Thai Democracy, the Senate, 6th October 1976 and the South

The tragedy of Thai democracy today is that we have a prime minister and interior minister who tell bare-faced lies and an opposition, in the shape of the Democrat Party, that supported the September 2006 coup against former prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, insulted the poor and never showed an interest in the October 6, 2006 Thammasat University massacre in the past.

The tragedy is worse because the only real force in Thai society which widens and protects the democratic space, the Peoples’ Movement, is running around trying to seek favors from either the military or the Thai Rak Thai Party, renamed for convenience’s sake the PPP. The latest farce is that many leaders of the Peoples’ Movement put their names forward to be appointed senators. It is a farce because after groveling to the military, these leaders got kicked in the teeth. None were selected.

It is also a tragedy because Thailand has a long history of unelected senators. The military coup in 2006 turned the clock back by reducing the number of elected seats in the Senate. We need to move beyond the simplistic view, encouraged by anarchistic ideas, that representative democracy has failed because of money politics and that therefore we have to either rely on the military or just pretend that we don’t need to deal with the issue of political power.

I don’t want to go into detail about what Prime Minister Samak Sunderavej or Interior Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung said about the 1976 bloodbath. This is common knowledge. In the latter case I’ve heard people say that Chalerm is right to talk about a “drunken policeman letting off his gun,” but he seems confused by history. The incident actually took place recently in a pub and a policeman died at the hands of someone’s son. (Eds: Wan Yoobamrung, Chalerm’s son, was a co-defendant in the execution-style murder of a policeman in a Bangkok pub in 2001. He was acquitted after a three-year trial but was barred for two years from entering any Bangkok drinking establishments.)

However, the issue which has received far too little publicity is Samak’s statement to Al-Jazeera TV that the 78 people who were assaulted an asphyxiated in army custody in Takbai in Southern Thailand in 2004 “just fell over because they were weak from fasting… no one intended to kill them… what is wrong with that?”

This disgraceful statement indicates the total lack of commitment by this government to human rights. It raises serious concerns as to the revival of the War on Drugs by Minister Chalerm, in which an estimated 2,500 persons were killed in a three-month crackdown. Will the guns of thousands of drunken police and army officials “just go off by accident,” killing another 3,000 innocent people?

Samak’s statement on Takbai and the 6th of October are linked. The fact that no government official has ever been punished for these state crimes means that they will continue.

Then-Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun was a key person in pardoning the military over the 1992 massacre when the government of then-Prime Minister Suchinda Khraprayun went after protesters and killed scores. Former Prime Minister Surayut Chulanont was an army commander responsible for some of that brutality. But he was painted as a “good man.”

Put bluntly, Thailand has a culture of accepting state crimes and accepting the lies about such crimes. Compare the lies by then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra about Takbai with the lies about 6th October. They are the same… foreigners involved, massing of arms, the necessity of the security forces to act in the interests of peace etc…Compare the way prisoners are captured, stripped, tied up and abused. The cycle is repeated over and over again.

Where is the outrage from the Democrat Party, the junta supporters and the media over all these issues? Where was the outrage by the Democrats about the junta’s media and book censorship? The Democrats led Thai governments on three occasions since the 6th October incident and have never initiated any investigation of events.

In fact there is no big secret about what happened. In 2001, I was part of a fact-finding committee set up by non-government organisations, to investigate the 6th October slaughter. We published a detailed report. It is quite clear that all the major sections of the Thai ruling class at the time were of the opinion that the left-wing student movement had to be destroyed with violence. This was after all, one year after the Communist victories in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia that drove out the United States.

When I say “all” sections of the ruling class, I mean the palace, the army, the political parties, especially Chart Thai, and the business community. The students were attacked by the Border Patrol Police. Who gave the orders? We don’t know.

Look at the scandal surrounding the BPP today. Samak’s role as a young right-wing politician was to encourage the mob to attack the students and then to justify the events afterwards.

When I have tried to speak the truth about this I have faced censorship. Back in 2001, the Bangkok Post cut a section of my article which referred to the Palace and then tried to sue me when I complained. Recently, I was invited by ex-senator Chermsak Pinthong to appear on a live TV program about the 6th October incident on Sondhi Limtongkul’s ASTV channel. When I mentioned the role of all sectors of the ruling class, including the palace, Chermsak immediately received a phone call on his mobile from the owner Sondhi. This is the same Sondhi who was part of the Peoples Alliance for Democracy which complained that Thaksin had censored the media.

I was not born yesterday and I know that the state and the business class control the media, but I never thought I would be lucky enough to see this kind of thing with my very own eyes.

One reason why some sections of the People’s Movement accepted the military constitution was that they believed that a half-appointed senate would allow their representatives to be appointed. Many of these same people refused to join the pro-democracy demonstration at the end of the Thai Social Forum in October 2006. I remember attending the NGO-Coordinating Committee’s discussion about the new constitution. The invited speaker from the junta’s side said that this would be the “first time” that we could have NGO people as senators. He obviously “forgot” that NGO senators had previously won elections to the Senate, one was chairperson of an NGO at the time!!

Will the lessons be learned about the need to build an independent political movement of farmers and workers? Rosana Tositrakul, one of the leaders of anti-Thai Rak Thai, is standing for election to the senate in Bangkok on 2nd March and I shall vote for her. But unfortunately she has made no serious attempt to reach out to the various movements to gain support and build a dialogue about what kind of general politics we need in the movement. It is almost as if she was standing just as an individual.

We do not have the luxury of carrying on in the same old manner. The Peoples’ Movement was poisoned by the leadership of the People’s Alliance for Democracy, which dragged too many people into supporting the “yellow-ribbon” coup that brought in the military and threw out Thaksin. The opposition in parliament is hardly serious or principled about social justice and human rights. Meanwhile the killings in the South continue and the vast differences between rich and poor remain.

The lesson from the 6 October tragedy is that the Thai state must be taken to task over the south. We need the military to be withdrawn so that a political solution can be established. We also need to campaign for a welfare state, funded by progressive taxation of all the rich.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn is an associate professor with the Political Science Faculty of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok