Tag Archives: Thai politics

The Thai State cares little about ordinary people

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Now that we have heard the good news about the successful recue of the young football team from the cave, we are in a position to draw some serious lessons from this event and also from the tragedy of the sinking of a tourist boat off the southern island of Puket, where a number of people drowned. We should also not forget the death of a Thai diver during the cave rescue operation.

There are three important lessons which I wish to discuss.

Firstly, safety standards for ordinary citizens and visitors to Thailand are extremely poor. We must not blame the football coach or the parents of the football team who got stuck in the cave. They have suffered enough and are clearly in a position to learn lessons. It is about collective responsibility in society for safety standards, not about the actions of an individual. The political situation in Thailand means that the Thai State has never given priority to the safety of citizens. There are few regulations and enforcement is lax. In the West adults who take children on outdoor activities have to be fully trained and have to follow strict guidelines. Access to places like caves which are liable to dangerous flooding would be strictly controlled.

Transport safety standards in Thailand are extremely bad. The tourist boat that sank off Puket put out to sea in storm conditions. There seems to have been little coordination between the harbour authorities and the meteorological office. There were no strict enforcement of safety standards for different sized boats and the greedy tour operators were allowed to get away with murder, literally. This is similar to the total lack of safety standards for road transport, where unacceptably high accident rates occur during public holidays due to a lack of good public transport and long working hours with few days off for many working people. Instead of the police trying to ensure safe travelling all the year round, many motorists experience being stopped by corrupt police in order to collect illegal payments.

The Thai State cares little about the safety of ordinary citizens, children, tourists, or workers in construction and manufacturing industry. It is a state which is blatantly run by and on behalf of the upper classes. It is only through pressure from trade unions and social movements that this situation can change.

Secondly, the Thai State has neglected the creation of rescue organisations and other types of infrastructure to protect citizens. Thailand needs a properly organised emergency service throughout the country, including rescue teams. The use of soldiers, who are not properly trained for such duties, is just not good enough. These teams need to be locally based, properly funded and they need to be civilian organisations run by experienced permanent crew. Instead, we still see emergency ambulances, where they exist, stuck in traffic with no one clearing the way for them. In contrast, we see much police activity to clear the way for various royals and big-shots when they want to travel.

The neglect by the Thai State of the rights of citizens to enjoy high standards of safety and decent government services is due to decades of military rule and/or rule by the elites, with little political input from below. The Left and the trade unions are still too weak. This is why Thailand still does not have a welfare state funded by progressive taxation of the rich and large corporations.

Many have rightly praised the role of the governor of Chiang Rai. But the elite and hierarchical nature of society meant that he had to start his press statement by praising the king and the fact that the royals had somehow shown great concern for the safety of the football team. The genuine concern shown by millions of people in Thailand and other countries was just ignored. It should be emphasised repeatedly that the efforts of hundreds of ordinary volunteers was crucial. Needless to say, the king did not fly in and roll up his sleeves to help with the rescue work!

Thirdly, there is the role of Nationalism in Thai society, fostered by the elites. The “Nation, Religion and Monarchy” ideology is constantly used to exclude people and to enforce obedience towards the upper classes. This has resulted in many racist comments in social media about the drowned Chinese tourists and the Chinese tour operator. Ordinary Thai citizens may count for nothing as far as the Thai State is concerned, but foreigners count for even less as far as the racists are concerned. [See https://bit.ly/1JaeTJY  ]. In addition to this, there are thought to be a million or more stateless people living in Thailand. The Thai government has refused to grant them citizenship. Some of these stateless people were among the members of football team stuck in the cave. One of them was the one with the best language skills who was able to communicate with the British divers. We need to demand that all stateless people be granted citizenship.

Those who support the junta and its plan for Guided Democracy have said that the spirit of cooperation shown in the rescue of the football team proves that Thais can unite across political differences and no doubt forget the destruction of democracy. But for me, the spirit of cooperation shown during the cave rescue shows the potential to build a new and inclusive society in Thailand based upon democracy, equality and socialism.

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Why is the Thai Left so weak?

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The answer to this question lies with the history of past struggles against the military and especially the role of the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT). The CPT was established in the late 1920’s among urban workers of Chinese ethnicity who made up the early Thai working class. Unlike some other communist parties, there is no indication that it was ever anything else but a Stalinist organisation.

