On Friday, Thailand’s Supreme Court ruled to seize over $1B in assets from former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was deposed in a coup in 2006 on the pretext that he used his position to benefit his private businesses. The ruling prompted a few protests lead by the overthrown government’s red-clad supporters but the coup regime used the ruling to turn Bangkok into something of a police state.
Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a Thai dissident and professor currently living in the UK after being charged with criticizing the Thai crown, answered a few of my questions on the latest developments in Bangkok after filing this analysis with LINKS.
Last week, Thai politics worked its way back onto Western newscasts when the supreme court in Bangkok convicted Thaksin Shinawatra on corruption charges and ordered the seizure of his assets. His conviction ostensibly lent legitimacy to the coup which forced him from power but as we all know, the first casualty of any war is the truth. What should we really know about Thaksin’s trial, its predictable conclusion, and the recent actions of the government?
The trial was supposed to “prove” that Taksin had used his position as Prime Minister to bring in regulations favouring his mobile phone company. Yet it was merely a political trial to give legitimacy to the illegal 2006 coup. A trial held in a society with double standards in applying the law and a judiciary eager to serve the generals.
No public figures, including the King and the generals, or politicians, should hold shares or have special interests in business. This always leads to corruption. Just think about the corrupt benefits which the politicians around George Bush enjoyed as a result of the illegal war in Iraq. So if Taksin gained from the policies of his government (and that has to be proved in a real court, not a Thai kangaroo court), then he is no different from George Bush or the other business oriented politicians in the West. Conservative politicians who shackle trade union rights and force the public to face cuts and job losses because of what their mates in the banks did, are also acting in their own interests. If guilty, should they be punished? Yes!, certainly. All of them. But is it OK to stage a military coup against them so that another faction of the corrupt rich take power? No! It’s not OK to be selective either. The King, the generals and other politicians have enriched themselves through immoral means.
There is one difference between the corruption of politicians and that of kings and generals. In a democracy we can throw the politicians out at election time and this is an even better standard of public scrutiny than leaving it to biased judges. The kings and generals are not subject to such public scrutiny, however.
Coverage of the coup was dominated by footage of dueling protests of demonstrators in red and orange. What has become of Thaksin’s supporters in recent weeks?
The Red Shirts are a pro-democracy movement of the poor majority. They support Taksin, but they are not Taksin’s instruments. They are self organised at grass roots level and they are fighting for real democracy. Many also want a republic. The Yellows support the authoritarian elite which is now in power following the coup and other tricks to frustrate democracy. The middle class support these elites. They want to curtail democracy and reduce the power of the vote. They claim the poor are too stupid to be trusted with the vote.
The monarchy and its cronies have a remarkable grip on Thai politics. Where do they fit into the coup and the crackdown on the “red shirts”? What’s their agenda?
The army and the conservatives use undemocratic means to maintain influence, including military coups. The King is used to legitimise all this and he is built up to be a semi-god. Criticism of the coups and the King result in long prison terms. They want to keep Thai democracy in a backward state. They are neoliberals who oppose state spending on welfare. Taksin built his support among the electorate by using a combination of neoliberalism and state spending on welfare and economic development (the dual track policy). The King is old and sick and his son is hated. That is a real crisis for the conservatives.
I know that you had to leave Thailand in the face of charges of — what was it — lese majesty? What is the state of academic and press freedom in Thailand at the moment and what do you expect in the months to come?
There is no press freedom, censorship and terrorising free speech are the order of the day under the “Democrat Party” government. People are in jail for lese majeste and some are charged for reporting that worries over the King’s health caused a fall in the stock market. Foreign journalist have also been charged. In the universities there is no academic freedom. Chulalongkorn University, where I used to work, reported my anti-coup book to the police, hence the charges against me. Most Thai academics and NGO activists supported the coup and are yellow shirt royalists.
How do you see this fitting into the greater Asian narrative? Are these recent events indicative of anything regional or global or am It I over-analyzing?
The interesting comparisons are not just in Asia. The situation has similarities to Honduras and Turkey and even Haiti (the latter in terms of how the NGOs reacted to the military coup). It is a sort of distorted class struggle, lead by capitalist politicians like Taksin, but developing its own momentum in a time of deep crisis.