Special interview: Giles Ungpakorn, part 1

In the past few days New Mandala had an opportunity to interview Associate Professor Giles Ji Ungpakorn.  Almost all readers will already be aware that he recently fled Thailand after being charged with lese majeste for his 2007 book, A Coup for the Rich:Thailand’s Political Crisis.  He is currently living in the United Kingdom.

This special New Mandala interview will be published in two parts.  The first part highlights his banned book on the 2006 coup, lese majeste and the role of the king in Thai society.  In the longer second part, which is published here, Giles talks about Thaksin, the red-shirt movement and the People’s Alliance for Democracy, alongside some more personal reflections on academic work and his own family history.

Book, Manifesto, Lese Majeste

New Mandala: What motivated you to write A Coup for the Rich Most Thai academics would never have taken on a project of this sort. Why did you?”

Professor Giles Ungpakorn: I wrote the book because, in September 2006, the military staged the coup, destroying Thai democracy. It was a shock to a lot of people because we believed that Thai democracy had developed, and that we would not be going back to the bad old days. One of the problems was that the military claimed their legitimacy from the palace. Their soldiers had the yellow ribbon; they claimed that they were doing it for the King. A lot of the media in Thailand was very pro-coup, and so were a lot of academics. Therefore, I thought it was necessary to look at the other side of the story, and to argue that the Thaksin government could have been removed through democratic means, through campaigning within the democratic system and within the constitution. That’s primarily what motivated me to write the book.

New Mandala: When you wrote the book did you expect that somehow, somewhere it would land you in trouble with the lese majeste law?

Professor Giles Ungpakorn: No, I did not. Because I was writing a description of what happened, and because I was raising genuine question about the whole roles of institutions in Thailand; the issue of democracy and the role of a constitutional monarchy. Moreover, I was quite careful in writing. I think this charge against me really has nothing to do with insulting the monarchy, because lese majeste is now being used to silence critics of the military and the Democrat Party government.

New Mandala: What motivated you to write the Red Manifesto?  What impact did you expect from it?

Professor Giles Ungpakorn: Well, when I returned to Thailand after spending Christmas with my son in Oxford, and found the summons from the police and the charge of lese majeste, I felt that it was an injustice. It was a destruction of academic freedom and freedom of speech. I decided to start a political campaign for freedom of speech and democracy, and this involved contacting people both inside and outside Thailand.

In terms of the people inside Thailand, the most receptive groups to the need to campaign for democracy were the small group of people who have opposed the coup from the beginning, and a large number of people who regard themselves as Red Shirts, especially self-organised groups of Red Shirts. I thought the campaign is also a petition to defend all the people who had been accused of lese majeste, not just myself. We got a fantastic response, and I was able to attend the Red Shirts’ rally at Sanam Luang. Jakkapob Penkair invited me onto the stage where I was able to address 30,000 people. Two or three days later, I was invited to Ubon Rajathani University, where 500 people came to listen to my speech. So, as the time progressed, I realised from talking to a number of people, including my lawyer, who suggested me that it was unlikely for me to get a fair trial. And that it was necessary for me to leave the country. But I was not going to leave the country with my tail between my legs, I was not going to run away. Once, I left the country, I decided to fight back without any restriction. I wrote the notes of the Manifesto on the airplane I flew from Bangkok to London.

I was able to connect with all the people I have got to know in those few days. I felt that really it was necessary for someone to say those things because it was in the mind of thousands of people in Thailand but nobody has said it. The reception has been tremendous; people have been really excited by the Manifesto, and they have been very supportive. Of course, the other side has been very angry, but that is what I expected. People have been sending this Manifesto on and so on. What is interesting is that this Manifesto, in a Western European context, is not very progressive. It is normal. In a Thai context, however, it is explosive. I think that indicates the difference between the amount of democracy in Thailand and the amount of democracy in Britain or Western Europe.

New Mandala: The stance you put in the Manifesto was one that is an explicit critique of the King. Do you think that will become an obstacle in your campaign against the lese majeste law in Thailand?

I do not think it is an obstacle because I think the whole situation in Thailand has reached what I would describe as a civil war. It might not be a violent civil war, but it is a civil war of ideas between two sections of society. And the Red Shirts section is rapidly becoming republican. So, really, people want to move beyond just fighting Lese Majeste, and talk about political reform. I think people are ready for that. Moreover, my Manifesto is not necessarily just a critique of the King, it is a critique of how the monarchy system is used in Thailand. This is because I do not believe the King planned the Coup. I don’t believe that the King is necessarily even the most powerful person in Thailand. I think that the military, and those that surround themselves and legitimise what they’re doing by claiming royal patronage, are those who really have power in Thailand. It (the Manifesto) is more of a critique of them and their use of the monarchy.

New Mandala: So, do you think anyone in Thailand can have control over the monarchy?

Professor Giles Ungpakorn: I am not sure what you mean by controlling the monarchy. I see the military and the conservative elites in Thailand as being around the monarchy, using the legitimacy of the monarchy for their own interests. And the monarchy is happy to be in that situation as well. But the monarchy is not necessarily the one who plans things, and is also not necessarily the most powerful part of that group.

The King

New Mandala: Has your view on the Thai monarchy changed over time?  What was your view on the Thai monarchy before the 19 September coup in comparison to your current view?

Professor Giles Ungpakorn: When I went back to Thailand to work in 1996-7, I was someone who did not really agree with the monarchy system, I did not really agree with having the Queen in Britain. But I was more indifferent to it, and would tolerate it. It (the monarchy at that time) did not really bother me. But, what really started to bother me was the increased promotion of the King in such wild and over the top ways; for example, the promotion that all people have to wear yellow shirts. Since this was done during the Thaksin government, I personally believe that Thaksin is also the royalist. But I think that the last straw for me was the coup d’état.

New Mandala: If you could have an audience with King Bhumibol, one on one, what would you want to tell him?

Professor Giles Ungpakorn: <laughs> I’m not sure it would be that useful or that we would have a useful dialogue. But let me answer it like this. I think that if Thailand has to have a monarchy, it has to be a proper constitutional monarchy that doesn’t interfere in politics or a monarchy that isn’t brought into politics by other people. The military should not intervene in Thai politics and it shouldn’t intervene by claiming legitimacy from the King. I think that the King is now in such a position that he could, for example, make statement about the injustice that occurred when three people were executed because the death of his brother. He could do that without looking bad for him. It would actually look better for him. He could come out and defend democracy. But I think it’s really too late to change his mind about these things.

New Mandala: Do you think the monarchy is now feeling insecure about the situation so that they moved in support of the yellow shirt, and reached the point that democracy and monarchy cannot get along like in the past?

Professor Giles Ungpakorn: Yes, I think there’s a lot of insecurity. I think that the monarchy must be feeling insecure. Even more important, I think that the military and those that have in the past enjoyed undemocratic power but claimed legitimacy from the monarchy are really very, very scared that when this King dies, their legitimacy will evaporate because they are not going to be able to claim the same legitimacy from the Crown Prince. Now, it is beyond my understanding why they have chosen this path of not only promoting the King which will then result in such a difference when the Crown Prince comes out… and of using lese majeste in this way. And bringing the monarchy into politics because if I was a royalist, I would do all in my power to make the monarchy like the British monarchy because that would to be the only way you could ensure it lasted. But they seem to be doing the exact opposite and I do not understand this. And, perhaps, it’s a sign of complete disintegration in the old order.