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Women and Students Are Leading Thailand’s Fight for Democracy

Protesters stamp their feet on posters with Junta government leaders and the government-sided politicians during a demonstration in Bangkok, Thailand.
Protesters stamp their feet on posters of junta government leaders and government-sided politicians during a demonstration in Bangkok, Thailand.

BYAshley SmithTruthout

Amass movement for democracy has swept Thailand since July. Led by a new generation of students and workers, protests have taken place throughout the country. They are fighting for a profound transformation of Thai society. Thai socialist Giles Ji Ungpakorn is a former associate professor of politics at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok. He was forced into exile in Britain, after being charged with lèse-majesté (insulting the monarchy) in late 2008 because of his book, A Coup For the Rich, which criticized the 2006 military coup. In this interview, Ungpakorn discusses the uprising and how activists across the world can build solidarity with the Thai struggle.

Ashley Smith: Thailand is in the midst of a massive uprising against the government, military and monarchy. What are the underlying causes of these protests and what is the movement demanding?

Giles Ji Ungpakorn: The movement is led by young people, mostly students in secondary school and university. But it has attracted older ordinary working people; they’ve joined in very large numbers. Some of the demonstrations in Bangkok have been over 100,000 people.

The movement has raised three central demands. The first one is the resignation of the prime minister, Prayut Chan-o-cha. He is a former military general that seized power in 2014 in a military coup. He came to power through fixed elections last year.

The second demand is the complete re-writing of the constitution. It was drafted by the military and is not a democratic constitution. The third demand is the reform of the monarchy, specifically stripping it of new powers it was granted in the new constitution.

What is striking in these protests is the courage of young people, especially young women. They don’t carry the baggage of people who protested 10 or 20 years ago and were crushed, some of them brutally shot down in the streets by the military. The young people are fearless and determined to fight to democratize Thailand.

They are particularly angry about the behavior of King Vajiralongkorn. He spends all his time in Germany with his harem. He treats women in an appalling fashion. And even though he is the richest man in Thailand, his greed drives him to try to accumulate even more wealth.

What role has the pandemic and economic crisis played in driving wider layers of people to join the protests?

The pandemic mainly affected the economy. The actual number of cases and deaths is quite low. But the economy has been dramatically impacted because Thailand is so dependent on the world economy for export, services and tourism. All of these have been severely impacted by the global recession.

That’s why young people are worried about their futures. They don’t see much hope for getting good jobs, and it’s one of the reasons why they show no fear in the demonstrations. They don’t see what they have to lose.

The older generation actually share the frustrations and anger that the young people have. Millions of Thai people are very unhappy about what’s happening in the country.

They hate their economic conditions and despise the military’s domination of politics, fixing election after election. That’s why the parties that oppose the military actually won the largest number of the votes in last year’s election. That’s why the military had to fix it to ensure Prayut Chan-o-cha won.

This anger and resistance among young people, of course, is not something unique to Thailand. It is a global phenomenon. In the U.S. presidential election, it was young people who voted against Donald Trump. It’s young people who are organizing the Black Lives Matter protests. It’s young people who are rising up in Hong Kong, Chile and Nigeria. It’s young people who are organizing the global climate strike.

What is the nature of the Thai state and ruling class that the movement is fighting? How has the government, military, monarchy and their right-wing supporters responded to the uprising?

At the center of the Thai ruling class is the military. It has played a central role in the country’s politics since the 1930s. They have been supported by the middle class, especially since the protests in 2005 and 2006 against then-elected prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.

On the basis of that support, they overthrew Thaksin Shinawatra. But the military is not all powerful. There have been at least two successful mass uprisings against military governments, one in the 1970s and another in the 1990s.

Another important part of the Thai ruling class is the capitalists just like in every other country. They have large conglomerates that dominate the economy like the Charoen Pokphand (CP) Group as well as business moguls like Shinawatra.

Finally, there is the monarchy. Most of the activists believe that King Vajiralongkorn wants to bring back an absolute monarchy. They see him as all powerful.

This is a complete myth. Like his father, King Bhumibol, Vajiralongkorn is only on the throne because the military wants him to be there. The military in fact holds all the power. They use the monarchy in order to justify everything and strike fear into people’s minds.

The monarchy, like those in Europe and elsewhere, is a symbol the ruling class relies on to justify social inequalities as the “natural order” of things. It ratifies myths like there are people who are born to rule and others who are born to be ruled.

