Tag Archives: Thai monarchy

Materialist Power or Abstract Mystical Power of the Thai Monarchy?

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

For some years I have argued that king Pumipon of Thailand never had any real power and that his role was purely to give legitimacy to the political actions of the elites, especially the military. He was used by them as a symbol of the “natural order of things in society” in order to maintain the status quo.

When I have debated the power of the Thai king with some of my colleagues, especially Ajarn Somsak Jeamteerasakul and more recently Eva Hanson, their argument against my position is to say that I am looking at a narrow definition of power: the power to order something to happen. But in my view this is the essence of political power. It is a materialist, real world concept of concrete power. No other power exists. Examples of this concrete power are the power to order the military to stage a coup, the power to order the shooting down of pro-democracy demonstrators, the power to order the judiciary to make decisions according to the views of the monarchy, or the power to dictate political, economic and social policy. Quite a few Thais actually believed that king Pumipon had such concrete power. Yet it could never be proved.

However, those who argue against my definition of power claim that the Thai king never had to order anything directly because people would “know” what he desired and would therefore issue the orders on his behalf.

Now, in my view, this is just playing with words. Those that claimed to “know” the king’s wishes, without him ever ordering anything must have been engaged in self-delusion for nothing can be proven. It is not only self-deception, but a great public lie in order to justify to society what they choose to do. Without clear instructions or rebukes from the monarch there is no way of knowing that these people have correctly read the mind of the king. In fact I would go so far as to state that those claiming to be carrying out the king’s wishes in this way are merely using the king to give legitimacy to their own political agenda. This leads straight back to my position which states that the king was weak and used by the elites.

There are people all over the world who claim to be carrying out “God’s work”. This claim is made without any attempt to ever show a concrete instruction from God. There are no letters, e-mails or sound recordings of God’s wishes for us to investigate. At most there are only ancient “holy books”, which were in fact written by ordinary human beings, who claimed to be carrying out God’s work, and often these books are full of contradictions.

As an atheist I do not believe that God exists. But surely Ajarn Somsak or Eva Hanson would have to agree that using their thesis, God is in fact a very powerful and real being?

Or is it really that God is a powerful excuse used by ordinary mortals, to legitimise their actions to other humans who also believe in God?

So surely those who claim to have carried out Pumipon’s wishes are really only using what they hope is a powerful symbol in the eyes of some Thais in order to legitimise their own actions. In plain language, Pumipon was a powerful excuse to legitimise the policies of the Thai elites, irrespective of whether he agreed or disagreed with them and he never had any say in the matter either. In other words, he had no power. He was just a tool.

Of course, the Thai ruling classes had to attempt to socialise the population into respecting and loving the king in order that he could be a useful tool in the first place. But this was just propaganda which could be countered. At certain moments in history, the Communist Party successfully countered royalist propaganda. More recently some Red Shirts have done the same on a smaller scale. This is just an example of Gramsci’s “War of Position”, an ideological war.

In many societies “the law” is used by the ruling class to legitimise their actions. But “the law”, which the ruling class has written for its own benefit, is only powerful if the general population accept it. Once they do not, the real naked power of the police and army have to be used. We have seen this recently in Catalonia. We also see how the Thai junta constantly quote their own laws to justify their actions, but they are commanding the guns, tanks and the courts. Once the theatrical mask slips, we see the true nature of power.

The argument that Pumipon never had to order anyone to do anything directly, but somehow remained the most powerful man in Thailand does not hold water. It is merely another way of saying that he was used by the powerful elites to justify their actions.

Advertisements

Shameful behaviour of Chulalongkorn University Staff reflects state of Thai society

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Last week a disgraceful incident occurred at my old university where I used to teach. Assistant Professor Ruangwit Banjongrut, who was in charge of student affairs, head locked a student representative and dragged him off, pulling his hair. At the same time he was heard to shout obscenities at another student. Ruangwit was part of Sutep’s anti-democracy mob before the latest coup.

