Thailand: Growing resistance to coup smashes political myths

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By Giles Ji Ungpakorn

May 26, 2014 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The most striking thing about the latest coup d'etat in Thailand is the speed and size of the anti-coup protests. For the last three days, immediately following the coup, mass protests of ordinary people have simultaneously erupted in many areas of Bangkok but also in Chiangmai and other towns. This is history in the making.

These protests are spontaneous but it would be a mistake to think that they were “unorganised”. For years pro-democracy activists have been creating their own grassroots networks that are independent from Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra, the Pheu Thai party and the mainstream United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) leaders of the Red Shirts. Nevertheless, many Red Shirts who are still loyal to the UDD are also taking part. So are ordinary working-class people, although not as organised trade unionists. The more the protests grow, the more confidence is gained by those taking part and those watching and sympathising. Such grassroots protests make it more difficult for the military. There are hundreds of grassroots leaders, with new ones emerging every day. Arresting a few will only enrage people. It is not like arresting the UDD leaders and stopping the Red Shirt protests as before. Communication in these networks can be via social media, but “word of mouth” is also extremely important. This is the most positive development in Thailand’s political crisis for years.

Do not doubt for one moment that it is easy to defy a military junta and stand in front of armed soldiers who in the past have not hesitated to shoot down unarmed protesters. Some activists have been arrested and taken away. Others have been taken from their homes. Many people have been ordered by the junta to report to the army. This includes prominent progressive academics, some from the Nitirat group, and also including people like Ajarn Charnwit and Ajarn Suda. Some have been incarcerated in army camps. Those who are charged with “offences” will face military courts and prison.

But amazingly the protesters return in larger numbers. The hope is that this movement will grow and will reach out to the organised working class. But this will take time. It may well be a case of “two steps forward, one step back”.


There are a number of myths that have been shattered in the last few days. The first myth, constantly repeated by lazy journalists and elitist academics, is that the pro-democracy movement is predominantly rural. Millions of rural people will be enraged by this coup and hopefully they will organised themselves to oppose it in the coming days. But what we are seeing is an anti-coup movement developing in Bangkok and containing many Red Shirts. I have argued for years that the Red Shirt movement has significant support in Bangkok and that the capital city is not just made up of the conservative middle classes.

The second myth that has exploded is the idea that the palace is all powerful and controls the army. General Prayut Chanocha staged his coup d'etat without even bothering to inform the king until one day after the event. There were no pictures of the monarchy behind the junta as they read out their declaration. Again this is something I have been arguing for years. The military is a law unto itself, only using the monarchy to legitimise what it does. Given this fact, the Thai crisis cannot be explained as merely an elite dispute over the issue of royal succession. There is no point in fighting over a weak and powerless institution.

What the succession mongers are saying to the brave people who are on the streets and facing arrest is that they “shouldn’t bother”. “The gods on Mount Olympus will fight it out and determine your fate.”

The crisis is really about the democratic space in society. It is a two-dimensional struggle with an elite fight over the conduct of politics linked, in a contradictory and dialectical manner, to the struggle of millions of ordinary people for freedom, democracy and social justice. On the streets this is not a fight between two groups of people who support different elites, as conservative academics and NGO leaders claim.

Whether the rumours that Thaksin is considering setting up a government in exile are true or not, such a move would be irrelevant to the real struggle for democracy. Thaksin is firmly in the camp of the elites, though he favours the democratic process as a means to achieve power. He and his fellow party members have no intention of leading a real struggle for democracy that could tear down the structures of the old order, destroying the power of the army, abolishing lèse-majesté, punishing state killers and bringing in standards of human rights and equality via a welfare state. As Leon Trotsky argued in his theory of Permanent Revolution, such a task lies with the modern urban working class, in coalition with the small farmers.

A third myth that has been exploded is the claim by the junta that it was “an honest broker”, trying to bring about peace and stability between two warring sides. No one with half a political brain really believed this because the army and Sutep Tuaksuban’s mobs were working together. They also were on the same side as the monarchist yellow shirts back in 2006. What is now very clear is that almost all the people who have been arrested and ordered to report to the military are Red Shirts or progressive pro-democracy activists.

