Thailand: Democracy lost in shuffle between royalist `opposition' and Thaksin government

By Giles Ji Ungpakorn

September 2, 2008, Bangkok -- For the past two or more years, especially since the September 2006 coup, Thai society has been hypnotised into forgetting about the real social and political issues. Instead, the whole of society and, most tragically, the social movements have been entranced by a fight between two factions of the Thai ruling class.

On the one side are the deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his disbanded Thai Rak Thai Party, its successor the Peoples Power Party government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej. Opposing them are a loose collection of authoritarian royalists comprising the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), the pro-coup royalist military, the pro-coup judiciary and the Democrat Party. The authoritarian royalists are not a unified body. They only share a collective interest in wiping out Thaksin’s party.

The two sides mirror each other. Both are firmly in the camp of the Thai capitalist elite. They both are nationalistic and are prepared to abuse human rights. While the Thaksin government and Samak’s Peoples Power government support extrajudicial killings and a hard-line murderous position on the Muslim insurrection in the south, the opposing side cares little about such killings and counts the former Thai commando and assassin who took part in several coups and is called the butcher of Krue Sae Mosque, where Muslims were massacred, among its leadership.

Both factions are associated with people who have a record of corruption. It is common knowledge that all Thai politicians are engaged in corrupt practices, whether legal or illegal. The military have a long record of corruption and the 2006 junta was no exception. After the illegal coup in 2006, the military themselves to boards of state enterprises and forced through increased military spending.

Yet the courts have clearly been used to single out Thaksin’s faction on corruption and “abuse of power” charges. While Thaksin was still in power, the courts bent to his wishes. There is no justice in Thailand. The judiciary are not accountable to the electorate and always support the rich and powerful. In labour courts they always rule against trade unions. No jury system exists in Thailand.

There are differences between the two factions. While the Thaksin faction is committed to its strategy of winning power by elections, parliamentary democracy and money politics, the PAD and its friends are in favour of military coups, reducing the number of elected parliamentarians and senators, and increasing the power of unelected bureaucrats and the army. The justification for this is the belief that the poor majority of Thailand are too stupid to be given the vote.

The PAD faction are also fanatical royalists. They want a new coup and were happy to whip up hatred of Cambodia and risk a war over an ancient Khmer temple. The PAD strategy, as outlined by Pipop Thongchai, a core leader of the party, is to create enough political chaos that institutions and parties are destroyed and a “new order” arises from the ashes. Needless to say, this new order will not be democratic nor committed to social justice and equality.

In terms of economic policy, the Thaksin faction try to use a dual-track strategy of mixing neo-liberalism with grassroots Keynesianism. They believe that the poor must not be left out and have a record of real pro-poor policies such as the health care scheme. However, they are not remotely socialist and are against taxing the rich and building a welfare state.

The PAD/Democrats/royalists are hard-line monetarists. They propose interest rate hikes to cut spending on the poor and to squeeze wages. The Thai king is one of the richest monarchs in the world and he supports this economic policy and has also advocated the “sufficiency economy” in which everyone needs to curb their spending according to their means. Income redistribution is ruled out. That is why the poor have consistently voted for the Thaksin faction.

The major reason why democracy and social justice have fallen off the political agenda into the stinking canals of Bangkok is the total disarray of the social movements, NGO networks and trade unions. After the collapse of the Communist Party in the mid-1980s, the new slogan of the people's movements was “the answer is in the villages”.

This was an NGO strategy to turn to rural development along single-issue lines. The slogan reflected a respect for villagers which contrasted greatly with the attitude of the government. Now the slogan of those people’s movement networks supporting the PAD has changed to “the villagers are stupid and don’t deserve the vote!”, “the answer is with the military, courts and the king”.

Sections of the NGO-Coordinating Committee, some Thai staff in Focus on Global South, HIV+ networks, Friends of the People and some farmer groups have lined up to support the PAD and the demand to decrease democracy. The Railway Workers Union and the Thai Airways union have also shown support. The rail union leaders have never campaigned for hundreds of rail employees who have been on temporary contracts without welfare for decades. The Thai Airways union has ignored military corruption in the airline and in the Airports Authority. Both unions have turned their backs on serious attacks on trade unions in the private sector and are only prepared to take action when people in high places give them the green light.

Other activists who cannot stand the PAD have allowed themselves to be pulled into supporting the government. This is just as bad as those supporting the PAD. Some have even cheered when the police tried to break up PAD protests.

The lack of independent class politics in the Thai peoples’ movement is a result of years of rejecting overall “politics” and “political organisation”. It is a result of the anarchistic ideas that were popular after the collapse of the Communist Party, a reaction to the party’s Stalinist authoritarianism. The problem is also a result of the “lobby politics” of NGOs. Neither strategy leads to building an independent position for the trade unions and social movements. They reject “representative democracy” but have no concrete democratic proposals to put in its place.

Even at this late hour, we can still build political independence. We must campaign for more democracy and more control of institutions from below. We must advocate a root and branch reform of the justice system, a reduction in the role of the military and the building of a welfare state through cuts in the military budget and progressive taxation of the rich.