All this happened because the elected student representatives decided to walk out early from an open air induction ceremony as it had started to rain. Previous to this incident the student representatives had sought agreement with teaching staff that the event would be cut short if it started to rain.

Those teaching staff who were there, including Ruangwit, committed gross violations of teaching codes of practice. There was physical violence used against a student, obscenities were used, and these teaching staff also forced hundreds of first year students to stay out in the rain, thus failing in their duty of care to the students.

So what was this induction ceremony? It was a ceremony where hundreds of new students are forced to prostrate themselves in front of a statue of two kings: king Chulalongkorn (Rama 5) and king Wachirawut (Rama 6).

Apart from having a role in the founding of the university, these two kings have a disgusting past. Chulalongkorn kept a harem with hundreds of women and had 3 “queens” who were half-sisters. When one of them drowned, no one dared to help because to touch the property of the king was a capital crime. Chulalongkorn modernised Thailand, but this was done to increase his power to become an absolute monarch. The freeing of slaves was also done to lower the price of hiring labour.

Wachirawut loved his dog more than the people and he ordered that a statue be built to honour the mutt. After his death it was observed that he had generally been hated and that he had spent so much money on himself that the finances of the nation were in trouble. On the plus side this awful legacy helped to spark the 1932 revolution against the next king at a time when Thailand was sucked into the world economic crisis.

Anyone looking at the behaviour of these two kings will be reminded of the present new king of Thailand.

Forcing students to grovel in front of these statues distorts history and is aimed at maintaining a respect for authority and dictatorship.

When I became a lecturer at Chula I was forced to go to an induction session. I avoided the grovelling part but I had to sit through a session where the speaker made fun of my Thai and English name and gave us tips on psychology, claiming that thin people were bad-tempered and fat people were jolly!

Many young lecturers at Chula lord it over the students in order to cover up for their own inadequacies. They are just “baby generals” who shout at and abuse students about not wearing their uniforms properly or other meaningless things. At the Faculty of Political Science, where I once taught, these baby generals were dead against teaching students to write argumentative essays and to hold their own opinions.

http://bit.ly/2aE7zc6

Eventually the authorities at Chula started a process which ended with me being charged with lèse-majesté. I had written the book, “A Coup for the Rich”, which criticised the 2006 military coup. They gave the book to the police Special Branch.

Despite all this it is important not to see Chulalongkorn University as merely a conservative institution. The famous left-wing radical Jit Pumisak, who later became a communist fighter, once studied at Chula. After 1973 Chula students set up a socialist group and many of them joined the communist party in the jungle after 1976. Twenty years ago, I and another lecturer were involved in starting a Marxism courses for students. These were the only Marxism courses in the country. Finally, this year the Chula students elected a radical team to become their representatives.

Chulalongkorn University reflects the state of Thai society, with those in power being dictatorial and brutish, the institution being steeped in class inequality, and with revolts from below by those who want freedom and democracy.

News Update:

Chulalongkorn University is trying to press disciplinary charges against Netiwit and other students while the lecturer who abused and assaulted the students enjoys impunity.

Thailand Towards Absolutism? Or Military Guided Democracy? Watch the video

One discussion you will not find at the Thai Studies Conference in Thailand!!

Watch the talk and the debate from Cologne on the 85th anniversary of the 1932 Revolution organised on 24th June 2017 here.

 

This kind of discussion could never be held in Thailand under the military dictatorship or the Lèse Majesté law. The military dictatorship and the new king will be the elephant in the room that everyone pretends not to see during the Thai Studies Conference. So what of substance are the academics at the Thai Studies Conference talking about??

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.

Pridi

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.

Monument Wars

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Many 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 against the king is part of this war.

The plaque was removed in secret sometime in April this year and replaced with what can only be described as a ridiculous right-wing pro-monarchist “drain cover”.

