Lertsak Kamkongsak: ‘Commoner’ from Street to Parliament

Prachatai interviewed Lertsak Kamkongsak, the leader of the Commoners Party, about getting involved in politics as another ordinary person who wishes to write his own laws, reduce extreme inequality, and work as an MP who would be stirring things up both inside and outside Parliament.

Lertsak Kamkongsak

The three ideals held by the Commoners Party are policies which come from grassroots democracy, policies that pay attention to human rights, and policies that pay attention to equality and fairness.

The mission of the party is to raise concerns about human rights violations caused by unfair development, policies, and laws, as well as to support and propose draft laws that would eliminate or reduce inequality. 

Lertsak Kamkongsak is an environmental activist who has been working for a long time in the northeast . Now he is also the leader of the Commoner Party, which will field candidates in the upcoming election (this interview took place before registration of MP candidates). His hope is that there is a 50% chance they will get to be wild cards in Parliament. He said that he and his party have already prepared questions for the opening day of Parliament and will be asking questions every single day until the closing day.

Grassroots democracy, human rights, and reducing disparity to create equality and fairness are the main ideologies on which the Party will not compromise. Of course, taking such a stance means that the Commoner Party has quite a lot of opposition. When they announced their party mainfesto, they said they would dissolve the International Security Command Operation (ISOC). It is however a reflection of the voice from the commoner caravan and had been through an intensive process, not just a policy that was thought up a back room.

But this may not be an ideal moment for ordinary commoners to set up a political party because the laws written by a hand-picked group of people have created petty rules that make it more difficult to form a party. On the other hand, if not now, there may be no better time.

Lertsak Kamkongsak

Is it difficult to be the leader of a political party?

Very much. I have never been one before. It is not like working in a small NGO with 4-5 people. We first started out with 2-3 people and at most we had about 4-5, to make it easy to manage and find money to support each other.

But once it’s a political party, there are hundreds of members, and more people means more opinions. In a small organisation with 4-5 staff, we have 4-5 opinions. But in a party with 600 members, there are 600 opinions. It is quite difficult for a person who has never managed an organisation this big before.

We have always been in politics, but never in the political party scene. Politics has 2 parts: politics itself and political parties. Everyone is in politics all the time, but has never set up a political party. Once we were a political party, we faced complicated petty rules and conditions set by the state. I do not know how much opportunity grassroots people were given to form their own political parties under the political party laws before the 1997 coup d’état. But in the NCPO era, they set up really detailed and difficult rules to block public participation so it would not go beyond voting.

How do you manage 600 opinions? The process of the Commoners Party probably isn’t just giving orders?

There must be a compromise about ideas. In our party, we have all kinds of opinion: left-wing and right-wing, progressive and traditional, conservative and liberal. And in each group of opinions, there are several shades of thought, such as those who work on women’s rights, LGBT rights, or those who work on the environment and human rights issues; their thoughts are sometimes not progressive in terms of women’s or LGBT rights.

So we need to compromise on a common point so that the party can move forward. As you said, the Commoners Party is not about giving orders. We would rather find a compromise between these various opinions. It is difficult. There are many challenges. I never thought that my work experience in the past would be used in an organisation this large. Opinions are also very important. We need to consider every single one and will not brush anything aside. We have to consider. Not only me, but the party executive committee must always see to it that no one’s opinion is brushed aside, even if that opinion is extreme, risky or dangerous to be presented to the public. We will keep it for internal discussion and see if the point can be settled. It is hard, fun and challenging.

If it is about finding a compromise between different opinions, what about Mr. Ekachai Isarata?

It was a very new situation and we just could not handle it. We are new to this. It was out naivety. Like I said, we are used to being in politics, but in the political party scene, we are naive. But this case of Ekachai gave us more experience.  We feel prudent and have to be more careful.

Actually, the Commoners Party did not dismiss Ekachai or the Ekachai issue. The Commoners Party did not dismiss him You can see clearly from our party statement that we reprimanded Ekachai and put him on probation, giving him a chance. We did not attack him. It was obvious that what he did disregarded some facts, but he is aware of the mistakes that happened. But the explanation of the facts in this case is incomplete. This becomes disparaging or not recognizing all the facts.  It is too disrespectful to those who are listening. That was all the party did. But it did not dismiss him.    

Was there a lot of pressure in Ekachai’s case? I would say no, but others say yes because they were mainly following the movement in social media. For me, I don’t follow social media. I do not believe that the online society makes up most of the whole population. There are still many more people offline. While there was an active movement on the Ekachai case in the online world, there were many people in the offline world who are villagers and who knew nothing about Ekachai. What this means is that certainly the social media movement was the main reason, or may have been an important reason for our urban members who have internet access or routinely use social media in daily life to get alarmed. We told them to calm down, don’t get overly excited, but it caused enormous pressure for Ekachai himself, who felt that the online world was not very friendly toward him in this case which had been exacerbated. But there were many people who supported him. He felt guilty and did not want to be the cause of dispute anymore, so he resigned.

