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destruction of Thai democracy?

What led to the

What Led to the Destruction of Thai
Democracy1?
Giles Ji Ungpakorn2
Ten years ago the military, the middle-classes and the various sections of the
conservative elites in Thailand set about to destroy democracy. Previously the
middle-classes had been happy with the democratic system and the military and
the conservative elites had learnt to live with it because elections changed
nothing of any significance. Fractured coalition governments were made up of
right-wing patron-client based political parties which lacked any meaningful
policies. The elites were able to share a place at the feeding trough while
ignoring the deep inequalities within society.
Since 2006 there have been two military coups, a number of judicial coups and
mass anti-democracy protests by royalist middle-class mobs, supported by the
1 Paper written for “10 years of Politico-Social Crisis in Thailand”, seminar at
CCFD, in Paris 19/9/2016.
2 https://uglytruththailand.wordpress.com/ , ji.ungpakorn@gmail.com
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Democrat Party. Over a hundred pro-democracy activists have been shot down in
cold blood by the military and Thai jails now hold more political prisoners than
they have done for decades. For the first time since the 1970s there are a
significant number of exiled activist. How and why did this happen?
In this paper I shall argue that the main reason for the Thai political crisis can be
traced back to the 1997 economic crisis and the attempt by Taksin Shinawat to
modernise Thai society, increase profits for big business and reduce inequality,
while relying on mass support for his policies at elections.
The issue of royal succession is of little relevance here, despite it being
fashionable for journalists and academics to use this as a standard explanation
for the crisis. This is because the king has always been a weak puppet of the
military and the elites. Neither has the crisis been caused by any “Deep State”
and its reaction to Taksin’s government. There is no Deep State in Thailand.
I shall critique a number of theories which seek to explain the crisis or explain
the dynamics of democratisation in Thailand.
I maintain that the Asian Economic crisis in 1997 was the spark that exposed the
existing fault-lines in Thai society, and the actions of political actors in response
to this, led to a back-lash against democracy by the conservatives.

The monarchy
deception

and

the

military:

a

double-act

of

At time of writing, King Pumipon’s health is so poor that he often requires
intensive care treatment for lung and kidney problems. He is no longer able to
function as Head of State. But it is worth reviewing his political role over the
years.
Despite the fact that many academics and millions of Thais believe that the
centre of power among the conservative elites is the monarchy, the real centre
of power, lurking behind the throne, is the military. The military has intervened in
politics and society since the 1932 revolution against the absolute monarchy of
the time. This is because the revolutionary Peoples Party led by Pridi Panomyong
relied too much on the military rather than building a mass party to stage the
revolution. Yet it is also a cliché to just state the number of coup d'états that
have taken place in order to say that Thailand is plagued by coups. The power of
the military is not unlimited and it relies on the ideology of the monarchy and an
alliance with businessmen, civilian technocrats and corrupt politicians in order to
supplement its violent means of coercion.
At important moments in history, the power of the military has been significantly
reduced or kept at bay by social movements and popular uprisings. The post
1973 and1992 periods are good examples. It would be more accurate to state
that the military is an important centre of power among many. But it does have a
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monopoly on the use of organised violence. What is unique about the military is
its weaponry and ability to topple governments through coup d'états.
In most bourgeois democracies, except in times of severe crisis, the military
functions as an armed force to promote the interests of the state outside its own
borders or to defend the state from other states. However, the primary role of
the Thai military is to continuously police and repress Thai citizens on behalf of
the ruling class and it has done this since 1932. The only other additional role is
as a wealth generating machine for the generals. The Thai military would be
totally ineffective in the very unlikely event of a war with any neighbouring
ASEAN countries. It failed to stand up to the Japanese invasion during the Second
World War and it could not possibly resist a serious invasion by any super power.
Unlike the victorious militaries of Vietnam or Indonesia, it has never fought a war
of independence either. The Thai army therefore owns tanks and automatic
weapons purely for the purpose of intimidating and killing citizens and for
staging coups. Those who sell weapons to Thailand should be aware of this, but
they probably do not care.
The military may be powerful, but there are three factors which limit its power:
(1) the power of social movements, (2) the power of other sections of the elite
which hold economic and political power, and (3) the fact that the military is
divided by factionalism. The military also has to repeatedly obtain legitimacy by
claiming to protect the monarchy. This is because of its obvious weakness in
claiming democratic credentials which are extremely important in modern Thai
society.3
Violent coercion is never enough to maintain political power. Legitimacy must
also be built through socialisation and the use of ideology. “Democracy” as an
ideology is extremely powerful in Thai society and has been so for decades
during which mass movements have repeatedly challenged dictatorships. That is
why past military dictatorships have never been able to claim that they were
good “dictatorships”. They always tried to say that they were “democratic” or
“temporary regimes in the process of developing democracy”. The present
military junta is no exception.
If we are to understand the role of the King in Thai society, we have to
understand the double act performed by the military and the monarchy. The
monarchy symbolises the conservative ideology which gives legitimacy to the
authoritarian actions of the military and their allies. It is a double act of “power”
and “ideological legitimacy”. In this double act the weak-willed King Pumipon has
no real power, but he is also a willing participant.
For the double act between the monarchy and the military to work, the general
population have to be socialised and coerced into loving and fearing the
monarchy. It is undoubtedly true that millions of Thai people have in the past had
a high regard for King Pumipon as a result of this socialisation and coercion. It is
3 Giles Ji Ungpakorn (2011) Lèse Majesté, the Monarchy, and the Military in
Thailand http://bit.ly/2b4TVOV or http://bit.ly/2b4LdSM
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also true that millions now hate the King and even more hate the Queen because
of their perceived support for the bloody destruction of democracy since 2006.
King Pumipon is a weak and characterless monarch who spent his useless and
privileged life in a bubble, surrounded by fawning, grovelling, toadies who claim
that he is a “god”. His toadies have to constantly project a photo of him with a
drop of sweat falling from his nose. The photo is always the same one, since
Pumipon has seldom done anything to work up a real sweat. He also allows the
use of crawling and special royal language in his presence without any sense of
shame.
He has played a significant ideological role in helping to prevent democratic
rights and the development of social justice. His “Sufficiency Economy” ideology
is used by the ruling class to oppose wealth redistribution and to support neoliberal free-market policies.
Pumipon has always been a willing tool of the military and for Pumipon this
resulted in great rewards. He amassed so much wealth from the work of others,
that he is the richest man in Thailand, the richest monarch in the world and the
world’s 8th richest billionaire.
He came to the throne after his elder brother died from gunshot wounds to the
head in 1946. His brother’s death was either a suicide or a gun accident
involving Pumipon. Either way, Pumipon was aware of the circumstances of his
brother’s death, but chose to keep them a secret, allowing 3 innocent palace
staff to be executed and allowing the left-wing politician Pridi Panomyong to be
falsely blamed for the incident by his political opponents.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s he was used by Thailand’s corrupt and
despotic ruler, Field Marshall Sarit Tanarat, to build a strong coalition between
the military and the monarchists 4 . The monarchy had fallen into disrepute and
was very unpopular among the people in the 1930s and 1940s. Even key military
leaders like Pibun had republican leanings in those days. Sarit and the
monarchists used the Cold War as a means of building up the prestige of the
conservative elites. King Pumipon was systematically promoted as the symbolic
figurehead of this “anti-Communist” alliance and Pumipon became very fond of
the corrupt and brutal dictator Sarit. Even the U.S. government helped out by
distributing photos of the King to villagers in rural areas as part of the fight
against Communism5 . Any house without such a picture would be deemed as
“red”.
In October 1973 the military regime headed by Sarit’s successors was
overthrown by a mass popular uprising and Pumipon was called upon by the
4 Thak Chaloemtiarana (1979) The Politics of Despotic Paternalism. Social
Science Association of Thailand.
5 Katherine Bowie (1997) Rituals of National Loyalty. New York: University of
Columbia Press.
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elites to step in and protect the status quo. This he did by appearing on
television and announcing a new civilian government after it was clear that the
military had lost. Thus he also managed to pretend that he was a “democratic
king”. But the dark clouds of class struggle were looming. This was at the height
of the Vietnam War and the students and social activists in Thailand were looking
for real social change. They were attracted by the ideas of the Communist Party.
Pumipon joined up with the military and conservative elites in promoting rightwing paramilitary groups, such as the Village Scouts, who attacked the students
and the Left. The end result was a bloody crackdown at Thammasart University
in October 19766 . Pumipon supported this crackdown, the military coup that
followed, and the general repression and censorship under the new dictatorship.
He justified this by saying in December 1976 that Thailand had had “too much
democracy”. However, he was never the mastermind behind the 1976 coup,
which planned by a number of rival factions among the military 7.
By the mid-1980s the democratic space in Thailand was opening up, as a
compromise was reached with the Communists, and an elected civilian
government came to power. Soon this was toppled by a new military coup in
1991 because of rivalries between the military and civilian politicians. As usual,
Pumipon went with the flow and supported the military leaders. However, a mass
popular uprising and street fighting in Bangkok in 1992 ended the dictatorship.
When it was clear that the army had lost after 5 days of street fighting, Pumipon
was urged to appeared again in public in order to claim his democratic
credentials and to save the position of the ruling class. Democratic elections
were held and the political elites fell over each other to grovel and praise the
“Great King”, while promoting and re-promoting his “super human talents”. By
doing this they increased their own legitimacy.
The interesting point to bear in mind is that the frenzied promotion of the King
actually accelerated from the mid-1980s onwards, as the elites were forced to
make more and more concessions to parliamentary democracy. It was an
attempt to slow down progress and insulate elite privileges from change using
the backward ideology “Monarchy”.
There is nothing innately true or historically correct about the statement that
“Thais have a special regard for the monarchy”. Yet, even most foreign observers
are reluctant to spell out the facts about the monarchy. This is because
journalists and academics who write about Thailand face the lèse majesté law.
One honourable exception to this generalisation is Paul Handley 8. But Handley
can never set foot in Thailand again until we have true democracy. His book is a
6 Katherine Bowie (1997) already quoted. Also Giles Ji Ungpakorn & Sutachai
Yimprasert (2001) State Crime - in a crisis of change”. 6th October Fact-Finding
and Witness Interviewing Committee, Bangkok, Thailand. (In Thai).
7 Ji Giles Ungpakorn (2003) From the city, via the jungle, to defeat: the 6th Oct 1976
bloodbath and the C.P.T. In: Radicalising Thailand: New Political Perspectives. Institute of
Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University. http://bit.ly/2b6VJqY

