This is the second part of New Mandala‘s interview with Giles Ji Ungpakorn, an academic who recently fled Thailand after being charged with lese majeste. The first part of the interview is available here.
Thaksin, the red shirt movement, the PAD
New Mandala: The red shirt movement was often seen as a pro-Thaksin movement. Do you think it still is? And do you think Thaksin is still necessary (or will be necessary) for the red shirts to retain their momentum?
Professor Giles Ungpakorn: The red shirt movement started out as something which was initiated and perhaps supported by Thaksin and his politicians; politicians in Thai Rak Thai, Palang Prachachon, and Peua Thai. But in recent months it’s changed because of the number of people involved. When you’ve got a hundred thousand people willing to come to the sport stadium. When you’ve got groups being set up with all sorts of different names. And they organize themselves, not under the control of any of the politicians. In that situation, you’re now seeing a mass movement which is being led from below. I’ve talked to number of these groups. And certainly a lot of people have very high regard for Thaksin Shinawatra. But there is a reason for that, which I understand. Because he did provide universal health care for the Thai population [as well as] many other things, which is something that other politicians never did. But at the same time, there is a lot of frustration among these people. They feel that Thaksin isn’t actually leading anywhere. All he’s talking about is his own case. He’s just asking people to feel sorry for him. And the other politicians, especially the Kwam Jing Wan Nee [Truth Today] politicians they are just saying the same old thing. Like Abhisit didn’t fulfill his military [service] and so on. And the people in the red shirt movement actually want to go further. They want to see political reform and democracy and they are open to all sorts of ideas like perhaps we should have a welfare state in Thailand. And that is the reason why I decided to support the red shirts. But I’m very careful not to make alliances with the people at the top. The old Thaksin politicians and so on. There is one of their politicians whom I have talked to and I think he’s an interesting man. That is Jakrapob Penkair. But nevertheless, we have to have our own paths.
New Mandala: Do you think, essentially, the majority of the red shirt ssupport Thaksin as a means to their own ends, not as an end in itself. Like they fight through Thaksin as opposed to fight for Thaksin?
Professor Giles Ungpakorn: It sort of evolved from a movement that supported Thaksin to a movement which likes Thaksin but wants democracy. And I think that in a way they are not necessarily hoping that Thaksin will fight any more or they’re frustrated about it. I criticize the Thaksin government in my book A Coup for the Rich. And I never made a secret about that. When I talked to the red shirts, my major criticism of course was the abuse of human rights in the South and the War on Drugs. And so, I think that the red shirts are quite capable of going beyond just calling for the return of Thaksin.
New Mandala: What is your plan? Are you considering any kind of international campaign to draw more attention to issues in Thailand?
Professor Giles Ungpakorn: I will be carrying on an international campaign, but my major focus is actually talking to people in Thailand and building networks and I have quite a few networks of people that we can use to push the campaign forward. The campaign as I see, won’t be a quick campaign. It has to be self-organized within Thailand and in different groups of Thai people. And has to be more long-term and it has to go beyond just saying that we want the 1997 constitution or that we want Thaksin to come back. It has to be something about what the model for Thailand would be. We should be in complete opposition to the new board or new politics of the PAD.
New Mandala: So, are you optimistic about the future of Thailand?
Professor Giles Ungpakorn: I am optimistic, but I’m not under an illusion that it will be easy or that it will be quick. But I feel that today we are in a situation which is similar to the situation around 1976. Not in the sense that there’s going to be a bloodbath. I hope there won’t be a bloodbath, but in a sense that Thai society in 1976 was completely polarized. And there were questions about how Thai society would move forward and people were interested in politics in a way that they hadn’t been before. This is something that’s happening now. But it’s happening among groups of people we couldn’t have predicted two years ago ,that the red shirts would be more progressive than the NGO movement or would be more progressive than the academics. This is, I suppose, a lesson about the way political developments take place in the world, but you can’t know in advance how people will react in a time of crisis.
New Mandala: Given that you have studied a lot about labour unions, why do you think most Thai labour union members are joining the PAD?
Professor Giles Ungpakorn: That’s a very interesting question. In fact, the people who joined the PAD were a group of leaders mainly associated with the state enterprise unions. When looking at the kind of people who join the PAD, they have a number of things in common. One was that they didn’t have very good connections to their membership base. This meant that they tended to look for alliances above rather than building the union to make it strong in itself. You can see the state enterprise union leaders very often spend a lot of time negotiating with government officials or with their own managers rather than trying to strengthen the union at the grassroots level. A lot of rank ‘n’ file trade union members, whether it would be in the trade union enterprise, but especially in the private sector, did not like the PAD. They liked Thaksin’s policies. Because, for example, factory workers, they didn’t have to pay their parents’ healthcare bills anymore. So, it was very much the top layer of union officials. And they managed to get a strike on the railway. That’s really only where they managed to get a strike. And it’s interesting that the railway’s worker union never defended its own members. There are a lot of temporary workers who’d be working for the railway for years and they were never really defended. So, this is a kind of strike where they knew they wouldn’t be punished. These people were also involved in political study circles by people like Somsak Kosaisuk. But the interesting point is that these study circles sort of gave them, told them, the lie but didn’t encourage people to think for themselves. Because really, trade unions supporting Sondhi Limthongkul and Chart Sartsana Phra Mahakasat, is very contradictory. It doesn’t make sense. And so, if anybody thought for themselves very much, then they would not be going along with the PAD as trade unionists.
New Mandala: Are you still optimistic about the future of the working class in Thailand?
Professor Giles Ungpakorn: Yes, I am optimistic. There is no guarantee that the working class will have progressive politics. That is why socialists need to organize in the working class. If socialists do not, then somebody else will. Therefore, the working class can be drawn in behind very reactionary forces. But the Thai working class is growing tremendously. It is not organized, but most Thai people now work outside agriculture. And now most Thai people are much more educated. They are struggling to get on the Internet and things like that.
