Tag Archives: Thai politics

The thugs that rule Thailand

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

There has been a spate of scandals concerning the level of bullying and physical abuse, leading to a number of deaths and serious injuries, among young military recruits and those in military training schools. The viciousness and violence associated with this abuse shows the general thuggish culture of the Thai military.

The top generals’ standard response to these events is firstly to lie and deny any wrong doing, and then, when they cannot sustain the lies, it is to justify the harsh life for young recruits or students in the army by claiming that this was designed to make sure that only the strong were moulded into soldiers.

In response to one recent death, Deputy Prime Minster General Pig-face Prawit said that he had been through the same training and it didn’t do him any long term harm.

However, this has nothing to do with genuine physical training but is a culture designed to create violent thugs who obey those above them and oppress subordinates or those who are weaker. It is training so that soldiers in the Thai army learn to abuse members of the general public and kill any citizens who oppose the political power of the military without the slightest remorse.

This killing of citizens can also be done with total impunity. No single soldier has ever been charged with killing unarmed protesters who were calling for democracy, in 1973, 1976, 1992 or 2010. No single soldier or policeman has ever been charged with the continuing killing and torturing of innocent civilians in Patani. No soldier or policeman has been charged with extra-judicial killings in Taksin’s “war on drugs”.

Officers in the Thai military are socialised to believe that they have a God-given right to intervene in politics and enjoy rich pickings from their political power. This only encourages them to stage military coups on a continuous basis. They arrogantly strut about claiming that they are the true defenders of the monarchy as though that excused everything. The present king is also an arrogant thug, beholden to the military.

Not only are the leading members of the junta guilty of ordering the shooting of innocent civilians, they also do not know how to talk to the public in a polite and respectful manner. Both General Pig-Face Prawit and Generalissimo Prayut regularly swear at, use obscenities and threaten reporters or members of the public who ask them difficult questions.

These are the thugs who rule Thailand and refer to themselves as “good people”, unlike the “bad” elected politicians!! Yet they claim that they are “reforming” Thai politics with a road map towards elections and democracy.

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Zimbabwe, Thailand, Egypt & Portugal: No such thing as a coup for democracy

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The lessons from the military intervention in politics in Thailand are highly relevant to what is going on in Zimbabwe today, despite some of the differences.

Over the last few weeks and days we have seen jubilant crowds in Harare celebrating the military coup which overthrew the dictator Mugabe.

In Thailand in 2006 and 2014 we saw middle-class crowds urging the military to overthrow governments controlled by Taksin Shinawat. Despite the fact that these middle-class crowds were dominated by reactionary elements, who felt that democracy was not suitable for Thailand, there were many deluded fools, especially among the NGOs, who welcomed the intervention of the army to overthrow what they considered a “parliamentary dictatorship”. Of course Taksin abused human rights, but the governments which were controlled by him were not dictatorships. However, the point I wish to discuss is the belief among many people that a military coup can somehow bring about freedom and democracy.

Now the crowds celebrating in Harare were not mainly deluded fools. There was genuine elation at the overthrowing of a brutal dictator. Some, however, were indeed deluded fools believing that Mugabe’s former “enforcer” Mnangagwa was somehow a democrat and because he was a businessman he would restore the economy. Businessmen restore economies on their own class terms, on the backs of the working class and the poor.

The common idea held by those who believe that military coups can bring about democracy is the feeling that ordinary people, especially workers, can never change society and bring about freedom and democracy. That is why NGO types suspend their intellect and cheer the military. They believe that ordinary poor people need to be “helped” and can never act collectively to change society.

A similar event to Zimbabwe and Thailand took place in Egypt. There were mass protests when the elected President Mohamed Morsi started to betray the revolution. A majority among the crowds were under the illusion that the Egyptian military were the friends of the people. Only the radical Left warned that the military could not be trusted. Events showed that the military encouraged these protests and then hijacked them in order to come to power and roll back the revolution.

In Zimbabwe a significant number of people celebrating in Harare, had deep reservations about the military and Mnangagwa. The make up of the “new” military-civilian government shows they were right. The radical Left is encouraging workers and students to organise independently in order to bring about real change. The working class of Zimbabwe is capable of this if there is strong enough political organisation. Workers in neighbouring South Africa also have significant power and could provide solidarity. But it is the events in Portugal in 1975 which show the importance of working class self-organisation following a military coup. Chris Harman’s wonderful book “The Fire Last Time: 1968 and after” makes the point clearly.

