Thailand: Prison sentence for ex-PM Thaksin. What does it mean?

By Giles Ji Ungpakorn

October 22, 2008 -- The prison sentence handed down to ex-Thai prime minister Thaksin is just one part of the present Thai political crisis. I write this short piece because I have been contacted by both the BBC TV and radio to give a telephone interview, but on both occasions the telephone line went dead during the interview. Times like this can make us paranoid. It was probably a technical fault which just happened to occur twice.

Thaksin was found guilty of a ``conflict of interest'' because he was prime minister at the time when his wife bought a piece of land at a knock-down price from the Thai state. The land originated from bankruptcies due to the 1997 economic crisis. Earlier Prime Minister Samak was found guilty of appearing on a TV cooking program and forced to resign. Samak was head of the Peoples Power Party (PPP), the descendant of Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party (TRT) which was dissolved by the courts during the time of the military junta.

It is interesting to note that Thaksin's wife was not found guilty of any corruption by the courts, nor was the organisation that held the land auction. This means that there is no evidence that the price paid for the land was below market rates or artificially depressed.

We need to look at the context of the court rulings. We are in the middle of a deep political crisis caused by an inter-elite conflict. One side of this conflict -- Thaksin's TRT and PPP -- is made up of politicians who believe in parliamentary democracy, but do not respect human. On the other side, are politicians of the Democrat Party, bureaucrats, army generals, the ultra-rightwing People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protesters and members of the royal family, especially the queen. This side wants to decrease the democratic space in Thailand. Their excuse is that they believe that the poor are too stupid to deserve the vote. The poor majority, both urban and rural, have consistently voted for TRT's universal health care scheme and the government's grassroots Keynesian policies. They reject the monetarism of the Democrat Party.

The Thai courts have never been independent. Today they serve the elite faction which is against Thaksin. During Thaksin's time they served him. It is easy to punish an ex-PM, exiled in the UK. In the meantime, the widespread corruption among all politicians of all parties and among the military top brass, is untouched. There are numerous land accusations against former ministers, prime ministers and military generals. The junta that overthrew an elected government in 2006 and then appointed its members to the boards of lucrative state enterprises are not being brought to account for abuse of power or corruption.

Today, in Thailand, every public institution is compromised by double standards. This includes the royal family, the courts, the media and most of academia. That is why the PAD protesters are allowed to occupy Government House and organise armed protests, attacking police with weapons. This is not about a strengthened civil society asserting its democratic rights. The PAD have powerful backers which allow it to break the law. Meanwhile, the king has remained silent. Is this a sign of his longstanding weakness? Yes, I think it is. But others believe that he supports the PAD. There is no concrete evidence to back this up, however. One cannot just assume that because the queen supports the PAD, that the Monarchy does too.

The Thai public who are outside the minority supporters of the PAD are angry and becoming more and more disenchanted with the elites. Many royalists were shocked that the queen supported the PAD. But this public does not have a voice. They were passive voters for the government. Nevertheless, some government politicians are trying to mobilise people. These are the ``Red Shirts'', as opposed to the PAD ``Yellow Shirts''. Yellow is the colour of the king. But the Red Shirts are not socialists and only a fraction are republicans at the moment.

The courts are helping to do what perhaps the military cannot do. They are pushing towards a civilian coup to topple the elected government. They may dissolve the governing party. Then there will be extra-constitutional moves to set up a ``Special National Government''. The constitution will be changed to decrease the voting rights of the poor, if these elites get their way.

The only hope for Thai democracy is if civil society groups and academics refuse to take sides in this damaging conflict. We need to expand democracy and build a third alternative, independent from the TRT-PPP or the PAD authoritarians. Unfortunately, most Thai academics have disgraced themselves by their double standards. The hope must lie with some sections of the NGO movement, students, the left and the more advanced trade union activists.

[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.]