Although Jakrapob Penkair may have disappeared from the Thai political scene many years ago, his name still resounds. This confirms his status as a 'political man' whose latest achievement is to co-found 'Seri Thai'--an organisation whose mandate is to fight the junta’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) from outside the country. It is the task which has prompted another round of surveillance on him by the authorities.
Jakrapob has led a life of a great variety. After going to Johns Hopkins University in the United States, his career has ranged from the private sector to the civil service in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; from being a writer to plunging into the game of politics as Government Spokesperson in more than one administration. Not long after joining the Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai Party, however, he was charged with lèse majesté after sharing his views on the patronage system in Thai society with foreign journalists. After that, he was involved in establishing the main faction of the anti-establishment red-shirt Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD) before it evolved into the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD). In 2009 he decided to leave Thailand and since then has lived in exile.
It has been six years since he started this self-imposed exile. However, he does not want to define himself as a refugee. On the contrary, he calls himself an activist for democracy in exile. Regarding him as a politician of pragmatism who adapted to the turns of the political tide to survive change, Prachatai interviewed Jakrapob Penkair on the current political situation. Let's find out his views on Thai politics at present as well as the steps taken by the Pheu Thai Party (PTP), the UDD or the Red-Shirt movement. Find out what it is like to be an exile in the current context.
The 2014 coup reasserts the fact that there is no longer a convergence of interests among the ruling class in Thai politics. It was an incident which signals the end of a society which used to pivot on compromise--the politics of meeting each other halfway. It was an incident which signals that a choice has been forced upon us. Not only is it an enforced choice, but it has dawned on us that we have to live with this given path.
As someone who has lived 'outside', how do you assess the coming future of Thai politics?
A person who lives outside is only slightly different from someone within. We access the same information. However, unlike those on the inside, those on the outside do not develop emotions or empathy--the factor which results in misjudgements. Those on the outside have no idea how angry people on the inside have become; how difficult the situation has been for them. We on the outside only know that the situation has objectively taken place. So what I've tried to do, being on the outside, is to communicate with the people inside to find out what is missing. Politics uses mood. Decisions are not based on feelings, but feelings are used to understand human beings.
Do you think the move to push for the Amnesty Bill was the wrong decision?
Yes, it was a decision made by someone who was on the outside. It was the biggest strategic mistake the party has ever committed, which resulted in a failure to promote a semi-revolution. It was simply an act of self-destruction. However, it was done with good intentions in the hope that Thai politics was at a stage where a convergence of interests was possible. It was a matter of the difference of being inside and outside.
It could not be said, however, that the mistake was only on the outside as the Pheu Thai Party also had a great number of teams on the inside.
It was because we used instinct to think, and could not use some information to make the decision.
Eventually that led to the coup in 2014?
It was a strategic failure which must be studied so that we do not repeat it, and to remind us that failure in assessment leads to failure in strategy. It was a mistake which has had a great impact on the present and the future of the movement. But at the same time, it did show something clearly which was the ideological determination of people to uphold democracy.
In fact, proposing a blanket amnesty was so bad that many people just quit as Red Shirts because they didn’t know why they should be Red Shirts. In the end it was a complete mix up. But as a leader, once you know you are wrong, you retreat. You may retreat because you are wrong, but the people can go back to where they used to be, waiting for a new political leadership to lead to a real change. It is an achievement which we have not really chosen to praise, the determination of the people amidst the political mistakes of the leadership.
Is it the determination of the people or the fact that they are stupid--that they didn't learn from being let down?
Who are you to think that way, to judge that the people are stupid? If you ask me, I’m in touch with the masses. They are not stupid. It’s been a very long time, decades, long enough for them to be aware. If it was two years, they might have followed each other into the abyss. But the demonstration ended long ago. There has been time to reflect, time to watch ASTV, BlueSky and time to listen to the Twelve Values (of the NCPO).
Some people say the way of thinking of the mass of Red Shirts emphasizes practical results.
That is possible, but that must be seen as political capital which can lead to a democracy in stages. If we like this guy because he gets us greater benefits, can you say he is worthless? Are we just really greedy? Supposing that there are two candidates. One only gives you pep talks and has never done anything for you. The other helps you farm--he asks to borrow a bit of land, and he shares with you. Both want you on their side. The people decide themselves that they want the second, but it does not mean that they will stop with the second. They may be waiting for a third or a fourth in the future.