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wealth of information about the monarchy, although many of his conclusions are
debateable. Despite claiming that the King is all powerful, there are many
important occasions in history where Handley shows that the King was not
heeded and he did not get his way. These include the overthrow of the Tanin
Kraiwichien government in 1977 and the popular uprising against Sujinda
Kaprayoon’s military junta in 1992. Both these regimes were favoured by the
King.
The vast parasitic organism of the Thai ruling class maintains its legitimacy
partly by creating a false image that Thailand has an “Absolute Monarchy”,
where the King is an all-powerful god. At the same time it is claimed that the
King is a Constitutional Monarch, above politics. The clear contradiction is not
important, for the entire idea is a myth that the population are meant to swallow
through the process of socialisation and coercion. They are also meant to believe
that the King is an artistic god and a scientific and engineering genius who has
selflessly protected the nation from strife.
As head of an institution that derived mutual benefit from all regimes, whether
military dictatorships or elected governments, the King was happy to play his
role. Under Taksin, the King even praised the government’s extra-judiciary
killings in the war on drugs9.
Throughout his reign, Pumipon has swayed like a leaf, bending in the wind and
serving as a willing tool of those who happened to be in power. When the
generals staged coups or intervened in politics, they were not following orders
from Pumipon. Pumipon was always shy, timid, and weak-willed. Pumipon never
had any leadership qualities. He went with the flow. When Taksin was Prime
Minister, he praised Taksin. When the soldiers staged a coup, he praised them.
His rambling speeches used obscure language so that the elites could make their
own interpretations to suit themselves and Pumipon did not have to take any
responsibility for anything. The speeches were reproduced by the elites like
sacred texts, but they contained little of substance. It is the interpretation by the
elites and their media that matters.
When the generals decided to do anything, they staged an elaborate play in
order to make us think that they are going to the palace to “take orders”. In fact
they were there to “tell” the King what they had already decided to do. Pumipon
nodded in agreement or was unavailable for an audience, depending on the
advice he got from the Privy Council. The advice was not based on decisions
made only by General Prem Tinsulanon, the Privy Council Chairman. It was based
on the consensus of those in power in the military, the civilian bureaucracy and
the business elite. That is the coordinating role of the Privy Council. After
Pumipon’s nod of agreement, the generals came out of the palace and
announced to the public that they had “taken orders” from the King. That way
8 Paul Handley (2006) The King Never Smiles. Yale University Press.
9 King’s speech on 4th December 2003.
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they could build legitimacy for their actions and fear among those who wished to
oppose them.
Today, with the King totally incapacitated due to old age and degenerating
health, the generals do not even bother to create an image that they have taken
orders from the King. They merely state that they are “protecting the monarchy”.
The dominant academic view which sees the King as all powerful, includes Paul
Handley10, Duncan McCargo11, Somsak Jeamteerasakul and the team from Same
Sky (Fa Deaw Kan) Press12, Kevin Hewison13, Michael Connors14 and Niti
Eawsriwong15. There is a suggestion by these academics that Pumipon organised
the 2006 coup and has been manipulating politics since the 1970s. The same
view is expressed in the collection of chapters published in the book “Saying the
Unsayable. Monarchy and Democracy in Thailand”, edited by SØren Ivarsson and
Lotte Isager16. Most contributors to this book believe that Pumipon, as head of
“Net Work Monarchy”, is a powerful king. The “elephant in the room” which no
one writes about in this book is the military. An honourable exception is the
chapter by Han Krittian, who writes about how the monarchy...”has been
manipulated in order to legitimise attacks on opposition factions”. What is
interesting is that Saying the Unsayable was openly available for sale inside
Thailand, unlike my books which criticise the military, and which are banned.
Most of these intellectuals rely on the socialised official version of the nature of
the monarchy. Also, consciously or unconsciously, they rely on the old Maoist
analysis, from the Communist Party of Thailand, that under-developed countries
like Thailand have yet to complete their bourgeois revolutions and are therefore
10 Paul Handley (2006) already quoted.
11 Duncan McCargo (2005) Network Monarchy and the legitimacy crisis in
Thailand. The Pacific Review 18(4) December, pp 499-519.
12 See Oct-Dec 2005 edition of the magazine (in Thai) and also the book “The
19th Sept Coup” published in Thai in 2006. Somsak believes that the King
became powerful after the 1973 uprising.
13 Kevin Hewison (2008) A Book, the King and the 2006 Coup. Journal of
Contemporary Asia 38 (1).
14 M. K. Connors, M.K. (2003) Democracy and National Identity in Thailand.
Routledge Curzon.
15 Niti Eawsriwong (2008) Review of The King Never Smiles, made at the Thai
Studies Conference that year. http://www.prachatai.com/ 17/1/2008.
16 SØren Ivarsson and Lotte Isager, Eds (2010) Saying the Unsayable. Monarchy
and Democracy in Thailand. Nias Press, Copenhagen.
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“semi-feudal”. This analysis sees the major confrontation among the elites today
as being between the old semi-feudal order and the new rising capitalists. It is a
mechanical application of the 1789 French Revolution to Thailand in the 21st
century. This “Neo-Maoist” position has also been proposed in detail by Kasian
Tejapira17 .
In Thailand, the revolutionary transformation towards a capitalist state did not
take the same form as the early Bourgeois Revolutions in England and France.
Capitalist transformation occurred in a “revolution from above” by King Rama 5 th
of Bangkok, around the 1870s, in order to deal with the threat of Western
Imperialism18. In many respects the revolution of King Rama 5 th was similar to the
Meiji Restoration in Japan19. Both were transformations to capitalist nation states
in the face of imperialism.
McCargo points to a more collective, network power rather than individual power.
Network politics is undoubtedly part of the Thai political scene but more
questions remain to be answered. Is the King the most powerful person within
“Network Monarchy”? Are there over-lapping and competing networks which all
seek to support and use the monarchy? How fluid are the networks and their
memberships? Michael Connors suggests that the monarchy is one Power Block
in Thai politics20. Somsak Jeamteerasakul argues that since 1992 the King has
become the “head of the Thai ruling class”. But in what way is this so? Is it as an
all-powerful head, or a symbolic Head of State?
Mc Cargo’s network theory also implies that Taksin is a closet republican, a view
shared by other academics. But what possible benefit could Taksin gain from
reducing the power of the monarchy? To show this one needs to point to deep
and serious economic and political differences in policy between the King and
Taksin. Taksin’s Populism might be cited as a difference in policy, yet it was not a
burden on capitalist profits, including those of the Crown Property Bureau. Taksin
and other modern capitalists have much more to lose by attacking the monarchy
and encouraging a general questioning of elite status and power.

