Facing prison for dissent

January 20, 2009

Giles Ji Ungpakorn, an author and associate professor at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, will report to a Pathumwan police station today in a case that could land him in prison for nothing more than political dissent.

Ungpakorn is facing the charge of "lese majesty"--insulting the monarchy--for his book A Coup for the Rich (the book can be read online at Ungpakorn's Web site), which analyses and criticizes the 2006 military coup in Thailand and discusses the question of the role of the monarchy in Thai politics.

The 2006 coup banned the popular and democratically elected Thai Rak Thai Party, led by businessman Thaksin Shinawatra, after right-wing protests by the inappropriately named People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) calling for Thaksin's ouster.

The lese majesty charge against Ungpakorn is also being used against a host of other people after another coup late last year, this time carried out in the courts, against a democratically elected government led by the successor party to Thai Rak Thai, which was banned after the 2006 coup. The latest coup was again pushed by the PAD and strongly supported by the military.

Ungpakorn talked to Paul D’Amato about his case and about political developments in Thailand.

CAN YOU say something about how the "lese majesty" charge against you came about?

I HAVE to report to the police on January 20 to hear the charges. Then the police will decide whether they want to send the case to the prosecutor. Then the prosecutor will decide whether to send the case to court. That will take some time, and at each stage, pressure will help change the minds of those who have to make these decisions.

In a modern democracy, there shouldn't be a lese majesty law. In the countries of Europe that have monarchs, people can freely criticize the monarchy.

The Thai law is a very strange law, because any Thai citizen can accuse someone of lese majesty--it doesn't have to be initiated by the police or by the palace. The law is most often used by people to attack their political opponents.

The justification for accusing someone of lese majesty can be anything; for example, someone tried to accuse me of lese majesty when I said that the government that came to power after the military coup in 2006 was an illegitimate government. This person said, given that the king signed the papers that allowed this guy [Abhisit Vejjajiva] to be prime minister, therefore, I was insulting the king. That didn't end up becoming a legal case.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn speaks to the press about Thailand's lese majesty laws
Giles Ji Ungpakorn speaks to the press about Thailand's lese majesty laws

There are all sorts of examples of how this law is used. A prominent government minister was forced to resign last year because he made a speech at the foreign correspondents club in Bangkok, where he asked what kind of monarchy do we have--is it constitutional, or more than a constitutional monarchy? Quite a legitimate question. He's actually being charged now with lese majesty.

I suppose I would summarize it by saying that this is a law that allows for dictatorship. It creates a climate of fear where people can't talk about the head of state. But my personal opinion is that it isn't there to directly protect the head of state, but to protect the people who do things in the name of the head of state--for example, military dictators.

I think that the king is actually quite weak, and it is the military, the old civil service elite and political groups that promote the king and the image of his power, which use lese majesty in order to legitimize what they're doing--in order to stop people criticizing the status quo in general.

What you can do

Visit Giles Ji Ungpakorn's Web site for updates about the case and information about Thai politics. You can find a pdf version of Ungpakorn's book A Coup for the Rich at the Web site.

Write a letter of protest to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, Government House, Bangkok, Thailand. Letters can also be faxed to +66(0)29727751.

Write a letter of protest to the Ambassador, the Royal Thai Embassy, 1024 Wisconsin Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20007.

Ask that Amnesty International take up all lese majesty cases in Thailand. Write to Amnesty International, 5 Penn Plaza, 16th Floor, New York, NY 10001, or e-mail [email protected].

So there's a debate about how much power the king has. But on paper, in constitutional terms, he doesn't have any power.

IN THIS case, they're using the law against people like you because you've criticized the coup and the right-wing forces that backed it--both the 2006 coup and the most recent judicial coup


THE REASON I wrote the book A Coup for the Rich in the first place was that I was incensed by the coup d'état in 2006. What made me even more angry was that the military staged this coup, and in staging it, they put yellow ribbons (the royal color) on all the soldiers and indicated that this was a coup to protect the monarchy.

They were very worried about that image going abroad, so they tried to tone it down in terms of the foreign media. But in Thailand, they were pushing that all the time. What really appalled me was that the military could destroy democracy, and then say that it was for the king, and therefore you can't criticize it. That's why I wrote the book.