The fact that the monument was removed, while leading members of the junta and various authorities all deny knowledge or responsibility, raises some interesting questions. Those who have questioned the whereabouts of the plaque have also been detained by the military for “attitude changing sessions”.

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.

Pibun also built a huge nationalistic monument in Ayuttaya in the shape of the old provincial administration centre and the clumsy “restoration” of three pagodas. The old provincial administration centre has statues of past kings, much like the king statues built by the Burmese junta or statues of past kings built by modern day despots in former Soviet republics. Neither Pibun nor the Burmese junta nor the despots of former Soviet republics wanted a return to the days of monarchy.

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. No dictatorship has ever dared to demolish it because of the strength of the democratic ideology among Thai people. In fact all these dictatorships, including the present Prayut junta, have all had to claim that they are “democratic”. None have dared to openly celebrate dictatorship over democracy.

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.

Lak-Si

The 1932 revolution plaque was and still remains an anti-monarchy symbol, like the monument at Lak-Si, north of Bangkok, which commemorates the military victory against the royalist rebellion just after the revolution. At one time Sarit ordered the removal of the 1932 plaque, but it was returned to its original setting after his death. However, the conservatives have also 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 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.

There are the usual conspiracy theorists who make up ridiculous stories about how King Wachiralongkorn ordered the removal of the 1932 revolution plaque. It is likely that the intellectually challenged new king was not aware until recently of the existence of this plaque.

Now a member of a strange right-wing sect called the “Smarn Si Ngarm Group” has claimed responsibility for removing the plaque. We shall have to see whether this is true or not. The “Smarn Si Ngarm Group” evolved from an earlier group set up by Communist Party turn-coat Prasert Supsuntorn. Prasert Supsuntorn joined with the military in opposing the CPT’s armed struggle. He then became a royalist. He and Smarn Si Ngarm use the language of the Left to promote pro-military ideology and royalism. Using secret funds from the military, they tried to spread their ideas among trade unionists and other political activists. They even provided some generals like Chawalit Yongjaiyut with “political education”.

But more importantly, we must not forget that for ten years now, the royalist anti-democrats have acted to destroy the democratic system and invite the military to take power. They acted on their own initiative, but the military was happy for the excuse to stage two coups. These fanatical royalist also threatened to take away the 1932 revolution plaque, especially after pro-democracy activists started to hold small ceremonies around the plaque coinciding with an increasing republican political mood in society. This is truly a “Monument War” in the War of Position.

Why is the Thai junta paranoid about pictures and news of king Wachiralongkorn?

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The Thai junta has warned that anyone who follows, contacts, or shares posts online with three prominent critics – historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul, journalist and author Andrew MacGregor Marshall, and former diplomat Pavin Chachavalpongpun – will be prosecuted under the Computer Crimes Act. Why is this happening? To understand this paranoid behaviour we need to look at the role of the Thai king today.

However, latest article about King Wachiralongkorn by my friend Claudio Sopranzetti in Aljazeera is disappointing because it is a sensational and unreal depiction of the awful Wachiralongkorn [see http://bit.ly/2oXtDae ].

Firstly, Sopranzetti claims that the king is trying to wrestle power from the military junta. Nothing could be further from the truth. Wachiralongkorn is on the throne because the military put him there. Like his father before him, he is totally beholden to the military who use the monarchy to justify their own power and “right” to intervene in politics.

The idea that Wachiralongkorn has been increasing his power is also parroted by The Guardian.

When talking about “power”, it is important to understand that it is a concrete thing, not some abstract concept. Political power comes hand in hand with the “power to shape society and politics”.

