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Thailand: Smells like a coup, tastes like a coup, looks like a coup

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By Giles Ji Ungpakorn

May 20, 2014 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Today Thai army general Prayut Chanocha declared martial law without consulting the caretaker government or any other elected representatives. Troops took over all radio and TV stations and are positioned along major road intersections in Bangkok.

Despite the fact that he claimed that “this is not a coup”, Prayut’s actions smell, taste and look like a coup. This is from a man who has blood on his hands. Four years ago to the day Prayut oversaw the shooting down in the streets of almost 90 Red Shirt pro-democracy demonstrators. Before the elections in the following year he made public statements against the Pheu Thai Party. He had previously been a key figure in manoeuvring the (anti-)Democrat Party into an unelected government in 2008. He has never been brought to court for his crimes and was on the list of those who would be given total amnesty in Yingluck Shinawatra’s abortive amnesty bill.

The military say that the declaration of martial law is just to maintain peace and security; if so, it is too little, too late. If the military were really concerned with keeping the peace it would have acted against Sutep Tuaksuban’s anti-democrat mobs when they invaded government ministries in order to overthrow the elected government at the end of last year. They would have arrested Sutep and his armed thugs who used violence on the streets to wreck the February election.

But the military are just team players on the side of those who want to destroy Thailand’s democratic space. They have sat on their hands and watched with glee as the Yingluck government was gradually destroyed and the elections wrecked. Now they estimate that their allies among Sutep’s mob and the kangaroo courts have created enough chaos to legitimise military intervention.

Make no mistake, this military “non-coup” will not ensure that free and fair elections take place and it certainly won’t protect freedom of expression. The “non-coup” will instead smooth the way for an unelected “temporary” prime minister. It will smooth the way to fixing the democratic process so that unelected powers can control any future elected government. It is part of the process of decreasing the democratic space.

Democracy can only be built if significant numbers of Red Shirts realise that Pheu Thai and the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship leadership are unwilling and unable to lead a fight. The building of an independent pro-democracy movement based upon the Red Shirts with clear links to the progressive working class and peasantry is long over-due. Such a movement cannot be built over night but it can and must be built.

* * *

May 19, 2014 -- One thing that the Thai political crisis over the past eight years has proved is that being in government does not mean controlling the state.

The state is made up of much more than the government. There are the “bodies of armed men”, courts, prisons, top civil servants and elite CEOs of big business. The state is the unofficial, unacknowledged, committee for managing the affairs of the entire ruling capitalist class.

Its pretence at being neutral and law-abiding is a mechanism to win legitimacy among the population. There will be differences of opinion within the state. But its overall aim is to rule over, control and oppress other classes.

In Thailand, its function is to rule over ordinary working people and farmers who make up most of the population. It has not yet faced the power of the organised working class like in Europe. The Thai state has yet to make serious concessions to democracy.

Over the past eight years of political crisis, the Thai state has set its face against democracy and the idea of a free universal franchise. We have had one coup d'etat by the army and three judicial coups.

This repression of democracy is backed up by armed right-wing Democrat Party thugs on the streets who act with impunity. It is backed up by military appointed so-called “independent bodies”, acting under a military drafted constitution.

It is supported by middle-class academics and NGO leaders. They also all claim to be “protecting the monarchy”, although the draconian lese majeste law prevents people from questioning or testing this.

It is obvious that to achieve freedom and democracy, we shall have to pull down all the old structures of the Thai state.

But Thaksin SHinawatra, Yingluck Shinawatra and her Pheu Thai party have no intention of doing this. Their aim is to re-join the elite club who now run the state.

They are not pro-democracy out of principle, merely out of convenience. The United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) “Red Shirt” leaders are wedded to Pheu Thai. It is incapable of leading the needed fight.

Any defence of democracy must come from the Red Shirt movement. There is no other movement remotely interested in doing this, and no other group that has the potential capabilities.

The Red Shirts are the largest pro-democracy social movement that has ever existed in Thailand. Most Red Shirts still support Thaksin, but at the same time wish to fight for democracy as a matter of principle and in their own interests. They have a contradictory relationship with Thaksin and Pheu Thai.

The weakness of the Red Shirt movement comes in two forms: political leadership and power. What is needed is new leaders independent of Pheu Thai and Thaksin, with more self-organisation.

There is an urgent need to assess the required task of overthrowing the old state structures and how this can be done. Power needs to come from being more closely allied to the organised working class, especially the private sector unions.

Power also comes from the mass movement being made up of farmers throughout the country. Until this happens, the Red Shirts will not be able to rebuild democracy and expand Thailand’s democratic space.

[Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a political commentator and dissident. In February 2009 he had to leave Thailand for exile in Britain because he was charged with lèse majesté for writing a book criticising the 2006 military coup. He is a member of Left Turn Thailand, a socialist organisation. His book, Thailand’s Crisis and the Fight for Democracy, will be of interest to activists, academics and journalists who watch Thai politics, democratisation and NGOs. His website is at]

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