There has been a total silence from the various NGO and conservative academic “worthies” over this coup. In fact they helped create the conditions for it to occur in the first place, by demanding the elected government resign and compromise with anti-democratic thugs. The National Human Rights Commission, which is stacked with uniforms, has pleaded with the junta not to be too harsh. It is a disgrace to its name. The most that a small group of NGO figures linked to “FTA Watch” and consumers’ and environmental groups could bring themselves to say is that they hoped that the junta would return Thailand to democracy “at the earliest opportunity”. In other words, the junta should relinquish power when it feels the time is right. They also called on “both sides” in the crisis to negotiate and compromise. The result would be “half democracy”.

Supporters of Thai democracy abroad can do two simple and very important tasks. The first is to try to protect and publicise the plight of those who are arrested and imprisoned, including those who are already in jail for lèse-majesté. The second thing is to try to counter the lies and nonsense coming from the junta which appears in your own national media.

[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] 


Total silence from the Human Rights Commission and NGOs as hundreds of pro-democracy academics and activists arrested

By Giles Ji Ungpakorn

June 2, 2014 As hundreds of pro-democracy academics and activists are arrested by the Thai military junta, it is obvious to anyone with half a brain that this is a coup to destroy the redshirts and the democracy movement as a whole. Yellow shirts and anti-democratic mobsters who used violence to wreck the elections have been allowed to go free and have been photographing themselves in army uniforms as part of their celebrations.

     There has been total silence from National Human Rights Commission and the mainstream academics, both about the coup and about these gross abuses of human rights.

     I have surveyed the various declarations published on the “Prachatai” web newspaper since the coup and we can see a clear pattern.

     While brave activists defy the junta by taking part in flash mobs and some mass protests in Bangkok and other cities, a number of organisations have made declarations which unconditionally condemn the coup. These organisations include The Assembly for the Defence of Democracy, The Assembly of the Poor, The 24th June Democracy Group (set up by Somyot), The 4 Regions Slum Dwellers, The Common People’s Party, The Group of 91 academics and students from the deep south, The Students Federation of Isarn, P-Move & YPD, The Community Network for Reform in Society and Politics, The Non-Violent activists around Kotom Araya and the Volunteer Graduates for the Defence of Democracy. Other groups, including left wing groups and street activists have not issued declarations but have opposed the coup by their actions.

     A second group of people have criticised the coup, but have justified it at the same time. They argue that “both sides of the political divide” were responsible for the crisis and must make amends. In practical terms this implies that those who won elections and those who wanted to protect the democratic process were “as guilty” as those who used violence on the streets to wreck elections or used their illegitimate roles in the courts to frustrate democracy. This is a mealy-mouthed way of trying to look democratic while supporting the coup. This is the position of the National NGO Coordinating Committee and also 11 NGO figures from organisations such as FTA watch, Bio Thai, Women & Men Progressive Movement Foundation, Friends of the People, The Consumers Association and The Foundation for Labour and Employment Promotion. They call for a return to democracy at the “earliest opportunity”, something which General Prayut would easily agree, because no time frame is demanded. Also the National NGO Coordinating Committee seems to be more concerned to stop the junta from proposing any large scale infrastructure projects than to care about abuses of democratic rights.

     A third group of people accept the coup and try to give the junta advice. This includes the Thailand Development Research Institute, Political Science academics from Thammasart and the Society to Prevent Global Warming.

     After the 2006 coup a number most NGOs accepted the coup and took part in the junta’s sham “reform” committees. Some “NGO academics” even sat in the junta’s appointed parliament.

     For the last decade Thai NGOs have ceased to be advocates or activists for freedom and democracy and have treated the majority of citizens with contempt. To read more detail about this, go to: “Why have most Thai NGOs sided with the conservative royalists against democracy and the poor” at

     The true activists for freedom and democracy can be found in the flash mobs and street demonstrations, in the junta’s jails, or among the red shirts. However, the UDD red shirt leadership and the top politicians from Pua Thai Party, including Yingluk, have thrown in the towel. The UDD leaders are calling for calm and they have been trying to demobilise the movement since Yingluk’s election in 2011. Pictures of Yingluk obediently going to report to the junta are in stark contrast with the actions of those who have refused to report to this illegitimate body. Chaturon Chaisang, a former Minister of Education, was arrested at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club and is now facing a military court and two years in jail. Others are trying to cross the border to seek asylum. The UDD leaders could easily have done something like this in an attempt to lead the fight for democracy from abroad or while in hiding. But they have failed. New leadership must now come from grass roots activists.