The political crisis in Thailand right now is more about a whole section of the elite turning against Thaksin's government because it managed to win huge support among the Thai electorate--because it was the first party that actually paid attention to the poor, with universal health care and a number of other pro-poor policies. These policies were done in a sort of Peronist style, if you like, because the Thaksin government was a capitalist government.

CAN YOU say a little more about the contradictions of Thaksin and the Thai Rak Thai Party? It seems to have been a bourgeois party, but one that was different from parties that existed in the past


THAT'S ABSOLUTELY correct--a bourgeois party which proposed very new policies.

The reason for proposing these new policies--the stimulus if you like--was the Thai economic crisis in 1997. Their aim was to modernize Thailand so it could compete internationally. They saw that what was needed was to include everybody in Thailand in this development of efficiency, which for them meant you couldn't continue to exploit the poor without giving them something back.

They wanted to make people into stakeholders, if you like. This is the reason for implementing the universal health care policy for everybody. They also had village funds--each village got 1 million Baht loans, and people took out these loans to start up small businesses or support their small businesses.

What they saw with these loans was a kind of grassroots Keynesianism. Public money was being pumped into the rural areas, which had traditionally been completely ignored, to stimulate rural areas in a capitalist sense. They called their policy a dual-track policy. What this meant was that they would use grassroots Keynesianism--public money and public investment in infrastructure--but at the same time on an international level they were going to use neoliberal policies.

So they would privatize the state enterprises and sign free-trade agreements, and so on. That was their dual-track policy, to make Thailand more efficient and beneficial to the Thai capitalist class.

But it was also dual track in another way, in terms of the experience of the poor. Because this was a party that didn't show contempt for the poor. Whenever they made speeches, they said, "The poor are not a burden. The poor are potential developers of the country." That's a very different attitude. People felt that this was a government for the poor. The contradiction was that it was a government led by a very rich telecommunications businessman.

WHAT POSSESSED a section of the ruling class and military to take such umbrage at this party? Thaksin wasn't really even a Chávez-type figure, yet you have this kind of frenetic right-wing assault on it


IT CERTAINLY was not comparable to Chávez. Thaksin went out of his way to say that he wasn't even building a welfare state. He had ex-members of the Communist Party in his cabinet who said that socialism is out of date. So these are modern-thinking business politicians.

What the military hated about this was that basically in the new Thailand he was creating they would have no political influence. What the old-style politicians who had relied on vote-buying and their patron-client system felt was that they were going to be shoved out of the political scene because Thaksin's party was winning votes on the basis of politics.

One last thing to say about Thaksin is that there was a terrible side to his government, and that was the abuse of human rights. Their policies in the south of Thailand resulted in the cold-blooded murder of 80 protesters and the murder of a defense lawyer. And they launched a war on drugs whereby 3,000 people were executed by the police without even coming to trial. For me, that was the most important reason to oppose Thaksin. But none of that was taken up by the right-wing opposition that supported the coup.

BEFORE THE latest judicial coup, when the PAD was shutting down the airports to try and bring down the government, the U.S. press portrayed the conflict as a democratic and progressive opposition struggling against a demagogic government trying to dupe the poor


THIS IDEA that the poor had been duped is a very patronizing idea, and it is being repeated all the time by supporters of the so-called People's Alliance for Democracy, the PAD. It is the idea that the poor were tricked, are too stupid, and that they don't really have the right to vote. So the PAD has been calling for a reduction in the democratic space.

Already, since the 2006 coup, we've had half the senators appointed instead of the whole of the senate being elected, and we've seen that the courts are complicit in this--dissolving Thaksin's party twice, and, in the end, maneuvering to get Abhisit Vejjajiva appointed as prime minister, even though he did not command the popular vote. The whole thing is absurd and patronizing, because the poor would really have to be stupid not to vote for a government that gave them universal health care. So, that is how the situation is being portrayed, unfortunately by academics as well.

Now, the PAD is a very strange organization. It started out as an alliance between some social activists who came from the trade union movement and the NGO movement who allied themselves with a right-wing businessman. This right-wing businessman--media billionaire Sondhi Limthongkul--used to be an ally of Thaksin.

