Jon Ungpakorn Franco Galdini

BANGKOK, THAILAND. Since the beginning of March, the streets of Bangkok have seemingly come back to their bustling normality. Traffic jams now clog the Thai capital’s main arteries and intersections, some of which had been blocked off for weeks by the “Shutdown Bangkok” protest movement, also known as the Peoples’ Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC). However, thousands are still camping in the lush Lumpini Park area in the city centre and, if need be, can be quickly mobilised to put pressure on the government. This was evidently put into practice on March 29, when about 30,000 protesters returned to the streets of Bangkok to demand the resignation of current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, whom many detractors view as a “puppet” of her elder brother and former Prime Minister, Thai billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra.

Some analysts point out that the current situation is complicated further by questions of succession within the Thai Royal Family, with Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn rumoured to be close to former PM Thaksin, while his sister Princess Sirindhorn—a possible contender to the throne?—is said to be a strong supporter of the opposition.

London-born Jon Ungpakorn is one of Thailand’s most prominent human rights defenders. He has spent most of his life working with Thai NGOs on human rights and development issues, especially on HIV/AIDS and access to health. His father, Dr Puey Ungpakorn, was a staunch advocate for democracy most known for his opposition to the brutal 1976 military coup. Mr Jon Ungpakorn was elected to the Thai Senate for Bangkok between 2001 and 2006. In 2005, he was conferred with the prestigious Magsaysay Award for his impassioned insistence as a senator that Thailand respect the rights and attend humanely to the needs of its least advantaged citizens.

I spoke this week with Mr Ungpakorn about the current political crisis affecting the country and the need for compromise in helping Thailand overcome the formidable challenges it faces.

Franco Galdini: What is your take on the current situation in Thailand?

Jon Ungpakorn: Currently, there are three camps in Thai society: one is the anti-Thaksin camp, the so-called “yellow shirts”—although we have seen an evolution in the variety of colours they embrace and, recently, they have adopted the Thai flag as their symbol. In the past six months, a worrying trend has emerged whereby a large number of NGO and human rights activists have come to see eye to eye with this camp, by refusing elections and insisting, instead, on appointing a neutral Prime Minister who would enact reforms. This camp seems willing to give up democracy as long as Thaksin is out of power in Thailand. The so-called “red shirts” represent the second camp: they are pro-Thaksin and come mostly from the rural areas and the poorer suburbs of Bangkok and other cities.

Finally, there is a third camp–to which I belong and which I would define as pro-democracy. Our slogan is: two “yes’s”—yes to elections and yes to political reforms; and two “no’s”—no to violence and no to non-democratic power-grabbing. Supporters usually dress in white and hold candle light vigils, similar to the one held at Thammasat University in January this year. Admittedly, our comparative strength is low vis-à-vis the other two camps. Some attendees to the vigils also complained of harassment in the past, such as being followed after the event—a further sign of the extreme polarisation in the Thai street. After the February 2014 general election, the strategy has shifted to holding demonstrations in front of the Constitutional Court, whose decisions at times we perceive as biased. This is especially true with regards to the ruling that voids the February general election: the Court ruled that the election could not be held in all parts of the country on the same day, which is only partly correct, since it failed to mention that the PDRC disrupted the polls. Effectively, the ruling rewarded the PDRC for breaking the law and, more worryingly, it has given it a trump card to suspend the electoral process for an indefinite period of time.

FG: Is there any common ground between the pro- and the anti-Thaksin camps?

JU: Actually, at the grassroots level, both camps seem to agree on the fact that reforms are urgently needed. However, it is at the top echelons of power that the conflict is most intractable. The people at the top on both sides are still convinced that they can achieve an outright victory, which is why there is very little going on in terms of substantive negotiations. And here lies the danger: the two positions are so irreconcilable that I fear the situation may explode into violent clashes, as some demonstrators on both sides are armed. The risk is very real: in December 2013, several people were killed and many injured during clashes between pro- and anti-government protesters. Incidentally, I believe that the sharp polarisation in the Thai street is the reason why the Royal Thai Army (RTA) has thus far not intervened. There have been several bloodless coups d’état in Thailand in the past, including the one that took place in 2006 when Thaksin was overthrown and people thronged the streets of Bangkok to give flowers to the soldiers. Today, however, the RTA is well aware of the risk of intervening in Thai politics at this juncture, as it would encounter massive resistance on the streets. Such a scenario would compel the army to enforce order via mass arrests and repression. In other words, we would find ourselves in the same situation of Chile in 1973, when General Pinochet ousted President Allende: a bloodbath.

