Project for Social Democracy meets the Commoners’ Party of Isan, Neo Isan Movement

On 19 July, 2017, Dr. Atipong ‘Tao’ Pathanasethpong, Spokesperson of the Project for a Social Democracy (PSD), and John ‘Special Circumstances’ Draper, member of the PSD Working Group, visited Mr. Khornchanok ‘Pob’ Saenprasert, Director of the Legal Centre for Human Rights in Khon Kaen and a representative of the Commoners’ Party of Thailand, and Mr. Tong, Co-ordinator of the Neo-Isan Movement, at the Legal Centre for Human Rights. The dialogue focused on the political future of Thailand.

The PSD representatives began by outlining their view of the political situation in Thailand. They noted that there was a possibility of a permanent military dictatorship in Thailand, either through personal rule or in the style of Myanmar, through a military political party. They expressed the concern that if the military attempted this, there could be significant loss of life due to a re-run of the events of 1991-1992. Alternatively, Thailand could return to the old model of Pheu Thai against the Democrats, with all the problems of provincial machine politicians deciding the victor in the elections.

The PSD representatives noted that the fundamental problem of politics in Thailand was the disruption of normal political development from absolute to constitutional monarchy due to the Thammasat University Massacre. This disrupted Thailand’s normal political development and the emergence of politics where there were philosophically-driven parties of the political Left and political Right. To a certain extent, some conception of normal philosophically-driven politics had been attempted within Pheu Thai by individuals such as the Red Shirt Chairwoman Thida Thavornseth. However, the problem of Pheu Thai is that the party is not controlled by the people – as with other parties, it is not internally democratic, therefore it does not promote true democracy.

The PSD noted that the Commoners’ Party and the Neo Isan Movement are trying to unite Bangkok and the Northeast and is also trying to bring students to the villages, as in the 1970’s, such as the efforts of the Dao Din students. The PSD believes one issue is the fact that many active NGOs are single issue players. The PSD noted that such people could and should be able to unite under a single philosophy, namely social democracy. The PSD pointed out the difference between the US, which has a liberal democracy based on civil and political rights, and social democracies, which also have economic, social, and cultural rights.

All representatives agreed that this was true, under the UN Convention on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which Thailand has signed.

The PSD representatives noted that for Thailand to progress, there would have to be a ‘grand compromise’ between the establishment and the people. For example, in South Korea, the Korean aristocracy gave up much of their wealth and power, a major transformation which resulted in South Korea becoming a global economic powerhouse.

The PSD representatives outlined the need for a Social Democrat Party (SDP) like in most European countries. In fact, there was such a party in Thailand registered for the last election, dominated by ‘yellow shirt’ unionists that supported the People’s Alliance for Democracy.

The PSD representatives noted that there is at present an ideological gap between the Thai SDP and activists in the Northeast. However, they stressed that in many Western countries, there are Social Democrat think tanks, institutes, and foundations. These can unite people from single issue backgrounds to develop national policies and can attract significant funding, in the order of millions of baht. The PSD representatives noted that there are indications from countries like the UK, the EU, the US, and New Zealand, that while embassies are apolitical, institutes and foundations in these countries would want to support a Thai Foundation for a Social Democracy.

The Foundation for a Social Democracy approach therefore creates a ‘brain’ that can drive a political party in the future, through developing policies through research, obtaining funding, and disbursing funding. However, there will have to be a firewall between the Foundation and any party due to election rules and the law that Thai political parties cannot accept foreign funding.

The Foundation would also, through the nomination process for its staff, such as the Director, Deputy Director, etc., bring about an ideological compromise between Bangkok-based interest groups and activists and Northeast-based groups. It would therefore build respect and a working relationship. Single issue would be represented in this process, avoiding the problem of factionalism and developing a common way forward.

The PSD representatives noted that representatives of student and youth groups in principle supported social democracy as a concept as well as the Foundation approach. Fundamentally, if successful, the Foundation approach could support the development of a political party which could obtain 5-10% of the vote and decide the next government.

The PSD representatives noted that to make this approach work, groups which did not routinely talk to each other would have to dialogue and work on common goals. This could be done through using individuals as ‘bridging networks’, to facilitate and mediate dialogue between groups with differing, though broadly similar, ideologies, to create an ‘umbrella’ movement.

