Once more, military repression in Thailand
Associate Professor Giles Ji Ungpakorn
For the fourth time in forty years, troops have opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators in Bangkok. Each time the aim has been the same: to protect the interests of the Conservative Elites who have run Thailand for the past 70 years.
What kind of country and society guns down its citizens who demand democracy on the streets? What society imprisons someone for making comments on the internet? What kind of Foreign Minister encourages armed conflict with neighbouring countries in order to distract attention from internal problems? What kind of government comes to power by a combination of a military coup, two judicial coups, together with street violence, bribery and threats? What kind of Prime Minister tells lies to the foreign press about his commitment to democracy and then uses the army to kill protestors and draconian lese majeste laws to stifle opposition? What kind of ruling class uses “the love of the King” to justify a military coup, terrorist acts by its supporters at international airports and severe censorship? Thailand can no longer be called a modern democracy. It has slid back to join the ranks of tin-pot despotic regimes around the world, little different from the Burmese regime.
For those watching the cold-blooded murder by soldiers on the streets of Bangkok in April 2009, it may be tempting just to assume that the present chaos is merely about different coloured T shirts and supporters of different political parties, as though they were mirror images of each other. This is not so.
Today, the Thai government, and their elite supporters, are once again using the language of the Cold War and from the era of military dictatorships, in order to throttle free speech and democracy. Instead of branding the opposition as “Communists” they are now “enemies of Thailand”. There is total government control of the mainstream media and widespread censorship of alternative websites and community radio stations.
Every thing in Thailand is not as it seems. The “Democrat Party”, who formed a government in late 2008 and ordered troops to kill protestors, never had the support from the majority of the electorate. In fact the Democrats have never won anything approaching a majority and this is why the party welcomed the military coup in 2006. They support censorship and the use of les majeste laws. The “Peoples Alliance for Democracy” (PAD), those yellow-shirted Royalists who seized the two international airports, are neither an alliance of the people, nor are they for democracy. Their membership base is among the extremist middle classes who believe that the previous Thaksin government spent “too much” money on welfare and populist policies for the poor. They believe that only they are the true guardians of the Monarchy and that the majority of the Thai electorate, who are poor, should not have the right to vote.
What we have been seeing in Thailand since late 2005, is a growing class war between the poor and the old elites. It is of course not a pure class war. Due to a vacuum on the Left in the past, millionaire and populist politicians like Taksin Shinawat have managed to provide leadership to the poor. The urban and rural poor, who form the majority of the electorate, are the Red Shirts. They want the right to choose their own democratically elected government. They started out as passive supporters of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai government. But they have now formed a brand new citizens’ movement for what they call “Real Democracy”. For them, “Real Democracy” means an end to the long-accepted “Quiet Dictatorship” of the Army generals and the Palace. This situation allowed the generals, the King’s advisors in the Privy Council and the conservative elites, to act as though they were above the Constitution. Les majeste laws and intermittent repression have been used to silence opposition. Ever since 2006, these elites have blatantly acted against election results by staging a military coup, using the courts to twice dissolve Thaksin’s party and by backing Yellow Shirt Royalist mob violence on the streets and at the airports. The present mis-named Democrat Party government was manoeuvred into place by the Army.
Most of those in the Red Shirt movement support Thaksin for good reasons. His government put in place many modern pro-poor policies, including Thailand’s first ever universal health care system. Yet the Red Shirts are not merely Thaksin puppets. There is a dialectical relationship between Thaksin and the Red Shirts. His leadership provides encouragement and confidence to fight. Yet the Red Shirts are also self-organised in community groups and some are showing frustration with Thaksin’s lack of progressive leadership, especially over his insistence that they continue to be “loyal” to the Crown. Over the past few months, the Red Shirts have shown signs of self-leadership to such an extent that the old Thai Rak Thai politicians are running to keep up. A Republican movement is growing. Many left-leaning Thais like myself, are not Thaksin supporters. We opposed his human rights abuses. But we are the left-wing of the citizens’ movement for Real Democracy.