FG: Why has former Prime Minister Thaksin proved to be such a divisive figure in the country’s political arena?

JU: Thais are split about Mr Thaksin’s record during his less than six years in power (February 2001 – September 2006). His opponents are not ready to acknowledge that the Thaksin government implemented sound policies for the general population, such as the Universal Coverage (UC) scheme that helped Thailand achieve universal health coverage in 2002, or the Thailand Village Fund, which is the second-largest microcredit scheme in the world. More recently, Yingluck’s government passed the minimum wage policy, bringing the daily minimum wage to 300 baht [about 10 USD, ed.]. Some call these policies populist, but no-one can deny that they have benefitted the poor and underprivileged in the country.

However, it must be stressed that Thaksin also served big businesses, especially those that are linked to him and his family. For instance, a mere few days after the Thaksin government introduced an amendment to the 2001 Telecommunications Business Act—scrapping a provision that required at least seventy-five per cent of the total shareholding in a Telecom company to be Thai-held, as well as its director to be of Thai nationality—Thaksin’s relatives sold their stake in Advanced Info Services (AIS) to Singaporean investment company Temasek, reaping 1.85 billion USD in profits.

Likewise, he privatised the Petroleum Authority of Thailand, now known as PTT. And it has become common knowledge that most of the shares—which sold out in less than two minutes during the company’s Initial Public Offering (IPO) in November 2001—went to Thaksin’s cronies. No wonder that one of the slogans at Lumpini Park reads: “PTT privatization is PTT briberization by Thaksin regime.” He tried to do the same with the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), but failed due to massive protests spurred by the unpopularity of the measure. Because of all this, the middle class accuses him of “policy corruption,” meaning of drafting laws and enacting policies intended to serve his and his associates’ business interests.
Finally, Thaksin is responsible for escalating the violence in the Deep South. It has been well documented that as a result of his war on drugs more than 2,000 people were killed in 2003 alone for being allegedly involved in the drug trade. Likewise, extrajudicial killings and disappearances of activists and alleged militants in the Deep South became the norm under Thaksin’s watch.

FG: Speaking of this, how does the current situation play out in the country’s Deep South Provinces?

JU: Currently, we have a care-taker government in Thailand: no new policies can be implemented and the PM and the Cabinet have to refer to the five-member Electoral Commission (EC) for approval of any major decision, including budgeting and expenses. Moreover, as the Parliament has been dissolved, no new laws can be passed. In this situation, it is no surprise that the dialogue process with the separatists has been put on hold.

However, it is interesting to notice that elections in February 2014 in the Deep South went smoothly, contrary to the rest of the country where tens of thousands were prevented from casting their ballots. This to me indicates that people there feel completely alien to the current conflict in the country, in which they do not believe to have a stake.

FG: Do you see any possible way out of the current impasse?

JU: In the short term, I believe that the conflict will continue, although it is impossible to predict what direction it will take. I have been very vocal lately in the Thai media about a possible way out of the crisis. I suggested that PM Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai Party (PTP) agree with the opposition Democrat Party to form a coalition government with the explicit intent of promoting a bi-partisan reform agenda. Civil society could oversee the entire reform process, possibly including the drafting of a new constitution.

Quite expectedly, my proposal was criticized by both sides, as no-one wants to concede an inch to the other. But again, there is much agreement across the board about fighting the massive corruption that plagues our country. Probably corruption in the RTA and the army’s secret budget would be too sensitive a subject to be tackled at the moment, but everyone agrees that the police constitute the most corrupt institution in Thailand. The opposition, for instance, has proposed that the police force be decentralised and put under the supervision of local government to curtail its power and to improve oversight, a proposal I find very reasonable.

I am aware of the many points of contention, elections being one, but the main issue here is that a political settlement can be reached only via negotiations that lead to a compromise position. At the moment, no dialogue is happening: this is dangerous, especially because after the Constitutional Court ruling to annul the February general election, the situation has become explosive. I have heard many people from both sides say that violence is unavoidable. I think this is irresponsible and that anything should be done instead to avoid it: people have been killed and injured so far in the protests, but the possibility of reconciliation is still at hand. If violence erupts and gets out of hand, reconciliation will be a mirage: once the genie is out of the bottle, who is going to push it back in?

Franco Galdini is a former Peace Fellow at the Rotary Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand. In 2013, he was the political and media analyst at the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria.