‘My mother said to me “this is just history repeating itself’.” Thai-British academic Giles Ji Ungpakorn speaks with Alexi Demetriadi
‘When I had to leave Thailand in a hurry, my mother said to me that “this is just history repeating itself’,” the exiled Thai-British academic Giles Ji Ungpakorn recalls. Echoing the plight of his father, Ungpakorn was politically targeted and charged under Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws which make it illegal to criticize, defame or mock the monarchy. The Thai-British academic was forced to flee his country of birth for engaging in political debate and criticism, something that Thailand, for all its many wonders, chronically lacks.
Ranking at 142 on the current World Press Freedom Index, 38 places above lowest ranked North Korea, press freedom, or certain areas of press freedom, is something Thailand doesn’t excel at.
While news outlets and broadsheets are welcome to criticize the sitting ruling junta and, from experience, coverage is reported fairly and vigorously, there still remains a black hole where journalists, academics and really anyone dare not encroach as it would result in swift and harsh punishment.
The Thai Monarchy, so ingrained and central to the national fabric of Thailand, reserves a place in the country akin to that of a deity to a religion. And with this sees that criticism, defamation and mockery of any sort is illegal and punishable by lengthy jail sentences. But more often than not, the lèse-majesté laws are used to target and sentence even the most smallest of comments for political purposes, such is the restrictive social climate created by the current sitting junta.
These laws can serve a prison sentence of up to 15 years per ‘offence’ and some recent examples highlight their severity. BBC’s Southeast Asia correspondent, Jonathan Head, was charged for writing that the then Crown Prince, King Vajiralongkorn, might find it difficult to ‘fill his father's shoes’ while a Thai factory worker faces up to 37 years in prison for insulting late King Bhumibol’s dog, Tongdaegn.
A more forceful and targeted use of the laws can be traced back to the 2006 coup d’état. The Royal Thai Army clamped down on dissent and Giles Ji Ungpakorn, then a professor at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science and one of many targets, fell foul of the hostile regime.
Born in Thailand, it was in his mother’s nation of birth, Britain, where his higher education took place. ‘I went to both primary and secondary school in Thailand,’ Ungpakorn explains. ‘In Britain, although I went to Sussex and Durham to study science, I did a master’s degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies on Southeast Asian politics and economics.’ This enabled him to return to Thailand to teach political science.
Chulalongkorn, situated in the centre of Bangkok, is seen as the most esteemed university in the country. ‘It was quite open really, in terms of what you could teach,’ Ungpakorn explains. ‘So myself and a colleague started up a course on Marxism, and that wasn’t blocked in any way at all.’ His students, Ungpakorn says, were as open minded as the institution. ‘The students that chose to study with me where very intelligent. It was a pleasure to teach them.’
But the 2006 coup, and the political upheaval that it brought, was to change academic freedom in Thailand. ‘The problems started with the military coup,’ Ungpakorn states. ‘After that, things went from bad to worse.’
In that coup, commander-in-chief of the Thai military, General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, ousted the government of Thaksin Shinwatra. In response, Ungpakorn and colleagues organized a demonstration to voice their opposition. ‘Of course we were warned about staging that demonstration,’ he says. ‘But they didn’t, and weren’t able, to arrest us because there was so much publicity around it.’
The junta, Ungpakorn believes, was exploiting the reverence of the monarchy to legitimize itself, while at the same time rolling back certain economic aspects of the Thai state that had grown under Shinawatra’s government such as programs intended to boost the economy of Thailand’s rural areas either reduced or dismissed. ‘The whole process of the coup and the undermining of democracy was justified and legitimized by the military with them claiming they were protecting the monarch,’ he explains. ‘And I thought that this was absolutely outrageous. They could just say, “well, we’re protecting the monarchy therefore you can’t argue against us.”’
Ungpakorn’s exile echoes that of his father Puey Ungpakorn, a former Bank of Thailand governor and then rector at Thammasat University. ‘My father was always opposed to military dictatorship,’ explains Ungpakorn. His father had been made rector of the university in a period of relative political stability, with the ruling junta being thrown out by mass demonstrations in 1973.
Like many calm periods in Thailand’s turbulent history, this proved to be short lived. ‘Three years later, the ruling class and right wing organized a backlash,’ culminating in the military ousting elected premier Seni Pramoj and installing hard-line royalist Thanin Kraivichien, details Ungpakorn. ‘There were right wing thugs outside the university, together with the police and military, and they just organized carnage.’
This would tragically lead to the Thammasat University massacre on 6 October 1976 where Thai military and other factions turned on student demonstrators, protesting against the return of former military dictator Thanom Kittikachorn. Widely believed unofficial counts hold the death tally at more than 100, with many more injured.
In protest, Puey resigned as rector and, realizing he was now a marked man, abruptly made route to Don Muang Airport where he was met by an angry pro-dictator mob attempting to have him lynched. ‘They tried to assault him at the airport, people were trying to kill him. But he luckily managed to get to Britain, Ungpakorn states.
Fuelled by the injustice of the 2006 coup, Ungpakorn was prompted to write his book A Coup for the Rich that would ultimately force him into exile and prompt his mother to lament that, like his father’s forced exile 30 years before, ‘this was just history repeating itself.’
‘The title of my book implies that the coup d’état was trying to roll back some of the social policies that the previous government had brought in,’ Ungpakorn explains. ‘They were trying to lift the stands of living of the poor of Thailand. Thaksin was no angel but nevertheless he was elected and could be removed through an electoral process,’ he explains. ‘We demonstrated against Thaksin, and we were never arrested or anything like that.’
Ungpakorn, aghast at the swift unraveling of Thailand’s democracy, was propelled to write a book that set out the ways in which the coup was illegal, illegitimate and an attempt by the middle class to roll back the state in favour of themselves.
Quickly published after the coup, the book was handed over to police by one of his colleagues. A year later, having ‘grappled with the English’ of the book, they summoned him. ‘What they didn’t like was my criticism of the former king’s sufficiency economy,’ he states. ‘Which basically was saying that the poor need to adapt themselves to being poor.’
Quickly the reality of his situation dawned. ‘The problem with the laws is that if you are sentenced in private you can’t defend your work in a public arena,’ Ungpakorn explains. ‘Claiming that everything you wrote is true is not a defence. It is a catch all law to lock people up as political prisoners.’
Realizing that he faced a prolonged period behind bars, Ungpakorn took the decision to quickly flee to Britain, where he has remained since, a vocal critic of the monarchy and the subsequent junta that stole power in 2014.
Via his blog Ugly Truth Thailand, Ungpakorn has pursued an anti-monarchy and anti-military platform in the hope to educate those inside and outside of Thailand. ‘I have never thought that the monarchy has any real power,’ Ungpakorn states. ‘The role of the former King, right up to his death, was being used by the military to legitimize them.’
When asked whether he has optimism for the future of Thailand, Ungpakorn paraphrases the motto quoted by Antonio Gramsci: ‘you have to have optimism of the will and pessimism of the intellect.’ ‘What this means that if you look back at Thailand’s history you can see periods of mass uprising and the development of political consciousness,’ he explains. ‘But at the same time, until the Thai people organize into mass social movements, in the way they did once with the Red Shirts, it will be difficult to throw off the legacy of dictatorship in Thailand.’