The monarchy itself doesn’t have any power. The current king spends most of his time in Germany living like a playboy and plays almost no role in decision making. Contrast this with actual dictators; they rarely leave their countries because they fear they’ll be overthrown when they’re abroad.

Then there is the character of this particular king. He’s proved himself completely incapable of ruling anything. Britain’s Channel 4 TV recently managed to corner him for an interview. They asked him some questions about the protests. His response was quite typical. He couldn’t string a sentence together. The idea that this man could somehow wield power is quite ludicrous. The monarchy is a powerful symbol that is controlled by the iron fist of the military.

This is important for the movement to grasp so that activists know what must be done to bring about democracy. We have to overthrow the military.

The movement is a direct threat to this Thai ruling class and its institutions. They have responded to the movement by threatening the protesters, enacting emergency laws and banning demonstrations. But young people simply ignored all of this and continued the struggle.

The regime then deployed the police to attack the protests. They used water cannons that shot water laced with chemical irritants onto the crowds in the hopes of driving them off the streets. But that only made people angrier.

At the moment, the ruling class and military seem to be waiting and hoping for movement to burn itself out. This is a real danger. If movements don’t go forward, they tend to go backwards.

Some journalists and activists have said that there is a possibility of yet another military coup to stabilize the country. Is that a possibility?

I am always hesitant to say that a coup is unlikely in Thailand. In 2006, I told a class of my students that there wouldn’t be a coup. And then the next day, the military overthrew Thaksin Shinawatra’s government.

That said, because there have been so many military coups, people in Thailand are always worried about another one. But the question for the military is: What would they achieve by overthrowing the current government?

They could stage a coup or just shut down parliament and rule by decree. But they almost rule by decree anyway. A faction of the military might be tempted to overthrow the government, but I do not see any evidence of that at the moment.

In reality, the military is already in power. They rule through Prayut Chan-o-cha and his government. I think they believe that the current façade or charade of democratic rule is their best option right now.

What are the kinds of social groups and classes involved in the struggle? What have been the kind of predominant strategies and tactics of the movement? What do you think the movement needs to do to take the struggle forward and win?

As I said before, the movement is led by young people, mostly students, and especially women. The students as a group come from a cross-section of classes.

It’s important to remember that the biggest class in Thailand is the working class. The students are ordinary, working-class kids. They may be the children of white-collar workers, but they’re still working class.

Some of them may be from middle-class backgrounds. This is a new development. In the past, the middle class in Thailand has tended to support the military and monarchy.

The movement has attracted large sections of the working class. There have been trade unions involved in some of the protests, for example, on the eastern seaboard in Chon Buri and to the north of Bangkok at Rangsit and also in Saraburi.

These have been organized by labor militants, but they remain a minority in the organized labor movement. Workers turn out to protests, of course, but not as organized forces at this point.

The strategy and tactics of the movement are very interesting. Since many leaders of the movement have been arrested and now face multiple charges, they are emphasizing that everyone is a leader.

They highlight the self-organization of the movement’s rank and file. They stress that the movement is democratic and that no one is instructed from above. This is a very good thing. It’s a breath of fresh air.

There is a downside to this, though. It makes it difficult to organize and strategize, because they don’t have a collective, elected leadership able to coordinate the struggle. It’s very decentralized, with all sorts of people organizing protests in different areas.

That makes the job of the police harder, which is good. But you can’t go on organizing flash mobs, week after week, with the hope that the government will just fall. If the movement is going to overthrow the military, it must make the country ungovernable.

There are only two ways of doing that. One is rioting in the streets. That would lead to terrible bloodshed. The military would come in and shoot people down as they have done in the past.

The more preferable option is that the young people and the militant trade unionists get together and visit organized workers in factories, offices, transportation hubs, and so on, and talk to them about the possibility of strike action to shut down the economy.

Strike action is the best way to make Thailand ungovernable. We’ve seen how strikes in other countries have played a crucial role in winning reforms and fundamentally social change. Unfortunately, people have not yet adopted this strategy.

What has been the role of the left and political parties?

There isn’t an organized left in Thailand. I tried to build a small grouping of organized socialists before I was forced to leave the country. That organization fell apart under the coup regime.

Today, though, there are a growing number of individuals who regard themselves as left-wing. They need to get together and talk about forming some kind of party.