On the 25th April 1975 General Spinola, an old fascist, headed a military coup which overthrew the dictator Caetano. Spinola’s aim was to run an authoritarian regime. It was planned as a Palace Coup. Yet the massive upsurge in working class struggle, which immediately followed his coup, split the military and prevented Spinola from achieving his goal. The fact that the Portuguese revolution could have moved society further along towards socialist freedom and democracy is a tragedy, but the lesson from Portugal for Zimbabwe, Thailand and Egypt is the vital role of independent working class struggle.

23 Nov 1975, Lisbon, Portugal — Portugal after Carnation Revolution — Image by © Alain Keler/Sygma/Corbis

Unfortunately those who understand this are a tiny minority among pro-democracy Thais. The hope in Zimbabwe is that this will not be the case.

Lies, more lies and even more lies

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

On the day when student activist Pai Daodin was refused bail once again by a military court because he held a banner opposing the military junta, Generalissimo Prayut stood up and spouted a tissue of lies about human rights. It was also a few days after leaders of rubber growers in the south had been detained in a military camp for complaining about the low price of rubber.

In the same week the junta also announced that it was strengthening the powers of the Internal Security Operations Command. Commentators have explained that this is yet another weapon for the army to control politics and elected governments in the future.

Without any sense of shame Prayut claimed that the junta was making “human rights part of the national agenda”, under a modernisation programme put forward by the so-called Ministry of Justice. Prayut’s lies were supported by two government spokes people, both military officers.

Prayut’s lies included the following bullet points:

  1. “Raising standards of human rights to international levels”. He probably meant the kind of international standards exhibited in Burma with regard to the Rohingya or the standards seen in Cambodia or even Saudi Arabia.
  2. “Encouraging businesses to respect human rights and human dignity in order to build stability and sustainability”. But the junta has prevented trade unions from staging protests and strikes and also capped pay rises for already low paid workers. It has also allowed large extraction companies to ride roughshod over the rights of local communities.
  3. The Generalissimo stated that he had no fear in proudly announcing Thailand’s human rights record to the world! This is when all reliable surveys put Thailand among the worst countries for rights and freedoms. Basically this man has no fear or shame of telling bare-faced lies to the world, probably because world leaders like Donald Trump, Xi Jinping and the leaders of the EU, don’t give a damn about human rights anyway.
  4. The wise General warned against nasty academics who just taught about democracy and human rights without being interested in the junta’s crafted laws. Such laws were drafted after the junta took power in an illegal military coup, overthrowing an elected government!
  5. Prayut promised to make speeches to bodies like the United Nations to explain the development of sustainable human rights.

Prayut also claimed that the junta would promote “a culture of respecting human rights in society”, no doubt by dragging those who do not understand the definition of the junta’s “human rights” into military re-education camps.

The fact of the matter is that Prayut’s military dictatorship has one of the worst human rights records of any Thai government. For the first time since the end of the Cold War Thailand has a large number of political prisoners and activists forced into exile. The use of the lèse majesté law has sky-rocketed and numerous opponents of the junta have been subjected to “attitude changing” detentions in military camps. Not only did Prayut stage an illegal coup to destroy democracy, but he is also guilty of mass murder for his role in shooting down redshirt pro-democracy demonstrators in the streets. His government has significantly militarised Thai society and is busy designing a system of sham democracy with fixed elections so that the influence of the junta can be extended for decades. The so-called National Human Rights Commission is also stuffed full of military and police officers.

Every time Prayut and other members of the junta open their foul mouths we just hear lies, lies and more lies.

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Latest: Junta’s security forces break up protest against Teppa coal-fired power station and arrest leading activists in late November 2017.

Junta accused of preventing political parties from preparing for election so as to give “Army Party” an advantage

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The Thai military junta has been accused of preventing political parties from preparing for any future election so as to give the “Army Party” an advantage. Despite promising to announce elections in the middle of 2018, the junta have not allowed political parties to organise any activities. These activities would be vital in pulling together and recruiting party members, raising funds and drawing up party rules and policies; all a requirement under the junta’s new law regulating political parties.

At the same time the military junta is floating the idea of an “Army Party” as a vehicle to allow Generalissimo Prayut to become Prime Minister again after the elections. The military constitution also allows for a non-MP to be nominated as Prime Minister under certain circumstances. The junta is also justifying why it would be “legitimate” for it to support a particular political party in the future.

