A ‘Third Hand’: The Role of the Thai Military in Thai Politics Today

A summary of a talk by Dr Paul Chambers (PhD, Northern Illinois University), Chiang Mai University on the role of the military in Thai political life.

By | Thu 7 Nov 2013

The 367th Talk at the Northern Informal Thai Group:“A ‘Third Hand’: The Role of the Thai Military in Thai Politics Today”- A Talk by Dr. Paul Chambers (PhD, Northern Illinois University),Chiang Mai University.

The Informal Northern Thai Group talks are given in principle on the second Tuesday of every month at the Alliance Française, Chiang Mai. You can receive the Announcements and Minutes free of charge by sending your e-mail address to gabaudel@yahoo.com

Summary of the talk

The talk is based upon one article and two books:
1) Chambers, Paul, “Military ‘Shadows’ in Thailand since the 2006 coup,” Asian Affairs: An American Review, (Routledge), Vol. 40, Issue 2, 2013.
2) Chambers, Paul, Napisa Waitoolkiat, Hanstaad, Eric, Arisa Ratanapinsiri, Srisompob Jitpiromsri, Knights of the Realm: Thailand’s Military and Police, Then and Now (edited by Paul Chambers).Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 2013.
3) Croissant, Aurel, Kuehn, David, Lorenz, Chambers, Paul W. Democratization and Civilian Control in Asia. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave/Macmillan (Critical Studies of the Asia Pacific, 2013.

1. Establishment of an asymmetrical partnership of power: MONARCHY/MILITARY

2. Evolution of military absolutism

3. The achievement of elected civilian control

4. The military rises again, with US and monarchical support.

5. Deceptive appearances

By the 1990s, it looked as though elected civilian supremacy, albeit with a strong military under the control of the monarch and elected civilians, had finally reached the country. This deceptive appearance owed to six historical legacies:a) a supremely-influential monarch;b) a powerful military subservient to the monarchy which concentrated on internal security;c) a weak, intermittent, elite-dominated democracy) an intense divide between rich and poor;e) beginning in 1947, a close alliance with the United States, which guaranteed assistance and external security; and finally) after 1992 a tarnished image of the military, which diminished its power, allowing elected civilians and the King’s Privy Council to increase their sway. By the late 1990s, security sector reforms seemed to be creating an apolitical military.

6. The structure of Thai politics: a tutelary democracy

7. 2001-2006: Thaksin Shinawatra’s attempts to personalize his control over Thailand’s security forces

Thaksin Shinawatra, the popular Prime Minister succeeds in influencing most of the police and carving outhis own faction in the military.

8. Reasons for the 2006 Coup

Given Thailand’s tradition of multiple coups, the putsch of 2006 was only remarkable in that it overthrew a powerful civilian Prime Minister and was the first coup in 14 years. In the first coup announcement, Thailand’s putschists rationalized their action because Thaksin had:

a) “caused society to be fragmented,” a situation which might lead to greater violence;

b) exhibited evidence of “corruption, malfeasance, political interference in government agencies and independent organizations;

c) was “challenging the king’s power.” (Thai Government, 2006).Two months later, other coup rationales appeared:

d) Thaksin had abused power;e) he had engaged in unethical practices;

f) he had presided over human rights violations;

g) there was an election crisis with Thaksin’s political party unable to form a government; and

h) there was a power vacuum with a non-functioning legislature (The Nation, December 12, 2006).

Allegations have emerged that Thaksin had antagonized the king, was hated by Privy Council ChairPrem, and disliked by many armed forces officials for seeking to dominate the military. The timing of the coup was no accident. Army Commander Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin was soon to be replaced by Thaksin-loyalist Gen. Pornchai Kranlert, as Thaksin sought to promote more partisan military officers.Also, an apparent car bomb assassination plot against Thaksin just before the coup suggested army complicity, and senior officers would not tolerate such insinuations (Thitinan, 2006). Moreover, withanti-Thaksin demonstrators encouraging military action, the Prime Minister was at the time abroad.
As Coup Leader Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin later told US Ambassador Boyce, “Thaksin was at his weakest and we were at our strongest” (Cable 3, 2006).

9. 2007-2013: Democracy?

