Interview with Giles Ungpakorn: politics, coups, elections and the left
Outspoken anti-coup leftist academic Giles Ungpakorn is back from the UK. Did he meet Thaksin? He shared with Prachatai information about his visit, and opinions about Thailand's politics and people's movements.
Why did you go to the UK? To see Thaksin?
Some people said jokingly that I went to ask for money from Thaksin. But we were in different places; I went to Oxford. Besides Thaksin and I hate each other. I went to England to spend time with my 8-year-old son who just changed his school from Sathit Chula to a public school in Oxford. And I had to work as I was on academic leave. I've been writing a Thai textbook on politics in Southeast Asia, and improving my teaching by preparing PowerPoint presentations.
Did you meet with British academics, talking about Thai politics? How do they perceive Thailand now?
No. I worked at home. And during that time, everybody including me was interested in the situation in Burma.
Could you give your analysis on the root cause of the Sept 19 coup? Was it a conflict between new capital and the Sakdina (feudal system), and why?
It's a class conflict in many ways. Thaksin and his cronies competed with the military, other groups of capitalists, and conservative bureaucrats to govern and exploit us.
Thaksin had his gimmicks, which were populist policies that really benefited poor people, to build up a power base, to calm society, and to adjust the efficiency of the Thai economy after the 1997 crisis. His government suppressed the mafia associated with the military, and modernized the bureaucracy, and that upset the military and old-fashioned bureaucrats. The middle class, businessmen, and capitalists at first were impressed, but later became sick of him. And some capitalists had conflicts with Thaksin when they didn't get a share of the pie. Eventually, there were protests to oust Thaksin. The regressive civil sector, including the People's Alliance for Democracy, joined hands with royalist capitalists to usher in the coup d'état.
The Thai Sakdina has long disappeared since King Rama V's day, both in terms of politics and the economy. They have transformed into a modern Head of State and capitalists, with the artificial image of long-standing respectability. As a matter of fact, after Oct 14, 1973 capitalists and capitalist-cum politicians have continued the task of promoting the monarchy from where Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat had left off.
Therefore, the capitalists, including Thaksin, do not have conflicts with the monarchy, but have conflicts with the conservatives who claim the monarchy to legitimize themselves. This is exactly the reason why the lèse majesté law must be scrapped, as it has been exploited by political groups to destroy their enemies. Capitalist and feudalists worldwide have long compromised since 1848. And the old Thai Sakdina modernized the country during the colonial period.
Was the coup just a power play among elite groups?
Not just that, because the lower class were inseparably involved in two ways. Firstly, the military would not have dared to stage the coup, unless the people in PAD didn't invite them in. And secondly, the junta and its allies including the Democrat Party cannot rival Thaksin through democratic means, as most of the lower class chose to support Thai Rak Thai's policies.
So the coup was a deliberate means to exclude the rights and options of the grassroots people. When it comes to this class issue, some just have a crude idea of poor people's struggle with the ruling class. But it's much more complicated than that. In the case of Thai Rak Thai, the class struggle was subverted to support the party of capitalists. That's mainly because there has yet to be a people's parties to provide alternatives and vie with Thai Rak Thai.
How did the coup affect the poor?
Democracy is more than just electing MPs. It is about the rights to hold demonstrations, set up labour unions, form farmers' movements, go on strike, and freedom to criticize the ruling class. Every coup goes against the interests of the poor.
However, it was more clearly seen with the Sept 19 coup. Proponents of market liberalism who object to welfare for the poor took power. Under the disguise of the sufficiency economy, they are in the process of taking the universities out of the bureaucracy, signing FTAs, and privatizing state enterprises, as well as imposing compulsory licensing which is good, but done out of public budget concerns rather than as a good faith measure to provide people with cheaper medicine.
The sufficiency economy is not an economic policy because it lacks substance. It's more of a political cult. Some call it a philosophy, but it's a credo propagated by the conservative rulers to accompany the ‘Nation, Religion, and Monarchy' slogan, and to oppose state welfare in the form of populism and a welfare state.
