Thailand: Real power lies with military, not king

June 27, 2014
Red Shirts march in April.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a Thai activist and writer who is a member of the socialist group Left Turn. He has lived in exile since 2009 after being charged with lese majeste (“insulting the monarch”) for opposing the 2006 military coup.

Ji Ungpakorn took part, via skype in a question and answer session during the Socialist Alliance national conference in Sydney on June 7 to talk about the May 23 military coup and popular resistance to the regime. An abridged transcript is published below. More of his writings can be found at Red Thai Socialist.

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Why has this latest coup happened and why has Thailand had so many military coups?

The reason for this latest coup can be found by looking at the long-term process. This process started in 2006 with the Yellow Shirt pro-monarchy demonstrations against the elected Thaksin Shinawatra government, followed by the first coup d’tat that year. And then there has been a series elections won by parties tied to Thaksin.

Since 2006, the judiciary has tried to remove elected governments on three occasions. On one occasion in 2010, when the pro-democracy Red Shirts protested for fresh elections, they were gunned down by the head of the present junta.

Now, since Yingluck Shinawatra’s elections in 2011, the opposition have tried to organise street demonstrations. They saw their opportunity when the government tried to bring in a bill which would allow the military and the democrat party not to be prosecuted and it would allow Thaksin to come back.

That was the opportunity for the armed gangs that we saw roving the streets, taking over the government buildings and breaking the February election itself.

During this recent violence, the military did nothing. They were just biding their time for a chance to stage a coup after their allies created so much chaos on the streets.

What we are really seeing is a conflict between the old order, crystallised around the military, using the monarchy as their symbol but also involved with the top civil servants and the judges and supported by the middle class.

This sector opposes Thaksin’s party, which is a modernist party that believes ordinary people should have a stake in Thai society and which brought in the first universal health care scheme and so on.

But this is not just a struggle among the elite. It has turned into a three-dimensional struggle, with most of the population who voted for Thaksin’s party forming the pro-democracy Red Shirts, other people who didn’t even vote for Thaksin’s party, like myself, also joining the Red Shirts or joining the pro-democracy activities.

So this is a struggle over democratic space within Thailand and over modernisation.

It would be wrong to see Thailand as a country dominated just by coup d’etats and not talk about the fact there was been at least three or four mass uprisings against military dictatorships. It is basically a long term struggle, since the 1950s, over democratic space.

The one institution that has remained constant is the monarchy. Can you comment on the connection between the monarchy and the coups?

The king is constantly being used as an excuse to stage coups or to lock people up. And not by the military, although the military need him more than anyone as it doesn't have any legitimacy itself to intervene into politics. Therefore, it calls on the “legitimacy” of the King.

Even Thaksin tried to use the king. I remember when I was still working at Chulalongkorn University under the Thaksin government, we were all told to wear yellow shirts on a Friday.

So, the king is a kind of puppet, but the real substance of the conservative elite is around their class power and the power of the military.

Instead of seeing the king as some kind of strong post — standing up against the winds of change and turmoil — you should see the King more as a chameleon.

Basically he can change his spots whatever the situation is. That’s the way he has survived. In my opinion, the monarchy doesn’t really have any power, but people build him up to appear to have power.

For example, if you go to Thailand, you see pictures of the king everywhere, everyone appears to speak in hushed voices when they refer to him. But actually what you see isn’t really the truth. The real power is the military.

What was interesting with this latest coup is the military rulers didn’t even bother to consult with the king. The new rulers didn’t even have pictures of him, which they usually do, behind them when they appeared on TV.

And they told him a couple of days afterwards and supposedly he signed a letter saying they could take over, but it’s questionable whether he could even sign his own name because he’s so old and in a wheelchair and can hardly speak.

It's also important for us to see the role of ordinary people — mass movements which have risen up time and time again.

And so when these struggles are at their height, the legitimacy of the monarchy tends to plummet. There are many millions of people today who are completely fed up with the monarchy. But you can’t mention that in public, especially now because people are being called in to report to the military.

If there are any ways in which the military can stick a lese majeste charge on you they will and you’ll go to jail, like [Red Shirt activist] Somyot.

You were also charged with lese majeste. If the monarchy is not a central part of this crisis, why does the country maintain one of the harshest set of laws aimed at protecting the institution?

There have been a number of books written about the Thai crisis since I published my book A Coup For The Rich, for which I was charged with lese majeste. What’s interesting is there is one book called Saying The Unsayable, a collection of academic articles, and in it many of the academics imply the king was behind the coup and is all powerful.

This book, until recently, was sold openly in bookshops in Thailand and none of the authors have been charged with lese majeste. My book, hwever, criticised the military and the way it used the King.

What this says to me is the law is there to protect the entire ruling class, and especially the military. It has been in the interests of the Thai ruling class since late 1950s to create the myth that the king is all-powerful, someone you can’t criticise, in order to protect the real power of the elite and the military.

The Red Shirt movement is the main target of the current military coup regime in terms of repression. What is the character of the Red Shirt movement?

It is complicated and can be contradictory. As Marxists, we would say the Red Shirts has a dialectical relationship with Thaksin. On the one hand, most Red Shirts support Thaksin, and there are reasons for this. His government was the first that paid any attention to the poor.

Another reason is because of the weakness of the left and alternative political poles that could articulate the wishes of ordinary people.

But at the same time, the Red Shirt movement is made up of ordinary people who want respect, who are sick and tired of the way the elites have trampled on them. They have a stake in democracy and they are struggling for themselves. They’re not struggling for some master who is in exile in Dubai.

Among those Red Shirts, there are people who are sick and tired of the monarchy, who are republicans. And there will be people appalled by the way Thaksin handled the crisis, and are fed up with the Red Shirts leaders who have thrown in the towel.

So there is a whole mixture of people. What progressive people in Thailand need to do is to bring together those who are prepared to fight — without waiting for Thaksin.

We need to draw together the kind of people who came out against the coup in the first few days, and really push forward some kind of struggle.

What is the way forward for the Red Shirts and opponents of the coup? Do you think there is an effective non-violent way out of this deadlock or is a violent resistance inevitable?

Well, violence will come from the military and those that wish to cling on to power. Really it depends on them how much violence appears in Thai society.

When we talk about the threat of civil war, it’s a two edged thing. Before the coup took place, there were many middle-class academics and conservatives warning about civil war and saying therefore that democrats had to compromise with anti-democrats.

And that really gave the excuse for the military to step in and say they were re-establishing order.

I think the hope is we can organise together, build networks of people who are progressive, who aren’t waiting for Thaksin. But right now, it’s very dangerous to organise.

People need to engage in some kind of street activity, but they have to be careful. They can be called up to report to the military and detained for a few days. When they’re let go, they have to sign forms that say they aren’t going to be politically active or they’ll be sent straight to jail.

What is necessary for the first time in Thailand since the mid-1970s is secret organisation. We have a lot to learn from the Communist Party, both from their failings and their achievements.

What we need now is not armed struggle. That would be hopelessly destroyed by the military. What we need is mass movements with links to the organised working class, with internal democracy, that discusses the political situation and agrees on strategy. That has to be done underground.

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