The PSD representatives noted that this was difficult in Thailand because of the issue of greng jai and potential loss of face in such dialogues. Different parties might worry about whether they can talk to each other and have the same opinion.

However, the PSD representatives underlined the need to overcome this problem to develop the Foundation for a Social Democracy approach and to bring together youth and student groups from different parts of the country, such as various Bangkok movements and the Dao Din students. The Foundation approach needs the dynamism of youth.

The PSD representatives noted the concern that the military fear that there will one day be a revolution. Elements of the Thai security forces are paranoid, and an efficient police surveillance state has been established. It is therefore necessary for the Foundation approach to proceed carefully in order not to result in a scenario where people lose lives.

The PSD representatives noted that the concept of the Foundation for a Social Democracy had received some support from the editorial rooms of The Nation and the Bangkok Post, which had published columns by the PSD outlining the Foundation approach. There were in fact significant elements of the ‘Establishment’ which accepted the idea of a Social Democrat ‘grand compromise’, as there appears to be no other way out. In addition, the Thai military is encouraging Thai youth to be active in the reform and reconciliation process.

The Commoners’ Party and Neo-Isan Movement representatives noted that the Foundation Approach was agreeable. Pob had met people from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES, the German foundation for Social Democracy) and had visited Germany and talked to German MPs. He had heard how a foundation approach and a party could work together. He agreed that this was an approach that could be tried in Thailand. To this aim, the Commoners’ Party had been founded, though not yet registered.

The PSD representatives understood this development but were concerned that the Commoners’ Party would not get 5-10% of the vote or achieve a social compromise. In order to achieve a mass movement, there was a need to get Establishment unions to agree to support a political party. The FES is also working on mobilizing unions in Bangkok. Ultimately, ‘yellow shirt’ unions need to become involved in a Thai SDP. One main argument would be the economic argument, i.e., that wealth transfers from the super rich would give more money to the poor. As the poor spend more of their income as a percentage, this would stimulate the economy, help Thailand avoid the middle income trap and grow the middle class, and so help unions.

There is support for this approach from Thailand’s super rich, some of whom realise a compromise is necessary through issues such as land and property tax, the inheritance tax, and income taxation. There may also be an awareness of the need for the approach from Thammasat University students, etc. However, at least some students and youth groups from the ‘Establishment, such as Chulalongkorn University, must also buy into this approach.

Khornchanok noted that the Commoners’ Party was trying to expand its appeal. They were trying to educate people about the need for structural changes at the societal level. The Commoners’ Party was set up not to just be about ideologies but about people’s needs. The general thinking within the party was that it was impossible to work with more conservative people or even centrists. However, he agreed that now was the time to try again. He was therefore happy with the Foundation approach as even though the Commoners’ Party had been thinking of compromising, it had been unsuccessful so far. He would therefore be happy to join the Foundation for a Social Democracy initiative as a representative of the Commoners’ Party.

The PSD extended an invitation to begin dialoguing with Bangkok-based youth activists and to go down to Bangkok in mid-August to begin meeting youth representatives. This would be a small meeting to begin creating ‘bridging networks’ to try to bring disparate groups together under the Foundation initiative. This invitation was accepted by Khornchanok and Tong.

The PSD representatives raised the issue of the name ‘Commoners’ Party’. They pointed out that the very name would make it hard to negotiate and compromise with ‘Establishment’ NGOs. They agreed names of parties were very important. However, they noted the need to inherit the tradition and legacy of the Left, i.e., to re-establish continuity with the 1970’s, circa 1974, when ‘social democracy’ was still in the Thai socio-political vocabulary.

The PSD representatives also noted that Social Democrat parties internationally usually use the name ‘Social Democrat Party’. Drawing on the originally ‘social-ist’ inheritance of the Left, Social Democracy was internationalist, thus a Thai SDP would work with NGOs, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Greenpeace, to improve standards in the country. Social Democracy was ultimately internationalist and stressed human solidarity in the face of shared challenges. It was the opposite of ultra-nationalism, such as the rise in global authoritarianism and the ‘pen khon Thai reu plao’ approach, which was isolationist and discouraged working with foreigners.

All representatives then agreed to begin networking and putting the mid-August meeting together.