You consider this a politics of the people?
I don't know. This is also a new thing to me. What I have said so far is a reflection of what has passed for many years. It is something I could not see when it first unfolded.
You must understand that I was raised the way the privileged class was raised. My assumption was something like "Are you too bloody stupid to be a good person? …No problem, I will make an animal stall for you." But right after I really started in the field, I got to look the people straight in the eye, to really connect with their way of life. It made me feel that it was actually me who had been stupid all along. Stupid for not being able to see a pluralist society. I thought that our society was uncouth and indistinct so that it could be divided into those one who know and those who don’t. That’s not the case. There is another group of people who know but don’t speak because if they speak, they might not be able to stay, not be able to do business, to raise their kids. But whenever there is someone with more power to guide them, supporting them, they won’t change. This is even cleverer.
The group that came out to critique the blanket bill was you and the intellectuals.
The UDD was also against the blanket bill to the point that they clashed with Thaksin.
Is there any difference in not wanting the blanket bill, such as between the Nitirat group (enlightened jurists) and Jakrapop?
It is difficult to say. I will answer by saying who thought what among the three, the UDD, Nitirat and me. I myself disagreed with the blanket bill because it would destroy the process of developing democracy, which I saw was going astray. UDD was against it because it would cause people to be against UDD. If they had wanted the blanket bill, it would have turned out that what they had long been fighting for had been a fix to fool the spectators and simply speaking, UDD was thinking about tactics. Nitirat was likely to view the issue like me, looking at the development of democracy. But I don't know what they think as I have never talked to them.
How do you assess the political situation at that time?
(Off the record)
Has Thaksin learned the lesson that getting mixed up with the ruling class is not as easy as he thinks?
I think his learning process still continues. I think he is a good leader for Thailand but there were political problems arose because he crossed the line. He is a first-class policy administrator, but crossed the line of being the coordinator of political interests during the transition period from one where the institution was at the centre. This blind spot has become an impasse from where the Thai society has not been able to find a way out until now.
Could you please critique Thaksin's leadership in the past?
I think he is a good leader for Thailand but there were political problems because he crossed many lines. He is a first-class policy administrator, but crossed the line of being the coordinator of political interests during the transition period from one where the institution was at the centre. This blind spot has become an impasse from where the Thai society has not been able to find a way out until now.
His fault, summarised into a single sentence, is that he managed the country as if Thailand was already a democracy, which it has not. As simple as that.
Do you think the 2014 coup has severely damaged the Red Shirts? Will there be another uprising?
No. The 2014 coup serves as a political truth by merely emphasizing that there is no longer a convergence of interests among the Thai elite. The value of the 2014 coup is that it says that Thai society which likes compromises and meeting each other half way is forced into making a choice, and not only is it forced into making a choice, we are forced to stick with this choice. Those who choose have it all. But those who do not, need to stay somehow. This is what is to be learned in the next step. This has a historical basis.
The 2014 coup signalled that the people are not important. Thaksin just had the role of being the head of the people at that time, but there were other times when others were the head of the people or were made the head by the people. They met the same fate. It is, therefore, not a personal problem of Thaksin, but a common problem shared by Khruba Srivichai, Khru Khrong Chandawong, Acharn Pridi Banomyong and even General Chatichai Choonhavan.
Will the Red Shirt supporters rise up to take a role again or are they waiting for something?
They are not waiting for anything. It's just their style. We read too many history books that there must be an uprising. Silence does not mean there is no activism going on. Sometimes silence is subtle activism too.
I wonder if the Red Shirt supporters are tolerating this or not. I can’t make it out. After our leadership let them down so many times, they still haven't changed their minds. That is to say, they don’t like us, but they can't sympathise with the other side. I don't know what to call this condition. Although they do not like us, we must not forget that politics is not a matter of liking. They come because we share the same opinion. At the height of the UDD, it was able to draw many people. That included many groups who did not like UDD, but they still joined. That tells us that the Thai people have a political mentality. They are political. They don’t like it, but there is a shared interest, they join in large numbers. But the ruling class still pretends not to see this.
And when the Thai masses are not in the form of a mass, it is intolerable. No one comes to help. I don't know if we are tolerating this, or don’t want to fight. I can't say.