Socialist Worker

Giles Ji Ungpakorn: Defend this key Thai socialist

Issue No. 2137

Sometimes the really important social conflicts between exploiter and exploited find expression by distorted means, via conflicts among the exploiters themselves.

Take the case of Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a well-known Thai socialist who teaches political science at Chulalongkorn University. Giles is currently being prosecuted for lèse majesté – that is, with insulting King Bhumibol of Thailand.

Lèse majesté in most places is an antique curiosity that harks back to the days when kings were regarded as anointed by god and has now fallen into disuse. Not so in Thailand.

The reason for this lies in the prolonged political crisis that has gripped Thailand in recent years. The immediate focus of this crisis is provided by Thaksin Shinawatra, prime minister between 2001 and 2005.

Thaksin is no radical. He is hugely rich thanks to his mobile phone business, and briefly owned Manchester City football club.

He was accused of corruption and election fraud and he certainly presided over vicious repression in the three southern provinces where the population is mainly Muslim.

But Thaksin’s political base comes from the poor. In office, he introduced a universal health service and diverted massive amounts of state money into rural development programmes. This antagonised the political establishment and the affluent elites of Bangkok, the capital city.


The resulting split in the ruling class has become increasingly destructive. In September 2006 the army seized power while Thaksin was out of the country.

The regime installed by the military rewrote the constitution and ordered the dissolution of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party. But the party’s successor won the first elections held under the new constitution.

This led to the re-emergence of one of the most bizarre contemporary political phenomena, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). They are also known as the “yellow shirts” (yellow is the colour of the Thai monarchy).

The PAD is essentially a reactionary, royalist, and anti-democratic movement. It supported the 2006 coup and demands that only 30 percent of the Thai parliament should be elected by popular vote.

The PAD’s greatest success to date has been to drive from office the government dominated by the People’s Power Party (PPP), which was led by Thaksin’s supporters.

This involved blockading the prime minister’s offices, the parliament, and finally the main airports with the complicity of the army and police.

The PPP was dissolved by court order last December. This judicial coup allowed Abhisit Vejjajiva, an old Etonian right winger, to take office with the PAD’s support.

This isn’t a conflict where there are any heroes. It is a struggle between factions of Thailand’s rich. But it is plain that the army and the PAD represent the greater threat to democracy, and to the interests of ordinary working people and the poor.

Giles’s crime is that he has consistently pointed this fact out and also exposed the way in which the most reactionary forces in Thai society have hidden behind the monarchy. One of the passages from his book, A Coup for the Rich, for which he has been charged, declares:

“The major forces behind the 19th September [2006] coup were anti-democratic groups in the military and civilian elite, disgruntled

business leaders and neoliberal intellectuals and politicians. The coup

was also supported by the monarchy.”

Lèse majesté is being used by these forces as a weapon against their opponents. It already carries a maximum sentence of 15 years. Abbhisit’s “Democrat” Party wants to further toughen the lèse majesté law. Shamefully, Amnesty International is reluctant to take up the issue.

Thailand’s reactionaries want to silence Giles. It is vital that the broadest possible international campaign is built to defend him. Already a protest letter has been published in the Guardian, but much more needs to be done.

Go to Giles Ji Ungpakorn’s blog » for more information

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Article information

Alex Callinicos
Tue 3 Feb 2009, 18:26 GMT
Issue No. 2137
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