The Yellow Shirts are conservative Royalists. Some have fascist tendencies. Their guards carry and use firearms. They supported the 2006 coup, wrecked Government House and blocked the international airports last year. Behind them were the Army and the Palace. That is why troops never shot at the Yellow Shirts while they created chaos. That is why Oxford and Eton educated, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajeva from the Democrat Party, did nothing to punish the Yellow Shirts. After all, he appointed some to his cabinet. The Foreign Minister was a good example. He took part in the airport seizure and insulted the Cambodians over an infantile border dispute. The aims of the Yellow Shirts are to reduce the voting power of the electorate in order to protect the conservative elites and the “bad old ways” of running Thailand. They see increased citizen empowerment as a threat and propose a “New Order” dictatorship, where people are allowed to vote, but most MPs and public positions are not up for election. Their dishonest excuse is to claim that the poor have all been “bought” and are trapped in a Thaksin patron-client system. For them, the poor would show “maturity and an understanding of Democracy” if they voted for parties which did not provide universal health care!
The Yellow shirt Royalists are supported by the mainstream Thai media, most middle class academics and even NGO leaders. The NGOs have disgraced themselves over the last few years by siding with the Yellows or remaining silent in the face of the general attack on democracy. Some leaders put themselves forward in the hope that the military would select them as appointed Senators, while others told their members not to protest against the military junta at the closing ceremony of the Thai Social Forum in October 2006. Despite being well-meaning, their lack of politics has let them down and they have been increasingly drawn to the reactionary Right.
If one is to understand and judge the violent acts which have been taking place in Thailand, we need a sense of history and perspective. Perspective is needed to distinguish between damaging property and injuring or killing people. With this perspective, it is clear that the Yellow Shirts and the Army are the violent ones. They have openly carried and used fire arms on the streets of Bangkok. Their violent aims are to suppress democracy.
A sense of history helps to explain why Red Shirt citizens are now exploding in anger. Since 2006, they have had to endure the military jack-boot, repeated theft of their democratic rights, continued acts of violence against them and general abuse from the mainstream media and academia. If they continue to resist, cracks may appear in the Army. During the past four years Thai citizens have become highly politicised. Ordinary soldiers, recruited from poor families, support the Red Shirts. The whole of society is deeply politicised.
NGOs & Academics
That the Thai ruling elite, the military and the fascist PAD yellow shirts, together with the Democrat Party, should support the murder of pro-democracy protestors is not surprising. Nor is the fact that there is no justice and that there are double standards in applying the law. The fascist PAD leaders who used street violence and blocked the airports are still free and unlikely to be put in jail. The Generals who abused their power in a coup are still raking in the money, just like previous Thai generals. There is no transparency and accountability of any major public institutions, including the Monarchy, the Judiciary, the Government and the Army. The judges have their own version of the lese majeste law to stifle any criticism. There can be no justice if judges are not accountable to the public. The mainstream media is either directly owned by the government or the Army, or it is owned by private business interests who form part of the conservative elites. Since the 2006 coup, censorship has never been worse than at any time in Thai history.
What should surprise and worry us is that almost the entire Thai NGO movement and almost the entirety of Thai academia have kept silent, or worse, supported this destruction of free speech and democracy. And what should anger us also, is that Amnesty International in Thailand has refused to do anything of substance to defend prisoners of conscience in the country, disgracefully claiming that the Monarchy is “too sensitive an issue”!