Elite, top-down view of Thai society
17 Kasian Tejapira (2007) “The dilemma of the Thai bourgeois revolution.”
http://www.prachatai.com/ 15/10/2007 (In Thai).
18 Giles Ji Ungpakorn (2010) Thailand’s Crisis and the Struggle for Democracy.
WD Press. http://bit.ly/2aRltWB or http://bit.ly/2bbP5ym page121.
19 Neil Davidson (2004) The prophet, his biographer and the watchtower.
International Socialism Journal No. 2:104, p. 23.
20 M. K. Connors (2003) already quoted.
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An important strand in the mainstream academic view about Thailand is the idea
that Thai politics is really just about what the elites do because the vast majority
of the population are “passive” and “politically ignorant”. The methods used by
this school of thought are to study the monarchy and the elites by totally
ignoring the social movements or struggles from below. Thai politics since the
crisis of 2006 was therefore only about an inter-elite conflict. If the masses did
appear, they were only unthinking tools of elite figures. I call this a “neoRiggsian” view point, since Fred Riggs was famous for putting forward this kind of
analysis of Thai politics in the 1950s and 1960s .
This elitist and patronising attitude fits with the excuses used to justify the 2006
coup made by the “Tank Liberals”, middle-class intellectuals and NGO activists
who claimed to be in favour of liberal democracy but ended up by supporting the
coup. According to the Tank Liberals, the poor were bought by Taksin and did not
really understand democracy. That is why the majority vote could be dismissed
so easily. In the case of Duncan McCargo, the elite view is clear when discussing
the causes of the southern conflict. For him it is not primarily about oppression of
the Muslim Malay population by Bangkok, but it is about a conflict between
“Network Monarchy” and “Network Taksin”.

No such thing as the “Deep State” in Thailand
The theory of the “Deep State” often wrongly presupposes that there is such a
thing as a “regular state” which is visible, accountable and serves the people.
The Deep State is supposed to be a unique set up in some countries appearing
as “a state within a state” which is unaccountable to democratically elected
governments or the people. This flies in the face of reality.
For a start, states in the modern world today exist in order to facilitate the
dominance of the capitalist ruling class over the majority, who are ordinary
working people. This can be seen in many ways. For example, the state
enshrines the so-called “right to manage and own” by business people in whole
sections of the economy. There is no requirement for them to be elected by the
population or the workforce. Investment decisions affecting millions of people are
never subjected to democratic control. The so-called idea of the “hidden hand” of
the free-market attempts to claim that this is the “natural order”. The views of
business leaders are given much more importance than the views of ordinary
citizens who actually create the wealth in society. The media is mainly controlled
by big business. Police and the military are used to break up strikes by trade
unionists who try to redress the unequal balance of power. These armed bodies
of men are never used to arrest CEOs for closing factories, sacking staff, cutting
their wages or moving investments out of communities.
In most Western countries, which claim to be democracies, the secret services,
top civil servants, judges and military commanders are not subjected to
democratic election and are mostly a law unto themselves. In the past, the
policies of elected governments, such as Labour governments in Britain, have
been frustrated by these sections of the state, working with big business. It is a
myth that controlling parliament means controlling the state. This is a bitter
lesson learnt by the people of Greece in recent years.
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The use of the term “Deep State” might be useful when talking about core
remnants of the security apparatus which originated from a repressive
authoritarian time and still exist under parliamentary democracy. The term has
been applied to Turkey and some Latin American countries. However it is
extremely questionable whether it is a useful term in Thailand. Yet, Eugénie
Mérieau, in a recent article in the Journal of Contemporary Asia, and also at a
seminar at the London School of Oriental and African Studies, has attempted to
use this concept in analysing the Thai political crisis 21.
In order to argue for the existence of a so-called “Deep State” in Thailand, the
author has had to exaggerate the power of the King, overlook the long-running
fractures within the military, ignore the fact that the Thai judiciary have never
been strong nor independent of those in power, and write mass movements out
of Thai history. Her theory is yet another one-sided top-down view of Thai
society, much favoured in the past by right-wing academics.
Mérieau seems to imply that the so-called Deep State always opposed Taksin.
Yet, she is ignoring the fact that Taksin, as a member of the ruling class,
commanded a great deal of influence over sections of the military and judiciary
in his early days as Prime Minister. He was very popular among nearly all
sections of the ruling elite because of his promise to modernise Thailand and
reinvigorate the economy after the 1997 economic crisis. The conservatives only
turned against him when they could not compete with his electoral advantage
because they were either not prepared to join him, or were not prepared to offer
the population the kind of policies that would improve their lives. The
conservatives are extreme free-market neo-liberals as can be seen in the policies
of the recent military governments and their various versions of the constitution.
It is not some Deep State that is fearful of the loss of privileges which is now in
charge, as claimed by the author. Taksin never threatened privilege nor wealth.
He was no socialist. But he did threatened their share of political power by his
overwhelming electoral base. Instead, it is the whistle-blowing crazed middleclasses who saw the rural electorate as a threat to their privileges. Yet the
middle-class do not appear in Mérieau’s paper.
Thailand does not have some stable, unchanging core, of conservative
reactionaries embedded deep within the state. There are fluid and dynamic
bonds between members of the ruling class as the various factions make or
break alliances in an opportunistic manner. Some of Taksin’s faction were drawn
from the left, while others came from the conservative and royalist right-wing
who took part in attacks against democracy during the Cold War. Samak
Sundaravej is a good example of the latter.
Mérieau argues that the Deep State is trying to use the judiciary as a surrogate
King as Pumipon nears his last years. She implies that the “power” of the King is
being transferred to the judiciary. Yet, as I have already explained, Pumipon has
never been powerful. Taksin also used the King during the time that he was
Prime Minister. His Government took part in the hysterical promotion of the King
21 Eugénie Mérieau (2016) Thailand’s Deep State, Royal Power and the
Constitutional Court (1997–2015). Journal of Contemporary Asia Volume 46, Issue
3. http://bit.ly/25RMW44
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around the 60th anniversary of his reign and started the “Yellow Shirt Mania”,
where everyone was pressurised into wearing royal yellow shirts every Monday.
Both the Taksin and Yingluk governments were also keen to use the lèse-majesté
law. All evidence points to the fact that Taksin is a royalist.
If the oath of allegiance of judges to the Thai King is evidence that the King
controls the judiciary, as claimed by Mérieau, then Britain must be ruled by a
similar all powerful monarchy! We need to understand the ideological and
ceremonial roles of monarchies in the modern world.
It is also rather too simplistic for many people to make glib conclusions that
middle-class demonstrators who hold up pictures of the King or military officers
who wrap yellow ribbons around their troops are acting “on behalf” of the King or
that they are under his command.
The only difference between Taksin and his supporters and the yellow shirts and
the military is that Taksin’s side could use economic and political policies to
legitimise their role alongside royalism. The yellow shirts and the military could
only use royalism.
Mérieau’s Deep State theory about Thailand is just another way to express the
opinion that the King has been an all-powerful figure at the centre of the state.
The Thai judiciary, civil service and bureaucracy have always been weak and
under the control of whoever was in power at the time. Those with power or
influence can always intervene in the bureaucracy and subvert the rules in order
to obtain what they want. This is the reason for a total lack of any standards of
justice and also the reason for rampant corruption among the entire bureaucracy.
The mountains of paper work associated with the Thai bureaucracy only prove
that all the individual petty bureaucrats are fearful of making any decisions
themselves and hide behind red tape, passing decision-making responsibilities
up the ladder.
The military have always been divided by factionalism. Some military leaders
accept democratic elections and others are more authoritarian. Some military
leaders were against the monarchy in the 1950s, and others have shown
leanings towards left-wing politics. Prayut’s faction is the extreme right-wing of
the military today. This is not a unified part of a so-called Deep State. What
affects the power of the military more than anything is the strength of social
movements22. Thailand’s political history since the early 1970s is a history of
struggle from below against the power of the ruling class. Periods of democracy
were the result of the strength of pro-democracy movements. Ironically, the
present period of dictatorship has also been determined and influenced by the
social movements. Firstly, because many social movement activists, close to the
NGOs, called for military intervention, but also because the conservative elites
are still mindful of the democratic current within society. The democratic current
means that the present junta needed to write a constitution that fixes their
22 Giles Ji Ungpakorn (2015) The Role of Thai Social Movements in
Democratisation. Paper presented at the international conference on "humanrights education”. Soochow University, Taipei. November 2015.
http://bit.ly/2aDzest or http://bit.ly/2aCZn8N
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power after elections rather than just returning to the days of the dictator Sarit.
Eugénie Mérieau acknowledges that this democratic spirit means that judiciary
intervention is a preferable choice for the conservative elites to direct
intervention by the military or even the King. But the key role of mass
movements is totally ignored in her paper. For Mérieau it is almost as though the
elites granted democracy to the plebs as some kind of experiment; a view forced
down the throats of most Thai school students by the right-wing for decades.
The concept of a Thai Deep State does not help us understand the Thai political
crisis.

