Monday, February 9, 2009

Giles Ji Ungpakorn flees Thailand, issues Red Siam Manifesto

A Jotman reader* has forwarded a provocative statement issued by Giles Ji Ungpakorn (it is written in both English and Thai). After reading the document, the first question that popped into mind was the whereabouts of its author.

A story that appeared in the Guardian today answers my question:
A leading Bangkok-based professor who has joint British and Thai nationality fled Thailand at the weekend in the face of a lengthy sentence under the country's draconian lese-majesty laws, which forbid criticism of the king.

He is the latest person to face prosecution under the laws, seen as an attempt by the government to stifle dissent.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn, 54, arrived in England at the weekend after being charged under the laws. He had been due to present himself to the police in Bangkok today and could have faced 15 years in jail if found guilty.

"I did not believe I would receive a fair trial," said Ungpakorn, an associate professor of political science at Chulalongkom University and a contributor to the New Statesman and Asian Sentinel."

"It is clear that the charge is really about preventing any discussion about the relationship between the military junta and the monarchy," Ungpakorn said. "This is in order to protect the military's sole claim to legitimacy: that it acted in the interests of the monarchy."
So much for the location of the statement's author. He is safe. As for the document? It is entitled: The "Red Siam" Manifesto. Below I have tried to give readers a general idea of the topics the manifesto covers. If you are interested in the specifics, in time it ought to be possible to Google for the document.

Giles opposition to military rule is longstanding. According to a Wikipedia article, Giles was the organizer of the first democracy protest following the 2006 military coup. (I was there, on the streets of Bangkok, live-blogging both the 2006 coup and the Giles-organized democracy protest -- see my posts from Sept. 2006). Giles' present statement, however, takes the Thai scholar's activism to another level. This statement strikes me as both newsworthy and of historic significance. I am aware of no other such statement, personally signed by such a high profile Thai figure, having been issued in recent years.

The manifesto begins by contrasting the current Thai government -- installed following a controversial high court decision -- to the Obama Administration, which has made economic recovery a priority. By contrast, Giles believes the Thai government has prioritized cracking down on the opposition through the draconian les majeste law (under which Giles has been charged). Giles further notes that the government has created a website where Thais can inform on one another.

The next part of the manifesto makes charges against the ruling monarchist-militarist elite, criticizing it for upholding what Giles holds to be an anti-democratic "monarchist" ideology. This accusation is followed by five specific charges against HM the King of Thailand (all but the most recent of these accusations relate to events discussed in a banned book by Paul Handley). This list concludes on a note critical of both the ruling monarch and the heir-apparent to the Thai throne.

Giles does not think that Thais should resort to violence to change the system. The renowned Thai scholar maintains that Thais cannot wait for former PM Thaksin or the opposition Pua Thai Party to rescue the nation. Giles asserts that a new political party should be established to bring about reform. Giles cites the need for "secret," bottom-up organizing tactics in order to build a movement invulnerable to the arrest of any of its top leaders.

Although Giles Ji Ungpakorn is an avowed Marxist, Giles declares that the new Thai political party he is calling for need not subscribe to any such ideology. Nevertheless, Giles outlines what he -- as one "red shirt" citizen -- thinks the new party should stand for.** Giles' own policy preferences encompass nine themes: 1) promoting freedom of expression and political association; 2) equality; 3) the establishment of a "welfare state" that levies taxes on the rich; 4) either the return to true constitutional monarchy -- or preferably in Giles' view -- the establishment of Thailand as a republic; 5) cutting off some of the purse strings of the military; 6) a new justice system, including trial by jury; 7) citizen management of local institutions; 8) environmentally sustainable modernization; 9) peace-promoting foreign relations.

It will be interesting to see whether Giles' desire to see the energy of the "red shirts" movement transformed into a new political party will succeed. Also worth watching is the extent to which the overtly anti-monarchical turn in Giles' own public pronouncements will be reflected in any future political movement. Given the age and extreme popularity of HM the King, some commentators have viewed some revival of republican sentiment as practically inevitable over time. Nevertheless, it is clear that an attempt to use the country's harsh lese majeste law to squelch academic freedom has hastened the public radicalization of at least one prominent figure in Thai society.

Please be aware that comments are moderated, and -- in keeping with Jotman's policy -- any comment critical of the Thai monarchy will be rejected.
*Hat-tip to Jotman reader David.
**Red-shirts are worn by opponents of the current Thai government who have taken to the streets in demonstration. As far as I know -- the choice of color (red) was not selected explicitly to symbolize socialism. Nevertheless, many members of this movement applaud former populist Thai leader Thaksin for initiatives that would appear to have advanced the social welfare of the rural poor.

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