In 1973 half a million people, mainly young school and university students, but also ordinary working people, managed to overthrow the military dictatorship of the time. It was the first mass popular uprising in modern Thai history.

Under the dictatorship trade union rights had been suppressed and wages and conditions of employment were tightly controlled. Yet, illegal strikes occurred throughout the period and increased rapidly in the early 1970’s due to general economic discontent.

Economic development also resulted in a massive expansion of student numbers and an increased intake of students from working class backgrounds. These students became radicalized due to the 1968 events abroad and the defeat of the USA in Indo-China.

In October 1973 the arrest of 11 academics and students for handing out leaflets demanding a democratic constitution, resulted in hundreds of thousands of students and workers taking to the streets of Bangkok. The successful 14th October 1973 mass uprising against the military dictatorship was a watershed event. Workers, peasants and students began to fight for more than just parliamentary democracy. In the two months following the uprising, the new appointed civilian government faced a total of 300 workers’ strikes. New radical student bodies sprang up. On the 1st May 1975 a quarter of a million workers rallied in Bangkok and a year later half a million workers took part in a general strike against price increases. In the countryside small farmers began to build organisations and they came to Bangkok to make their voices heard. A Triple Alliance between students, workers and small farmers was created. Some activists wanted an end to exploitation and capitalism itself. The influence of the illegal Communist Party of Thailand increased rapidly, especially among activists in urban areas.

Originally the party organised urban workers in the 1940s and 1950s, but it took a Maoist turn away from the working class and towards the peasantry, in the 1960s.  This Maoist turn to the countryside became a serious problem for workers and the Left in general.

The Thai ruling class’ desire to destroy the further development of the socialist movement, came to a head with the 1976 bloodbath at Thammasat University. Thousands of students went to the countryside to join the armed struggle against the Thai State led by the CPT but the problem with the party’s Maoist strategy was that it more or less abandoned the city and the working class to government repression.

Three years after 1976, splits and arguments between the student activists and the conservative CPT leaders resulted in an exodus from the CPT camps. It was the failure of the CPT to develop a credible strategy for the Thai socialist revolution and a failure to relate to the new generation of young activists who joined the struggle in the 1970s. The emphasis on rural armed struggle in Thailand did not fit reality. Since 1932 all significant social changes have taken place in the cities. The authoritarian nature of the CPT leadership alienated the students. The main experience of student activists in the jungle with the CPT was a stifling of all original ideas and a lack of any freedom to debate. Finally, the party’s Maoism backfired when the Chinese government turned its back on the party in order to build a relationship with the Thai ruling class in the new geo-political situation after the Vietnam War.

By 1988 the student activists had all returned to the city as the CPT collapsed. In the eyes of thousands of activists their experience of communist ideas and organisation was a deep disappointment. Unfortunately, unlike in the West, alternative and “new” Marxist organisations, especially those from a Trotskyist tradition, had no significant presence and could not rescue the Marxist tradition.

Today, even among the best anti-junta activists, there is still an unwillingness to build mass movements and an aversion to party organisation. [See https://bit.ly/2cj7nCx ].

In the late 1990’s I was involved in re-establishing a Marxist and Trotskyist current among small groups of students and trade unionists. But our organisation was not strong enough to withstand the repression and use of lèse-majesté following the two recent military coups. Never the less, interest in Marxism and socialism, especially among some young people, has not been totally snuffed out. It is hoped that this will eventually lead to a revival of the organised Left at some stage in the future.

Wachiralongkorn is greedy. But changes to the Crown Property Bureau are not that significant.

 

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

Since the days of Pumipon, the Thai king has owned a huge capitalist conglomerate, in the shape of the Crown Property Bureau (CPB). This makes the king the richest person in Thailand and one of the richest monarchs in the world. The CPB owns a large number of shares in the Siam Commercial Bank and Siam Cement. It also owns huge amounts of land, often in prime real-estate sites in Bangkok. Historically it never paid tax.