No Crisis of Succession
The hypothesis that the present long-running unrest in Thailand is primarily
caused by a “crisis of succession”, assumes that the monarch has real power and
that the death of the King will create a power vacuum or at the very least a
vacuum of legitimacy.
Thailand does not have an absolute monarch or North Korean-style despot in his
twilight years, with factions fighting over who will be the next ruler. For much of
the time between 1932 and the mid-1980s, the elites ruled by dictatorship. But
this became harder and harder to do ever since the mass uprising against the
military in 1973. The reason for this is that the structure of Thai society has
changed23. There are more and more workers, both blue collar and white collar
and the new generation of workers and farmers are more confident and
educated. That is why the monarchy has become more important to the ruling
class as a symbol of the “natural hierarchy”, necessary to give legitimacy to
those who abuse democracy and preside over a grossly un-equal society. The
lèse majesté law is designed to protect the “holy relic” that serves such a useful
purpose for the ruling class.
One just has to look at reality today. How can a man who has spent years in
hospital or in a wheel chair and who can hardly speak, order the army to do
anything? Or perhaps he is just hamming it? After the act of speaking in public
with such difficulty, after the cameras stop rolling, perhaps he jumps up from his
chair and does 100 push-ups, followed by a phone call to the army chiefs, where
he barks out his orders in a firm and powerful voice?
But what about the idea that the various elite factions are really fighting about
who will control the Crown Prince when he becomes King? Make no mistake; all
sides have agreed that the scandal-prone and despicable prince will be the next
King. To place the Princess, who has no male partner, on the throne instead,

23 Giles Ji Ungpakorn (2011) Thai Spring? Paper given at the 5th Annual Nordic
NIAS Council Conference organised by The Forum for Asian Studies/NIAS. 21-23rd
November 2011, Stockholm University, Sweden.
http://www.scribd.com/doc/73908759/Thai-Spring
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would immediately destroy all the “reinvented tradition” about the monarchy and
seriously undermine its mythical legitimacy.
It is probably true that Taksin paid off the Crown Prince’s gambling debts and
that Taksin’s rivals may fear that he would be more dominant in his use of the
Prince as a result. But this is a minor question because the Prince will be an even
weaker creature than his father. “Buying” the Crown Prince doesn’t result in
ownership of power.
If the King were to die soon, and there is no indication that he will, nothing will
change. The Crown Prince is even less capable of supporting democratic reforms
than his father. He will prove to be a wiling tool of whoever is in power, his main
interests being personal pleasure.
One book which is based around the idea of a “crisis of succession” is Andrew
MacGregor Marshall’s book “A Kingdom in Crisis” 24. Unfortunately it is part of the
“elite-gazing school” of analysis and mass movements from below do not feature
at all in his book. Neither do the works of any Thai academics. Even in terms of
analysing the Thai monarchy, Marshall fails to grasp the dynamics of power and
the fluidity of support for the king throughout his reign. Marshall’s concentration
on the “secrets” and cosmology of the royal family means that he also fails to
grasp the changes to the monarchy throughout history and the Bourgeois
Revolution against feudalism staged by King Chulalongkorn. He merely quotes
Duncan McCargo who mistakenly believes that Chulalongkorn’s “reforms” were
designed to “prevent change”. In fact as Kullada Kesboonchoo Mead has shown,
the opposite was the case25.
All this begs the really big question as to why the present military high command
and the conservatives, including the Democrat Party, are so opposed to Taksin.
The answer cannot be found in the problem of the succession. Neither can it be
explained by claiming incorrectly that Taksin is a closet republican. The long
running Thai crisis is a result of an unintentional clash between the conservative
way of operating in a parliamentary democracy and a more modern one.

Thailand’s Crisis and the Crisis of Political Theories
On 12th April 2016 Thai junta head Generalissimo Prayut admitted that he did
not trust the Thai people to elect a good government. This was his justification
for attempting to restrict the power of any democratically elected governments
24 Andrew MacGregor Marshall (2014) A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand's Struggle
for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century. Z Books.
25 Kullada Kesboonchoo Mead (2004) The rise and Decline of Thai Absolutism.
RoutledgeCurzon.
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in the future. Prayut’s claims to legitimise his 2014 military coup, and the
previous 2009 coup, are supported by a number of mainstream right-wing
political scientists and also the middle-classes. For anyone who is interested in
testing political science theories against material fact, the present political crisis
in Thailand has shattered a number of “democratisation” myths about the
middle-classes created over the years by mainstream political science
academics.

Civil Society and the Middle-Classes
The first myth is about “civil society”, as defined by the middle-class or the
“chattering classes” and Non-Government Organisations. After the end of the
Cold War we were told that a well-developed civil society and a large middle
class was the key to a free and democratic society.
By the mid-1980s, the Civil Society School of democratisation had come to
dominate Thai mainstream academia. Despite the fact that this school
emphasised mass movements in building democracy, those who merely saw Civil
Society as movements of the middle-classes, ended up with elitist views. There
are also serious problems with looking at Civil Society or NGOs from a nonMarxist class perspective, for it does not enable us to understand the important
class dynamics which underpin all social movements, however distorted they
may be.
In some cases, such as Haiti or Eastern Europe, organisations with clear business
links or funding from the U.S. Government have masqueraded as “Civil Society
Organisations”26. In authoritarian countries like Singapore so-called “Civil
Society” groups are actually established by the Government 27.
The belief that Civil Society is concentrated among the intellectual middleclasses or NGOs28, overlooks the possible anti-democratic nature of the middle
26 Peter Hallward (2007) Damming the Flood. Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of
Containment. Verso.
27 Garry Rodan (1997) Civil Society and other political possibilities in Southeast Asia.
Journal of Contemporary Asia 27(2), 156-178.

28 J.L. Cohen & A. Arato, A. (1997) Civil Society and Political Theory. M.I.T. Press, U.S.A.
A. Touraine (2001) [Translated by D. Macey] Beyond Neoliberalism. Polity Press,
Cambridge, U.K. J. Keane (1998) Civil Society. Old Images, New Vision. Polity Press,
Cambridge, U.K. R. Robison & D.S.G. Goodman (1996) (eds) The New Rich in Asia.
Routledge, UK. Kevin Hewison (1996) Emerging social forces in Thailand. New political
and economic roles. In: Robison, R. & Goodman, D. S. G. (eds) The New Rich in Asia.
Routledge, UK.