As the movement developed, it became more and more right wing, more and more royalist and took on fascist tendencies, using "nation, religion and king" as their slogan and wearing the royal yellow colors. They were highly nationalistic and wanted to pick a fight with neighboring Cambodia. They received support from the queen and all the conservative elites. Their mass base was among the middle class--so it was looking more and more fascist.

So this is not a movement for democracy, it is the exact opposite.

Thaksin won the election again in 2005 with an overall majority, which is unheard of, because he had mass support from the poor. And then this right-wing media tycoon, Sondhi Limthongkul, started a movement against Thaksin because he had been left out of certain benefits. That movement started up in late 2005, and then was joined by these leaders from the People's Movement.

They claim to be for democracy, but they actually want to disenfranchise the majority of the Thai population. They want to bring in "new politics" or the "new order." When I hear "new order," I think of Suharto's dictatorship in Indonesia. And that's exactly the kind of thing they were arguing for. They were arguing that the parliament should not be 100 percent elected, that there should be appointed members of parliament, and so on.

So, this is an appalling organization. The PAD got away with all sorts of crimes--using guns on the street, attacking the police, shutting down the airports and destroying the economy--and nobody's ever been charged for any of that.

IT SEEMS that every time the PAD forces tried to oust Thaksin and destroy his party--after it won its first landslide victory in 2001--it comes back and wins the next election


THAKSIN WON the election again in 2005 with an overall majority, which is unheard of, because he had mass support from the poor. And then this right-wing media tycoon, Sondhi Limthongkul, started a movement against Thaksin because he had been left out of certain benefits. That movement started up in late 2005, and then was joined by these leaders from the People's Movement.

AND THEN that's when the military coup took place


YES, BECAUSE this movement started to call for the king to appoint a new government. The king refused, but that call was interpreted as a call for a military coup, and that's exactly what happened. And when the coup took place, these people went and hobnobbed with the junta that took power.

THEN Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai Party was banned


THAT'S RIGHT. What they tried to do was destroy the party and then hold new elections. They held elections, and Thaksin's party in a new name still won the elections. So the strategy of the PAD then changed to one of creating chaos. The height of this was the seizure of the airports.

THIS TIME the coup is a judicial rather than a military coup. How would you describe what is happening now?

AFTER PAD activists seized the airports, the courts dissolved the governing party [the People's Power Party under Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat]. When they dissolved the government party, which they've done twice, all the executive members of that party were banned from politics. It's a war of attrition. Then the head of the army went around bullying and bribing people to change sides--because the prime minister had to resign from politics so they had to have a vote in parliament.

Because of these maneuverings, the Democrat Party formed a coalition government with turncoats from Thaksin's old party. In that sense, the coup was a combination of maneuvering by the military, the courts and the PAD in order to get their government into power. The foreign minister of Thailand now is a guy who participated in the closure of the airports, and who reported to the media that it was fun. He's a guy who has insulted the Cambodian government as well.

HAVE THEY implemented any further changes to legally restrict or truncate democracy? Or are we still only at the stage of slamming people like you with lese majesty?

THEY HAVEN'T started to change the constitution yet. And they're also having to deal with the economic crisis. But the Democrat Party who are in government with the other parties has a history of monetarism, so they are reluctantly trying to stimulate the economy, but leaning toward helping the bankers and the large companies and throwing a few crumbs to the poor. It's both political and economic. What was interesting is that over the last six months a movement of Red Shirts started to appear.

WHO ARE the Red Shirts?

THESE ARE people who are totally opposed to the PAD, who are wearing yellow shirts (for royalty). These are people who have contradictory ideas. A lot of them love Thaksin Shinawatra because of the changes he brought to Thailand, but they are also very angry that they've repeatedly elected his party and their rights have been trashed by a coup d'état or a judicial coup d'état.

This is a new phenomenon, because Thaksin's party in the past hadn't really bothered to mobilize people--it just got people out to vote. And at its peak, two months ago, there were rallies of 100,000 Red Shirts. These are really ordinary people who are angry about the threats to democracy, and also angry about the attitude of the PAD and its allies to the poor.

