Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Fading role for army-ruled states

POLITICS is never black and white. Who are the good guys and who the bad guys? In Thailand, the party emphasising elections is also the one that was led by an authoritarian populist who muzzled free speech while in power.

In Turkey, the party now in office, elected fairly and squarely in 2002, has been arresting dozens of military who think that the governing party is taking the country away from its secular and democratic roots.

There are some interesting comparisons between the two countries, both long-Westernising under the general tutelage of the military -- Turkey since its founding in 1923 by an inspired young officer and Thailand since 1932 when the so-called "Promoters" ended absolute monarchy.

They are roughly the same size and although Turkey is far ahead economically, they are more-or-less in the same middle league -- Turkey at the top, Thailand well below. They have both been allied with the United States on the big issues.

But in Thailand the military now has the upper hand and in Turkey the military is well on the defensive. Dozens of the most senior officers have been arrested recently in Ankara and Istanbul. At any time in the past, even the suggestion of that would surely have triggered military counter-moves.

Times have changed. Kemal Ataturk, still the national hero, established the legitimacy of his rump republic after the destruction of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War 1 on the basis of secularism. It was the only card to play. He's still such a hero that biographies of him that even touch on his bad behaviour late in life (drinking and underage girls) are still banned.

The military have been unusually clean, by Asian standards. No doubt you get richer as a general than as a janitor, but it's not like the billions some Thai generals have reaped. I saw a lot of them in the 1970s when there was a threat from terrorism and communism. Honestly, I was impressed by their sincerity and manifest dedication to their nation. Their periodic coups against elected governments (they even hanged the president in 1960) followed deep crises in the republic that only they could resolve. And by and large the country has respected them for their dedication.

But Islam has moved forward in the region and in Turkey; the prime minister's government wants to take steps away from secularism. They claim the military has been plotting against them. That hardly surprises. What is news is that the military didn't suddenly strike back overwhelmingly and depose the government. And now it may be too late.

In Thailand by contrast, the military has been a little less sincere and a bit more nakal. I recall how, in a divorce case, a defendant stated that the army commander couldn't possibly in all his life with all attempts possible spend all the money he had.

They leave legitimacy to the king, defend him, and reap benefits all over; a class structure depends from this. I know many of them and most are professional and dedicated.

I was a personal friend of General Kriangsak Chomanan; he was very much the knight in shining armour who established a legitimate government in the late 1970s paving the way for the king's emergence as the pivotal political figure. His willingness to bow out of the premiership when a vote went against him was maybe the key move toward the rule of law in the last generation.

The military in Turkey has a far more painful position. There's no king to grab the lapels of. Ataturk died a long time ago. Islam is on the march all around them. Women want to wear scarves, which had long been banned. There's no Cold War to justify military moves with great powers. The historically good relations with Israel look feeble today.

But there are still more counter-forces. Turkey wants to join the European Union, and must behave democratically to qualify. There are millions of Turks in Germany and the rest of the European Union.

Turkey can't suddenly move close to political Islam, but it might move far enough to end 87 years of army supremacy.

In Thailand, the military perhaps is where the Turkish military was in the late 1970s, intervening when it sees a decisive threat to its corporate and the nation's larger interests.

Looking at the two of them helps us to focus with greater clarity. I may be wrong, but I think the Turkish military might have tried to defend itself with too little and too late, but the Thai military will remain in the saddle for a long time to come.

Democracy and globalisation move forward in both regions, with different results: in Thailand it means that Thaksin Shinawatra's Red Shirts will continue to press for his programmes even if the Supreme Court has confiscated many of his assets, making the army's self-appointed role more difficult. In Turkey it means that Islam inexorably grows at the expense of the military, pinning the army down for the first time in nine decades.

In both countries, democracy is helping along a very mixed bag of results. W.SCOTT THOMPSON professor emeritus at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, Tufts University

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