Thailand: Puppets on a string, dancing to the tune of the military

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By Giles Ji Ungpakorn

April 21, 2013 -- Links International journal of Socialist Renewal -- As Thailand's Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra posed, smiling and holding hands with the butcher of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, Thai foreign minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul was acting out an extreme nationalist game with Cambodia over the Preah Vihear Temple.

The Preah Vihear Temple was built by the Khmer, in Khmer style, when the Khmers ruled a large empire covering the area that is now Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. It belongs to Cambodia. Almost everything that the Thai ruling class claim to be “Thai” was copied from the Khmer, including royal language and so-called Thai-style architecture. Sukotai was a Khmer city with a Khmer king. Ayuttaya also had some Khmer kings. Therefore when the Yellow Shirt nationalists and the military demand that “Thai territory” be returned they are merely playing out an imbecilic myth. It is a myth to divert attention from the inequality, exploitation and repression within Thai society.

Instead of moving forward to jointly develop Preah Vihear as an ancient monument and tourist venue, for the peaceful benefit of those living on both sides of the border, as was the plan before the 2006 military coup, Surapong Tovichakchaikul is now dancing like a puppet on a string to the tune of the ultra-nationalist military.

The childish spat over a few square metres of land around the temple would be laughable if people had not already died over it. Who cares about who actually owns a scrap of land on the top of the mountain? Normal people should not care. But the ruling classes of Thailand and Cambodia care. They care because it is about showing off political and military power. But never forget that it is exactly this state power that is used to kill, repress and exploit ordinary Thai and Cambodian citizens within their own countries.

Therefore the ultra-nationalists who wave the Thai flag over Preah Vihear, who unfortunately include some Red Shirts and the Pheu Thai party government, are merely acting like servants to the Thai elite. It is the intellectual equivalent of crawling along the ground.

What we are seeing today is that Yingluck’s Pheu Thai government is promoting or supporting the role of the military in society. The same military has murdered pro-democracy demonstrators on the streets on five occasions in living memory. Murderers like general Prayut Junocha are allowed to have a public opinion on foreign affairs.

The army has been guaranteed digital TV channels for its own use, under the excuse of “internal security”. Thai military control of the media increases its influence on politics and lines the pockets of the corrupt top brass. Their influence on the boards of state enterprises is the same. They both stem from periods of military dictatorship in the past.

The so-called “peace talks” in Thailand's south are dominated by the security forces. This is not about achieving a political solution to the Thai state’s repression of Malay Muslims. It is about stressing internal security.

Even the misnamed National Human Rights Commission is stacked with military and police officers.

The continued use of lèse majesté by the Pheu Thai government and the refusal to scrap this barbaric law and release the political prisoners is another sop to the military. The military uses the king to legitimise all its wrongdoings and needs lèse majesté [law against "insulting" the monarchy] to protect itself. Of course, business politicians in Pheu Thai, like Thaksin Shinawatra, also want to use the king.

Recently, deputy prime minister and gangster politician Chalerm Yubamrung announced his version of an amnesty law that would wipe the slate clean for the generals and politicians who killed pro-democracy Red Shirts. It would allow Thaksin to return to Thailand too. In fact, such a law would be meaningless, since in practice the murderers of the Red Shirts are enjoying total immunity right now.

Yingluck’s handshake with the bloody tyrant of Bahrain is symbolic. It says that it is OK to shoot down pro-democracy demonstrators in Bahrain and in Thailand.

In countries that have a history of military dictatorships, like Turkey or Argentina, democratically elected governments have cut the military down to size and punished the generals. It isn’t that Pheu Thai “do not dare” for fear of provoking a coup. It is that the government wants to deliberately promote the role of the army in politics.

They have become puppets on a string, willingly dancing to the military’s tune. Pheu Thai is the new party of the military and it does a much better job than the Democrat Party because it is democratically elected and can control the Red Shirt movement.

[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]