Sunday, October 17, 2010

Giles Ji Ungpakorn - Thailand's Crisis and the Fight for Democracy

The violent street demonstrations that took place in Thailand earlier this year didn't get the coverage in the Western media that they deserved. Partly this is a typical lack of interest from the mainstream for the struggles of ordinary people. It is also, perhaps, because broadcasters considered the internal politics of this country were maybe considered too complex for audiences here to comprehend.

But the truth of the matter is that once again state repression in Thailand led the the massacre of ordinary people who were trying to fight for democracy. Giles Ji Ungpakorn himself is a victim of this - living in exile in the UK because he was deemed to have insulted the King of Thailand - the crime of Lèse majesté.

In this context, Ungpakorn's book is tremendously useful. He gives us a excellent understanding to the ongoing crisis in Thailand and argues for a way forward for the movements struggling for change. Ungpakorn doesn't hide his politics. He is a revolutionary socialist, and a Red Shirt. This is important, because some on the left have argued that the street battles within Thailand have been simply about movements mobilised by representatives of two different sides of the capitalist class. The Red Shirts, in this simplistic analysis, represent followers of the former billionaire Prime Minster Thaksin Shinawatra who was overthrown in a coup by the military. The Yellow Shirts, represent the supporters of the new regime.

Ungpakorn argues this analysis is simplistic. Thaksin was able to mobilise large numbers of the urban and rural poor, because his method of government was to invest in projects that directly improved the lives of the poorest. Not that Thaksin is a socialist. The strength of Ungpakorn's analysis is to argue that Thaksin is no friend of the poor - he is a rich man, intent on making himself wealthier. But his economic plan was too much for much of the rest of the rich and powerful in Thailand who hate the idea of any wealth being redirected to the lower orders.

For the author then, the Red Shirts aren't a movement that is simply about restoring a different capitalist back to power, even though many of them may have started this way. This is a movement that is increasingly consciously fighting for democracy, because it is against the military. It is a movement that is self organised - with networks of radio stations and websites and a movement that has faced the most brutal of repression. The Yellow Shirts are for Ungpakorn a fascist movement, intent on breaking the struggle for democracy. Operating almost as a wing of the military, their gangs are about intimidating and smashing opposition on the streets.

Ungpakorn doesn't avoid criticising the Red Shirts either. Despite a significant working class in Thailand, they have failed to really mobilise amongst workers and the weak Thai trade movement. The Red Shirts haven't for instance, opened up their struggle against wider oppressions in Thai society - occasionally using anti-gay slogans in some cities. But this isn't unsurprising in a country were the left is almost non-existent, and what left organisations there are, have been influenced by politics of Maoism, which distorted the ideas of Marxism in favour of armed struggle from the jungle.

One of the most surprising things for me, was the way that the NGOs of Thailand have sided with the new military junta. Ungpakorn describes them as GNGOs. Governmental Non-Governmental Organisations, the pun is the point - they receive large amounts of funding from the regime and thus remain uncritical. They also have failed the test of any progressive - how do you relate to mass movements of self organised people struggling for democracy.

Ungpakorn argues that the struggle must continue. He finishes his book with a platform for further struggle - calling for the Red Shirt movement to develop, expand and get rid of the "dinosaurs of Thai society, the Yellow Shirted Royalists". As a revolutionary socialist, Ungpakorn sees the struggle for democracy as part of the struggle for socialism. There is a short term goal and a longer term struggle as well. But socialists cannot abstain from the struggles in the here and now, we must be part of those movements to strengthen the larger battle.

It seems to me, that there are echoes in Thai society today with the arguments and debates that took place amongst revolutionary socialists in Russia in the early 20th Century - the concepts of Permanent Revolution developed by Trotsky and then adopted by Lenin for instance. There is no doubt though, that the contradiction of Thai society - a extremely wealthy King, backed by the greediest of businessmen and military leaders, surrounded by a mass of the poorest peasants, workers and unemployed - is one that has always proved unstable. The future battles will deserve the solidarity of workers around the globe, Ungpakorn's book is essential reading to understand what is happening, and a true weapon for those taking part in the struggle.

Related Reading

Giles Ji Ungpakorn's 'blog with writings on the situation in Thailand is here (English) and here (Thai).

Ungpakorn wrote a number of articles during the most recent crisis in Thailand for the international left press, this article is a useful starting point. His "Red Siam" manifesto can be read here.

You can purchase Ungpakorn's book here.

No comments: