change in the person who is now on the throne has not had any significant impact on the nature of Thai society, politics, or economics. It is just an expensive side-show. This is despite the sensational press articles which have claimed that Thailand has been plunged into the dark ages under king Wachiralongkorn.

Some even point to the new fashion for “buzz cuts” in the military and police as “evidence” of the dictatorial power of Wachiralongkorn, as though that was a crucial aspect of politics rather than a demented obsession by the deluded king and those who wish to suck up to him. We shall see whether Generalissimo Prayut and General Pig-Face Prawit follow the same fashion! [See http://bit.ly/2AWacAq ]

Obsession with the monarchy merely diverts attention away from the real democratic tasks ahead.

The real show in town is the continued grip on power of the military and how the policies of the junta are affecting democracy, human rights, social policy and the state of the economy. Their so-called “Road Map to Elections” is like an elastic band, with an unlimited stretch, and even with elections we will still have a junta controlled Guided Democracy.

Generalissimo Prayut seems to be positioning himself to become the next Prime Minister after the fixed elections. Recently he claimed that he was not a soldier, but a politician. Electoral rules are designed to discriminate against large political parties, especially any party associated with Taksin. The idea is that a fragmented parliament, along with an appointed senate could more easily be manipulated into choosing someone like Prayut to lead the country.

The junta represent the conservative, authoritarian, neo-liberal wing of the Thai ruling class. They are dead against rapid modernisation of society, any steps towards basic empowerment of citizens and the use of state funds to address economic inequality. This was at the core of their disagreement with Taksin and his allies. They are also totally opposed to young people becoming more politically engaged and to any notions of justice.

Getting rid of the military and its legacy cannot be left to Taksin and Pua Thai. As I have argued in previous articles on this site, Taksin and his allies have no interest in the kind of upheaval from below that would be necessary. The middle-classes and NGOs cannot be relied upon to carry out this task either. They have shown a preference for authoritarian rule over mass empowerment of ordinary people. What is holding back the real struggle for democracy is the fact that the most progressive people in society, especially students and working class activists, are yet to be convinced of the need to build a grass-roots left-wing political party that can play a significant role in building a much needed independent, pro-democracy, social movement.

Until large numbers of people decided to organise together against the military junta, who represent the real dark forces in society, the Thai Spring will not occur.

The 1932 Revolution

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Thailand was well integrated into the world market in the 1930s and as a result of this, suffered the effects of the 1930s economic depression. The political fall-out from this was that a group of civilian and military state officials, under Pridi Panomyong’s Peoples’ Party, staged a revolution which overthrew the absolute monarchy of Rama VII in 1932. The first declaration of the revolutionaries clearly identified the economic crisis as bringing things to a head, with mass unemployment, cuts in wages and increased taxation experienced by the mass of the population. The Royal Family was notably exempted from these tax increases!

The 1932 revolution was carried out on the back of widespread social discontent. Farmers in rural areas were becoming increasingly bold and strident in their written criticism of the monarchy. Working class activists were involved in the revolution itself, although they were not the main actors, and cheering crowds spontaneously lined Rachadamnern Avenue as the Peoples’ Party declaration was read out by various representatives stationed along the road. The landmark work of Thammasart historian Nakarin Mektrairat details this wide movement of social forces which eventually lead to the revolution. It is important to stress the role of different social groups in creating the conditions for the 1932 revolution, since the right-wing historians have claimed that it was the work of a “handful of foreign educated bureaucrats”. In fact, there has been a consistent attempt by the right, both inside and outside Thailand, to claim that ordinary Thai people have a culture of respecting authority and therefore show little interest in politics.

The 1932 revolution had the effect of further modernising the state and expanding the base of the Thai capitalist ruling class to include the top members of the civilian and military bureaucracy, especially the military. The reason why the military became so influential in Thai politics, finally resulting in 16 years of uninterrupted military dictatorship from 1957, was that the left-wing revolutionary leader, Pridi Panomyong, failed to grasp the need to build a mass political party, choosing instead to rely on the military. In addition to this, the working class was still weak in terms of social forces which could oppose the military. Nonetheless, it would be quite wrong to conclude that class struggle was non-existent.

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Pridi wrote the first declaration of the Peoples’ Party, which was strongly anti-monarchy. He also drafted an economic policy paper which set out plans for the nationalisation of land, a super tax on the rich and a welfare state. Yet Pridi’s weakness meant that the economic plan was shelved and compromises were made with the conservatives about the role of the monarchy.

Never the less, the 1932 revolution meant that the role of the monarchy was significantly changed for the second time in less than a century. In the 1870s King Rama V abolished Sakdina rule in favour of a centralised and modern absolute monarchy. Sixty years later, the 1932 revolution destroyed this absolute monarchy so that the king merely became one weak and powerless member of the Thai ruling class. This is the situation today. It is important to understand this, because there has been a tendency by both the left and the right to exaggerate the importance of “long-lasting traditions” about the Thai monarchy. Todays’ monarchy may seem to have the trappings of a “traditional” king, especially to those observers who see the degree to which King Rama IX was revered among huge sections of the population. Yet the influence of this institution has fluctuated over the last sixty years and the “sacredness” of the monarchy has in fact been manufactured by military and civilian rulers to provide themselves with political legitimacy.

Military junta orders the building of more coal-fired power stations

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Generalissimo Prayut, backward head of the Thai military junta, and Chair of the National Energy Committee, has ordered that the Electricity Generating Authority push ahead with controversial coal-fired power stations in the south at Krabi and Tepa in Songkla. This is despite opposition by environmental and conservation groups in the area. These groups came to peacefully protest outside Government House in Bangkok, but the military regime ordered the arrest of its leaders under draconian laws which outlaw the right to protest.

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Opposition to these coal fired power stations is based on the negative impact on the local environment in Songkla, Krabi and Patani. The power stations and the docks for unloading imported coal, will destroy natural habitats including mangrove forests and coral reefs, which are also important for local fisheries. They are also located in areas of high tourism, where people come to visit the natural beauty of the environment.

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But this is not merely a “not in my back yard” issue. It is widely accepted by most scientists and intelligent citizens that the burning of fossil fuels, especially in coal-fired power stations, is causing dangerous global warming.

Many countries are trying to phase out coal-fired power stations and to increase electricity generation via alternative sustainable means, such as solar and wind power. Not so, the backward military idiots that are now running Thailand.

The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) is wedded to coal and gas and its propaganda about the new power stations claims that they will use the most advanced technology which will reduce dust and damage to the local environment. Nothing has been said about the continued burning of fossil fuels and the problem of carbon dioxide generation which causes global warming.

The south of Thailand is prone to powerful cyclones which cause flooding and storm damage. These storms will only get worse as the temperature of the Earth increases.

The EGAT has been working with the local authorities, which are under the military, to conscript local people to come out and “show their support” for the power stations.

Thailand has a great abundance of sunshine and it would make perfect sense for the state to vigorously promote a national plan for vastly increasing electricity from solar power. New solar power technologies are being developed in China and Spain and the cost of developing solar power is rapidly decreasing, especially when carried out on a large scale.

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Any forward-looking government in Thailand would be pushing ahead with solar power and wind power while phasing out coal and gas power stations. But the pig-headed backward Generals have no such plans. They also, quite naturally, wish to develop dangerous and costly nuclear power so that they can have access to nuclear weapons technology in the future. The junta and their conservative allies in the courts have also successfully delayed progressive plans for high speed rail links put forward by the previous Yingluck government. Such high speed rail projects would also reduce global warming by cutting unnecessary airline travel within the country.

The issue of coal-fired power stations is yet another example of how the Thai military junta can use its dictatorial powers to ride rough-shod over the wishes of citizens and the reasoned arguments against increased use of fossil fuels.

