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Class War for Democracy in Thailand

The current dispensation in Thailand is based on a political reaction to stem and reverse some of the populist measures of the deposed prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra who himself was a neoliberal with a few pro-poor schemes. Even this was unacceptable to the elites who used the courts, the military and the monarchy to depose him and institute an anti-democratic constitution which protects their privileges. But now that Thaksin is gone, a grass roots movement of the poor is emerging to challenge the hold of the elites, the military and the monarchy over Thailand.

COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW march 21, 2009 vol xliv no 1221Giles Ji Ungpakorn ( was teaching politics at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, until he had to flee the country in February 2009 because of lese-majeste charges. Class War for Democracy in ThailandGiles Ji UngpakornThe current dispensation in Thailand is based on a political reaction to stem and reverse some of the populist measures of the deposed prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra who himself was a neoliberal with a few pro-poor schemes. Even this was unacceptable to the elites who used the courts, the military and the monarchy to depose him and institute an anti-democratic constitution which protects their privileges. But now that Thaksin is gone, a grass roots movement of the poor is emerging to challenge the hold of the elites, the military and the monarchy over Thailand.Today, the Thai government, and their elite supporters, are once again using the language of the cold war and the era of military dictator-ships in order to throttle free speech and democracy. Every thing in Thailand is not as it seems. The so-called Democrat Party is in government, but not because of support from the majority of the elec-torate. In fact, the Democrat Party has never won anything approaching a ma-jority and this is why the party welcomed the military coup in 2006. The Peoples’ Alliance for Democracy (PAD), those yellow-shirted royalists who seized the two international airports, are neither an alliance of the people nor are they for democracy. Their membership base is among the extremist middle classes who believe that the Thaksin Shinawatra government spent “too much” money on welfare and populist policies for the poor. They believe that only they are the true guardians of the monarchy and that the majority of the Thai electorate, who are poor, should not have the right to vote. The PAD has an armed “guard” and has used violent tactics on the streets of Bangkok to destabilise elected governments. They propose a “New Order” in Thai politics where only 30% of the parliament is elected. They want members of parliament (MPs) to be elected by “professional groups” rather than through a one person one vote sys-tem. This would ensure that doctors and professionals have much more voting power than poor agriculturalists or factory workers. Tragically, most so-called “liberal” academics supported the 2006 coup and thePAD. Amazingly, so did half the Thai non-governmental organisation (NGO) movement. The PAD work hand-in-glove with the army and they have received endorsement from the queen.The Assault on DemocracyFive years ago, under the elected Thaksin government, Thailand had a thriving and developing democracy with freedom of expression, a relatively free press and an active civil society where social move-ments campaigned to protect the interests of the poor. This was not, however, the work of the Thaksin administration, since there were serious problems of human rights abuses. Thaksin’s government used murderous repression in the predomi-nantly Muslim southern provinces of Malay and killed over 3,000 people in the so-called “war on drugs”. The situation, though, has become much worse since the 2006 coup which overthrew his govern-ment. Today, the country is creeping towards totalitarianism. The present had kept their promise to the people of Palamau. The police (according to reports in the Indian Express on 6 January 2009) have now closed the case relating to Lalit’s mur-der as they claimed that the note left be-hind, allegedly by the Maoists, with Raju’s body mentions highway robbery as the reason. The powers to be are now inter-ested in investigating the link between the Maoists, Lalit Mehta and surprisingly, the economist Jean Drèze himself, who had visited these parts as part of several moni-toring teams studying NREGA implementa-tion. The least the police could have done is to have checked with Jean Drèze him-self about the alleged links with the Maoists. Clearly, it is facile to suggest that the economist is anyway connected with the Maoists. The Maoist link is just an excuse to cover up the powerful nexus of deceit. Further, Lalit’s motorbike was re-covered from Chattarpur some months back. It had been carefully buried between two walls – putting paid to the ridiculous theory that Lalit was killed during a high-way robbery. Why would highway robbers kill a person, rob his motorbike and then carefully bury it?Even if the agencies of the Indian state fall way short in guaranteeing to its citi-zens basic health, one square meal a day, basic education, housing, and opportuni-ties for a decent livelihood, the least that can be expected from the state is that it at least delivers justice. The case of Binayak Sen’s continued incarceration also comes to mind. Sen had painstakingly over years set up holistic structures of delivering public health in some of the remotest are-as of Chhattisgarh. Binayak Sen’s work on providing public health to the rural poor should have inspired the state to adopt his model on a national scale. He now lan-guishes in jail for 20 months because he, like Lalit, delivered where the state failed. The Indian state might pride itself as the largest democracy but delivering justice tothe poor and to those who take up their cause seems not to be in the nature of this democracy.