Following December 2007 polls, an elected government assumed office in January, 2008. This followed a year and three months of military rule. Though the armed forces had promised that their period of direct control would be brief, democracy only returned following four alterations.9.1. Enactment of a military-endorsed constitution, which weakened political parties, facilitated the censuring of governments, gerrymandered the electoral system, and instituted a half-elected, half-appointed senate.9.2. Judicial decisions, including the 2008 conviction of Thaksin and the dissolution of his Thai Rak Thai party, compelling him to abandon direct participation in Thai politics.9.3. The assertion of control over the armed forces by the arch-royalist “Eastern Tigers” (and “Queen’sGuards”) military faction as symbolized by Gen. Anupong Paochinda’s appointment as Army Commander in 2007.9.4. The resurgence in influence for the Thai military back to levels approximating the pre-1992 period.

10. Understanding civil-military relations

11. Re-democratization amidst military consolidation (2007-present)

12. Current state of civilian control

A government… supervises soldiers but their real owners are the country and the King.”(Privy Council Chair retired Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda, quoted in Sutichai, 2006).
Since 2011, the newly-elected Phuea Thai government of Yingluck Shinawatra has pushed for greatercivilian control over the military but so far with little success.

The military, as commanded by the Queen’s Guard faction, currently under Army Commander Prayuth andSupreme Commander Tanasak, are effectively insulated from control by the Prime Minister.

13. What factors have facilitated the growth of military power?

Currently, while post-2007 civilian governments appear to once again be in charge of politics, military influence and insulation remain just under the surface. Several factors help to explain this situation. First, the influence of authoritarian legacies is a crucial variable for understanding why the armed forces have remained a powerful actor on the Thai political landscape (Aguero, 1995). Thailand’s military has long been successful in legitimizing itself as the protector of a monarch who is beloved and considered close to being a deity by a far majority of Thais. A post-1957 asymmetrical power-sharing arrangement between the palace and military (with the latter as junior partner), while elections were only loosely rooted, has remained the dominant state of affairs until the present (Chaiyan, 2008; Kobkua, 2003:155).

Second, “internal threat environments” and border problems have contributed to enhanced military clout (Desch, 1999:111-112). These relate to military justifications for its involvement on the political stage. Such rationales derive from continuing counter-insurgency operations in Thailand’s far South; threats from“Red Shirts” against the Kingdom; the need to quash any perceived insults or dangers to either the monarchy or the King’s representatives (e.g. Privy Council); and natural disaster relief especially during its popular handling of the 2011 flooding around Bangkok (Taipei Times, 2011). Yet military influence has not only been bolstered because of internal threats. Rather, persistent frontier difficulties mostly with Cambodia—verging on external threats—have also increased military leverage vis-à-vis civilians in border/foreign policy.

Third, where the military has been cohesive while civilians have been divided, this has benefited moves by the armed forces to enhance their power (Croissant et al., 2011:92). Thailand’s military currently stands united, specifically at the top, under the “Eastern Tigers” faction. At the same time, Thai civilians, since 2005, have been politically divided. It is a personalistic, semi-authoritarian split—one centered on the populist Thaksin Shinawatra, the other around the King. Such polarization is reflected in “People’s Power” civil society groups—with the anti-Thaksin “Yellow” and “Multi-Colored” Shirts on one side and the pro-Thaksin “Red Shirts” on the other. This continuing disunity in intra-civilian affairs has provided a rationale for the more cohesive military to maintain a central role on the political stage while appearing to exist under the veneer of civilian control (Chambers, 2010:850-854).

Maintaining the appearance of civilian control has proven to be preferable among senior military brass than direct administration. First, in line with contemporary logic, rising economic growth and per capita income strengthen pluralist forces, thus weakening militaries (Alagappa, 2001:63). And indeed, since1988, no Thai authoritarian regime has lasted longer than one year. Second, members of the international community tend to only dispense aid and carry on unfettered economic intercourse with countries having elected governments. Third, though the armed forces (as an anti-Thaksin institution) remains popular among middle and upper-class Thais in much of Bangkok, such urbanites also generally favour a military which ostensibly takes orders from elected civilians. Fourth, the military itself would prefer to stand behind the facade of civilian governance so that if an unpopular measure must be implemented, the civilian coalition will get the blame rather than the military itself (Wassana 4, 2008). Indeed, under the mantra of limited democracy, the armed forces concentrate on internal security and national development, of “…a politicized professionalism, using the state to control civil society” (Stepan, 1973, p.47; Fitch, 1998, p.17).