Royalists have long claimed that the king did not actually “own” the CPB but that it belonged to the monarchy as an institution. This was always as illusion. Simon Montlake, in a 2012 Forbes article, called the CPB a “family enterprise, gifted to the next generation”. It is neither a government enterprise, nor a private firm, nor a charity. King Pumipon was formally in charge of its investments and appointed all members of the board except for the Minister of Finance, who acted as a powerless Chair. The investment policy and management of the CPB were secret affairs. None of the profits created by the CPB were returned to the Thai State. The King also had a separate private fortune. That is why Forbes always calculated Pumipon’s wealth based on the CPB holdings and his private fortune. [See https://bit.ly/2yknoCQ ].

The CPB was not “independent” of the king in anyway. The wealth originated from forced labour and a monopoly on trade in the Sakdina feudal era. In the late nineteenth century the Sakdina system was overthrown by King Rama 5 under pressure from Western Imperialism. The monarch’s ill-gotten gains were transformed into a capitalist enterprise. However, immediately after the 1932 revolution, which overthrew the absolute monarchy, the equivalent of the CPB in those days was nationalised under the control of the government.

This situation did not last for long and in 1948, when a pro-monarchy government came to power, they robbed the state of this public asset, giving it to the king. However there were three pots of wealth associated with the king. The Crown Property Bureau was organised independently from the king’s personal wealth, even though he controlled both. There was also a bureau which owned and managed some of the palaces “on behalf of the nation”, although ordinary citizens never benefitted from this royal wealth either.

Now King Wachiralongkorn has formally taken personal control of all the monarchy’s wealth, including the CPB [see https://bit.ly/2t3zA5Y  ]. This is not an attempt to grab public assets for his own personal use, but an attempt to make sure he is in sole control of what Montlake called “the family enterprise”. It makes sure that the previous royal officials and managers who were loyal to Pumipon are not able to interfere with the whims of Wachiralongkorn. It also makes it clear that no one else in the royal family has a say.

Those who get over-excited by the odious behaviour of Wachiralongkorn are always looking for conspiracy stories to claim that he is seizing political power and becoming the most powerful man in the country. This is not the case. He remains weak, greedy, extremely rich, and uninterested in affairs of the state. [See https://bit.ly/2oD4YGD ].

The monarchy should be abolished and its wealth put to good use in improving the lives of ordinary citizens. But the main obstacle to freedom and democracy in Thailand is the military junta and its plans to extend its influence for the next 20 years through a system of “guided democracy”.

See also: https://bit.ly/2MyX4Yx

 

Protests as Dictator Prayut shakes hands with British and French leaders

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

There were symbolic protests by pro-democracy Thais and their allies in Europe as the dictator Prayut shook hands with Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron. [See video here]. Prayut was on a shopping spree to buy weapons and sign investment agreements with Britain and France. The visit exposes the hypocrisy and empty words of Western governments regarding democracy and human rights in Thailand. [See Previous post on this].

 

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Outside 10 Downing Street, London
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Paris

There have been many sarcastic comments on Thai social media about Prayut’s body language during the meeting with Theresa May. He is clearly not used to diplomatic discussions and some have suggested that he looked more like he was at a job interview! Of course Theresa May hardly ever looks relaxed and normal herself. There have also been amused social media comments on his apparent inability to say anything to Theresa May other than “yes yes” “Sure” and “thank you”.

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Others have commented on how the Generalissimo briefly changed his image from the aggressive bully that he is inside Thailand to a compliant lapdog.

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Prayut has just restarted the death penalty in Thailand, claiming that it would provide a “lesson” to criminals. Of course, the real criminals like himself, who ordered the cold-blooded murder of pro-democracy demonstrators, know that they will always enjoy immunity from prosecution.

Prayut has been upset by a recent article in Time magazine comparing him to former dictator Sarit and calling him a “mini Sarit”. Despite denials from the junta, it seems that the current issue of the magazine is difficult to obtain in Thailand!

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Thai pro-democracy activists in France used Pinocchio images of Prayut, which initially appeared on anti-junta demonstrations in Bangkok. The military junta has repeatedly lied about elections and constantly postpones them. The latest excuse is that they must be held after the coronation ceremony of the new king.

35849079_10214228612882366_3395344610115977216_oThe French newspaper “Liberation” wrote that “Prayuth has scuttled the reputation of Thailand, a country yet traditionally so concerned about its image internationally. Under his belt, the country has fallen to the last places of all the international indicators to measure respect for human rights and democratic principles”.