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classes and intellectuals, who often benefit from unequal societies and
authoritarian states29. Somchai Pataratananun has described how influential
people like Prawase Wasi and Chai-anan Samudwanij have been advocating the
idea of “Elite Civil Society” in Thailand 30. This involves an unequal partnership
with the state, where the state dominates Civil Society. It means that the threat
to “democracy” is seen as coming from the uneducated masses. This neatly
encapsulates the ideology of the royalist Yellow Shirts. In such a mainstream or
elite vision of Civil Society, there is no place for the Red Shirts who are made up
of primary school educated small farmers, urban taxi-drivers, street vendors or
factory workers.
The urban and rural working people, who form the Red Shirts wanted the right to
choose their own democratically elected Government. They started out as
passive supporters of Taksin’s TRT Government. But they formed a new citizens’
movement for what they called “Real Democracy”. For them, “Real Democracy”
meant an end to the long-accepted “quiet dictatorship” of the conservatives.
Most of those in the Red Shirt movement supported Taksin for good reasons. His
Government put in place many modern pro-poor policies. Many middle-class
observers felt uncomfortable that the Red Shirts were a movement of ordinary
citizens and not the educated middle-class. The Red Shirts were not “refined
folk” with experience of activism.
When considering the issue of Civil Society in Thailand it is important to
remember that we saw the middle-classes and the NGOs take part in many antidemocratic protests and we have seen them welcome two military coups. The
middle-classes have organised to protect their privileges and prevent the urban
workers and rural farmers from having a say in politics. The NGOs have also
behaved in a similar manner for slightly different reasons 31.
Middle-class academics, lawyers and doctors joined the whistle blowing antidemocrats led by Sutep Tueksuban and his henchmen. These people wrecked the
2014 elections and ushered in the Prayut military dictatorship.
Marxists have always seen the middle classes as being a potential base for
fascism and dictatorship. We saw this in the 1930s. They can also join pro29 Garry Rodan (1997) already quoted. Victor T. King, Phuong An Nguyen & Nguyen Huu
Minh (2008) Professional Middle Class Youth in Post-Reform Vietnam: Identity, Continuity
and Change. Modern Asian Studies 42(4), 783-813. J. Pearce (1997) Civil society, the
market and democracy in Latin America. Democratisation, 4 (2), 57-83.

30 Somchai Pataratananun (Phatharathananunth) (2006) Civil Society and
Democratization. Social Movements in Northeast Thailand. NIAS press. p. 84.
31 Giles Ji Ungpakorn (2009) Why have most Thai NGOs chosen to side with the
conservative royalists, against democracy and the poor? Interface: a journal for
and about social movements. Volume 1 (2): 233 - 237 (November 2009)
http://bit.ly/1KhCrbu
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democracy movements at other times and support working class demands. But
the middle classes are too fragmented and weak to set their own class agenda.
They flip flop between the interests of the business and bureaucratic elites and
the interests of the working class.
Perhaps what we can recue from the “civil society” theory of democratisation is
the importance of “social movements”, but not the so-called “new social
movements” which were widely touted by right-wing academics after the
collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe. We were told then that social
movements were no longer class based and were about life-style politics and
single issues, not about challenging state power. In Thailand the largest social
movement in history to date was the Red Shirt movement. The Red Shirts were
more or less classed based and had wide political aims involving democratisation
and challenging the old state.
Real events in Thailand and elsewhere have a habit of challenging academic
political theories. The latest victim is the myth of the “democratic middleclasses”. The idea of New Social Movements also needs to be deposited in the
dustbin of history.

Managed Stability in the “Transition” to Democracy?
During a recent conversation with a researcher associated with the British
Foreign Ministry and I was surprised and shocked to hear him say: “Burma is the
most democratic country in South-east Asia”. He went on to say that the
worrying thing about Burma was that Aung San Suu Kyi might be too inflexible to
work with the military.
Now, as far as I am concerned, The Philippines and Indonesia are by far the most
democratic countries in the region, despite their flaws. And let us face it, Britain
and the United States do not exactly have perfect democracies either. But as far
as Burma is concerned, it has a constitution which allows for long-term military
domination of politics and the most worrying thing about Suu Kyi is that she has
completely compromised with the military, has Burman nationalistic and
Islamophobic ideas, and that she is a neo-liberal.
So what accounts for this absurd idea about Burma?
The views about democratisation among mainstream officials and politicians
close to Western governments are heavily influenced by right-wing “comparative
politics” theories associated with academics like Guillermo O'Donnell 32. For these
people, democratic transition is all about the behaviour of elite factions and how
they manage a stable transition to so-called democracy. In fact they are not
32 Guillermo A. O'Donnell & Philippe C. Schmitter (1986) Transitions from
Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies. Johns
Hopkins University Press.
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really interested in freedom, democratic rights and social justice for the majority
of the population. They are blind to and terrified of the prospect of mass
movements of the working class and the poor rising up to overthrow
authoritarian regimes.
Reading through political science literature about democratic transitions in the
days before the overthrow of Suharto in Indonesia or before the overthrow of
Marcos in the Philippines, you can see that the idea that these dictators might be
overthrown by mass movements from below is totally lacking. But this is in fact,
exactly what happened. The same can be said of the Arab Spring uprisings and
uprisings against the military in Thailand in 1973 and 1992. And the most
important social force which can push forward and develop democratisation in all
these countries, including Thailand, remains mass movements of workers and
the poor.
Even when the right-wing theorists are forced to confront reality that a regime
has been overthrown by a mass movement, they try to re-write history to say
that it was a movement of the middle-classes.
In other words, right-wing “comparative politics” ideas look down on workers and
the poor and see the elites and the middle-classes as the only people who can
bring about progress in democracy. This is a view which fits exactly with views
expressed in Thailand by the yellow shirt P.A.D., Sutep’s anti-democratic mobs,
the military junta and those idiots responsible for drafting constitutions and antireform agendas for the military.
After the referendum results it was interesting to read the official responses of
the United States and the European Union.
The United States ambassador to Thailand issued the following statement.
“Given (the result of the referendum), we, the United States of America, as a
long-time friend and ally of Thailand, urge the government to return to civilian
democratically elected government as soon as possible. As part of moving back
to civilian elected government, we strongly urge the government to lift
restrictions on civil liberties, including restrictions on freedom of expression and
peaceful assembly.”33
The European Union also issued a statement after the referendum. “During the
campaign period … there were serious limitations to fundamental freedoms,
including restrictions on debate and campaigning….It is essential that the current
restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly are lifted to allow for an
open, inclusive and accountable political process. The EU continues to call upon
the Thai authorities to create the conditions for a genuine democratic transition
leading to early general elections.”34
33 http://bit.ly/2aPzqGY
34 http://bit.ly/2auzDR7
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What is obvious here, if we read between the lines, is that the West are not
demanding that the authoritarian constitution, which will prolong military
domination of Thai politics, be scrapped or amended. That is the aim of all
democratically minded Thais. The legitimacy for such a call comes from the fact
that the referendum was neither free nor fair and that the military’s new
constitution will not lead to a genuine democratic transition.
The governments of the West are ready to accept elections held under this
constitution so long as the government lift restrictions on the civil liberties of
freedom of expression and assembly. The EU statement goes on to say that “all
main stakeholders in Thailand need to engage in an inclusive dialogue and work
together peacefully towards this aim.”
In practice this means that the EU would like to see pro-democracy activists
cooperate with the military and the conservatives in the coming elections, which,
incidentally, may not be held until 2018. Talking about the need for “civil
liberties” is also vague. Does it mean the abolition of lèse-majesté? Probably
Western governments will not call for this. Does it mean that the military should
stop banning demonstrations under the pretext of protecting national security?
Given that governments in the West such as France and the United State do the
same thing, it will not be serious issue.
The lesson from this is that it would be a waste of time to believe that any
foreign governments, especially those in the West, would ever be an important
factor in bringing about democracy in Thailand. For them, their only interest is
being able to conduct business with Thailand. They want to be able to “keep the
lines open” to talk to the elites and the military.