YOUR BOOK talks about the weaknesses of left-wing and class politics. In it, you write about the collapse of the Thai Communist Party and what you call the "fragmentation of social analysis" and the development of single-issue approaches by the NGOs and student and left formations. I wonder if you could elaborate on that


IN THE 1970s, the Communist Party of Thailand had immense influence among social movements, students and activists. It was the one single left-wing organization. And it was a Maoist organization, so their strategy was to fight a guerrilla struggle from the jungle or the surrounding countryside in a Maoist fashion. Now, this party collapsed in the mid-1980s--the strategy didn't work.

As a result of the collapse of that, and as a result of the collapse of the Berlin wall, most social activists turned toward single-issue campaigning. They built NGOs, they formed movements that took on autonomist politics, basically, rejecting the need to seize state power, by looking at single issues, and therefore rejecting an overall political analysis. This has led to a situation where there is a vacuum in political analysis in the people's movement.

This is why you could get something like the PAD coming out of some sections of the People's Movement. The most appalling image is that when the coup d'état took place in 2006, probably three-quarters of the NGOs and social movements actually welcomed the coup.

ON WHAT grounds?

ON THE grounds that the Thaksin government was terrible and that there was no way of getting rid of it because he had tricked the poor into voting for him. This is a very patronizing position for the NGOs to take. And that was the worst position. More recently, people have started to be put off by the tactics and policies of the PAD, so there's been a movement away from that among the NGOs and the social movements. But the whole thing reflects a serious weakness in the People's Movement.

The leaders in the PAD who originated from the People's Movement have inherited the politics of the Maoist Communist Party of Thailand (CPT), which advocates cross-class alliances--you go and look for an alliance among big people, among the rich, among sections of the bourgeoisie, and that's exactly what they did. And in doing that, they then completely took on the politics of this right-wing businessman that was leading the organization. He's still in charge. He owns a satellite TV station and a newspaper, which are churning out right-wing filth attacking the left.

Our organization, Turn Left, is a socialist organization in Thailand. Unfortunately, we're still very small, and we can influence only a limited number of people. We took on a position where we never supported the Thaksin government, but we were adamantly against the coup d'état and the PAD.

IT SEEMS that the key would be to develop an independent left that could position itself as a left critic of Thaksin but also against the right


That's right. The key issue was a lack of independence--a politically independent position among social movements. The tendency was to either support the PAD and the military or to support the Thaksin party. But what we really needed was a sizable number of people and organizations who took an independent position.

IT SEEMS like there are several cases like yours. What are your organizations and others planning to do in response, and secondly, what can we do here?

WHAT WE'RE trying to do here is launch a campaign that includes all of our cases and emphasizes that the lese majesty laws need to be scrapped, or at the very least, seriously changed. We are concentrating on undermining the legitimacy of the lese majesty laws, and showing that they are an abuse of human rights, democratic freedoms, academic freedom and the freedom of expression.

Because one of the politicians of Thaksin's party is accused of lese majesty, and because toward the end of last year I supported the Red Shirt movement, we have sort of alliance from below between us and the ordinary Red Shirts--we're not in alliance with the Thaksin politicians.

We're trying to organize this campaign through the Internet, because the Thai language media is completely ignoring all of the cases. There's a blanket silence about what's going on, so we have to rely on independent media, Internet newspapers in Thailand, and e-mails and Web boards and stuff like that. This is a bit of a problem, because a lot of people don't have access to the Internet in Thailand. That is one of the problems we are facing, although news is getting out.

People from other countries can support us by writing letters to their local Thai embassy and to the Thai prime minister. What would help in a number of countries like the U.S., France and Germany would be to contact the state department or the foreign ministry and encourage their embassies in Bangkok to take a serious interest in lese majesty and the abuse of human rights that's going on in Thailand. Now, this might sound a little bit of a strange request, but I know that a number of ambassadors from the West have shown some interest in this issue, so if there was more pressure put on them, they might go a bit further.

A final point is this; building socialist organization in your own countries is very important to show that there is an alternative to the terrible cross-class alliances like the PAD.

Further Reading

From the archives