Yet there are still those who say that we must take sides in the current elite dispute and leave such reforms until later. The problem with that is that the dispute will not be quickly settled and if it is settled on the terms of one or other elite grouping it will result in a smaller democratic space and less bargaining power for social movements.

[Giles Ji Ungpakorn is an associate professor in the political science faculty at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, and is a member of the Thai socialist group Workers' Democracy, which is affiliated to the International Socialist Tendency. This article first appeared HERE.]

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Thu, 09/04/2008 - 14:04


Who's behind Thailand's protests?

Though many Western newspapers describe the forces behind protests in Thailand as "pro-democracy," their history shows they are anything but, Paul Heideman argues.

THAILAND'S ONGOING political crisis took a turn for the worse on August 26 when anti-government protesters took over government buildings, set up roadblocks and forced a state-run television station off the air.

The protests are led by the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a movement headed by media tycoon and multimillionaire Sondhi Limthongkul. Despite its name, the PAD is a vehicle primarily for the urban middle and upper classes, described by the Bangkok Post as the "blue blood jet set."

The PAD first achieved international prominence in the coup of September 2006, when it, along with sections of the military, overthrew the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin was the founder of the populist Thai Rak Thai Party (roughly translated as the Thai Unity Party), which had led the government since 2001.

Founded in the late 1990s on a platform of debt relief, subsidies to farmers and universal health care, Thai Rak Thai's tenure in power was marked by an ambiguous legacy.

On the one hand, Thaksin followed through on his health care plan and created a system of universal coverage that expanded health care access from 76 percent of the population to 96 percent, as well as providing low-cost access to HIV/AIDS medication. On the other hand, Thaksin went ahead with various neoliberal and free-trade agreements that threatened to undermine the progress made, especially with respect to Thailand's ability to manufacture generic HIV/AIDS medication.

Even more disturbing was Thaksin's record as a vicious prosecutor of the international war on drugs. In his first term in office, over 3,000 suspects were executed without ever coming to trial.

Discontent with Thai Rak Thai's human rights abuses and neoliberal policies resulted in a growing protest movement. In 2004, protests of 200,000 workers helped delay an energy privatization plan pushed by Thaksin.

Seeing an opportunity in the political instability, upper-class forces created the PAD in an attempt to channel people's anger at Thaksin into safer channels. Given the historic weakness of the Thai left, the PAD was able to absorb large layers of the protest movement without significant challenge. Embracing an end to political corruption as its slogan, the PAD sought to remove Thaksin from power and replace him with a less dangerously populist figure.

The PAD's accusations of government corruption were ironic, given that Thaksin's regime had seen a decrease in political corruption, and the 2005 re-election of Thai Rak Thai was marked by the largest voter turnout in voter history, as well as a massive reduction in vote-buying.

In order to explain Thai Rak Thai's apparent popularity, the PAD argued that the party had "tricked the ignorant rural poor" into voting for it. This was, as Thai Marxist Giles Ji Ungpakorn argues, "a convenient justification for ignoring the wishes of 16 million people."

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THE PAD achieved victory in September 2006, when a military junta took control of Bangkok while Thaksin was visiting New York. The junta relied on the twin support of the PAD and the Thai royalty. Thai Rak Thai party members came under repression, and many resigned.

The coup regime, renaming itself the Council for Democratic Reform (CDR), immediately instituted a massive censorship campaign. Heads of television stations were instructed to carry no news reporting on public opinion. Three hundred community radio stations were ordered to cease broadcasting. The CDR issued an ominous announcement that it would "urgently retaliate against foreign reporters whose coverage has been deemed insulting to the monarchy" (in whose name the CDR governed).

The junta promised elections within 12 months of its seizure of power. To combat the still massive popularity of Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai, the party was officially dissolved and banned.

Elections were scheduled for December 2007. In an attempt to regain power, many prominent Thai Rak Thai members agreed to stand in the elections on the People's Power Party (PPP) ticket, a right-wing party headed by Samak Sundaravej, a former governor known for his brutality in repressing protests.

The PPP would go on to win the elections, and Samak became prime minister. Thai Rak Thai members did exercise some influence in the party however, leading Sondhi and the PAD to describe Samak's government as a proxy for Thaksin.

It is this charge that has been the prime motivator behind this latest round of protests. Though many Western newspapers have been describing the protest forces as "pro-democracy," their history shows that they are anything but.

Additionally, the PAD currently has close ties to Gen. Saprang Kalayanamitr, a key player in the 2006 coup who was passed over for Army chief general. Saprang represents the extreme right wing of the Thai military and has been quoted in newspapers saying he will shoot his political opponents himself. Recently, he told Thai papers that he is personally giving orders to the PAD.

Contrary to their image in the Western media, the protests in Thailand are not a movement for democracy. They represent an attempt by the extreme right wing of Thai politics to gain even greater influence in the government.

Without an independent left, Thai workers' anger over neoliberalism has been hijacked by ruling-class forces intent on forcing through even more brutal attacks on the people's living standards.

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