A human rights-based way forward for Thailand

opinion September 26, 2017 01:00

By John Draper, Atipong Pathanasethpong
Special to The Nation

Thailand’s militarised state routinely ignores leading human rights NGOs and supranational organisations such as Amnesty International and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.



The state taps telephones, reads e-mail accounts, comes into homes, follows people, coerces and threatens the media, adjusts the intelligentsia’s attitudes, propagandises schoolchildren and students, harasses human rights defenders, and imprisons its enemies. The way to resolve this situation is through human rights and a party advocating them.

The militarised state is becoming more efficient. It is busy perfecting a two-decade strategic plan for social order, resembling that of the Myanmar military, in which voting and elections are indefinitely postponed or, if they actually occur, produce only weak, easily controlled governments. In this future, the militarised state, as in the 1950s, takes over state enterprises and key committees, and endlessly inflates the defence budget.

The militarised state justifies this playbook by arguing that people are not ready for elections, that entire ethnic groups need to be governed by someone with greater intellect, and that every politician is corrupt. Domestic discourse is manipulated and plurality and diversity are minimised, such that the existence of the Thai Lao, the largest ethnic minority community, is not acknowledged. Neither are Thai Malays and the Khon Muang of the North recognised. The result is that the majority of Thais have no cultural rights and that resource extraction, such as mining, becomes highly contested.

Also not on the agenda are progressive economic rights, like substantial wealth transfers to the poor and elderly, and social rights, such as respect for gender identities or the opening of a social discourse on the role of women, or the conversion of military conscription to a national service programme. 

That few still pay attention to General Prayut’s Friday addresses does not demonstrate weakness. In fact, as in 1984, it only serves to strengthen the militarised state’s position. As the public disengages from political developments, the militarised state undertakes whatever projects it desires, simply by having General Prayut sign Article 44 diktats. Consequently, protest has become pointless. Power remains the preserve of a militarised oligarchy. 

Or maybe not.

The four sources of power

Power derives from four sources. People are born with it, acquire it via wealth, obtain it via politics, or lastly, gain it by protesting. For those in the political centre and left, protest has for two decades been the main resort to gain power in the society.

Yet, protest has become akin to begging. People beg for corporate social responsibility; for community forestry rights; for human rights for migrants; for reformed police, judicial and prison systems; for recognition of refugees; for labour standards and unionisation; for the elderly; for recognition of ethnic minorities; for the absolute poor; and for the environment.

People beg at town hall meetings, in the media, even as they are arrested. And sometimes, people get crumbs, like the vague recognition that a land and property tax might be a good idea, in a country with the third-highest wealth inequality in the world, after Russia and India.

People also beg via one of over 70 political parties in a country where only five political parties, only two of which can really claim to be national parties, obtain any votes. People beg either from a party of populism or from one associated with ultra-nationalist conservative liberals, in a political system where philosophically driven political principles are an anachronism, following the suppression of the organised Left in the 1970s.

People have genuine needs and aspirations. Without reasonable expectation that these will be addressed, those born with neither wealth nor power must resort to protest. Unexpressed needs and aspirations become grievances, and grievances grow and become explosive. If we are to avoid future social upheaval we must create a healthy political system in which the people are able to make their voices heard. 

As evident in European political systems, healthy politics involves multiple national parties encompassing diverse ideologies. Thailand would greatly benefit from philosophically driven national political parties – the Ultra-Right, comprising the ethnic nationalists and those who support the militarists, such as Suthep Thaugsuban; the Centre Right, comprising the Democrats and the conservative liberal tradition; the Centre Left; and the far left. Thailand does not need feudal, localised, machine-politics parties with no principles.

The Right has been powerful and well-represented in the modern era. The problem is how to properly represent the Left. Pheu Thai may, in part, be a Leftist democratic socialist party, in advocating a populism-based statism cognisant of class-based rights. Because it has been built up around a cult of personality, the militarised state fears that Pheu Thai could develop into a revolutionary South American-style socialist movement.

Yet, Pheu Thai is not driven by a true human rights agenda – whether civil, political, economic, social or cultural. It was driven by economic nationalism, and in some respects, pure capitalism. It ignored the Assembly of the Poor and other environmentalists, and it rejected the internationalism of progressive NGOs. Currently, it is more a manifestation of loyalty to the founder.

What is missing on the Thai Left then is a political movement driven by human rights, an internationalist movement inspired by Bangkok’s cosmopolitanism and status as regional hub. This movement would seek to implement UN treaties to improve Thailand’s image and leverage it out of middle-income status. Thailand would genuinely join the international community, securing its temporary seat on the UN Security Council and establishing a close relationship with the UN.

This movement would seek to emulate those countries that make participatory, direct, decentralised democracy work, the ones which implement global minimum standards for labour and the environment. These countries, in turn, would stand in solidarity with Thailand in the face of wanton commercialisation, the economic “race to the bottom”, and global climate change. Simultaneously, the movement would leverage technology to solve problems such as energy security. In other words, Thailand needs a social democratic movement in the best traditions of the Nordic Bloc countries, which consistently top human rights indices.