Thailand: Giles Ji Ungpakorn -- `A full-blown military dictatorship' + interview
[For earlier coverage of the Thai democracy struggle, please click HERE.]
By Giles Ji Ungpakorn
May 26, 2010 -- Make no mistake. We have a full military junta in Thailand with Abhisit Vejjajiva acting as a “democratic” mask. The repression and censorship is worse than even after the October 6, 1976 coup. More people have been killed by the army than in any previous repression. It is worse than during the Sarit dictatorship era in the 1960s and the reason is that the regime is trying desperately to suppress the biggest mass movement for democracy in Thai history. Hundreds are being rounded up. There is widespread censorship. The regime is increasingly looking like China, Burma or North Korea.
The Thai military junta, headed by Abhisit Vejjajiva, is now responsible for at least 88 deaths since April 10. It has heavily censored all media and internet sites. It is afraid of the truth and free debate. All this is to avoid elections and to cling to power. Abhisit, the military and his conservative royalist cronies are dragging Thailand back to the dark ages and the middle-class NGOs and most academics are supporting this cause. The National Human Rights Commission is helping to prosecute the pro-democracy United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD). NGO senator Rosana and her band of right-wing friends were calling for the army to slaughter the Red Shirts.
Today the Thai junta blocked the independent internet newspaper Prachatai once again and banned all Red Shirt publications. Many people who are in jail are being threatened with the death sentence. While hundreds of Red Shirts are in custody for demanding democracy, the fascist yellow-shirted PAD [People's Alliance for Democracy, who shut down the international airports in late 2008, have had any proceedings against them delayed ... yet again.
And what about the king? Many people may remember the Buddhist monks who chanted for peace at the Victory Monument just before the army moved in to kill civilians at Rajprasong on May 19-21. Compare that with the total silence of the king and the support for the junta shown by the queen and the crown prince. What a useless and parasitic life these aristocrats live!
The junta’s success in clinging to power by murdering the people is merely success built on sand. They can kill hundreds and imprison thousands, but they will never win the hearts and minds on the people. Thailand will never be the same again.
See this photo album:
Police general Wanchai Srinuannat, chairperson of the Thai National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) committee on Rights in the Justice System, has urged the public to make complaints to the NHRC about being affected by the Red Shirt protests in Bangkok. The NHRC will then bring prosecutions against the UDD.
Abhisit's government and the military sent tanks and snipers in to crush the Red Shirt pro-democracy demonstration. The NHRC has refused to confront the actions of the government, whether on state violence or on blanket censorship. The NHRC has also refused to take up the issue of lese majeste, which is used to imprison government opponents.
So-called independent bodies like the NHRC were all stuffed with junta supporters after the 2006 military coup. This, together with the installation of the Democrat Party government and PM Abhisit, are part of the expansion of power by the military and royalist elites. The Senate is half appointed and the constitution was written by the military.
This is the regime supported by the middle class, the local NGOs and most academics.
[Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a Thai socialist currently in exile in Britain. He is a member of Left Turn Thailand and maintains a blog at http://wdpress.blog.co.uk/.]
A fight against an entrenched elite
May 25, 2010 -- Socialist Worker (USA) -- Thai armed forces and police used tanks and live ammunition May 19-21 to clear an encampment of pro-democracy demonstrators, known as the Red Shirts because of their clothing, who had been demonstrating for weeks to demand that the unelected, military-backed government call new elections.
Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a Thai dissident who was accused of lese majeste--essentially, not being loyal to Thailand's king--and forced to flee the country last year. He has continued to provide a left-wing analysis of events in Bangkok. He spoke to in the aftermath of the crackdown.
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What is the level of repression in Thailand?
We have curfews in a number of areas. I'm not sure if they actually declared martial law. But for some days now they have areas that were free-fire zones. But since the demonstrations ended under such pressure, people have been setting fire to buildings in many places in Bangok and the provinces and so on.
They have been very carefully targeted, really. There have been government buildings, provincial headquarters in the north and the northeast provinces. They set fire to the stock exchange, luxury shopping malls and so on.
The death toll is now 80-plus since April 10. But I'm sure they haven't accounted for all of those killed. Soldiers have the tendency to drag bodies away and try to hide them.
Was the government's offer of early elections sincere?