Civilian political parties which cannot fulfil the requirements laid down by the election law will be barred from standing in an election. This is a basic “snap election” tactic, aimed at giving advantage to those already in government. However, instead of a real snap election, the long-overdue elections, which have been continuously postponed, could eventually be held as a “fixed” race where the junta’s party is starting the race well ahead of civilian parties.

Even if these worst fears do not come to fruition, the elections will still not be free and fair, as there are a number of junta-controlled “super-bodies”, associated with the junta’s “National Strategy” which will neuter the power and freedom of any elected politicians or governments. Observers have also pointed out that the “Army Party” would have a total monopoly  of members in the appointed Senate which can veto anything that an elected government wishes to do.

The junta has planned to make sure that its dark shadow blots out the light of freedom and democracy in Thailand for decades.

However, the idea of an “Army Party” is risky because it could backfire if the population express their opposition to the junta at the ballot box. After the 1992 uprising against a former military junta, the public decisively rejected all political parties which were associated with the 1991 military coup. If this happened next year it would be a slap in the face for the junta.

The present junta has lied about its so-called role in building reconciliation, by claiming that it is a “neutral” party. Most Thais know this to be untrue, but if Prayut uses the future elections to become Prime Minister again, there could be wide-spread public anger.

An election outcome where none of the political parties wins an overall majority is probably one important aim of the junta. The weaker any coalition government might be, the stronger the influence of the military on such a government can be.

In the past, before the rise of Taksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party, elected governments were all weak coalitions of political parties without any real policies. Politicians and unelected members of the elite just used the political process to bargain and horse-traded personal benefits aimed at enriching themselves. Meanwhile the majority of the electorate were ignored and the gross inequality in power and economic status between ordinary citizens and those at the top, was allowed to get worse. This is the state of affairs that the reactionaries among those at the top of society, together with their middle-class allies, will be looking to with a big dose of nostalgia.

It will take a powerful mass movement on the ground and progressive left-wing ideas, coming from those organised in a new political party, before the dual legacies of the junta’s repression and Taksin’s betrayal of the redshirts’ dreams of democracy can be erased.

Looking Back on the Thai 1997 Economic Crisis

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The period leading up to the 1997 economic crisis was a period in which the Thai economy grew at a phenomenal rate. Average GDP growth rates reached 8% and on occasions the annual rate was in double figures. The main beneficiaries, naturally, were the rich. Between 1975 and 1988 the richest 20% of the population increased their share of national wealth from 43% to 55.4%, while the share controlled by the poorest 20% dropped from 6% to 4.5%.

The economic crisis was a shock to almost everyone for most had predicted it. Once the crisis broke, political scapegoats were quickly found in order to protect the status-quo. The more neo-liberal sections of the big business community quickly suggested the idea that the crisis was all the fault of Prime Minister Chawalit Yongjaiyut‘s government. This ridiculous message was put across at the “Silom Road Business People’s Protests” in October 1997, where businessmen and professional people came down from their office blocks, to demonstrate. They demanded and soon achieved the resignation of Chawalit’s government. The rich were not, however, very good at demonstrating. Many complained about the heat and others brought their servants to make up the numbers and, no doubt, to serve them with cold drinks and drive them to the protest.

Once Chawalit resigned, his Government was replaced by a Democrat Party-led coalition under Chuan Leekpai. The new finance minister, Tarrin Nimmanhaemind, was regarded as a reliable “bankers’ man”. This suggestion was born out by the fact that the Government quickly moved to nationalise the private debts of 56 failed banks and finance companies, which the Chawalit Government had already closed, and then proceeded to set aside a further 300 billion baht of state funds to boost the capital of existing banks. In total, the Government committed at least 1.2 trillion baht of public money to prop up the banking system and the savings of the rich and middle-classes.

The same enthusiasm for the use of public finances was not shown towards helping the poor and the unemployed who were worst hit by the crisis. The Government passed a bill allowing it to withhold state contribution to the private sector employees’ Social Insurance Fund and repeatedly delayed the implementation of an unemployment benefit scheme. It also told the unemployed to “go back to their villages” and live off their relatives. According to one survey carried out for the National Economic & Social Development Board, there was a 12.6% decline in earnings rates and a 4.4% decline in hours of employment in the first half of 1998. These were the main factors behind a fall in real incomes of 19.2% over this period.