g overnment, led by the Democrat Party, is only in power because of the military which staged a coup in 2006. Despite the grave economic crisis, their priority is just to crack down on free speech and d issent, claiming the need to protect “n ational security”.

The Thai political crisis started with mass demonstrations led by the PAD in early 2005. The PAD began as an “alliance from hell” between disgruntled royalist media tycoon Sonti Limtongkul and a handful of NGO and social movement l eaders. They attacked Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai government for corruption. Interestingly, they never showed any interest in criticising his human rights abuses. T haksin responded to the growing crisis by dissolving

parliament and calling fresh elections. The opposition boycotted these elections and “liberal” academics “e xplained” that calling fresh elections was “undemocratic”. The courts then annulled the election. The anti-democratic forces knew that Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party was immensely popular

and would win any vote. Rather than accepting that the electorate support for Thaksin was because of the government’s first ever universal healthcare scheme and many other pro-poor measures, they claimed that the poor did not understand demo cracy and were just “bought” by Thaksin. The Democrat Party spent most of its time attacking these pro-poor policies as being a waste of money and against “fiscal discipline”. Little wonder then that ordinary Thais would not want to vote for them!

The NGO and social movement leaders of the PAD moved sharply to the right, becoming fanatical royalists and calling on the monarch to sack Thaksin’s elected government. This, the king refused to do, but the PAD demands were seen as a green light for a military coup and the military obliged in September 2006. PAD leaders and military junta leaders were seen c elebrating their victory at a New Year party in 2007. At that time, the Democrat Party also welcomed the coup.

Newly Ordered Constitution

The army ripped up the best constitution Thailand has ever had and replaced it with one of their own. A referendum was held to approve the military constitution. Many provinces were under martial law, campaigning for a “no” vote in the referendum was deemed illegal and full-page advertisements in the press urged people to vote “yes”. The referendum result was extremely close, a small majority being in favour. Half the NGOs, the PAD, most academics, the mainstream media and the Democrat Party all supported the new constitution. The military constitution allowed for half the senate to be appointed by the military, rather than elected. It decreased the role of political parties and installed a crony system where members of the elite appointed themselves to the