The “Tale of Two Democratic Cities”?
Liberal academics in Thailand believe that Taksin cheated in elections by
“tricking or buying the ignorant rural poor”. For them the rural poor were trapped
in a patron-client system. The person who mapped out this view most clearly was
Anek Laotamatat in his 1995 Thai language book: “The Tale of Two Democratic
Cities”.
Anek Laotamatat’s book attempted to claim that the major divide in Thai
democratic society was between the rural and urban areas. These were the “two
democratic cities” of Thai politics. According to Anek, the divide was not just
geographical but it was an issue of class too. In his view, the rural electorate
were mainly small farmers and the urban electorate were “middle-class”.
The overwhelming dominance of the rural electorate in various constituencies
meant that they had the voting power to elect governments. Anek claimed that
these governments were mainly corrupt and deeply involved in money politics. In
Anek’s view, the rural people voted for these politicians because they were
“patrons” of the poor who had to prove themselves by their work record of
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helping local communities. Vote buying was a ceremonial part of this “patronclient” relationship and not seen as “wrong” by the rural voters. Anek believed
that rural people did not vote by using “independent thought” about political
policies, but were bound by ties of obligation to their patrons.
For Anek, the urban middle-classes were well educated and chose their
governments and politicians using independent thought and a strong sense of
“political morality”. They cast their votes after carefully considering the policies
of various parties, and when the governments which were chosen by the rural
poor turned out to be corrupt and immoral, they took part in street
demonstrations to bring those governments down.
This was an inaccurate and extremely patronising view of Thai political society.
The Thai middle-classes have a history of political opportunism, sometimes
supporting barbaric and repressive regimes, like in 1976 and the present junta,
and sometimes opposing military dictatorships, such as in 1992.
The present anti-democratic position of the middle-classes is based on the idea
that democracy gave too much power to Taksin and too much benefit to ordinary
working people in urban and rural areas. Their so-called “anti-corruption”
crusade has helped place the military in power. Yet the military is one of the most
corrupt institutions in Thailand. Not only this, the main political leader of the anticorruption crusade, which opened the door to military rule in 2014, Sutep
Tueksuban, is a longstanding and classical old-style politician of the Democrat
Party which uses pure “patronage” and corruption to maintain votes in the south
of Thailand. This is because the party has never had any policies.
Interestingly, Anek’s solution to the problem of political patronage which he
claimed resulted in corrupt politicians being elected from rural areas, was to get
the state to increase rural development projects so that these areas became
more urban-like and linked into the capitalist market through technological
advances. Equally important was the need for political parties to develop clear
policies and propose new solutions. The book was written before Taksin’s Thai
Rak Thai Party was ever established and it appears that TRT followed closely all
the major points put forward in the book for developing Thai politics. Not only
was TRT the only party for decades to take the issue of party policies seriously,
the party took a keen interest in winning votes from the rural and urban poor on
the basis of such policies. In short, Taksin and TRT followed Anek’s prescriptions
to the letter and therefore the rural voters started to vote for clear pro-poor
policies, while reducing their personal attachment to local political patrons or
bosses.
This is supported by the work of Australian anthropologist Andrew Walker who
found that rural voters were carefully weighing up policies of various parties at
election time35.
35 Andrew Walker (2008) The rural constitution and the everyday politics of
elections in northern Thailand. Journal of Contemporary Asia, 38:1, 84 -105.
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Yet during the Yellow Shirt PAD campaign against Taksin before the 2006 coup,
liberal academics and some social activists often quoted Anek’s book to “prove”
that the rural poor were too stupid to understand democracy and that they were
tied into Taksin’s new “patron-client system” via TRT’s populist policies. This was
reinforced by Anek himself, who claimed, in a later book that TRT had built a new
patron-client system and that this showed that Thailand could never have fully
functioning democracy36.
The very concept of a “patron-client system” is not about a political party which
offers populist policies to the entire national electorate, carries them out and
then gets overwhelmingly re-elected on a national ballot. Political patron-client
systems are about individual relationships between a local political boss and the
boss’s constituents. The relationship results in preferential treatment for some. It
is pure nonsense to state that TRT was building a new strong patron-client
system in the countryside on a national level. For those who genuinely believe in
democracy, governments and political parties ought to carry out policies which
the people want.
Anek Laotamatat then started to promote the idea of “Asia Values” in his attempt
to justify the military regime. He argued that Thailand needs a “mixed” system
where elected governments share power with the King and Thai Rak Thai
Populism is replaced by “Third Way” social welfare. Anek is an ardent admirer of
Anthony Giddens.
The bottom line in reality is that the present Thai crisis is a result of increased
political empowerment and consciousness of workers and small farmers, a
phenomenon that was seized upon and encouraged by Taksin and his allies for
their own interests.

The 1997 Economic Crisis, the rise of Taksin and the
roots of the Political Crisis
Thai political leaders since the early 1970s had always adopted a laissez faire
attitude to development, with minimal government planning, low wages, few
trade union rights and an abdication of responsibility by governments in
improving infrastructure. This strategy worked in the early years, but by the time
of the 1997 Asian economic crisis it was becoming obvious that it was seriously
failing. The consequences of this economic crisis are far more important to the
understanding the Thai political crisis today than concentrating on the so-called
problem of succession.
In the first general election since the 1997 crisis, Taksin’s party put forward a raft
of modernising and pro-poor policies, including the first ever universal health
care scheme. Because the Democrat Party had told the unemployed to “go back
to their villages and depend on their families, while spending state finances in
36 Anek (2006) Taksina-Populism. Matichon Press, (in Thai).
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securing the savings for the rich and middle-classes in failed banks, Taksin was
able to say that his government would benefit everyone, not just the rich.
Taksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party won the elections. The government was unique in
being both popular and dynamic, with real policies, which were used to win the
election and were then implemented afterwards. Previously, the old parties had
just bought votes without any policies. Taksin’s policies and his overwhelming
electoral base came to challenge many elements of the old elite order, although
this was not Taksin’s conscious aim at all. In the last 20 years the Democrat Party
has never managed to win more than a quarter of the national vote, often it was
much less. Local political and criminal mafia were edged out of power by Taksin’s
electoral machine. The military could not compete in terms of democratic
legitimacy and support. The middle-classes started to resent the fact that the
government was helping to raise the standard of living of workers and poor
farmers. This is the real basis for the prolonged political crisis in society and it
explains why the conservatives, the middle-classes and the Democrat Party are
so strongly opposed to democracy today. For them, voting and democracy gets
the “wrong result”.
It would be a mistake to see the present crisis as merely a dispute between two
factions of the elite. It has another important dimension that cannot be ignored.
We need to understand the role of the Red Shirts. One way of understanding the
“dialectical” relationship between Taksin and the Red Shirts is to see a kind of
“parallel war” in the Red Shirt/UDD struggles against the conservative elites,
where thousands of ordinary Red Shirts struggled for democracy, dignity and
social justice, while Taksin and his political allies waged a very different
campaign to regain the political influence that they had enjoyed before the 2006
coup d'état37. However, at the same time, Taksin remains very popular with most
Red Shirts.
Despite the fact that thousands of Red Shirts supported Taksin, their struggle
was shaped by their own different agenda, an agenda for the freedom and
equality of ordinary citizens. Only in Taksin’s egotistical dreams were the Red
Shirts fighting for him alone. Many Red Shirts are bitter about what has
happened since the Pua Thai election victory in 2011 and the subsequent Prayut
coup in 2014. During this period the Red Shirts have been demobilised.

Economic liberalisation
It is necessary to stress that economic liberalisation in Thailand has occurred in
stages ever since the switch to laissez-faire policies under the military
dictatorship of Field Marshall Sarit Tanarat in the early 1960s. Thai economic
37 Giles Ji Ungpakorn (2012) Thailand: Reconciliation as Betrayal. The Parallel
War: Taksin and the Red Shirts. Paper given to the Thailand Research Group,
Institute of Asian and African Studies, Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany,
October 2012. http://bit.ly/2aYbcuJ or http://bit.ly/2aLH02z
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bureaucrats since then have always worked closely with the World Bank and
IMF38. Further important steps to economic liberalisation took place in the early
1990s, especially under the military installed Anan Punyarachun Government,
which deregulated many aspects of banking and finance.
The laissez-faire policies of successive Thai governments can be seen by the
unplanned and chaotic nature of the traffic system in Bangkok and the
inadequate public transport network39. It is interesting to note that Taksin’s Thai
Rak Thai (TRT) Government was planning large scale investment in a mass
transit system just before the 2006 coup d’état. “Mega-Projects” such as this
were often criticised by both neo-liberals and NGOs which were opposed to largescale state spending. More recently, the Yingluk government’s mega-projects
were criticised by the conservative judiciary.
Another aspect of laissez-faire policies of successive governments is the poorly
developed welfare and benefits system. Taksin’s TRT Government made an
important step towards improving this situation by introducing the first ever
universal health care scheme which charged a fixed fee of 30 baht for each
hospital visit. After the 2006 coup d’état junta health officials started to talk
about the need for a means-tested “co-payments” system 40. The Prayut junta
has carried on with this aim, which can be seen in its 2016 version of the
constitution.