The racist explanations of the Asian crisis which talked about Asian corruption, Asian Crony Capitalism and lack of good governance in Asia, are hardly worthy of serious consideration. More serious mainstream explanations for the crisis pinned the blame on lack of proper controls over investment after economic liberalisation in the late 1980s. Although it is true that the increased free movement of capital in and out of Thailand made the boom and the crisis more spectacular, these highly visible movements of money were more a symptom of what was happening in the real economy rather than the cause of the crisis. The implication of this neo-liberal explanation was that if proper controls were established, then crises would never occur again. Clearly a review of Western economies shows this to be nonsense.

The Marxist theory of capitalist crisis identifies over-production and falling rates of profit as the key underlying factors causing a crisis. Both these factors result from the uncontrolled competition for profit found under Capitalism. The main cause of the tendency for a fall in the rate of profit is the increased investment in fixed capital as compared to the hiring of labour (from which surplus value is extracted). However, the falling rate of profit is only an overall tendency with many countervailing factors. Profit rates can be restored temporarily by increased labour efficiency, increased exploitation or the destruction of competitors.

In Thailand over-capacity and falling rates of return were seen in most of the export industries. This caused a shift in the direction of investment away from the productive sector towards speculation in real estate and the banking system. It is estimated that in 1996 about half of all investment was property related and this accounted for half of annual GDP growth.

The Thai working class reacted to the crisis in different ways. On the one hand, significant groups of workers were very angry when their annual bonus payments were cut. On one occasion, a Japanese-owned electronics factory was burnt to the ground. At many workers’ protest gatherings after that, someone could be relied upon to scare the management with a cry of “set fire to the bloody place!” Most of the time it was just a bluff. On another occasion workers at Summit Auto Parts blocked a main highway in response to a bonus cut, but they were eventually physically beaten by riot police, supported by volunteer “emergency rescue workers” and right-wing journalists from The Nation and their struggle was defeated.

A more organised response came at the Triumph underwear factory, where women workers had a long tradition of building a strong shop stewards network. Workers were able to achieve a respectable wage increase after a twenty day dispute in July 1999.

The rate of inflation, which quickly fell (after an initial rise) as the economy went into recession, was also a factor in determining the will to fight. For those who retained their jobs, a further sharp fall in living standards was avoided by the decline in inflation.

The dominant ideological response among organised workers and left-wing intellectuals to the crisis, and to the manner in which governments handled economic policy, was in the form of Left Nationalism. This ideology was a mirror image of ruling class nationalism.  A quick glance through the new book titles in any Thai book shop during the early part of the crisis would quickly have revealed the growing number of publications on “saving the country from the crisis”. In the main these publications were written by left-of-centre academics, many of them ex-CPT sympathisers, who regarded the 1997 crisis as a serious threat to “national independence”.

The cause of the crisis, according to the nationalists, was the imperialist designs of the G7 powers, especially the United States, in attempting to put the Asian Tigers under the yoke of Economic Colonialism. This could be seen from the proposal that the crisis was merely a crisis of a certain model of Capitalism: “fast-track” or foreign-investment-led export orientated manufacturing. Much of the Left Nationalist analysis also leant heavily on Dependency Theory, which saw the main divide in the world as between the “northern” industrial countries and the “southern” developing countries.

A number of solutions were proposed by the Left Nationalists; all within the framework of the capitalist system. Firstly there were the naive and utopian ideas of the “Community Economists” who believed that the Thai economy could somehow “turn back” to a self-sufficient low technology agricultural economy. Instead of foreign capital and technology, Thailand should use traditional “Thai intellectual resources”.

Secondly, there was a proposal to use Keynesian style economics. It was argued that the state should increase public expenditure in order to stimulate consumption. This strategy was eventually adapted for use by Taksin’s Thai Rak Thai (TRT) government after their election victory in 2001.

In the general election of January 2001, TRT won a landslide victory. The election victory was in response to previous government policy under the Democrats, which had totally ignored the plight of the rural and urban poor. TRT also made 3 important promises to the electorate. These were (1) a promise to introduce a Universal Health Care Scheme for all citizens, (2) a promise to provide a 1 million baht loan to each village in order to stimulate economic activity and (3) a promise to introduce a debt moratorium for poor peasants.