I think it was a ploy to give themselves some breathing space. They weren't really sincere about coming to a compromise. At the same time as they offered elections, they still had charges of terrorism and of trying to overthrow the monarchy leveled at the Red Shirt leaders.
The relatives of those killed on April 10 had pressed charges against the prime minister and deputy prime minister for murder. The government side was brushing aside those charges. This was quite significant, because in the last two years, there has been a complete double standard in the use of the law.
Demonstrators have closed down airports -- the Yellow Shirt fascists did that in 2008 [when they functioned as a street force that helped the military oust a democratically elected government]. None of the Yellow Shirts have been punished at all. But now, there are lots of Red Shirts in jail.
You've described the Red Shirts as a class movement rooted in the countryside. Can you tell us how the movement evolved during the demonstrations?
The movement was started off by the leaders from the old party of Thaksin Shinawatra [the prime minister who was ousted in a 2006 military coup].
They had a TV program called Truth Today. Later, the program got banned from mainstream TV, so they decided to try to have a TV program in a football stadium, and about 100,000 people turned up. It really grew from there. People went back to their communities and to Bangkok as well, and started to build connections and organisation.
These groups help each other. They raise money for travelling to protests. They have ways that some people can access the Internet and get through the censorship through various computer programs. They spread the news that way. In many cases, they run community radio stations.
It's a very grassroots movement. As Marxists, we can understand that things can be contradictory. The Red Shirts can be very supportive of Thaksin because he provided health care to the entire population and pursued pro-poor policies.
But at the same time, they are not being manipulated and used by him. They have genuine grievances. Their democratic rights have been stolen, and this is very much related to class issues. Because the people who stole their democratic rights have insulted ordinary people, saying that they're not fit to vote -- that they're too stupid, too poor and uneducated. Democratic rights went hand in hand with the benefits they got from the elected governments. The struggle for democracy and class social justice are completely tied up.
In the beginning of March, the Red Shirt leadership started to use the language of class struggle. They said that they were all serfs. Lots of people made numerous speeches saying that they were the ordinary people, fighting against the entrenched elite, the rich, people who are bloodsuckers and so on.
Because of all the bloodshed and brutality, and the fact that the king has remained completely silent, and the queen has supported the Yellow Shirts, it is quite likely that the vast majority of the Red Shirts now completely hate the monarchy. That is many millions of people. It's a new phenomenon.
What will become of the movement now?
Quite a few of the high-profile leaders are in prison. And the authorities are trying to capture some of the lower-profile ones. Also, they're going for provincial leaders and so on.
The movement will have to throw up new leadership. If it is to remain strong, the way it was built in communities has to be strengthened. And the groups have to coordinate with each other. If it is to be strong, that leadership has to represent the different communities. That's something I've been arguing for. But whether or not that will happen is another matter.
Whar are the links between the Red Shirt movement and the left and trade unions?
The existing left is really small, and those who were serious about building a left-wing movement formed a united front and became Red Shirts. There were some who want to remain pure and didn't engage in the struggle, but in my opinion, they are quite irrelevant.
Trade union activists were on the Red Shirt protests. But they didn't come in union contingents. They didn't call for strikes. There was discussion toward the end about the possibility of strike action, but it never happened.
The bus workers' unions did come on stage during the protests and gave donations. The local electricity distribution workers came on stage. There were areas in Bangkok where roadblocks were set up by Red Shirts -- places where there are factories. So there's potential there. But the Red Shirt leadership, because they're not from the left -- and they're not used to the kind of activism the left would do -- ignored this.
You wrote over the past few months about some of the NGOs that were blaming the Red Shirts equally with the government for the violence.
At the beginning, some would say that this was a dispute between Thaksin and the conservative elite. They didn't understand the dynamics of the Red Shirt movement, and therefore they remained aloof. Later, they became semi-sympathetic, but still wouldn't go in with the Red Shirts, so they remained irrelevant.
But the NGO movement had already disgraced itself during the military coup of 2006. They supported the coup. They supported the Yellow Shirt fascists.
When they talked about the need to avoid bloodshed in recent weeks and months, they were saying that both sides need to avoid it. But on the one side, we have a heavily armed repressive state, using tanks and armed troops against unarmed, peaceful demonstrators. And they're still saying that both sides need to take responsibility?
This isn't the first time that troops have cracked down on demonstrators in Thai history. What's distinctive about this period?