The NGO movement turned its back on “politics” and the primacy of mass movements in the 1980s. Instead they embraced “lobby politics”. First they loved-up to Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai government. Then, when they were wrong-footed by the government’s pro-poor policies that proved that the NGOs had only been “playing” at development, they rushed over to love-up to the Conservative Royalists. Such an about face was only possible by ignoring politics, international lessons and any theory. NGO leaders argued proudly that they were the “true activists”, not book worms or theoreticians. This explains why they can justify to themselves the support for the 2006 coup and why they have failed to defend democracy since. Instead of bothering to analyse the political situation, they beat a path to lobby generals, governments of every shade and anyone who has power. In the 1980s they used the slogan “the answer is in the villages”. This showed respect for the intellect of the poor. Since the poor voted on mass for Thai Rak Thai, the NGOs have become viciously patronising towards villagers, claiming that they “lack the right information” to make political decisions. In fact, there was always a patronising element to their work. NGO leaders are self-appointed middle class activists who shun elections and believe that NGOs should “nanny ” peasants and workers. They are now fearful and contemptuous of the Red Shirt movement, which is starting a process of self-empowerment of the poor.
The academics are even worse. For decades they have shunned political debate, preferring personal squabbles to principled arguments. No one is ever forced to justify or argue for their beliefs. On the occasion when papers are written, they are descriptive and ignore work by those who pose awkward questions. This leads to a climate of arrogance and a lack of debate. So when they defended their Middle-Class interests and supported the 2006 coup, they felt no need for a serious explanation other than to say that the poor “did not understand democracy”. One wonders what theories they teach about “Democratisation” and whether those theories have any connection to the real world. This un-academic behaviour has rich rewards. Many have extra earnings from collaborating with the military and the ruling elites.
Class War: Royalist vs the People
The Thai conservative elite are playing a dangerous game. They have started a civil war between the people (now represented by the Red Shirts) and the Yellow-shirted Royalists. Early in 2006 they decided that they would use extra-Constitutional means to get rid of an elected government. Their justification was the “corruption” and “abuse of power” by the Thai Rak Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawat. While there is much to criticise in the actions of Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai, it must also be said that the conservative elites, including the Monarchy, have always been corrupt and abused their power. What they didn’t like was that someone else might be getting more powerful than them through the electoral process.
This King grew in stature under the corrupt military dictators: Sarit, Thanom and Prapass. He allowed innocent people to be executed after they were falsely accused of killing his older brother. He supported the blood bath at Thammasart University on 6th October 1976 because he felt that Thailand had “too much democracy”. At the time he was also the patron of the violent gang that were called the “village scouts”. The King allowed the army to stage a coup in September 2006. Furthermore he allowed his name to be used by the army, the PAD protestors and the Democrat Party, in the destruction of democracy. He has been an advocate of economic views which reveal his opposition to state social welfare for the poor and income redistribution. But what is worse, as one of the richest men in the world, the king has the arrogance to lecture the poor to be sufficient in their poverty through the notion of the “Sufficiency Economy”. This is nothing more than a reactionary Right-wing ideology that says that the poor must know their place. Finally, this king allows his supporters to proclaim that he is “the father of the nation,” and yet his own son is not respected by anyone in Thai society! For the millions of Thais who know all this to be true, it is only fear and intimidation that stops us all from speaking this truth out loud.
The elites have for decades ruled Thailand from behind the scenes as if it were their own personal fiefdom. A poisonous patron client network draws in new recruits to this “elite feeding trough” where fortunes are to be made at the expense of the hard-working poor. This vast parasitic organism maintains its legitimacy by creating a false image that Thailand has an “Absolute Monarchy”, where the King is an all-powerful god. Yet the King is weak and has no “character” and his power is a fiction. The King has always been weak and lacking in any democratic principles. The Palace has been used to legitimise past and present dictatorships. As a “stabilising force”, the Monarchy has only helped to stabilise the interests of the elite. The King has never had the courage to defend democracy or oppose military violence. The Queen is an extreme reactionary who backs any vicious right-wing movement. However the real people with power among the Thai elites are the Army and high-ranking state officials surrounding the Palace.
Army generals, politicians, businessmen and privy councillors prostrate themselves on the ground and pay homage to the “powerful” king, while exercising the real power in the land and enriching themselves. But the King is very old and his son is hated, feared or viewed with contempt. Where will the elite’s new meal ticket come from when the King dies?