The 1997 economic crisis in a global context
The World economy has been facing declining GDP growth and a general trend
towards declining rates of profits since the end of the long post-war boom in the
early 1970s. In the industrialised world there were two economic crises in the
1970s, another in the 1980s, one in the early 1990s and the latest in 2008. After
each recession there were recoveries, but they were weak and could not restore
growth and rates of profits to the levels seen in the early 1970s. The experiences
around the globe were uneven, with some areas finding specialist niches to
create temporary spurts of growth. In the early 1990s the economies of a handful
38 Kevin Hewison (2003) Crafting a new social contract: Domestic capitalist
responses to the challenge of neoliberalism. In Ji Giles Ungpakorn (ed.)
Radicalising Thailand: new political perspectives. Institute of Asian Studies,
Chulalongkorn University.
39 Walden Bello, Shea Cunningham and Li Kneng Poh (1998) A Siamese Tragedy:
Development and Disintegration in Modern Thailand. Zed Books.
40 Giles Ji Ungpakorn (2007) A Coup for the Rich. WD Press. P. 17.
http://bit.ly/2aE7zc6 or http://bit.ly/2aEmXbB
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of East Asian countries, including Thailand, appeared to be booming, with what
some called “miracle growth”. Yet this could only occur because foreign and
domestic investment was channelled into export manufacturing, while holding
down wages. Soon this blind competition resulted in various East Asian
economies all producing the same kind of exports for the same markets. Because
the Western importing markets could not absorb this, the result was overproduction and falling profits41. In Thailand, the resulting decline in export profits,
which may also have been caused by increased labour militancy and upward
pressure on wages, led to frantic investment in property, causing a bubble
economy, which burst in 199742. The bubble resulted in the first place because of
declining profits in export manufacturing, not purely because of previous
financial de-regulation or mismanagement. Economic bubbles are characteristic
of pre-crisis situations in capitalism, including the 2008 world economic crisis
which is still with us today. In Thailand during the late 1990s, because wages had
been historically held down for so long, a switch to manufacturing for the Thai
domestic market, to compensate for falling exports, was not possible in the short
term. Investors turned to speculation in property instead. The 2008 “sub-prime”
bubble in the United States was a way of stimulating the economy by
encouraging unsustainable loans to the poor, while holding down wages.
When the Thai crisis broke in 1997 and the Thai financial system’s complete
insolvency was exposed, the middle-classes and top business people became
frenzied. The New Aspirations Party coalition government, headed by the
bumbling ex-general Chawalit Yongjaiyut, was seen as “incompetent” to deal
with the pressing need to safe-guard the middle-class savings and investments in
the now defunct banks and financial institutions. The new Democrat Party
government pursued a classic neo-liberal agenda in line with IMF policy. The
Government used massive amounts of public funds, raised by taxing the poor 43,
to prop up the banks and finance companies in order to save the rich. They
turned their backs on the general population. The unemployed were told to “go
back to their villages” and depend on their already poor relatives. Those in work
were expected to take pay cuts and the level of V.A.T., the main regressive tax on
the poor, was raised. According to World Bank figures, more than a million extra
workers and peasants fell below the poverty line, which was set at $US 1 per

41 Chris Harman (2009) Zombie Capitalism. Global crisis and the relevance of
Marx. Bookmarks, London. P. 242
42 Jim Glassman(2003) Interpreting the economic crisis in Thailand: Lessons
learned and lessons obscured. In Ji Giles Ungpakorn (ed.) Radicalising Thailand:
new political perspectives. Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University.
43 In Thailand the poor pay a larger proportion of their income than the rich in
indirect taxes.
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day44. The rural north-east was particularly hit hard and the quality of
employment fell dramatically in a country with no Welfare State.
Today we hear the mainstream media repeating lies about “over-paid lazy
Greeks” who “caused” the Euro crisis. Back in 1997 the Thai King chipped in with
his “Sufficiency Economy” ideology, which argued that the poor needed to learn
to be self-sufficient and not to spend too much. The main message of this
reactionary ideology was that the poor could only blame themselves for their
troubles and that the answer was not any re-distribution of wealth or the building
of economic and social equality. Apart from the post-crisis 1997 Democrat Party
government, others who enthusiastically supported the Sufficiency Economy
ideology included the 2006 and 2014 military juntas 45, the NGOs, and right-wing
academics like Chris Baker and Peter Warr46.
Taksin and TRT responded to the 1997 economic crisis with a modernisation
programme which involved real development policies aimed at improving the
lives of the poor who make up the majority of the population. He called this a
“dual track” policy. Taksin and TRT advocated neo-liberalism and free market
policies at the national level in order to make Thai capitalists able to compete on
a global stage. For example, he promoted privatisation of State Enterprises. But
at the same time, Taksin and TRT used “grass-roots Keynesianism” to pump State
funds into stimulating the village level economy and into building up national
universal health care and education schemes. Taksin was unwittingly laying the
ground for a confrontation between his government, backed up by the
electorate, and the old elites.
Kevin Hewsion has argued that Taksin’s initial aim in introducing pro-poor policies
was to buy social peace in post crisis Thailand 47. This partly explains why the
majority of the business class backed Taksin in the early days. The economy
recovered from the crisis. But five years after his first election victory in 2001,
when that social peace started to unravel with the mass protests led by the rightwing Peoples Alliance for Democracy (PAD), Taksin’s business supporters dropped
away. They were unhappy that he seemed to have monopolised the rich business
pickings and excluded many of them.

44 Kevin Hewison (2003) already quoted.
45 Giles Ji Ungpakorn (2007) already quoted.
46 Peter Warr (2007)The Economics of Enough:Thailand’s ‘Sufficiency Economy’
Debate. Paper presented at a seminar at the National Thai Studies Centre,
National University, Canberra, Australia, 1 June, 2007. Chris Baker helped to
write the 2007 UNDP Human Development Report on Thailand which stressed the
Sufficiency Economy.
47 Kevin Hewison (2003) already quoted.
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Taksin’s modernisation programme also involved such things as undermining
local political mafia, illegal activities like gambling, and the monopoly of the
black market in the South by the armed forces. Taksin tried to upgrade the role of
the police in providing government security in the South. His government also
cut the military budget. The power of Taksin’s political machine came from the
fact that TRT could win the hearts and minds of the electorate through genuine
pro-poor policies. This political power was thus based upon the democratic
process and backed up by Taksin’s wealth as a successful businessman. He used
this power to try to consolidate the Prime Minister’s control over the army and
the bureaucracy. Local political bosses found that their use of gangsters, illegal
activities and money politics was being undercut by TRT’s direct links to the
electorate through real policies. Many politicians faced the choice of either
joining TRT or sinking into electoral oblivion.
However, the government also waged a vicious war against those it claimed to
be small time drug dealers. Over 3000 people were killed without trials in this
“drugs war” and gross human rights abuses also took place in the Muslim Malay
South, especially in 2004.
In the bad old days, mainstream parties, including the Democrats, had not relied
on any policies to win votes. Taksin was threatening the old networks of money
politics, which had resulted in weak political parties, governing the country in
corrupt and unstable coalition governments. Taksin upset the apple cart by
proving that the electorate were responsive to genuine pro-poor policies.
Previously, politicians and the elites had just assumed that they could enrich
themselves while ignoring the majority of citizens. Governments in the past had
just “muddled along”, making sure that they maintained the self-interests of the
elites. Workers and farmers were simply regarded as the “ignorant poor”.
Taksin also saw the poor as stakeholders in society and partners in development,
while the conservatives saw the poor as either people to be exploited or a
burden on society. Taksin was not a socialist. Nor was he a principled democrat or
advocate of human rights. His vision was to build a modernised society where
the State and Big Business could incorporate the majority of the population in
development. He looked to countries like Singapore for inspiration. Taksin’s
model was not incompatible with being a royalist and maintaining the monarchy.
It just meant that the monarchy would be used to protect and legitimise a
modern, class divided, status quo.
Taksin’ success with the electorate was because he understood, and was able to
use, the changed social and political dynamics of Thai society which were
causing serious contradictions arising from the unchanged political
superstructure presiding over a much changed society. These contradictions had
been exposed by the 1997 economic crisis.