Ex-student and NGO activists, such as Pumtam Wejjayachai were recruited to TRT and became important links with the Peoples Movement. These activists encouraged the Prime Minister to meet with social movements like the Assembly of the Poor and they coordinated with movement and NGO leaders in order to solve disputes or dampen down protest actions against the Government.

Pumtam explained that Thailand needed a “Dual Track” development policy, where “Capitalism” and the “Peoples Economy” (community based activities) went hand in hand. This eventually evolved into the government policy of mixing neo-liberal policies with “grass roots Keynesianism”. The government also spent state funds on improving the lives of ordinary citizens and on developing infrastructure in order to raise productivity. These measures were helpful in reviving the economy, along with the fact that the Western advanced nations and China were not in crisis at the time, but they had little impact on preventing any future economic crises.

The popularity of Taksin and TRT with the electorate eventually resulted in increasing hostility against the government from conservative members of the ruling class, Taksin’s political rivals and members of the middle classes. They resented the alliance between the government and urban and rural working people and wanted to turn the clock back to the bad old days when the majority of the population were to be ignored by politicians and members of the elites. Today, we are still living under the shadow of military coups and a military regime which intends to craft a “Military Guided Democracy”.

Economic Deja-vu

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

A recent analysis of the state of the Thai economy from the research department of Phatra Capital indicated two important structural problems. Firstly, continuing economic inequality means that any GDP growth at the present rates does not translate into increased well-being for the majority of the population. Secondly, Thai rates of productivity are too low to compete on the world market which is still growing slowly due to the long recession since 2008. A big factor here is that most industrial companies are still relying on cheap labour rather than trying to invest in modern technology and a higher skilled labour force. The cheap labour today comes from migrant workers from neighbouring countries. In rural areas productivity among small agricultural producers remains too low to raise people out of poverty. Where agriculture has a higher productivity it is among the agribusiness conglomerates.

This is exactly the same problem which faced the Thai economy just before the 1997 economic crisis. For this reason Taksin Shinawat and his newly formed Thai Rak Thai party set out to modernise Thailand, develop a higher skilled work force, increase productivity and raise the general standard of living of most working people, both in rural areas and in the city.

Thai Rak Thai called this a “dual track” policy, mixing grass-roots Keynesian state investment with promotion of the free-market at a national level. Among the policies initiated by Taksin’s government were universal health care for all, job creation at village level through cheap loans, measures to reduce farmers’ debt and increased investment in education and the promotion of digital skills. The Yingluck government’s rice price subsidy scheme was part of this kind of policy.

Taksin’s policies did not wipe out poverty or bring in economic equality. He denied that he wanted to build a welfare state, which would have been a vast improvement, and he was totally opposed to raising taxes on the rich. However, the policies did raise the living standards of most citizens and gave them hope for the future. This is why millions voted for his parties in elections without Taksin having to spend millions in buying votes like political parties in the past.

Yet the conservatives and neo-liberals derided these policies. The Democrat Party, the conservative bureaucrats, the right-wing academics and the middle classes called it “Populism”. Some foreign academics have gone along with this kind of right-wing discourse. For all these people, supporting the poor and the majority of the population was “bad for the country”. They wanted to return to the bad old days when the poor knew their place, state spending was concentrated on the military and the elites and elections were nothing to do with real policies.

In the end the conservatives and neo-liberals got their way with military and judicial coups. They are now ensuring that in any future elections, governments will not be allowed to support the poor, bring about modernisation or lower inequality.

In terms of the structural problems in the Thai economy, we are back to Square One.

But if we look at Taksin’s side, he and his party were reluctant in mobilising the mass of the population against the military and the conservatives. They have deliberately destroyed the pro-democracy red shirt movement. This is because they feared the results of any future mass uprising more than they feared the continued dominance of the military and the conservatives. We could even say that Taksin’s attempts to drag Thai society into the modern world and solve the problems of inequality were just half-hearted.

This reminds me of Leon Trotsky and Karl Marx’s theories of Permanent Revolution. The theory of Permanent Revolution argues that in less developed countries the modern capitalists and the conservative monarchists will seek compromise with each other and real progress towards a modern and equal society will need to be led by the working class and a working class based revolutionary party. This holds true for Thailand today. Taksin’s capitalist party attempted to carry out half-hearted modernisation, while always seeking to find ways to compromise with the conservatives and hold back the mass movement, and this has ended in the destruction of democracy and the fossilisation of society.

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.