Like the story of “the Emperor’s New Clothes”, the elites relied on telling the Thai population (and maybe even the King), a pack of lies in order to promote their own agenda. The King is a God! The King is all powerful! We serve the King! And the lese majeste law and other authoritarian measures are used to back up these lies. But the boy has already spoken! Most people in Thailand can see that the Emperor has no clothes! The King hasn’t “held together Thai society”. He hasn’t created justice and equality and he has sided in public with the military and the anti-democrats throughout his reign. People are sick and tired of the elite’s privileges. All traffic is stopped for the Royals to pass in Bangkok, while emergency ambulances are stuck in traffic jams. Citizens are forced to crawl on the ground like animals and use special Royal Language when in the company of the Royal Family.
The process of destroying the corrupt, privileged and authoritarian network around the Monarchy will take time. People like Suwicha Thakor, Da torpido, Boonyuen Prasertying and many others will suffer in jail because of lese majeste laws. The Red Shirts will have to mobilise and organise on a long-term basis. Meanwhile, politicians like Thaksin, and many others, are still clinging to Royalist ideas, claiming to be “loyal subjects” of the King, while attacking privy councillors for planning the 2006 coup. Many Red Shirts are restless and want to go much further in order to build Democracy and Social Justice.
We must not be afraid anymore. But that is easier for me to say from the safety of Britain! We must all be the little boy who says what he sees as the Emperor walks past, naked. Why should we, the Thai people, be “loyal subjects of the King”? In a democratic and equal society the King should be loyal to us. If he or any future Monarch is not prepared to listen to the people, respect the people as his master, and defend democracy, then we definitely need a republic.
What happened to Thai Democrcay?
Five years ago, Thailand, under the elected Thaksin government, had a developing democracy with freedom of expression, a relatively free press and an active Civil Society where social movements campaigned to protect the interests of the poor. This was not, however the work of the Thaksin administration, since there were serious problems of human rights abuses. Thaksin’s government used murderous repression in the Muslim Malay southern provinces and killed over 3000 people in the so-called “War on Drugs”.
Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party was modernising. For the first time in decades, a party was gaining mass support from the poor because it believed that the poor were not a burden. They argued that the poor should be “stake-holders” rather than surfs. This was no Socialist party, but a party of big business committed to free-market policies at a Macro and Global level and Keynesian policies at village level. It represented the modernising interests of an important faction of the capitalist class.
The Thai crisis started with mass demonstrations led by the PAD in early 2005. The PAD began as an “alliance from hell” between disgruntled Royalist media tycoon Sonti Limtongkul and a handful of N.G.O. and social movement leaders. They attacked Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai government for corruption. But they were never interested in criticising his human rights abuses or attacking the corruption of other elites. Thaksin responded to the growing crisis by dissolving parliament and calling fresh elections. The opposition boycotted these elections and “liberal” academics “explained” that calling fresh elections was “undemocratic”. The courts then annulled the election. The anti-democratic forces knew that Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party was immensely popular and would win any vote. Rather than accepting that the electorate support for Thaksin was because of the government’s first ever Universal Health Care scheme and many other pro-poor measures, they claimed that the poor did not understand Democracy. The Democrat Party spent most of the time attacking these pr-poor policies as being a waste of money and against “fiscal discipline”. No wonder no ordinary Thai would want to vote for them!
The N.G.O. and social movement leaders of the PAD moved sharply to the Right, becoming fanatical Royalists and calling on the King to sack Thaksin’s elected government. This, the King refused to do, but the PAD demands were seen as a green light for a military coup and the military obliged in September 2006. PAD leaders and military junta leaders were seen celebrating their victory at a New Year party in 2007. At that time, the Democrat Party also welcomed the coup.