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march 21, 2009 vol xliv no 12 EPW Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW march 21, 2009 vol xliv no 1223senate, the judiciary and to so-called “in-dependent bodies”. The constitution laid down that neoliberal free market policies must be used in the interests of fiscal dis-cipline, but also imposed a huge increase in the military budget. The final clause in the constitution, which previously gave citizens the right to oppose military coups, was changed to legitimise the 2006 coup and any future seizures of power.The courts in Thailand have never been truly independent or just. The military used the courts to dissolve the Thai Rak Thai party and then held the elections. Despite this, Thaksin’s party won a major-ity. So the courts were used for a second time to dissolve the new party which had evolved from Thai Rak Thai. It is clear that the aim was to cripple the most popular party and not allow it to form a stable government. At the same time the PAD launched their deliberate “cam-paign of chaos” in order to achieve their “New Order”. They used violence to take over Government House, wrecking the interior. They staged violent actions to try and prevent the elected parliament from convening and subsequently they seized the two international airports with the support of the military and the Democrat Party. They cared little about the damage to the country’s eco-nomy and jobs, on the assumption that they, as the elites, would not be hurt and the poor could just suffer. No one from the PAD has been punished for these violent actions.After the 2006 coup, the PAD descended into a fascist type of organisation. It took on ultra-royalist and ultra-nationalist politics. Its supporters wore royal yellow shirts. It nearly caused a war with Cambodia over an ancient hilltop ruin. It built up its own armed guard which openly carried and used weapons on the streets of Bangkok. The present Thai foreign minister is aPAD supporter who took part in the illegal occupation of the airports. ThePAD’s media outlet, Manager Group, have started witch-hunts against academ-ics and social activists who question the deterioration of democracy and question the use of the lese-majeste law. It encour-ages people to commit acts of violence against those who think differently or oppose them.Finally, at the end of 2008, the army bullied and bribed some of the most cor-rupt elements in Thaksin’s party to change sides and support the Democrat Party. So Eaton and Oxford educated Abhisit is now the prime minister. His name sums it all up. It means “privilege”. It is the privileged of Thai society that united against the modernising policies of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party. For the first time in dec-ades, a party was gaining mass support from the poor because it believed that the poor were not a burden. They argued that the poor should be “stakeholders” rather than serfs. The Thai Rak Thai was no socialist party, but a party of big business committed to free-market policies at a macro and global level and Keynesian policies at the village level.Use of Lese-Majeste LawThe present government appears vicious and paranoid. Its priority seems to be to stifle dissent by using the lese majeste law. Anyone who criticises the government or the army is deemed to have “insulted the king”. They are censoring the electronic media and community radio stations and encouraging citizens to inform on each other. People are being arrested for post-ing comments on the internet by tracing their computerIP numbers and they are thrown in jail, even before a trial. Recently, the manager of Prachatai, a respected independent online newspaper, was ar-rested. The mainstreamTV and print me-dia are already working hand in glove with the military. The courts have been used as an instrument of dictatorship. Judges protect themselves by threatening anyone who dares to criticise them with a jail sentence for “contempt of court”. They claim that anyone who criticises the courts is criticising the monarch. Lese majeste trials are given little publicity and people cannot find out what actions are deemed to have insulted the monarch. There is no transparency and accountability, no jus-tice, no freedom of speech and no aca-demic freedom.One worrying question is why most aca-demics support the military and the PAD. Equally worrying is the question why de-centNGO activists and some trade union-ists did so too. As far as the academics are concerned, even those claiming to be “liberal” were always elitist. Most believed that the problem of Thai democracy was that the poor lacked education. But the education system that these academics have promoted is one where students learn everything by rote. The idea that an essay in politics might discuss arguments, rather than be merely descriptive, is met with surprise. TheNGO movement has a different problem. It is a movement which turned its back on politics and concentrat-ed on single-issues and on lobbying gov-ernments of any shade and colour. They swung from admiration of the Thaksin government to supporting the military coup. In a nutshell then, the old groups in civil society have helped to create the monster of the “New Order” that is now strangling Thai democracy.In early 2007, I published a book called A Coup for the Rich.1 This short academic book was written as a protest against the shrinking democratic space in Thailand. I tried to analyse what exactly was happen-ing to Thai democracy. I criticised the gross human rights abuses of the demo-cratically elected Thaksin government. But I also argued that a military coup was not the answer to this. Because my book opposed the military coup “solution”, I was charged with lese majeste or insulting the monarch. How can there be academic freedom when my own university, Chu-lalongkorn University, gave my book to the police? How can there be academic standards if political scientists like myself are not allowed to discuss what the mon-arch, the army and the elites do? And through all this, most Thai academics re-mained silent, some supporting the de-struction of democracy, others censoring themselves because of fear.Class War for DemocracyThe civil war which is developing in Thai-land is a class war between the rich and the poor. But it expresses itself in a very distorted and complicated manner. Those yellow shirts who backed the coup and the subsequent undemocratic measures hate the fact that Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai gov-ernment won huge support for providing universal healthcare and public projects to lift people out of poverty. Since the overthrow of the Thaksin government and as a result of the prolonged crisis, a grass

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