What's historic is the Red Shirt movement -- that it's so large, and made up of ordinary workers and small farmers. It's a mass movement that has been mobilised and active since late 2008, and it's growing. Also, the protests were prolonged, and so was the bloodshed. I think the body count was also unprecedented as well.
The official spin in the media about the 2006 coup against Thaksin was that it was a "relief" for Thailand.
It was a relief for the middle class, the right wing and the NGO types who were reactionary. It was a shock and horror to millions of Thai people who voted for the government. The journalists who talk about it being a relief were only talking to the middle class.
The middle class throughout this event took a very reactionary position -- anti-democratic and sometimes semi-fascist -- in the same way that the middle class took an extremely reactionary position in the military coup of 1976. But there have been other cases where the middle class has gone along with the democracy movement. It vacillates all the time.
What has changed in the social base of the regime?
If you look at 1970s, when the Communist Party of Thailand was strong, there were serious splits in Thai society, and the monarchy was not that popular. I think the monarchy reached its pinnacle in terms of gaining hegemony when the CPT was crushed in the mid-1980s.
This crisis has its roots in the 1997 economic crisis, when the Thai economy collapsed and a lot of Asian economies went with it. The response of the ruling class to the crisis of 1997 was to make the poor pay for it. It didn't provide anything to the poor. People who became unemployed were told to go back to their villages.
Along came Thaksin Shinawatra, a fairly modernist capitalist, if you like. He saw that if Thailand was to become competitive in the world market and climb out of the crisis, he had to bring the majority of the population on board and make them what he called stakeholders. He saw that if there were a decent health care system, education and all that, the capitalist system would be more efficient.
But this really rocked the boat. Because it meant that the old ways in which the elite had ruled -- by offering the poor virtually nothing -- could no longer be used. Plus, Thaksin became immensely popular.
The Thai ruling elite has traditionally used the monarchy to legitimise everything it does. So if the army stages a coup, it claims legitimacy from the monarchy, and the monarchy is happy to go along with this. The monarchy itself is quite weak, but it's given the appearance of strength. It's used in an ideological way to back up everything the elites do, including the 2006 military coup against Thaksin.
Because of the coup, the use of the monarchy, and the way that the monarchy has been seen to be on the side of the military and the conservative elite, there's now a deep crisis once again, like there was in the 1970s and the 1930s.
The popularity of the monarchy has gone up and down. What we see now in Thailand is the division between the two sides: a conservative elite that uses brute force, allows democracy at certain times and uses the monarchy to legitimise itself -- versus Thaksin, who uses pro-poor policies to gain a mass base through democratic means.
Between those two choices, the people have chosen democracy. That means in trying to struggle for democracy after the coup, they have come up against the ideology of the monarchy that is being used against them. That is bringing the monarchy into crisis.
What is the potential to organise openly now?
The censorship is very severe at the moment. People are still playing cat-and-mouse games -- opening new web sites, having them closed down, and moving them.
Whar kind of factor will the economy be in the months ahead?
Regimes can benefit if they can cling to power and the economy starts to grow. But it's much too early to say, since we still have the world economic crisis -- although the expansion of the economy in China is probably helping Thai economy. On the other hand, the social unrest will have a negative effect. It's difficult to tell.
Are there splits in the ruling class that could give the popular movement room to come back?
They wanted to delay the elections so that the Red Shirts would demobilise. They were trying to buy time, and maybe hope that the longer they postpone elections, the more they could find ways to boost their popularity. But the killings must have had an impact on the way people view the government.
There are splits in the ruling elite all the time. But they are still united in their opposition to the Red Shirts. They have a relationship with the movements from below. If you have a lot of pressure from below, certain elements in the ruling class will say, "Right, we're going to sacrifice the prime minister to save our own skins."
But if the Red Shirts don't mobilise, I'm not sure we can rely on splits in the ruling class.
What can people outside Thailand do to support the pro-democracy movement?
One issue that's very important is that of political prisoners. That's something people in the US and Europe can help campaign around.
It is very important to see that all the prisoners are political prisoners, whatever the charges that they may face. Some may face charges of terrorism or trying to overthrow the monarchy, some of blocking roads. But all of these things have to be seen as political charges, and they all need to be opposed. We need to pressure human rights groups, the Obama administration and other governments.
[This interview first appeared in the US International Socialist Organization's newspaper, Socialist Worker.]