What do you foresee after the general election?
The old politics will be back, with politicians having no policies to offer to the people. I never believed that Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai built up a patronage system out of the populist policies. I think the people chose them because the policies benefited them.
But after the coup no parties offer policies. The Peoples Power Party is also awful because its leader has been an enemy of the poor. The Democrat Party only supports the elite as usual, not caring for the poor. No need to mention the rest. It's like a circus. Politics is back to a trade-off of power and the patronage system. This is the work of the junta which has been supported by liberal academics who condemn the poor as stupid.
Suppose Thaksin's Peoples Power Party returns as a single-party government, is there a possibility of revenge taken against those who staged the coup? Or will they just compromise?
It's difficult to predict the future. But, considering the actors and their records, they are likely to compromise. If more coups are to be prevented for good, it needs an independent people's sector, not the elite.
Some mainstream political parties are starting to sell the idea of a welfare state. Are they new choices for Thai people?
Not yet, because the idea has been addressed only vaguely, and distorted. The main point of a welfare state is a highly progressive tax scheme for the rich including income taxes, share and capital tax, asset taxes, inheritance taxes, and land taxes, and all the rich must be taxed without exception. Money from these taxes will be the budget for a thorough going welfare state in which everybody is eligible with no need to prove poverty, and with birth to death coverage. The parties claiming to be interested in a welfare state such as the Thai Social Democrat Party do not say anything like this.
What do you think about the attitude that rejects politicians and political parties as held by some people in the people's sector? Is this kind of attitude of turning one's back on the state is a paradoxical ally to the ruling elite?
Yes, but they don't mean to. The problem is that this kind of anarchic attitude makes the people's sector lack political representation, and weak. During the five-year reign of Thai Rak Thai, it could seize the mass base from the people's sector. After the coup, it has been like there're only two choices: Thai Rak Thai or the junta. In fact, there is another more important choice, which is the independent people's sector. But if we do not build it, it will never happen.
Your group has also set up a party called Peoples Coalition Party, but why hasn't it been registered to contest elections yet? Is it also a kind of rejection of the state?
No, it's not. And this party is not mine; it belongs to the members. I'm not even an executive member. Our party is still small, so it needs to have wider membership in order to have a real capacity to contest general elections. To find a shortcut to contest before we are ready would only mean having to make a deal with the capitalists or wretched politicians. That we would not do. So those who want to help build the party can come join us now, and read our newspaper Turn Left.
Is there any possibility for a revival of socialism in Thailand?
Sure. When I returned to Thailand ten years ago, few people paid attention to socialism. Now young people are interested, and the older generations are renewing their interest. There's a lot of interest in the welfare state. Problems of the Communist Party of Thailand or China are being explored. And the movements to build a new world are gaining momentum both in Thailand and abroad.
Your group has been criticized for employing the language and thinking of Leninist Marxism, using anti-parliament rhetoric, but promoting the welfare state in the style of social democrats. What do you think?
I'm a Marxist, and so are many friends in the party. We don't deny it. We're reviving the classic Marxism that focuses on freedoms, unlike the CPT. Many other party members may not be Marxists.
From a Marxist point of view, the struggles for everyday life, or the ‘edible Democracy', are of the utmost importance, and instrumental in long-term social change. Rosa Luxemburg explained this long ago. Strictly speaking, what kind of leftists would not go for a welfare state?
Challenges to the new development of a movement of the left, apart from strong nationalism, include criticisms from the old leftists and dogmatic academics who brand the new generation of being naïve, or not grasping the theory. What's your opinion?
When dogs on the street bark, I don't bark back. In the real world, there are so many things that need to be done. In the people's sector, we respect diversity of opinion. We can argue with one another. But when there are concrete things to do, we have to join hands without bias such as opposing dictatorship and the internal security bill, the policy of university autonomy, privatization, FTAs, as well as promoting gender rights and peace in the south. There's so much to do.