The best thing the Commoners Party can do, whether as an opposition party or as a government party, is to raise questions about human rights violations or the abuse of rights that results from unfair development, policies and laws and to support bills and also propose bills ourselves relating to the elimination and reduction of social inequalities.

You said that you did not pay much attention to the online world?

Not as much as others.

But in this round of politics, social media is influential in campaigning…

I will go to meet people, but I do not reject online media. I mean that we have to create a balance between the online and offline worlds. While we check news trends online, we also have to check news trends offline.

The Political Party Law states that a party must have 5,000 members and have branches in all four regions in one year. Did you achieve that? 

We now have 1,000 members, and still need 4,000 people within this year. We were declared a political party on 26 December last year, so we need to have 5,000 people on around December 25 this year. It is challenging but I think we will try. And in 4 years, we must have 10,000 members. We think we can do this.

Which group of people are now members of the Commoners Party?

Youth, students, villagers. More social activists are beginning to join, especially villagers in different areas are now joining us more than at the meeting at Na Nong Bong. Now we are at almost 1,000 members, which is a big increase. This target group or growing number of members is considered not to have expanded very much, particularly the middle class or even labour. With members from labour groups, we have few links. We think we need to connect more closely to this group.

What is your approach to gaining the members  that are legally required?

It is not yet very clear, but at least we have an important tool or mechanism which is the ‘commoners caravan’ which we use to create an understanding, explain, and campaign with various groups of people to ask for time to explain to them what the Commoners Party was set up to do, and why, and what we will do in Parliament. The caravan will be used for campaigning, listening to opinions and letting people in different areas present their needs, their desires and their idea on politics to take these as raw materials to generate our policies. We must travel more, and we have to use the tool of social media as well. We are not really very sure if it is effective enough the tool of social media to find members. We have to use both, but going to meet people in the field is our main approach.  

The Election Day has already been announced. How prepared is the Commoners Party for this election?

Last month, we determined that we will field candidates to about 27-30 constituencies. But today we face obstacles from the Political Party Law and the Election Law stating that we must have 100 members in one province in order to have the right to field MP candidates. Our new estimate is 17-20 constituencies.

Now we are ready for 2 constituencies in Loei, 1 in Nong Bua Lamphu, 3 in Sakon Nakhon, 3 in Kalasin, 1 in Khon Kaen, 2 in Surin, 1 in Chiang Rai, and 1 in Chiang Mai. Registration was set for February 4-8. We had a few days to prepare with our candidates. Another obstacle is that we have to pay a 10,000 baht candidacy fee to the Election Commission in each constituency. Because of this, our 1 million baht is not enough for us to run in many more constituencies.  

One thing that we regret is that we might not be able to find 500 members in Bangkok in time. If so, it means that we will not be able to run any candidates from our party in Bangkok. Also in Rattaphum District in Songkhla Province, we only have 70-80 members, but not yet 100. We don’t know if we will get 100 on February 4 or not. If not, we will lose another opportunity in a southern constituency and that is quite sad.

Some constituencies that you have mentioned overlap with the incumbents. How confident are you that members of the Commoners Party will have a seat in Parliament?

50/50. I am sure we won’t win any constituency seats. Do not get me wrong, I do not disrespect or diminish the determination of our candidates. But after evaluating all the pluses and minuses as far as we can understand, we probably will not win. But we should however get 75,000 votes in total to get 1 party list MP. We are 50% sure of that.

Lertsak Kamkongsak

Can the Commoners Party be considered a left-wing party?

I would like to define myself that way. But as I said earlier, there are different shades of progressive members in the Commoners Party. I am not certain if we can use the word left for all of them. It might sound like praise or going too far to feel good that we are too leftist. What I mean is that a liberal ideology sometimes conflicts with the left’s interest. But liberal principles are good.  In the Commoners Party we have many, like the principles of gender equality and reduction of inequality. But some liberal wings consider the problem of inequality as a key problem in national development. We have this approach in the Commoners Party.  So I do not know what to call the Commoners Party. If it’s just me, I am leftist. If it’s the party, I would say we are a left-leaning progressive party.

Could you please summarize the Commoners Party’s policies? 

The word ‘policy’ in the past and at the moment, such as in the National Economic and Social Development Plan, is always mainly in the hands of technocrats, high-level government officials and intellectuals, so it is just a policy. But there has never been a true public policy. A public policy in our sense has inclusive participation from the grassroots up. This is the most important thing in making policy.

We will try to change ‘policy’ to ‘public policy’. We look for a process where public policy must come from commoners in general. As we like to say, we will make policy from the bottom through the commoners caravan. The commoners caravan is not complicated. We go to meet and talk to people everywhere, groups with problems, labour, or sometimes middle-class people. Sometimes it depends on the issues, such as marijuana, coal, wastewater, or PM2.5 dust. We have commoners caravans for both issues and areas.

The way we think about policy is to make it respond to as many people as possible. It is not a nice policy that you just release every Friday or a set of policies that comes out of the cabinet meeting every Tuesday or a set of policies that comes out of the National Economic and Social Development Board or this or that ministry. Policies should be very basic statements where everyone should  participate.

And good policies should be suffused with the 3 ideologies of the Commoners Party: they are policies that come from grassroots democracy, they are policies that take into account human rights and community rights, and they are policies that take into account equality and justice. These 3 principles will be the mechanism and framework in writing our policies. So the route to our policies seems slow and complicated. When someone asks what the policies of the Commoners Party are, sometimes I wonder what a good answer would be and I cannot answer. But when you ask other parties, they can answer right away. They have prepared. They have war room meetings. For us, we did not begin by first sitting down and talking about policies. We discussed a common understanding of what our party will do in Parliament. Policies came later. So this makes us slow. And with our policy process, for example, we have set of ideas this year; next year this policy might change the wording or the sentence to make it more up-to-date.

What will commoners do in Parliament?

First, that means why the Commoners Party was formed, why we are here, and what we will do in Parliament. We talk about this first. We first need to be clear about the Commoners Party’s position in parliamentary politics.

The best thing the Commoners Party can do, whether we are an opposition party or a government party, is to question the problem of human rights abuses, human rights abuses caused by development, by unfair policies and laws, and to support every bill or propose bills ourselves regarding the elimination or reduction of various forms of social inequality. That is our main function.

First, we will support a bill that reduces inequality. Second, we will ask questions every day.  When a general session is opened for 30 or 35 days, we will ask questions every day. When a special session is opened for 15 days, we will ask questions every day. Next month, when we send our electoral candidates to the EC, we will release the first 50 questions that the Commoners Party will ask if the Commoners Party gets a seat in Parliament, on, for example, the Wang Hip dam case, the potash mining case in Udon Thani, the gold mining case, the case of blasting the Mekong rapids, human rights violations, marginalized people, stateless people who have no security in their lives in the Thai state and cannot go to hospital, the drive for health insurance. 

You once said that the Commoners Party was not established to respond to the needs of all groups of people.

It is already clear that many people look at us as a party opposed to development. It has to be like this when development does not take human rights into consideration, does not take grassroots democracy into consideration, and does not take equality and justice into consideration. And if development projects increase inequality or resource grabbing, we take sides with the villagers in fighting against development projects.

We still affirm that it is definitely a difficult matter for the Commoners Party to be the party that responds to the needs of every group because the Commoners Party insists that we will investigate any rights violation caused by unfair development, policies and laws. So this must certainly affect the interests of people on one side.

We will never change. It is our position and ideology that all our MPs must be able to march on the street like they did before.

Lertsak Kamkongsak

But it is well-known that in politics there comes a time when there must be compromise.

We might on some issues, but not our 3 main principles. We can accept that politics is about compromise, mainly in legislation. The duty of MPs is lawmaking. We often see a lot of compromise in legislation. As we mentioned, we have never had our own laws, we only have the laws of other classes that they set for us. We hope to fight in the area of law-making. Suppose we draft a law with 100% of what we need, but we may compromise to get only 50%. 

50% is acceptable?

It is hard to say if it is acceptable or not. What is easy to say is whether we will be satisfied if it comes out like that. Maybe not, but the parliamentary mechanism makes it 50%. For instance, if there are 15 scrutiny committee members but the committee has only 1 person from our party and the other 14 are not, there will then be a compromise. But if you ask if we are happy, maybe not. But the mechanism pushes us forwards. Is our dissatisfaction capable of overturning the law? That’s hard. Compromise could work like this. We will not only propose laws in the committees, we should also draft laws to propose to the public so that there will be a movement outside Parliament.

If you are elected, will you still play a part in street politics?

Like before. I will never change. This is our party’s position and ideology. Every MP must be able to march on the street as they have done before.

Are you not afraid of being accused of not playing by the rules?

The rules of democracy are the rules both inside and outside Parliament. It is not simply that once we are in Parliament, the rules are those of Parliament. But outside, the people are important and the main rule is that we do not use any weapons. This is the peaceful way. The peaceful way can be used both inside and outside Parliament. As soon as we use weapons, we are outside the rules. As long as we gather peacefully without weapons and stick to the peaceful way, we are not playing outside the rules. So I am not worried at all. We can say that this law is drafted by 20,000 people outside Parliament. How could you say that they do not have the right to participate in your legislative process? That is unreasonable political persecution.

Have you ever imagined yourself sitting in Parliament?

I still can’t imagine it (laughs).It will be really frenetic if I get in.

What will happen if the Commoners Party has no seat at all in Parliament?

We keep on working so that at the next election the Commoners Party will have a seat, like when we voted ‘No’ against the Constitution. There were 9 million votes that lost that poll, but those 9 million votes were extremely significant. It means that at least 9 million people did not want the NCPO (National Council for Peace and Order). So the commoners will not give up just because of winning or losing. There is always next time.