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Shame on British and French governments for inviting Thai Dictator to London and Paris!

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

In a few days’ time Generalissimo Prayut, head of the Thai military junta, will be wined and dined by the British and French governments in London and Paris. This is a disgrace!!

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Since Prayut took power in a military coup in 2014, the number of political prisoners and pro-democracy exiles has increased dramatically. The number of people charged and jailed under the lèse-majesté law, merely for daring to express opinions, has rapidly increased. In recent months pro-democracy activists who have staged peaceful protests demanding free and fair elections have been slapped with multiple charges for “violating the junta’s orders”.

[See reports from Amnesty International: https://bit.ly/2M8bnmW and https://bit.ly/2sOhCmT ]

Generalissimo Prayut was also a key state official responsible for the cold-blooded murder of nearly a hundred unarmed pro-democracy Red Shirts in Bangkok in 2010. Snipers were deliberately used to pick-off protesters and other members of the public, including paramedics and journalists.

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Added to this, the junta is engulfed in corruption scandals. However, no general is facing any charges.

The junta’s so-called “road map” towards elections and returning the country to democracy has been continuously changed, postponing elections repeatedly. Even when elections are eventually held, they will not be free and fair because the junta has crafted a system of “Guided Democracy”, intended to restrict the democratic space, tie the hands of any future elected government and also to censor the policies of political parties. The military constitution, the appointed senate, judiciary and electoral commission, and the junta’s National Strategy are all weapons in prolonging the influence of the dictatorship for the next 20 years. [See https://bit.ly/2JdK9xc ]

Given that Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron have a history of entertaining various despots from around the world, including the leaders of Israel and Saudi Arabia, it is not very surprising that the British Tory government and the French conservatives are happy to see Prayut and discuss trade links and weapons sales with him.

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They justify this by claiming that the junta is “making progress” towards democracy. But the real reason is that these governments do not give a damn about freedom and democracy in Thailand or anywhere else. They are only interested in “global stability” and the opportunity to do trade deals, including the sale of weapons. [See https://bit.ly/2Jir2SP and https://bit.ly/2JfK5gx ]

There will be small protests against Prayut when he comes to Europe. But the real lessons from this shameful state of affairs is that democracy activists in Thailand should never hope that Western governments or the United Nations will ever help them in their struggles.

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Unfortunately pro-democracy activists place too much faith in Western governments

The emancipation of Thai citizens can only be achieved through the building of strong pro-democracy social movements.

Future Forward Party fails to move beyond the mainstream

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

All Thai mainstream political parties in the past have had rich businessmen or military generals heading the party. Many have retired military officers in leadership positions. At the general meeting of the Future Forward Party a few weeks ago, the executive committee members of the party were elected.

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Not surprisingly, business tycoon Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit was elected as leader of the party and former academic Piyabutr Saengkanokkul was elected as secretary general. Among the executive committee were two other business people, a number of academics and a couple of NGO activists. One of the NGO activists specialises in labour issues. Most of these people have a track record of holding anti-dictatorship views. However, without a serious attempt to build a pro-democracy social movement outside parliament, all talk about scrapping the military constitution and erasing the legacy of dictatorship will just be hot air.

What is worrying is that one of the deputy leaders of the party is retired Lt Gen Pongsakorn Rodchompoo, a former deputy secretary-general of the National Security Council. He was removed from office by Generalissimo Prayut after the coup. But his association with the NSC is worrying because all former governments, especially military juntas, have always stressed “national security” over freedom and democracy.

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Lt Gen Pongsakorn Rodchompoo wrote a recent column in a national newspaper about Patani. He said that what was needed was a softer approach by the state, without human rights abuses. But he never mentioned the right to self-determination for the people of Patani, a need to prosecute state officials who had ordered the murdering of Malay Muslims, nor the fact that negotiations between the state and freedom fighters ought to be a civilian matter, rather than being led by the military. His position is the same as the “doves” in the Thai military. It affirms that the Thai nation state cannot grant independence or be divided. This is different from initial comments from a Future Forward Party member some months ago about the need for autonomy in Patani.

From the makeup of the executive committee, one can see that this is no “grass roots” party of the 99% as there are no real representatives of organised labour or small farmers. It is a middle-class party for the middle-class which supports the free-market.

To be fair to them, none of the party activists apart from Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, ever claimed that the party would be a party of the working class and small farmers, who make up the vast majority of the population. But Piyabutr and another academic made erratic claims comparing the party to the new left parties in Europe.

Of course, we can only guess what the party’s policies will be from the makeup of the executive committee and from what some of the leaders have said. However, if the party’s manifesto does not include the need for a welfare state funded through high taxes on the rich and businesses, a commitment to repeal the lèse majesté law, a commitment to the right to choose to have free and safe abortions, a commitment to raise the minimum wage according to demands of the unions and to rewrite the labour laws which restrict the actions of unions, and a commitment to self-determination for the people of Patani, the party will merely be a mainstream, neo-liberal, anti-military party.

There is still an urgent need to build a left-wing political party of the working class and peasantry.

 

Thai Junta’s continuing repression shows they have no plans for democracy

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The manner in which the military junta has treated the protests by the “People Who Want Elections” on the 4th anniversary of the military coup shows that they have no intention of restoring real democracy.

Before the planned protests soldiers and police were sent to activists houses as a crude form of intimidation. The parents of student leaders were told to rein-in their children. Trade unionists were also paid nasty visits at home. Road blocks were set up on approaches to Bangkok in order to deter people travelling from the countryside. The police lied that they were trying to look for weapons. The vehicle number plates of activists were placed on a black list. The person that provided the sound system for the protest was taken off to a military camp for an attitude changing session.

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security forces pay a visit to someone’s home to intimidate them

The anti-junta protest assembled at Thammasat University. Previously the university authorities, working hand in glove with the junta as usual, closed the football pitch, claiming they needed to destroy weeds!

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photo from BBC

Initially the police would not allow the protest to leave the university, but some people managed to evade police lines and get as far as the UN building where they read out a proclamation. The protest leaders were informed by police that they had broken “the law”. They then gave themselves up to the police and were detained for two nights in police stations before being taken to court.

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Visits to activist’s homes take place on a regular basis and some are followed around where ever they go. Soldiers deem it that they have a right to enter buildings and attend seminars and meetings without asking permission. There isn’t a single Thai-based pro-democracy activist who isn’t facing some charge or other.

A few days ago prominent members of Pua Thai Party, including junta critics Chaturon Chaisang and Watana Muangsook, were summoned by the police because they had given a press conference demanding an end to the junta. They were given a warning and released. At any time the junta could ban them from taking part in future elections or even order the dissolution of the party. Many believe that Pua Thai would win substantial numbers of votes in a future election.

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Chaturon Chaisang
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Watana Muangsuk

All this gives the lie to the junta’s laughable claim to “respect human rights” or to have a “road map” towards holding free and fair elections.

The latest rant by Generalissimo Prayut seeks to confirm that elections will be held in Thailand in early 2019. Election dates have been announced before and the junta’s record is littered with broken promises and bare-faced lies. However, it doesn’t take a genius to understand that the junta cannot carry on ruling as it does now for the next decade. The junta understand that they need to create the image of restoring democracy and holding elections. Otherwise popular opposition to the junta will increase and at some point they will be overthrown, a fate which befell most previous Thai military regimes.

The junta’s plan is to set its rules in concrete under the National Strategy and to place all its appointees in powerful positions in the Senate and the judiciary before elections are held. They have already forced through a military-inspired constitution. All this is in order to fix election rules, censor manifestoes of political parties and tie the hands of future elected governments to junta approved policies for the next 20 years. In addition they may even set up an “army party” with the hope of transforming Prayut into an “elected Prime Minister”, much like what happened in Egypt.

A number of political parties, including Pua Thai Party, Future Forward Party and the Commoners Party have stated that they would scrap the military constitution if they win enough seats in parliament. But without a mass movement on the streets to back them up this “illegal act”, according to the junta’s rules, cannot be achieved as it will be sabotaged by the Senate and the judiciary. Unfortunately none of these parties seems interested in building a mass social movement to fight for democracy. This is another reason why we need a genuine left party allied to workers.

[One photo in the featured image is from the BBC]