Saturday, September 05, 2009

Discussing the unspoken

Thai Takes

ON TUESDAY, in a packed conference hall at Bangkok’s prestigious Chulalongkorn University, a panel of academics spoke about Thailand’s unspoken.

“We’re going to discuss what is unspoken in Thailand – the sensitive topic of the role of Thai military in politics,” said Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS) director Thitinan Pongsudhirak in his opening remarks before the start of a public forum entitled The Military in Thai Politics: What’s Next?

Since the 1932 coup which ended absolute monarchy, the military has been a major player in Thai politics, noted Paul Chambers, a senior research fellow in political science at Germany’s University of Heidelberg.

“There have, however, been but three brief respites from dominant military clout: 1944-47; 1973-76; 1992-95,” wrote the academic, who presented a 101-page paper, U-Turn to the Past? The Resurgence of the Military in Contemporary Thai Politics.

According to Chambers, in 1992, following the bloody Black May massacre, the military was at its lowest point in terms of support from the public and palace.

“Fallout from Black May 1992 represented a massive discrediting of the armed forces in Thai society,” he said, referring to street protests in Bangkok from May 17 to 20, 1992, against the government of General Suchinda Kraprayoon that climaxed in a bloody military crackdown.

Then came Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai (TRT) landslide victory in the 2001 general election.

Prime Minister Thaksin cemented his political grip in the 2005 general election when TRT became the only party to win an outright majority in Thai political history.

“Given the implementation of the 1997 constitution and the 2001-06 dominance of civilian strongman Thaksin across Thailand, civilian control of the military perhaps grew to its highest levels in Thai history,” noted Chambers.

On Sept 19, 2006, the military reversed its loss of political power.

Army Commander Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin launched a coup against Thaksin and established a military government (the first in 15 years).

“The takeover immediately enhanced the role of soldiers in domestic politics,” noted Chambers.

However, the result of the December 2007 general election put a spanner in the military’s plan to dominate politics.

The People’s Power Party (PPP) was voted into power.

“The post-2006 coup military leadership was clearly unhappy with the electoral results – which brought a pro-Thaksin government back to office,” observed the academic.

But the military could not stage a conventional coup d’etat.

“The coup and military government that followed it had been mostly unpopular both domestically and internationally. At the same time, damaging events which occurred under the (military) regime (which failed to solve any political or economic problems) caused the armed forces to be seen in an increasingly negative light,” explained Chambers.

Instead of an outright takeover, the military took a back seat to those opposed to Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej’s government and indirectly influenced the dismantling of PPP.

According to Chambers, this was done in three moves.

First, the armed forces put little effort into protecting Samak’s government (and later that of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat) from unruly yellow-shirted crowds which occupied the prime minister’s office, besieged parliament and seized two international airports in Bangkok.

Second, the military at least twice called on Prime Minister Somchai to resign. (In an episode dubbed the TV Coup, army chief Gen Anupong Paochinda – flanked by the navy chief, the air force chief and the police chief – appeared on television to demand Somchai’s resignation.)

Third, in mid-December 2008, the military indirectly engineered the formation of the anti-Thaksin coalition government of Democrat Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Currently, according to Chambers, the military has found a perfect niche.

“Counselled by (General) Prem (Tinsulanonda, who is a chief adviser to the Thai King and a former prime minister and army commander), working behind the scenes with the generally compliant Abhisit government, and strengthened by the (military-drafted) 2007 constitution, the military has made a U-turn back to 1991 to become Thailand’s crucial clandestine political player,” he wrote.

But the armed forces have an even better deal than the soldiers of 30 years ago.

“They have learned from experience that direct governance will only create negative perceptions of them from society,” the academic explained.

“Instead, indirect domination of civilian governments allows them to augment their autonomy from civilian authority.”

(Published in The Star on September 5, 2009)


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