14. Parallel states in Thailand

Thailand’s military stands insulated from most attempts by elected governments to exert civilian control. The Thai military is part of a parallel state with an informal set of institutions unchecked by civilian oversight. Such a network is organically connected to the state and exudes formal political authority, but also informally possesses its own institutional interests outside those of civilian leaders. In fact, the elected state leadership can only solidify its position by acquiescing to the autonomy of the informal power structure.

The frailty of state control offers an advantage to this shadowy network given that de facto powers can in many cases manipulate and subvert decision-making, through influencing the judiciary, security forces, political parties, parliament, etc. Ultimately, parallel statism can inhibit stability and democracy since it stands out of reach of elected officials and can generate societal disunity (Briscoe, 2008:6-8). But Thailand’s parallel state is not simply a bastion of the military. Rather, it is a vertically integrated informal structure of power which oscillates around the palace and the King’s Privy Council. McCargo (2005) referred to this as “network monarchy”—“active interventions in the political process by the Thai king and his proxies”, which includesPrivy Councillors and “trusted military figures” (McCargo, 2005:499-501). Since the 2006 coup, this parallel state has increasingly included the judiciary and Council of State, the appointed members of theSenate, and increasing numbers of army officers. As a subordinate part of the parallel state, the military interests are first role-oriented: to protect the monarch over any notions of democracy (TMD, 2008:33);secondly, institutionally venal: to gratify its corporate interests both politically and economically.

Yet Thaksin is not fading away. He has constructed his own informal parallel state which includes Phuea Thai party, the UDD and most of the police.
The formal arena of conflict of these two parallel states is Thailand’s parliament.

15. Who’s who in the Thai military? Current reshuffles of the army’s 5 Tigers

Considerations include a balancing of factions

16. Army 5 Tigers: 2013-2014

17. Army’s 5 Tigers: 2014-2015 (predictions)

18. Current Reshuffles the armed forces’ 5 Tigers



2014-2015 (Predictions)

19. Conclusion

While the military looks set to continue its political influence in Thailand for the foreseeable future, the country appears to be reaching toward two distinct forms of unconsolidated or defective democracy:

More of tutelary democracy? What is tutelary democracy?

Definition: This type of defective democracy is characterized by the existence of reserved domains of undemocratic forces functioning as extra democratic power centres and veto players, like the military or some traditional oligarchic factions and groups. Apart from the classical case of Atatürk’s Turkey, this type has been more frequent in Latin America (down to its somewhat reduced form in contemporary Chile) andin Southeast Asia, not that much in other parts of the world (Puhle, 2005:12, portal.uam.es/pls/portal/…/0110A5EA9DDF38CAE0440003BA0F80D2).

Bringing in Thaksin’s delegative democracy? What is delegative democracy?

Definition: Delegative democracies are grounded on one basic premise: he [or she] who wins a presidential[or parliamentary] election is enabled to govern the country as he [or she] sees fit, and to the extent that existing power relations allow, for the term to which he has been elected. The President is the embodiment of the nation and the main custodian of the national interest, which it is incumbent upon him to define. What he does in government does not need to bear any resemblance to what he said or promised during the electoral campaign—he has been authorized to govern as he sees fit. Since this paternal figure has to take care of the whole nation, it is almost obvious that his support cannot come from a party; his political basis has to be a movement, the supposedly vibrant overcoming of the factionalism and conflicts that parties bring about. Typically, and consistently, winning [executive] candidates in Delegative Democracies present themselves as above all parties; i.e., both political parties and organized interests. How could it be otherwise for somebody who claims to embody the whole of the nation? In this view other institutions —such as Congress and the Judiciary—are nuisances that come attached to the domestic and international advantages of being a democratically elected President. Accountability to those institutions, or to other private or semiprivate organizations, appears as an unnecessary impediment to the full authority that the President has been delegated to exercise (O’Donnell, 1993, kellogg.nd.edu/publications/workingpapers/WPS/172.pdf).

Conclusion: a future of tutelary democracy versus delegative democracy?

Civilian control is yet unattainable in Thailand because Thailand hosts a parallel state where the militaryremains mostly unchecked by civilian monitoring.

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