Thailand: Crucial test for democracy

January 14, 2012
A Red Shirt protest, May 2010.

In July last year, millions of Red Shirts — a mass movement of the poor — turned out to vote for the Pheu Thai party (PT), headed by Yingluck Shinawatra.

The party won a landslide majority despite attempts by the military, media and elites to block the party's victory. The election result was a slap in the face for the military and the “party of the military” (the misnamed Democrat Party — DP).

But the signs were bad for the Red Shirts from the beginning. The new government did nothing about Red Shirt political prisoners or bringing ex-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the military generals to justice for their roles in gunning down nearly 90 pro-democracy civilians in 2010.

The Yingluck government talked constantly about “reconciliation” with the conservatives, but the conservatives never reciprocated. They frustrated the government’s rescue work in last year's floods and used the floods to accuse the government of “incompetence”.

The extreme royalists in the DP, the military and other sections of elite society also kept up a constant barrage about PT and Red Shirt “republicanism”.

The republican mood that has swept through the Red Shirts, but not the PT, has been created by the royalists themselves, ever since the 2006 coup. Every repressive act was justified on the grounds that it was “for the king”.

As a result, millions of Red Shirts even came to believe the king engineered the floods to punish PT and the Red Shirts.

The enfeebled king, in hospital for the past few years, was never strong-willed enough to organise any political action. Now he can hardly talk or stand up. But the military and conservatives are happy to use him as a puppet.


The reality of PT's talk of reconciliation is that the government and deposed former PM Thaksin Shinawatra have done a deal with the military and the conservatives. Reconciliation means capitulation to the conditions laid down by the military.

The government has no intention of bringing the state murderers of 2010 to justice. They could easily start prosecutions inside Thailand or at the very least pass a cabinet resolution asking the International Criminal Court to step in and take action. They will also not release Red Shirt political prisoners.

One of the most disgusting actions taken by the new government has been to increase political repression against dissidents and any unfortunate people who fall foul of the lese majeste (insulting the monarch) law and the computer crimes law.

More and more people are being prosecuted and jailed.

A 60-year-old man was recently imprisoned for 20 years for supposedly sending text messages. The evidence was extremely questionable.

Many others are refused bail while awaiting trial and made to appear in courts throughout the country in chains. This is now causing outrage among progressive Thais, some of whom are not Red Shirts.

Meanwhile, the generals and Democrat Party politicians are baying for more blood. All those progressive Thai citizens who propose legal reforms are told to “leave Thailand” because they don’t conform to conservative culture.


The chairperson of the DP-appointed “Truth and Reconciliation Committee”, the conservative lawyer Kanit Na Nakorn, has suggested lese majeste should be “reformed” so the maximum punishment would be seven years in jail and could be used only with the approval of the palace secretary.

But this deliberately misses the point. Lese majeste is an authoritarian law which tramples on the freedom of speech.

It protects public figures such as the king from any accountability or transparency, and more importantly it protects the military because it always hides behind the king. It is a law that is fundamentally against democracy.

There are also some small details about lese majeste sentencing. Many people have been sentenced on more than one charge and the sentences are added together. So someone could still go to jail for 30 years.

There is also the question of the palace secretary who is bound to be an army appointee.

Kanit justifies maintaining lese majeste with the usual rubbish about the need to conform to “Thai culture”. Yet no society has a single culture.

The culture of Thai conservatives involves grovelling on the floor to royalty and severe repression and exploitation of the population by the elites. It also involves the elites' “divine right” to murder pro-democracy citizens.

Opposed to this is the democratic culture of most Red Shirt citizens, which has been growing over the past few years and developed out of a long Thai tradition of resistance to the elites since the 1930s.

Even these weak reforms proposed by Kanit are vigorously opposed by deputy prime minister Chalerm Yoobamrung, who is eager to please his military masters.

Abolish lese majeste

The problem is that many weak-willed, well-meaning Thai reformers also miss the point about the fundamentally authoritarian nature of lese majeste. They fall for the “Thai culture” nonsense and are fearful of calling for the total abolition of the law.

But without abolishing lese majeste there can be no democracy. Thai citizens cannot even ask whether the constitutional monarchy should protect the constitution and an elected government from a military coup.

At the start of this year, it is clear that PT has stabbed the Red Shirts in the back and is trying an elite agreement to protect the old order.

The use of elections to create the image of democratic change while maintaining the old order is also an Egyptian phenomenon. PT and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood are expected to police the democracy movement.

What is perhaps more worrying is that the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) leadership of the Red Shirt movement has decided to do nothing and let the movement die.

All they talk about is protecting the government from a “coup”. But the military do not need to stage a coup. The new government is a more efficient tool to stop change than the DP.

So it will be up to rank-and-file Red Shirts to push the democratic agenda forward. Political progress in Thailand will be measured by whether we can get lese majeste abolished, punish those who ordered and shot down unarmed protesters and whether we can achieve the release of all political prisoners. We must never forget this.

[Abridged from Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. 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 lese majeste for writing a book criticising the 2006 military coup. He is a member of Left Turn Thailand, a socialist organisation. His latest book is Thailand’s Crisis and the Fight for Democracy and his website is]


Back and forth much like the Italian government. Khun Giles knows the rules about the King and Royal family, as does every Thai, and every expat living in Thailand. Thailand is not the UK, USA or another free speech democracy and its political parties and generals operate much differently (with many generals sitting in the senate). He knows this. That is just a fact. There is nothing new in this article. He could have stayed and worked from within the system for reform. What is missing from this article is Thaksin's human rights abuses and graft which were the cause of the coup in the first place. The Thai intelligentsia did not favor Thaksin. The rural and blue collar rank and file of the Red Shirts now know what they should have known from day one. They were just pawns to be used by Thaksin and now his kid sister, who has zero political experience or ability to govern on a daily basis, as evidenced by her paralysis during the recent flooding. The goings on in Thailand the past 5 years have been detrimental to the economy which would be the real engine of reform. Thai people have plenty to say about the politicians of all parties, and the majority do not hold Khun Giles view that the King is any part of the problem the politicians have created. In fact, the Thai people say the King does not "play" politics as words to signal that that is beneath him. It is also said that Rama 7 gave the Thai people the law. But that is another story entirely. Clever editing job here.

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