The army ripped up the best Constitution Thailand has ever had, and replaced it with their own. A referendum was held to approve the military Constitution. Many provinces were under martial law, campaigning for a “no” vote in the referendum was deemed to be illegal and full page advertisements in the press urged people to vote “yes”. The referendum result was extremely close, a small majority being in favour. Half the NGOs, the PAD, most academics, the main stream media and the Democrat Party all supported the new Constitution. The military Constitution allowed for half the Senate to be appointed by the military, rather than elected. It decreased the role of political parties and installed a crony system where members of the elite appointed themselves to the Senate, the Judiciary and to so-called “Independent Bodies”. The Constitution stated that neo-liberal free market policies must be used in the interests of fiscal discipline, but it also stated that the military budget must be vastly increased. The final clause in the Constitution, which used to state that citizens had the right to oppose military coups, was changed to legitimise the 2006 coup and any future coups.
The courts in Thailand have never been independent or just. The military used the courts to dissolve the Thai Rak Thai Party and then they held elections. But again, Thaksin’s party won a majority. So the courts were used for a second time to dissolve the new party which evolved from Thai Rak Thai. It is clear that the aim was to cripple the most popular party and never to allow it to form a stable government. At the same time the PAD launched their deliberate “campaign of chaos” in order to achieve their “New Order”. They violently took over Government House, wrecking the interior. They staged violent actions to try to prevent an elected parliament from opening and then they seized the two international airports with the support of the military and the Democrat Party. They cared little about the damage to jobs and the Thai economy, feeling that the elites would always be alright and the poor could just suffer. No one from the PAD has been punished.
After the 2006 coup, the P.A.D. descended into a fascist type of organisation. It took on ultra-Royalist and ultra-Nationalist politics. Its supporters wore Royal yellow shirts. It nearly caused a war with Cambodia over an ancient hill-top ruin. It built up an armed guard who openly carry and use weapons on the streets of Bangkok. The P.A.D.’s media outlet, Manager Group, have a history of witch hunts against academics and social activists who question the deterioration of democracy and question the use of the lese majeste law. It encourages people to commit acts of violence against those who think differently.
Finally, at the end of 2008, the army bullied and bribed some of the worst, corrupt elements in Thaksin’s party to change sides and support the Democrats. Foremost among them was Newin Chitchorp, named after the Burmese military dictator. He and Democrat politicians also set up the paramilitary “Blue Shirts” who carried arms and attacked Red Shirt protestors in April. Abhisit became the Prime Minister. His name sums it all up. It means “privilege”.
In early 2007, I published a book called “A Coup for the Rich” . This short academic book was written as a protest against the shrinking democratic space in Thailand. I tried to analyse what exactly was happening to Thai democracy. I criticised the gross human rights abuses of the democratically elected Thaksin government. But I argued that a military coup was not the answer. Because I discussed all this, I was charged with lese majeste or insulting the King. How can there be academic freedom when my own university, Chulalongkorn University, gave my book to the police? How can there be academic standards if political scientists like myself are not allowed to discuss what the King, the army and the elites do? And through all this, most Thai academics remain silent, some supporting the destruction of democracy, others censoring themselves because of fear.
A new Civil Society is emerging from the “Red Shirt” movement. Many will feel uncomfortable that this is a movement of ordinary citizens and not the educated middle class. But this is what is really required to build a democratic society with social justice. We need to cut down the military’s influence in society, reform the judiciary and the police and to expand freedom and democracy from this grass-roots movement. And we need to abolish the Monarchy too. For it has now become an obstacle to freedom and human dignity. Thais need to create a culture of citizenship rather than being merely “Royal subjects”.
The stakes are very high. Any compromise has the risk of instability because it will satisfy almost no one. The old elites might want to do a deal with Thaksin to stop the Red Shirts from becoming totally Republican. But whatever happens, Thai society cannot go back to the old days. The Red Shirts represent millions of Thais who are sick and tired of Military and Palace intervention in politics. At the very least they will want a non-political Constitutional Monarchy. It is hoped that the Red Shirts will continue to move to the Left during this round of struggle, but in the real world there are no cast-iron guarantees.