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Social changes brought about by past economic growth
in Thailand
Economic growth in any economy does improve most peoples’ lives, but the
degree to which it improves their lives significantly, depends on the level of
freedom and democracy and the power of social movements to push for equality
of distribution.
In 1954 88% of the Thai working population were involved in agriculture 48. By
2002, at the beginning of the TRT government, this figure had declined to 37%,
with 63% in industry and services 49. Even those people classified as working in
agriculture were in fact involved in “occupational multiplicity”, mixing “farm
jobs” with “off-farm jobs”50. Throughout the decades since the 1950s the decline
in the proportion of GDP arising from agriculture was more rapid than the decline
in the number people working in this sector, which indicates that the productivity
of agriculture was losing out to other economic sectors and hence the viability of
seeking a livelihood as a small-scale peasant was becoming untenable. Andrew
Walker in a recent paper suggests that most of the rural agricultural population
are now “middle-income” peasants and that these people formed an important
component of the Red Shirt movement51.
The division between “rural” and “urban” lives is also not as clear cut as some
would make out. So-called rural areas are becoming more and more urban,
“rural” does not totally equate with an agricultural occupation and rural and
urban areas are very interdependent 52. Economic inequality occurs in urban as
well as rural areas. Moreover, those registered as living in rural areas are often
permanently working and living in the cities53. This has implications for
48 James C. Ingram (1971) Economic Change in Thailand 1850-1970. Stanford
University Press. P. 236
49 Thailand National Statistical Office.
50 Andrew Walker (2008) already Quoted.
51 Andrew Walker (2011) The Political Culture of Thailand's Middle-income
Peasants. Paper given at the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) joint conference
with the International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS) in Honolulu, March 31–
April 3, 2011.
52 Jonathan Rigg (2001) Southeast Asia. The human landscape of modernization
and development. Routledge.
53 Giles Ji Ungpakorn (1999) Thailand: Class Struggle in an Era of Economic
Crisis. Asia Monitor Resource Center, Hongkong & Workers’ Democracy Book
Club, Bangkok. Chapter 5.
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understanding the nature of the Red Shirt movement as being more than a
movement with a rural base in the North and North-East. It is clear that there
were large numbers of Red Shirts living and working in Bangkok and this could be
seen by their participation in prolonged street demonstrations in that city in
2010. It can also be seen in the electoral support for Pua Thai Party in the 2011
election. The party won some seats in Bangkok and polled significant numbers of
votes in constituencies where it did not win.
TRT policies to stimulate rural jobs, roll-over existing debt and to create universal
health care clearly benefitted rural people directly, but they also benefitted
urban workers, who were already covered by a national insurance scheme. This
is because these policies reduced the need for workers to subsidise their rural
relatives.
In 1960 no more than 20% of the population attained lower secondary school
qualifications, with men enjoying marginally better education than women 54. By
1999 the Ministry of education reported that 84% of all 12-14 year olds were in
lower secondary school. In the education system as a whole, girls or women were
achieving marginally better than boys or men.
People do not need to be educated at school or college in order to understand
democracy, human rights or social justice 55, as many of the conservative elites or
Yellow Shirts continuously make out, but education can increase self-confidence
to get organised and stand up and fight. The proliferation of secondary education
in Thailand can help to partly explain why the Red Shirt movement became the
largest social movement in Thai history. Education and basic computer skills
have also been useful for rank and file Red Shirts in a climate of severe
government censorship in order to access opposition websites, blogs and
internet radio, as well as for communicating with each other via e-mail,
Facebook, Skype or other social media. But it is not implied here that the Red
Shirt movement was some kind of “Twitter phenomenon” as some overenthusiastic commentators have tried to imply for the Arab Spring 56.
There is no question that the Thai economy experienced real economic growth.
In 1960 GDP per capita was $100. By 1996 this had risen to $3000 and in 2008 it

54 J.C. Caldwell (1967) The Demographic Structure. In T. H. Silcock Thailand.
Social and Economic Studies in Development. ANU Press. P 52
55 For an anthropological account of the political thinking of villagers in the
north, see Andrew Walker (2008) already quoted.
56 For a realistic analysis of the comparative importance of social media, see
Jonny Jones (2011) Social media and social movements. International Socialism
Journal 130, Spring 2011, 75-94. Jodi Dean (2009) Democracy and Other
Neoliberal Fantasies. Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics. Duke University
Press.
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was $400057. Yet this growth was not distributed evenly. Real wage growth
between the end of the Second World War and 1975 was minimal and did not
reflect rises in labour productivity58. In the 1975 the Gini coefficient for Thailand
stood at 0.4359 but in 2009 this had increased to 0.54, indicating growing
inequality. In 2009 the share of national income owned by the top 20% was 59%
while the share of the bottom 20% was only 3.9%. Even the middle 20% owned
only 11.4%60.
The sense of economic injustice among Red Shirts did not arise from absolute
poverty. It was more about most people not gaining from the benefits of
economic growth as much as the top elites. TRT’s announcement that they
believed that the poor were not a burden but “stake-holders in development”
appealed to the majority of people. Therefore the various military coup d’états
and actions by the conservative elites to exclude TRT politicians from office,
caused a real sense of anger. This anger was fuelled by a general discontent with
the hierarchical and conservative nature of society. In other words, the material
reality of Thai society was in conflict with an unchanged “Superstructure”. This is
the dynamic of conflict which was harnessed by Taksin. This, and the actions of
various political actors on both sides of the present conflict, is what explains the
present day destruction of democracy.

The Road Ahead
The results of the referendum on the junta’s draft constitution on the 7 th August
were disappointing and are a set-back for democracy. But we should not forget
that this was never a democratic referendum. The junta arrested and intimidated
all those who wished to express their opposition to its appalling charter and tried
to ensure that the media reported a one-sided pro-junta account. Troops were
sent into communities to “explain” the authoritarian constitution. Many who live
and work outside their home provinces were unable to vote for bureaucratic
reasons.
A number of people would also have mistakenly voted to accept the constitution
because they wanted to see elections as soon as possible and were tired and
democralised. Yet any future elections will not be democratic and any
government will be under the potential control of the military and the
conservatives.
57 World Bank data at current US$ rates.
58 Jim Glassman (2003) already quoted.
59 Jonathan Rigg (2001) already quoted.
60 Wolfram Mathematica 2011.
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Another reason why the junta achieved victory in its distorted referendum was
that Taksin and the Red Shirt UDD leadership demobilised the Red Shirt
movement some years ago, hoping to compromise with the military. Any social
movement which is demobilised will wither and die and its members will lose
confidence.
We should not overlook the fact that only 55% of those eligible to vote actually
went to the polling stations. This means that only 33% of the population
approved the junta’s awful constitution.
Given this situation it is remarkable that 10 million people voted to reject the
draft charter. In a number of key provinces in the north and north-east, and also
in the 3 Muslim Malay Patani provinces, the majority of the electorate voted
“NO”.
Those who want to see democracy in Thailand will have to start by seeing these
millions of people as their allies in any practical struggle against the junta. This is
not a time to sink into depression. It is a time to turn anger into organisation and
future action against the junta. Such action has full legitimacy given the
undemocratic nature of the referendum and the constitution.
This wretched constitution was drawn up by people who have contempt for
democracy and contempt for most citizens. This is reflected in the ridiculous
“prologue” which also justifies and white-washes all the actions of the military
junta. There are a number of measures which increase the powers of military
appointed bodies over elected governments and parliament. It allows for a nonmember of parliament to become Prime Minister, especially when the parliament
and senate vote together to appoint someone from the junta to be this position
after the first elections. Of course the senate is to be fully appointed by the
junta. In addition, the formula for determining the number of members of
parliament favours the Democratic Party.
The constitution is the most neo-liberal constitution ever drafted in Thailand. At a
stroke it turns the clock back and virtually abolishes the universal health care
scheme and the right to free secondary education. It also entrenches Theravada
Buddhism at the expense of other beliefs.
While we have to look reality in the face and admit a set back after the
referendum result, we do not have to abide by the result. To say this is nothing
like the way the rabid conservative middle-classes rejected the democratic
wishes of millions in previous general elections won by Pua Thai or Thai Rak Thai.
Those elections were never held under the same authoritarian conditions seen
during the referendum.
The way forward is to build a mass social movement against the junta. The rich
experience of Thai mass movements defeating the military in 1973 and 1992 and
the huge potential of the Red Shirt movement should be revisited. It is time to
stop playing symbolic games organised by a handful of self-appointed heroes.
Such misguided views arise from a mistaken analysis that in the days of social
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media we do not need to build mass movements. The experience of the mis-led
Red Shirt movement and the autonomist or atomist ideas of the brave young
students has side-tracked us from the real tasks.
Ridding Thailand of the influence of the military will take time and determined
political organisation to build a movement which is independent of the old Red
Shirt leadership and Taksin. Taksin has never called for mass action to defeat the
junta. All Taksin says when he speaks to the Thai people is to talk about himself.
The mass political movement for democracy should be an inclusive movement
which is a united front of all those opposed to the junta. In the past activists have
allowed their own sectarianism and their vain wish to remain “pure” to become
an excuse to exclude people or act in small groups. Political differences in this
united front should be celebrated. This also means that left-wing activists need
to build a socialist party in order to be an organised significant part of this
movement.

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