They need an organized group of people in all the different arenas of the movement to win the argument for a turn to the working class and strike action. Uncoordinated individuals cannot do that.

Has the movement in Hong Kong had any impact on the Thai movement?

There are links between the Hong Kong activists and the Thai activists. One of the things that the current movement has learned from Hong Kong and the recent history of Thai struggle is that it’s dangerous to occupy areas overnight.

The previous Red Shirt movement, which was a large pro-democracy movement that arose 10 years ago, occupied key sites in Bangkok for days. The Thai military took advantage of that tactic and massacred activists in cold blood.

Wanting to avoid that at all costs, the current movement gathers people in large numbers, people make speeches, and then the crowd disperses and goes home. That is quite sensible. But such actions must be supplemented with strikes to win.

How have regional powers as well as the U.S. and China responded to the uprising? What impact will the movement have on similar struggles in the region?

The U.S. and China have not taken a public position. The two powers are rivals and each want the Thai state in their camp. The Thai regime is exploiting this situation by currying favor with both.

There are conspiracy theories that say the U.S. is backing the demonstrations. This is nonsense. The demonstrations are self-organized by young people for their own very good reasons. They are nobody’s puppet.

The U.S. government under Trump is hardly in favor of overthrowing the Thai state. It wants stability and this will not change with the incoming Biden administration. The Chinese government also wants stability.

It successfully pressured the Thai government to ban a visit by Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong, who had planned to go and meet with Thai activists. The Chinese state doesn’t want the struggle in Hong Kong to spread out to the region then and back into Hong Kong.

The movement is very important for the region. The people in Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and other countries are closely following events in Thailand. If the protesters win, their victory would send shock waves through Southeast Asia, giving people inspiration to fight their own regimes.

What are the prospects for the movement?

We’re at a crucial moment right now. If the movement doesn’t increase the action one way or another to make Thailand ungovernable, then I fear it will end in a shoddy compromise.

What it is likely is that only one of the demands will be met, but not met in full. That will likely be the one about the military’s constitution. I think that the ruling class is prepared to amend the constitution.

That is not actually what the people want. They want the whole constitution scrapped and rewritten. The government will try and lure activists into accepting a rotten compromise on this demand and will ignore the other two — for the prime minister to resign and the monarchy to be reformed.

If the movement ends up kicking the ball into parliament and letting the parliamentarians sort it out then there will be a very shoddy compromise. Almost everyone in the current parliament would be happy with that result. But the people will not be.

What can activists outside of Thailand do to build solidarity with the Thai struggle?

One thing people can do is call for the release of all political prisoners. But, more importantly, activists throughout the world, especially in the United States, should build their own struggle to show to Thai activists that it’s possible to win.

For example, the Black Lives Matter struggle has been very inspirational to people in Thailand and throughout the world. If the Black Lives Matter activists turn toward organizing the power of the working class as they have done to some extent, they will provide a great example for activists in Thailand.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Posted in ThailandComments Off on Women and Students Are Leading Thailand’s Fight for Democracy

Administration Sued for Records Detailing U.S. Role on Behalf of Glyphosate-maker Bayer in Pressuring Thailand to Reverse Plan to Ban Pesticide

By Center For Biological Diversity

The Center for Biological Diversity sued the administration for public records detailing the U.S. government’s efforts on behalf of Bayer, the maker of the herbicide glyphosate, to convince Thailand last year to reverse its planned ban of the cancer-linked chemical.

The lawsuit comes after documents previously obtained by the Center revealed evidence that the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. trade officials worked closely with the pesticide and processed-food industries to pressure Thailand into scuttling its ban on glyphosate, which the World Health Organization’s cancer-research arm has listedas a probable carcinogen.

The lawsuit, which was filed on Wednesday, seeks additional documents that administration officials have refused to release regarding their communications with representatives of Bayer and other corporations that stood to benefit from the reversal of the ban.

“It’s bad enough that this administration has ignored independent science to blindly support Bayer’s self-serving assertions of glyphosate’s safety,” said Nathan Donley, a senior scientist at the Center. “But to then act as Bayer’s agent to pressure other countries to adopt that position is outrageous.”

The earlier communications obtained by the Center through a Freedom of Information Act request reveal a coordinated effort between U.S. officials and powerful, multinational corporations to thwart actions abroad that might harm sales of their products.

