Agam's Gecko
Thursday, September 28, 2006

thought it would be useful for readers to have the opportunity to read an alternative academic view of the events of last week, given that the international media has given so much airtime and column inches lately to the outspoken political science lecturer Giles Ungpakorn. Giles, a few other academics and some of their students defied the military council's decree against political meetings last Friday, holding a small protest for the media which passed uneventfully.

Giles is the youngest son of the late Dr. Puey Ungpakorn, a very highly respected figure in recent Thai history who was a founder of Seri Thai ("Free Thai Movement", the WW II resistance against the Japanese), and later Governor of the Bank of Thailand as well as Rector of Thammasat University during the turbulent 1970's.

Giles Ungpakorn, usually described by BBC et al as a social activist, is also an advocate of revolutionary class struggle to overthrow the capitalist system, and a leading member of the radical-socialist Workers Democracy Party here (which is part of International Socialist Tendency). Not that there's anything wrong with that of course, but he's very far from the centre of gravity of the Thai people, and even from those who would identify as "progressives." Don't let anyone tell you that Communism is banned in Thailand these days, but also don't let them tell you that Trotskyism is mainstream in any way.

But before we get to today's letter to the editor, a brief sketch of latest happenings.

In the pre-dawn hours yesterday, a coordinated arson attack against schools in the northern province Kamphaeng Phet resulted in three schools burned to the ground, while rainy conditions foiled the attempt at three others. Torching schools had been a favoured tactic of the southern insurgent groups for many years (particularly in the early 90's), but this is a first for northern provinces. Suspicions that it was done by "those who have lost influence" are rife, but the military council (now to be known in English as "Council for Democratic Reform" - the word "Monarchy" in the earlier name was causing misunderstanding by foreign media - its Thai name is unchanged) stressed that fingers shouldn't be pointed without evidence, and police investigations are continuing.

Further attacks in the southern provinces Yala and Pattani took at least four lives yesterday, and this morning a "teacher protection unit" of the army's 39th Task Force was hit by an IED in Narathiwat province, severely injuring five soldiers. No respite for the deep south, after a drop in violent attacks following the coup. An interim Prime Minister is expected to be presented for His Majesty's assent this weekend, after which Gen. Sonthi could turn his attention to implementing his strategy for peace in the south.

Our old friend, Don Muang international airport, ended its operational life around 3am this morning with departure of a Thai Airways flight to Shanghai. Our gleaming new friend, Suvarnabhumi ("soo-wanna-poom") received its first international arrivals around 7am, but there were some glitches. Ground handling and other equipment said to number around 1.8 million pieces had to be moved from Don Muang to Suvarnabhumi overnight, an absolutely massive operation. The procedure took longer than expected, resulting in long delays for the first arrivals getting their baggage. A computer system crash prior to the first flights made for some outbound delays.

Suvarnabhumi is the world's largest air terminal under a single roof (138 acres), housing both international and domestic services, and has the world's highest control tower. I'm looking forward to my next flight (for a change). The Nation has put up a special section with lots of info on Suvarnabhumi (the name conferred on it by His Majesty last year, which means "Golden Land" in a rather poetic style).

The Nation also has a new special section on the fall of Thaksin that readers may find interesting, including background history and timeline, current developments, etc.

And now for another academic perspective of the coup, as published a few days ago in the letters page of the Bangkok Post. I found it a very articulate description of the situation, and reproduce it here in full. The writer is a noted economist at Thammasat University.
Thailand had been deeply divided for almost a year, with many parts of civil society - academics, journalists, health professionals, universities - repeatedly calling upon PM Thaksin to step down, so that allegations of wrongdoing could be properly investigated. He used every means to stifle these legitimate attempts, including dissolution of Parliament.

In my opinion, the troubles leading up to the coup are actually a sign of greater political maturity among the Thai people. More people are thinking about social issues, about civil society, and making huge sacrifices for what they believe is right. We are willing to accept some discomfort and bear some cost, to show that rampant corruption and conflicts of interest in the Thaksin government will not be tolerated.

It is sad to see foreign governments and journalists reacting to the coup in Thailand in a negative, albeit, predictable way. Words like chaos and turmoil are bandied about as if they had a standard set of phrases in their pockets. It almost seems that form is more important than substance, or that political correctness requires them to regurgitate the same rehearsed phrases.

Fortunately, people on the streets give a different testimonial, like Australian John Newman who runs Big John's Backpacker Hostel in Bangkok, who says: "People have been a little bit curious. It doesn't seem to be stopping anything at the moment. People have been out in bars drinking and taxis have been driving around. Everything is pretty much as normal."

Foreign journalists seem to equate the current situation with previous coups in Thailand. They say that coups should be a thing of the past and, of course, we Thais agree. But the current circumstances are unique. We understand that foreign investment could be jeopardised, but this is the least of our concerns. This coup is generically quite different from those in the past. It is not a self-serving power struggle. This coup should not be seen as an act of barbarism. It is intended to bring morality, rectitude, integrity and common decency back into Thai society.

The democratic checks and balances had broken down because of money politics on a scale hitherto unknown. So-called independent agencies had been compromised. The legislative process had been hijacked and the judicial process crippled. At no other time in Thailand's history had laws been made and amended to serve personal interests so blatantly. I am certain that the coup leaders felt that this really was the last resort, and that all other avenues for correcting the system had been blocked.

Democracy is not the mere casting of votes; it requires an institutional infrastructure that serves as checks and balances. For months people had strained to abide by the rule of law, it was painful. People from all walks of life had held peaceful demonstration after demonstration, presented huge amounts of evidence, and demanded explanations that had not been forthcoming. Thaksin dissolved Parliament just when the opposition won a by-election and had enough seats to initiate a censure motion against him.

He says that the people should decide. But there are very specific allegations of wrongdoing. Right and wrong cannot be decided by popularity. There must be due process, which has been repeatedly denied the people. It is precisely the belief in the rule of law that has motivated this coup, or at least support for it.

This coup is not like previous coups. It is Thailand's way of sacking a prime minister who has overstepped his mandate.


Faculty of Economics, Thammasat University


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