Further reading: http://bit.ly/2aGcSun

The importance of strategy and tactics

Giles ji Ungpakorn

The mass uprising against the attempted military coup in Turkey has opened up a debate about the tactics of defeating military coups and military dictatorships in Thailand.

Chaturon Chaisang, one of the most principled Pua Thai politicians, has praised what he calls the “Turkish Model”. He and I share the belief that mass movements are needed to prevent or topple military dictatorships.

Of course, in my opinion, the mass opposition to the Turkish coup was to be celebrated. But the way that the Erdogan government has used this as an excuse to restrict democracy and human rights is expected and needs to be opposed. But this does not detract from the importance of the anti-coup mass movement. The fact of the matter is that the mass movement swung the balance of forces against the military coup in Turkey. It offers a possibility of using this force to expand the democratic space. Yet there are those who decry this and condemn the “mob”. The logic of this is to say that the mass movement was always under the control of Erdogan and it would have been better if the military coup had been successful. Those progressives who remember the legacy of military rule in Turkey would quite rightly disagree.

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There is a clear parallel with the situation in Thailand. There were those who decried the Red Shirt movement as being “merely” pawns of Taksin Shinawat, rather than celebrating the existence of a mass pro-democracy movement. Many among the Thai middle classes thought that a military dictatorship was better than a democratically elected Taksin government. The Taksin government was similar to the Erdogan government in Turkey because it was a pro big-business government which offered a better life for working people and the poor. Both governments abused human rights, but the alternative of military rule was worse. Both governments were opposed by entrenched conservative elites among the military, judiciary and civil service. The Turkish elites were anti-religious “Kemalists” while the Thai elites were royalists. Both used their ideologies to oppress those who disagreed.

When the need to find ways of rebuilding pro-democracy mass movements is raised in Thailand, especially after the events in Turkey, there have been three negative responses.

Firstly, there are those who say that the events in Turkey are different from Thailand because in Thailand the king is the power behind the military and the king is so powerful that he cannot be opposed. This is a big lie and a big excuse for doing nothing. The view that the king is all powerful is a wonderful excuse used by people who want to chatter and gossip about the royals but do nothing. In actual fact the king has always been a weakling, dependent on the military. Today he is totally incapacitated by old age. The real anti-democratic power lies with the military, not unlike in Turkey.

Secondly, there are those who claim that it is not possible to oppose the military in Thailand because they shoot down pro-democracy activists. Yes, they do, and so did the Turkish coup plotters. So did the Thai military in 1973, 1976, 1992 and 2010. Yet the mass movement beat the Turkish military in 2016 and the Thai military in 1973 and 1992. The real question is how to build an affective mass movement and how it relates to the power of working people. The other side are always prepared to use violence. But violence can be overcome by mass movements.

Thirdly, there are those who want to silence debate about strategy and tactics. Some claim that this is necessary in order to build “unity”. Unity built on stifling debate is a false unity which disrespects debate and wants to close its eyes to all discussions about seeking the best way of overthrowing dictatorships. Others are offended by criticisms of “holy sacrifices” made by sincere but misguided young students in the NDM who turn their backs on building mass movements. They are offended by criticism of symbolic and elitist gestures by a handful of people. These actions are elitist because ordinary people cannot afford to go to jail repeatedly to make a point. But Thais have shown repeatedly, that if conditions are right, and there is good organisation, they are prepared to join huge mass movements for democracy and face down the military.

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The red shirts were the biggest pro-democracy mass movement in Thailand’s history. The tragedy was that they were demobilised by the UDD leadership along with Taksin. The answer is not to celebrate powerless symbolic gestures by a few dedicated people who rely on the internet, but to rebuild a mass movement with independent leadership based among grass roots activists in the working class and poorer sections of society. A further discussion about this is sorely needed.