Thursday, April 26, 2012

Reconsidering the role of the military in Thailand

Popular perception in the West often characterises the Thai military as being a totally self-serving and coup-prone organisation.

But in reflecting on political developments in Southeast Asia, Western observers tend to follow the classic Western liberal tendency of painting complex situations in black-and-white terms. Invariably, there is more grey than most are prepared to concede.

So while many like to portray the Thai armed forces as looking for an excuse to seek more power, this does not seem to be the case. Following the disastrous and bloody events in the streets of Bangkok in May 1992, the military studiously avoided staging another coup for 14 years — a remarkably long period of time for Thailand.

When General Sonthi Boonyaratklin staged his bloodless coup on 19 September 2006, he and his colleagues suddenly realised why the army had avoided staging such coups for so long. Running the country was a lot harder in 2006 than it had been in the ‘good old days’ of the Cold War. Back then, the world seemed simpler. Thailand was not as globalised. Its trade was not so interdependent with so many other economies. Governing the country in 2006 required more than just a satisfactory performance at the army’s staff college — it required experts in international finance and regulations. Gone were the days when they could blend in among a sea of totalitarian Southeast Asian states.

As one former senior military commander explained, after the 2006–07 experience the army recognised it was not best placed to govern, and nor did it want to take the heat for issues beyond its control. Not surprisingly, then, the military opted out as soon as it felt it could without completely undermining its cause — checking the power of Thaksin Shinawatra.

Prior to the September 2006 coup, the military perceived that Thailand’s parliament had been sidelined (particularly after the dysfunctional May 2006 elections); the judiciary had been co-opted; and Thaksin’s former service, the police force, had been given carte blanche to undertake a wave of extra-judicial killings in a savage campaign against drug runners. In addition, the military, which prided itself on having stabilised the situation in Thailand’s Malay Muslim-dominated deep south, had been ignominiously stripped of its long-held responsibility for maintaining the peace there. Then in September, word started to circulate that come 1 October 2006, when the annual military reshuffle was scheduled to take place, Thaksin planned to remove all the remaining senior commanders whom he felt were not completely loyal and subservient to him. In the minds of the Thai senior generals, as well as many of the urban Bangkok elite and middle class, someone had to check the apparently inexorable growth of Thaksin’s power.

The coup-appointed regime that General Sonthi set up lasted only about 18 months before it handed power back to a democratically elected government aligned with Thaksin. Numerous commentators have described the subsequent events of late 2008 as a ‘silent coup’, when Abhisit Vejjajiva cobbled together a coalition including a breakaway group from Thaksin’s party bloc. But to be fair, the government that emerged maintained a parliamentary majority — consisting of elected representatives — throughout the rest of its term until elections were again held in mid 2011.
Some say that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has had little success in pushing for greater civilian control over the military since this time. But there has been some change, most notably through the appointment of a pro-Thaksin general as defence minister. In addition, the new army chief, General Prayuth Chan-o-Cha, has avoided overstepping constitutional boundaries and has been largely compliant — despite some bluster and a perception that he would be harsher than his predecessor, General Anupong.

There are now several possible scenarios for the future. It appears the military has arrived at a point of recognition — that they have to maintain stability, particularly until the royal succession is completed. That means they may have to compromise a little — and the military has publicly shown respect for the elected government. This respect has been reciprocated through placatory actions and statements by the Yingluck administration.

In engaging with Thailand during this difficult period of imminent transition, Australia should be supportive and recognise that the situation is not black and white. It should respect the difficulties Thailand is facing and the fact that there are no easy answers. Thailand has been a strong friend of Australia in times of need. When Australia needed a Southeast Asian partner to intervene in East Timor in 1999, the only country in the region to volunteer was Thailand. The Thais agreed to participate because they respect Australia as an important player in the region. Australia should remember this when it next thinks of huffing and puffing at some apparent infraction of its sensibilities.

East Asia Forum. By John Blaxland Senior Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, College of Asia and the Pacific, the Australian National University.

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