“There was a democratic alternative to the coup”

I have received, via forwarded email, the following statement by Giles Ji Ungpakorn who, at this stage, seems to be emerging as one of the key public intellectuals opposed to the coup.

There was a democratic alternative to the coup

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

It is a sad sight to see many Thai liberals today backing the coup and arguing that there was no alternative. As a socialist and one who protested against the coup on Friday evening, under the slogan “No to Thaksin..No to the coup”, I wish to explain the democratic alternatives to the coup.

The present coup leaders claims 80% support for the coup. If that is the case, and the 16 million people who voted for Thaksin on 2 April this year have now really changed their minds, these military men should have taken an alternative road. Months ago, if not years ago, they should have set up a political party and taken part in the elections which were due shortly. With their 80% backing they would have beaten Thai Rak Thai. It is no secret that the Democrat Party, which now supports the coup, boycotted the 2nd April election because they knew that they would lose. They knew they would lose the next scheduled elections too.

Did Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai win various elections with convincing majorities because they cheated? There is no evidence that the 16 million people who cast a vote for this party did not do so. There were no armed men forcing them to vote in a particular manner. The position of the ballot boxes did not allow coercion either. I voted on 2nd April against Thai Rak Thai and I did not feel that anyone could see how I voted. Did Thai Rak Thai give money to voters? Probably, but so too did the Democrats, Chart Thai and Mahachon. You would have to be pretty naïve to think otherwise. Did this affect the outcome of the vote? No. Why not?

In his book on the “Tale of two democratic cities” Anek Laothamatas argues that it is necessary to build political parties with real policies which can win votes in the countryside. This would end or reduce the system of patronage and money politics. The book was written before Thai Rak Thai was established. What Thai Rak Thai actually did was to spend some time building up policies which would correspond with the needs and demands of various sectors of society. They won elections on those policies, especially the first ever universal health care scheme and the village funds. They won again in 2005 and in 2006 because they carried out those policies. The Democrats lost because they spent all the time attacking the universal health care scheme and other social benefits on the basis that they destroyed “fiscal discipline”. While in power after the economic crisis, the Democrats, like all neo-liberals, felt that it was not against “fiscal discipline” to use our money to pay off the non-performing loans created by the rich. Some years ago I shared platforms with spokespeople from Thai Rak Thai and the Democrats. I attacked Thai Rak Thai’s abuses of power and criticized the Democrats for not having any policies. It didn’t take a genius to work these facts out.

Yes, the Thai Rak Thai government was a government of big business and it also carried out neo-liberal policies for business interests such as privatization and free trade agreements. No difference from the Democrats there. But worse still, Thai Rak Thai committed gross human rights abuses in the war on drugs, at Tak Bai and other places in the South and they are responsible for the murder of defence lawyer Somchai Nilapaichit. Yet hardly any of the coup supporters and certainly no one in the army or police, criticized these human rights abuses. There was also corruption, but this is a common phenomenon among all Thai political parties, the army and the police.

There is an arrogant and anti-democratic position which argues that the rural and urban poor do not understand democracy. Not only are the poor un-educated, but they also lack of information, we are told. “Democracy” according to these un-democratic and elitist liberals, is where a government does not bow to the wishes and demands of the electorate. For them to give people what they want is to give sweets to children, a bad thing because later their teeth will be all rotten. So if the poor cannot come to their senses and vote for a nice party like the Democrats, which will cut their social benefits and villages funds (in the National interest of course), then the poor do not deserve the vote. These people called for the use of Section 7, where the King appoints an alternative government in a crisis. This did not happen, but later there was a coup, which these so-called liberals now support.

Over a year ago a number of us set up the Peoples Coalition Party in order to campaign against war, state violence and neo-liberalism. We called for the establishment of a Social Democratic Welfare State, funded by progressive taxation of the rich. We invited many people in the Peoples’ Movement to join and we approached some of those who later became leaders of the Peoples Alliance for Democracy. Unfortunately they declined to join with us in building an alternative party which could offer real benefits to the poor majority. Our party remains small and unofficial. It could have been an alternative which sought peace in the South and tried to stop human rights abuses. Such a party, if large enough to start standing a small number of candidates, would have provided an alternative to Thai Rak Thai. There were other things that needed to be done apart from building political parties. We needed, and still need, a much bigger campaign against human rights abuses. We needed, and still need, a massive campaign to end poverty by progressive taxation and a Welfare State. If more energy had been put into campaigning on these issues, instead of just trying to oust Thaksin on the basis of corruption, we would have had a real alternative, both in terms of a party and a movement.

So what now? The one thing that I learnt over the years, with encouragement from my father and mother, was never to trust a military dictatorship. A coup is not “reform”. Dictatorship is not “Democracy”. Even today the military cannot even be honest about these basic facts. They cannot be trusted. Democracy has taken a serious step backwards. But Thai democracy, like democracy anywhere, is and always will be built from below by the social movements. That is why us true supporters of democracy must stand together and demand that the military leave politics and that the 1997 Constitution be immediately restored, along with all democratic rights. The military has no right to stage a coup or tear up the Constitution, just as Thaksin had no right to commit gross human rights abuses or to avoid paying tax. The military also has no right to appoint a temporary government. Such a government, if necessary, should be elected under the supervision of the old parliament, the new and old Senate and real representatives of the social movements. It should have only one important job: to organize political and social reform, involving representatives from various sectors of society, especially the majority who are farmers, blue-collar and white-collar workers.

What ever happens now, many of us in the social movements will meet to discuss the necessary reforms. We have a long term plan for a Thai Social Forum on the 21-23 October this year at Thammasart University, Rungsit. This will be an important place to talk about building democracy and social justice in Thailand and to improve upon the 1997 Constitution.