Bayer and Archer Daniels Midland, a U.S.-based international commodities trader, were two of the companies working with federal officials to pressure Thailand to reverse its plan to ban glyphosate, according to the documents.

In October 2019 Thailand’s National Hazardous Substances Committee voted to ban glyphosate and two other highly controversial pesticides: chlorpyrifos and paraquat. But one month later — five days before the ban was to go into effect — Thailand suddenly reversed its decision on glyphosate.

Records reveal that the U.S. government got involved after Bayer appealed to the administration to intervene on two separate occasions in September and October 2019. Both appeals for intervention were forwarded to Ted McKinney, USDA undersecretary for trade and foreign agricultural affairs, who previously worked for the pesticide company Dow Agrosciences for nearly 20 years.US Embassy Pressures Thailand Over Monsanto Poison Ban

Eight days after Bayer’s second request, McKinney sent an official letter to Thailand’s prime minister asking the country to reconsider its planned ban.

Concurrent with its efforts at USDA, Bayer was in regular contact with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the federal agency responsible for recommending U.S. trade policy to the U.S. president.

Documents show that agency collected intelligence on individuals in the Thai government who supported the ban. In discussing the matter with representatives from Bayer, U.S. trade officials sought information on a supporter of the ban, the Thai deputy agriculture minister:

“…it would be useful to know her personal motivations (i.e., is she a diehard advocate of organic food; and/or staunch environmentalist who eschews all synthetic chemical applications). Knowing what motivates her may help with USG counter arguments.”

The U.S. trade office also asked who in Thailand would be in the best position to influence this decision. Bayer replied, “All efforts should be focused on the Prime Minister.”

Representatives of Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM) also met with officials at the U.S. trade office in November and provided the agency with: “…some more intel on the issue, per the questions that were raised during our meeting…”

In October and November, there were at least two official meetings between ambassadors of the two countries. Memos from both meetings indicated that the glyphosate ban was discussed alongside the impending U.S. decision to revoke Thailand’s favorable trade status, allegedly due to worker rights issues. The Thai glyphosate ban and the decision to revoke trade preferences occurred on Oct. 22 and Oct. 25, respectively.

While the official White House media talking points specifically mention how to respond if asked whether the trade status decision was due to a cause other than workers’ rights (i.e. glyphosate), other talking points related to the U.S. response to Thailand’s glyphosate ban specifically omitted discussion of the trade preferences, stating that the U.S. trade office, “does not support inclusion of any mention of [trade preferences] in these talking points.”

Two days before Thailand reversed its planned ban on glyphosate, a draft letter to Thailand was sent to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue for his approval. The content of that letter has not been revealed.

Included in the Center’s lawsuit against USDA is a demand for the final draft of that letter.

Read the full USDA FOIA production here

Read the full USTR FOIA production here

Posted in USA, Health, ThailandComments Off on Administration Sued for Records Detailing U.S. Role on Behalf of Glyphosate-maker Bayer in Pressuring Thailand to Reverse Plan to Ban Pesticide

China-Thailand Military Cooperation. Shifting Global Balance of Power

By Joseph Thomas

Global Research,

Recent news of Bangkok signing a 6.5 billion Thai Baht deal with China to procure a naval landing ship (a landing platform dock or LPD) further illustrates growing ties between Beijing and Bangkok in the sphere of military matters.

The Thai Royal Navy’s only other ship of similar capabilities is the HTMS Angthong, built by Singapore, Bangkok Post reported.

The deal comes in the wake of several other significant arms acquisitions made by Bangkok in recent years including 39 Chinese-built VT-4 main battle tanks (with another batch of 14 being planned), China’s Type-85 armoured personnel carriers and even the nation’s first modern submarine made by China expected to be in service by 2023.

These are more than merely arms deals. The purchasing of sophisticated weapons systems like submarines and ships will require closer military cooperation between Beijing and Bangkok in order to properly train crews, transfer critical knowledge of maintaining the vessels and operate them at sea.

There are also joint Thai-Chinese weapon development programmes such as the DTI-1 multiple rocket launcher system.

The interoperability that is being created between Thai and Chinese armed forces (and arms industries) ensures ample opportunity for joint training exercises and weapon development programmes in the future, several of which have already been organised, with many more on the horizon.

