Yesterday PPT posted on recent shenanigans in Thailand’s military. Coincidentally, in Rupert Murdoch‘s national newspaper The Australian, John Blaxland, a senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University has an op-ed of some interest.
At his university web page, Blaxland has this important background information, which seems to have been left out of his moniker as a scholar:
Blaxland spent nearly 30 years in the Australian Army…. [H]e served as Australia’s Defence Attaché to Thailand and Burma from 2008-2010. In 2006-7 he was the Chief Staff Officer for Joint Intelligence Operations (J2) … with responsibility for intelligence support to Australian military operations world-wide. Prior to that he held a number of operations and intelligence-related postings including to Australia’s Defence Intelligence Organisation, the Defence Signals Directorate and as Intelligence Officer for the deployment to East Timor…. He also served with the US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) in Washington, DC,….
In other words, Blaxland is a soldier who has spent most of his working life working in what is euphemistically termed “intelligence.” The original version of his op-ed is here.
In his op-ed, Blaxland washes the dirt and blood from the hands of the Thai military.
He begins with a statement of a “popular perception” that “in the West” that “characterises the Thai military as being a totally self-serving and coup-prone organisation.” He seems to think this is wrong, for he tells readers that “Western observers tend to follow the classic Western liberal tendency of painting complex situations in black-and-white terms.” He argues for shades of grey.
Of course, in making this judgement, Blaxland is simplistically painting “Western liberalism” in black-and-white terms. At the same time, he makes himself responsible for explaining that the Thai military is not a “totally self-serving and coup-prone organisation.” In this, he’d need to dismiss a whole lot of academic work, over several decades, that has come from “the West” and that does not take a totalizing perspective on the military. Think of debates over different military classes, Young Turks, Democratic Soldiers, and even, more recently, watermelon soldiers.
Just in recent years, there has been the complex discussions of military classes and cliques by Paul Chambers, while Desmond Ball, one of Blaxland’s colleagues, has told a quite a bit about various military outfits in Thailand. We might also mention work by Aurel Croissant and all of the scholars writing on the southern region’s troubles. “Western” scholarship (and even some journalists) has evidenced many shade of gray.
So after throwing that scholarship overboard, what does Blaxland tell us?
He tells us that the Thai armed forces are not “looking for an excuse to seek more power…” and that they are different from the past.
Given that various factions in the military have been inveterate coup makers and that persons with military rank have been prime minister for 55 of the 80 years since the absolute monarchy was overthrown in 1932, then readers might be forgiven for doubting Blaxland’s claim. His evidence is:
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.
Blaxland doesn’t tell his readers that it was the military and police who shot down civilian demonstrators who were opposing a bid by the military’s leadership to grab hold of the prime ministership.
Putting that washing of blood from the military’s hands aside, it is true that while there was much putsch talk, there was no actual coup between 1991 and September 2006. Indeed, a long period, leaving aside the long periods when the military did held power and organized authoritarian regimes.
Blaxland also neglects to mention that the 2006 coup was an illegal act based on a military-palace plot to overthrow an elected government that had, just a year before, won more votes than any other party, ever. He also skips opposition to the coup and says that:
General Sonthi Boonyaratklin … 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.
We wonder who those days were good for? Probably for the military brass that became fabulously rich on corrupt activities, but certainly not for the thousands of average people who were murdered with impunity by the military.
Did the military learn that running the country was “a lot harder?” Back in 1991 the military claimed success in running the country with Anand Punyarachun as premier, and that wasn’t the “good old Cold Wardays.” Yes, the 2006 junta and its appointed government of old duffers under a former military commander and privy councilor failed abysmally. But there’s no evidence that the next set of military brass won’t simply perceive a failure of the “old guard.”
Blaxland does point out that the world has changed: “Governing the country [in 2006-7] … required experts in international finance and regulations.” Of course, this realization simply speaks to a failure of the military to educate itself, for the idea is not new: back in 1958, General Sarit Thanarat recognized it and engaged civilian experts.
Blaxland claims other evidence: “one former senior military commander explained, after the 2006-07 experience the army recognised it was not best placed to govern.” That’s just one anonymous military commander who is not a serving officer. We’ll skip this.
The author provides reasons for the 2006 coup. The list is well-known, although he leaves out several cited by the junta itself, including that Thaksin Shinawatra bringing down the monarchy.
Blaxland has a revealing excursion into Thailand’s recent politics. Interesting more for what it leaves out that what he says. Neglecting to mention judicial interventions, a military-tutored constitution, street demonstrations, airport occupations, and electoral victories by pro-Thaksin parties, Blaxland feels a need to defend the rise of Abhisit Vejjajiva’s government in late 2008:
Numerous commentators have described the subsequent events of late 2008 as a silent coup, when Abhisit … 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….
If the writer was really being fair, he would have mentioned not just street demonstrations, airport occupations, and judicial interventions, but that the military brass cobbled together the Abhisit coalition and then to maintain the government, even using old-style counterinsurgency tactics to limit opposition to its government.
Tellingly, Blaxland says nothing of corruption in the military. Likewise, he hurdles the whole period when the military violently suppressed anti-Abhisit demonstrators. Blaxland washes away protesters’ blood. He also neglects the current Army chief’s deep involvement in politics, bringing highly political lese majeste charges against opponents and demanding that voters elect Abhisit’s party in 2011. He also forgets to mention the fact that the military boss lost face when voters ignore him.
Interestingly, Blaxland sees the military as having:
arrived at a point of recognition – that it has to maintain stability, particularly until the royal succession is completed. That means it may have to compromise a little….
Naturally, PPT would point out that “maintaining stability” has always been the military’s excuse for being involved in politics. And, if “compromise” is described as “a little,” what has changed? Further, if succession is going to be at all messy, then it is going to portend instability for some time. Hence, nothing changes for the military as their excuse for intervention remains.
Blaxland’s conclusion is rather Australian, but has broader implications: Thailand is a friend and ally, and “remember this when it [Australia or its academics] next thinks of huffing and puffing at some apparent infraction of its sensibilities.” That is a person now claiming to be an academic demanding self-censorship. Forget the blood and dirt and accept the illegal acts of the Thai military.