Analysis: Is Thailand’s military compromising for the sake of reconciliation?

Originally published at Siam Voices on May 18, 2012

The East Asia Forum recently published a column on the current political role of Thailand’s military written by John Blaxland, Senior Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University with 30 years of service experience with the Australian Military and also a graduate of the Royal Thai Army Command and Staff College. In short: Dr. Blaxland has lots of military experience.

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinatwatra (center) and army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha (right). (Picture via Flickr, licensed under CC)

In the column, also republished in The Australian, he criticizes “the classic Western liberal tendency of painting complex situations in black-and-white terms” where the Thai military is being portrayed power-hungry, coup-happy force. Blaxland takes the 2006 military coup and its consequences as precedence for the Thai armed forces to be hesitant to stage another one, despite repeated cycles of rampant rumors.

Blaxland assumes that the military acted on their own in September 2006, although many heavily disagree with this notion. He also notes that the 2008 change of government was merely an act among political parties, not mentioning the fact that the Democrat-Bhum Jai Thai coalition was reportedly brokered in the residence of then-army chief General Anupong Paochinda and in presence of his successor and then-chief-of-staff General Prayuth Chan-ocha.

However, the key part of this column is this:

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.

Reconsidering the role of the military in Thailand“, by John Blaxland, East Asia Forum, April 26, 2012

One problem with Blaxland’s assessment on Thailand’s military is that he views the armed forces as a monolithic organization, while in reality it has always been factionalized between different regiments and army prep school classes – key factors when it comes to the annual reshuffles and promotions. Rivalries between these are often a source for potential inner-circle conflict, as the issue with the so-called ‘watermelon soldiers’ during the 2010 red shirt protests have shown. Although there are now measures being undertaken to address this issue like wide-reaching surveys and supporting promotions of officers from other classes.

But there is one major omission (deliberately or not) by Blaxland on the role of the Thai military in the political landscape: the top priority of Thailand’s armed forces is to serve and protect the monarchy (see above), which has been repeatedly emphasized under current army chief Prayuth more than ever, who sees Thaksin Shinawatra and his supporters as its biggest threat.

Even before the election victory of Yingluck Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai Party there have been talks between Thaksin’s camp, the military and representatives of the palace to broker a deal, which is now being widely regarded as a détente between the current government and the military:

Since then Yingluck Shinawatra, Mr. Thaksin’s younger sister, has governed. Under her premiership, an uneasy truce has taken hold, but crucial steps are needed before Thailand can arrive at a genuine reconciliation among competing political factions and the military after years of protracted tumult.

Under the current unspoken truce terms, the Yingluck government has gone out of its way not to challenge the army’s high command and to ensure the monarchy remains sacrosanct in Thailand’s hierarchical society. Challenges against the monarchy must be put down through draconian lese-majeste laws. In return, she gets to rule without the crippling street protests by colorful royalists as happened in the recent past and Mr. Thaksin has to remain in exile.

Thitinan: From Truce to Reconciliation in Thailand“, by Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Wall Street Journal, May 6, 2012

In short, the military will not intervene in the Yingluck administration and potentially also tolerate a return of Thaksin to Thailand, while the government will not try to upset the military officers by actions such as prosecuting those involved in the killings of red shirt protesters in 2010. Another key issue that will not be touched is the lèse majesté law, as Yingluck herself has repeatedly stated that her government will not amend the draconian Article 112. Even the recent death of ‘Uncle SMS’ in prison could not sway her, much to the dismay of her supporter base.

Blaxland also overestimates the appointment of Air Chief Marshal Sukumpol Suwannathat as the defense minister, despite his closeness to Thaksin, since there are laws that gives the military the upper hand, such as the Defence Ministry Administration Act (sic!):

Gen Prayuth is under the protection of the Defence Ministry Administration Act which has been in effect from the time Privy Councillor Gen Surayud Chulanont became prime minister after the 2006 coup. This law is specifically designed to block politicians from tampering with reshuffle decisions made by the armed forces.

The act does not give power to the defence minister in calling the shots in military appointments and promotions. Its Article 25 places leaves that task with the Defence Committee to make decisions on military reshuffles.

The panel comprises the defence minister, a deputy minister, the permanent secretary for defence, the supreme commander and the three armed forces chiefs army, air force and navy. At present there is no deputy defence minister, so the committee has only six members. At the committee’s meetings, all officers to be reshuffled must have the signed approval of all panel members _ except the defence minister’s; he must act as chairman of the meeting so that later, in his capacity as defence minister, he cannot make any changes to the list when it goes to the cabinet. According to the act, once the list is approved by the committee, it has to be left untouched.

Tigers of the East secure a roaring hurrah“, Bangkok Post, October 6, 2011

There are attempts at the moment to amend the Defence Ministry Administration Act by defense minister Sukampol – whether or not this will pass is an entirely different matter, let alone how the military will react on it. And in general, the current relative tranquility between the military and the civilian side is only because the lines have been clearly drawn and any overstepping of these boundaries of authority will be met with scorn.

This is a status quo that is being upheld as a necessary inconvenience (and in that regard Blaxland is right) between the two in order for a smooth royal succession – which does not mean however that all factions are not preparing quietly to be in the best position for the time after that. These are the shades of grey in the Thai political landscape that are not to be left in the pitch-black darkness.

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Hamburg, Germany. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and on Facebook here.

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