The Myth of Thai Subservience to Washington 

Thailand is often labeled a close “non-NATO ally” of the United States by both the United States itself and many analysts still clinging to Cold War rhetoric.

However, today’s Thailand is a nation that has significantly expanded its cooperation with China and not only in military matters, but across economic spheres as well.

Thailand’s lengthy history of weathering Western colonisation that otherwise consumed its neighbours is a story of adeptly playing great powers against one another and ensuring no single nation held enough power or influence over Thailand to endanger its sovereignty. This is a balancing act that continues today, with Thailand avoiding major confrontations and overdependence on outsiders by attempting to cultivate a diversity of ties with nations abroad.

Thai cooperation with nations like the United States, particularly now, is done cynically and as a means to keep the US from investing too deeply in the disruptive regime-change methods it has aimed at other nations including neighbouring Myanmar but also distant nations like Syria and Libya ravaged by US meddling.China – Thailand Geopolitical Realignments. Thai-Chinese Military Ties, Infrastructure Projects

Despite these efforts to appease Washington, the US still backs opposition parties determined to overthrow the current Thai political order and replace it with one openly intent on rolling back progress between Thailand and its growing list of Eurasian partners, especially China.

What little the US has to offer has been reduced to deals bordering bribery, such as offering free military hardware.

A recent deal included Thailand buying discounted, refurbished Stryker armoured vehicles under the condition that the US would provide 40 more for free.

However the Stryker is not a particularly sophisticated weapon system and will do little to bolster fading Thai-US military cooperation and interoperability. The Stryker system will likely be absorbed into Thailand’s own growing domestic defence industry which is already manufacturing wheeled armoured vehicles.

Blurring of Lines between Military and Economic Cooperation 

So far has the balance of power shifted in Asia, that demands by the US for its “allies” to boycott China’s telecom giant Huawei have gone ignored. Thailand, as well as Malaysia and the Philippines, have included Huawei in their efforts to develop national 5G infrastructure.

While something like telecom appears to be more a matter of economics than of national defence, so entwined recently has telecom and information technology become with national security that choosing partners for developing telecom infrastructure really is a matter of defence.

How far will this peripheral cooperation go? The US is still using its control of Thai information space, particularly through Facebook’s primacy across Thai social media, to influence public opinion and sow political instability across Thai society.

The idea of Thailand cooperating further with China to develop domestic social media networks to regain control over this aspect of Thailand’s information space seems plausible. Thai cooperation with Russia for similar reasons has already been openly discussed by Thai policymakers.

A Shifting Global Balance of Power 

Many analysts have tried to reduce growing cooperation between Thailand and China as a temporary trend spurred by the Thai military’s 2014 ousting of a US-backed government and the US decision to reduce ties with Bangkok.

However, Thailand’s pivot eastward is one made with the rest of Southeast Asia and in fact, with much of the non-Western world. It is part of the wider trend away from Western-dominated unilateralism and toward greater mulipolarism. It is also a process that began long before 2014.

The ability for Thailand to move its dependence away from US markets and financial systems dominated by Washington will be key in avoiding more aggressive attempts by the US to coerce Thailand politically or economically in the future as it is nations like North Korea, Iran, Syria, Russia and now even China today.

Thailand is a relatively large Southeast Asian state with ASEAN’s second largest economy. What it does in regards to building military ties with China and strengthening its economic and political resilience against US “soft power” may set trends that are followed by others in ASEAN, opening up opportunities not only for China, but other Eurasian powers like Russia who can fulfill the role of balancing power not only against America’s dominant position in the region, but also against China from acquiring too much power and influence once US primacy collapses.

Expanding Thai-Chinese military cooperation is a sign of the times. It is a sign of US primacy fading, of China’s rise and of a shifting balance of power. It is a time when nations must carefully execute this shift, ensuring the threat the US poses to regional peace and prosperity is reduced but also that China is never tempted with the opportunity to simply replace the US as a regional and global menace.

So far, mulipolarism has shaped China’s policies in a much different manner than those pursued by the US over the past half century. Only time will tell of the success of multipolarism, but it is important to understand that Thai-Chinese cooperation is not a temporary trend. It is a new reality and one that reflects a fundamental shift in geopolitics from the Atlantic consensus to a much more global one.

Posted in China, ThailandComments Off on China-Thailand Military Cooperation. Shifting Global Balance of Power

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