There was never any evidence that former King Pumipon ever had such power. He never shaped Thai foreign policy or had any influence on the direction of domestic political policies. He could not order military coups because he did not control the military. Pumipon always went with the flow, at times praising Taksin and his government. Pumipon shared his right-wing conservatism with most of the military and bureaucratic elites. It wasn’t his ideas that influenced events. He had no influence on the policies used by the Taksin government to dig Thailand out of the 1996 economic crisis. The anti-Taksin movement which emerged much later was not his creation. The conservatives merely claimed they were monarchists in order to try to obtain legitimacy. Pumipon once told the military not to buy submarines because they would “get stuck in the mud of the Gulf of Siam”, but no one took any notice of him. His “Sufficiency Economy” ideology was repeatedly quoted by the elites, but never acted upon by anyone. [See more here:  http://bit.ly/2oppTvb ]

Wachiralongkorn is less politically aware than his father, being completely uninterested in Thai society and politics. There is zero evidence that he is trying to wrestle power from the military in order to influence domestic political policy or foreign policy. [See also http://bit.ly/2kBwOlm ]

Secondly, Sopranzetti, and other commentators, can only raise the issue of Wachiralongkorn’s insistence on amending the constitution in areas that merely affect the organisation of the royal household, as an example of his quest for “power”. But Wachiralongkorn merely wanted to control his personal household staff and ensure that when he spent a lot of time in his palace in Germany, someone wouldn’t appoint a regent over his head without his approval. This is hardly an example of Wachiralongkorn amassing power to rule over the Thai population. As I have previously written, “Wachiralongkorn wants the Crown, but not the job”. He isn’t interested in the slightest in Affairs of State. His only interest is in his own “affairs” with numerous women, some of whom have been promoted to high army ranks. He also once promoted his former dog to an air force rank.

Wachiralongkorn’s so-called “power” is much more akin to that of a petty local Mafia boss who wishes to protect his patch.

As for the so-called “fear” factor, it must be frightening for those in his immediate household circle to serve such a self-centred and erratic boss. But a WikiLeaks episode some years ago exposed the fact that many high-ranking generals viewed Wachiralongkorn with irritation bordering on contempt.

Thirdly, Sopranzetti claims that the student activist Pai Daodin was jailed under the lèse-majesté law as soon as Wachiralongkorn became king, implying that Wachiralongkorn had something to do with it. This is conspiratorial nonsense. Pai Daodin is a pro-democracy activist and constant thorn in the side of the military junta. They were itching to get him for months and when he shared the BBC’s biography of Wachiralongkorn on social media, it was just the excuse they were looking for. We need to remember that hundreds of other Thais shared the same article but have not been charged with lèse-majesté.

Finally, Sopranzetti fails to understand that in order to be able to use the present and past king as a legitimising figure in their class rule over the population, the military and elites have to give them something in return. Since the image of the monarchy is there to protect the elites, the monarchy acts like a guard dog with all bark and no bite. But guard dogs need to be thrown a bone every day to keep them in line. The bone thrown to the Thai monarchy is the immense wealth given to them, the freedom for them to live their lives as they please, and the willingness of the elites to pamper the royal ego by grovelling on the floor in front of them and pretending to be under the dust of their feet. This latter bit of theatre is for the benefit of ordinary citizens while real power is in the hands of the elites.

Just like the top bosses of most religions who claim to speak on behalf of non-existing gods, the military claim to speak on behalf of the monarchy.

In addition to this, in order to make this trick work, the monarchy needs to appear to be worthy of some respect. Yet Wachiralongkorn’s personal life style makes this difficult. That is why the exiles   Somsak Jeamteerasakul, Pavin Chachavalpongpun and Andrew MacGregor Marshall, have been singled out by the junta for publishing 2016 photos from Germany, of the tattooed Wachiralongkorn with his skimpily dressed girlfriend. They have also published news of his latest escapades. This poses a danger to his credibility to be a monarch in the eyes of most Thais and they are  therefore a threat to the military.

Discrediting the monarchy is useful in undermining the junta, but when taken to extremes, sensational stories about the royals tend to titillate people who are bored with reality while having little benefit in explaining the nature of Thai political society. Most importantly, they add nothing to the discussion about how to overthrow the dictatorship and build democracy through mass movements. Focusing only on the royals lets the military and their anti-democratic allies off the hook.