New Mandala: Why did you decide to go back and become an academic in Thailand?
Professor Giles Ungpakorn: Because, being half-British half-Thai (I was born in Thailand), I wanted to spend some time in Thailand. In addition, after I finished my Masters degree in Southeast Asian politics, Thailand seemed to be the best place to get a job. I really enjoyed that job at Chula. It was sad leaving because at Chula there were really good students who were really interested in academic issues and politics. Of course, not all of them are, but a lot of them are really good. They are really questioning, and they can think through issues by themselves. I had the opportunity to work with some of my colleagues to set up the essay-writing course for the first year students, and to try to get the students to write argumentative essays. That was very exciting. Of course, we had a lot of opposition from other academics who did not like the idea.
New Mandala: What is your view on the strengths and weaknesses of Thai academia?
Professor Giles Ungpakorn: I think the weakness is that they do not engage in debate. If they do not like someone’s work, they will not cite it, they will not read it. And whenever you argue with people, they take it personally when it should not be personal. Very few academics in Thailand really understand that you can have a debate and not be enemies. I think that is a real problem. But, I think that the younger generation of students understands that, and they hopefully will become academics, and will change the climate. I mean I can understand that, when I first went to Chula, some of my colleagues were lecturers under the military dictatorship. So, I can understand the way that they operated. But these people have retired, and new people are coming in. Therefore, I do think it is important that they (the younger generation of students) do talk about questioning.
Anyway, some people were accusing me of brainwashing my students. And sometime I would get students -for example, in my Marxism class – who would write an essay as though they were Marxist but they knew they were not. So, I would tell them; “look, if you write like this, I will not give you good marks. You have to be honest about what you write, and you can have good marks even if you completely oppose my position”. This is something many students did not realise, and some of my colleagues did not understand it either. I mean, to be honest, the best way to get a student to be a rebel is to get a student to argue with their lecturer. And so, if I had gone around brainwashing my students, I would not have encouraged any rebels. That is the main problem with Thai academia.
But, as I said, the strength is that there are a lot of good students at the state universities where people have to take the entrance exam to get in. I feel that many people are very disparaging about these students; they think Thai students never speak out in class, Thai students never give an opinion. This is not true. It depends on who you are teaching. I think that is one of the strengths. Another strength is that, at the moment, the Thai academic system has not gone completely assessment crazy like in Britain where academics are under a lot of pressure to write many papers. I mean I think they should write papers, but at the moment they are under such pressure that may prevent them from doing their job properly.
New Mandala: What made you switch your discipline from bio-chemistry to politics?
Professor Giles Ungpakorn: Well, I loved science. I did a Masters degree in ecology, and I worked in science. But, I was also very interested in politics in my spare time. My family was always talking about politics. So, in a way, when I felt I needed a career change, politics was the obvious choice, especially Southeast Asian politics.
New Mandala: Does your father have anything to do with your interest in politics?
Professor Giles Ungpakorn: Yes, both my mother and my father. My father, I suppose I would sum up his position as being social democratic, or welfare state, very anti-dictatorship, and my mother as well. All the time we were growing up in Bangkok under the Sarit, Tanom, Prapart regime both my parents were very anti-military dictatorship. And so, that had had a big influence. My mother and father are both people who would stand up and say what they felt, which meant that my father had to flee the country in 1976. My mother refused to support the Second World War in Britain. She was a conscientious objector and so on, and that’s kind of a tradition in the family.
New Mandala: Can you tell us a little more about your father’s struggle with the conservative forces in Thailand?
Professor Giles Ungpakorn: My father received the government scholarship to study in Britain. He felt that because ordinary Thai people had paid for that scholarship through their taxes or through their work, it was his duty to go back and work for the state. It wasn’t that he was supporting the military dictatorship. So he worked as a government official, but never accepted any political appointment. He worked in high positions in the Ministry of Finance or the Bank of Thailand, then at Thammasart University. But at the same time, he was very very against corruption and he would speak out against corruption all the time. And I remember as a child there were people who tried to bribe him. One day, a whole case of whisky arrived at the house and so on… or a large television set. He sent them all back. As he got older, he wanted to spend more time on rural development. That’s when he started the graduate development program and so on. And it’s at the point when there was a crisis in Thailand in 1976. The authority was so polarized that someone like him who was sort of middle of the road, may be a little bit left-leaning, but certainly not a supporter of the communist power: he was accused of being a communist. Everybody who didn’t side with the elite was deemed to be a communist. I mean, it’s a bit like now, everybody who doesn’t agree with the military or the Democrat Party or the PAD is now part of a huge plot to overthrow the monarchy. It’s the same kind of witch-hunt going on. And then, he had to leave Thailand on the 6th of October 1976. He was pursued by the Village Scouts to the airport. People were trying to kill him.
New Mandala: Ironically, you are in quite a similar situation.
Professor Giles Ungpakorn: I am, yes. But my opponents say that they love my father, but I’m just an iguana <laugh>.
New Mandala: Is there anything else you would like to say?
Professor Giles Ungpakorn: After I issued the Manifesto from Britain, I realized to what extent we have to self-censor ourselves when we’re in Thailand. That really what is quite ordinary cannot be said. And now I think that really shows how this controlled democracy, even when we have a reasonable democracy, even then, there’s a lot of self-censorship and we need to actually break that climate, the air of self-censorship to actually move forward to modern society in Thailand. I’m convinced that we can do this, I think that the Thai people are very capable of thinking for themselves that Thai people can build a new and open society. I don’t believe it when people say Thai people aren’t ready for democracy or don’t understand democracy, I don’t believe that at all.