Thai Social Forum - Chance for the Voiceless Poor

Marwaan Macan-Markar

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BANGKOK, Oct 16 (IPS) - When grassroots activists and academics gather this weekend for the first Thai Social Forum (TSF), they will have to thank the mid-September coup for giving this meeting extra political weight.

Already the TSF, running Oct. 21 -23, hopes to be unequivocal about political reform at home. It will highlight the progressive political blueprint this South-east Asian country needs to develop as a vibrant, inclusive democracy far removed from the agenda for change set out by the junta and its appointees, say the organisers.

To drive home their point, the organisers are planning to conduct the largest street demonstration against the Sep.19 coup in Bangkok on the last afternoon of the meet — a measure that openly defies a ban placed by the military rulers on political gatherings and public demonstrations. Gatherings of over five people for political activity were outlawed soon after tanks and troops rolled into the Thai capital to oust the twice-elected prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.

‘'The coup and the way the junta proposes to draft a new constitution, with limited participation of the public, the poor, will be discussed, Giles Ungpakorn, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University and a TSF organiser, told IPS. ‘'The social forum will address issues that affect the poor and the marginalised.

Others, like Junya Yimprasert, a leading labour rights activist, hope to use the occasion, expected to draw some 3,000 participants, to make the case that the military putsch is illegal and illegitimate. ‘'The coup is not legitimate. It is a step backwards and pushed the country behind by 74 years, she argued. ‘'It is a very sad thing for me.

Thaksin's ouster at the hands of the military marked the 18th coup since Thailand transformed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one in 1932. The billionaire telecommunications tycoon and the country's 23rd premier became the target of regular anti-government street protests in Bangkok from January and was accused of corruption, nepotism and abuse of power.

While the junta appeared keen to hand over power to a civilian government initially, its subsequent announcements and appointments seemed to indicate a longer stay. First came a new constitution, with a broad swathe of powers vested with the generals. Then there was the choice of a former army chief as the new prime minister and the installation by the junta of a handpicked 242-member National Legislative Assembly (NLA), a third of which has been packed by serving and retired military officers.

For Thailand's activists, the selection of this unelected legislative body, which opens Friday and will enjoy the full powers of a parliament, confirms that the country's underprivileged have been firmly shut out. Other NLA members include current and former senior civil servants and senior administrators of institutions like universities and banks.

‘'This is a Thai thing about the way the elite look at the poor, keeping their voices out, not listening to them and treating them with a patronising attitude, Bantorn Ondam, advisor to the 'Assembly of the Poor', an umbrella organisation of urban and rural poor groups, said in an interview. ‘'I have no confidence in the new assembly focusing on helping the poor.

The junta's anti-poor stance was apparent a day after the putsch when over 300 community and other radio stations spread across the country's poverty-ridden north and north-east were ordered shut. This decision was aimed at restricting Thaksin from mounting a counter campaign in a region where he was immensely popular.

Thailand's poor, rural voters, make up close to 70 percent of the country's population. At the February 2005 parliamentary elections, for instance, 10.3 million people voted from the north-east, the poorest belt, out of 32.3 million votes that were cast. This area accounted for close to 150 of the 400 elected seats in the parliament.

Bantorn has already set his sights on the TSF to address this disparity between the affluent who stand to profit from the coup and the poor, who have no representation in the NLA. ‘'The social forum will be a good venue to make our case. It will offer an alternative view to make public what those at the bottom want.''

Thailand's social forum adds it to a growing list of countries in the developing and developed world that have staged these events rallying together activists, academics and people to achieve an alternative political, economic and social agenda. On the economic front, for instance, these social fora have delivered telling criticisms against globalisation driven by corporate greed, at the cost of the poor in the developing world.

The cry ‘Another World is Possible' was first heard in Porto Alegre, a city along Brazil's south-eastern coast, in early 2001, with the holding of the inaugural World Social Forum (WSF). Since then, the WSF, which has attracted tens of thousands of participants from across the world, has also been held in Mumbai, India.

Keeping pace with these international assemblies for the marginalised are regional and national meetings, such as the one this month in Thailand.

‘'The social forum is very timely for us, says Junya, the labour rights activist. ‘'It will be a counterpoint to the people who always hold power in Thailand, the military and government servants. (END/2006)