Knowing the obvious on the military

10 05 2013

At The Nation there’s a story that seems all too obvious to PPT and probably to anyone else who watches Thailand’s politics: the military is politicized, runs coups and rejects any modern notion of civilian control.

It seems that when an academic recites these truths, it is newsworthy, especially when a foreign academic, Professor Aurel Croissant, is making these points.

That “Thailand remains among those countries that have failed to institutionalise civilian control over the military,” is clear, despite efforts by  premiers as diverse  as Chuan Leekpai and Thaksin Shinawatra.

The professor says that “Thailand ranks fifth the world in terms of having the most number of military coups,” with 18 “successful” coups since 1932.

Nicholas Farrelly at New Mandala some time ago pointed out that counting coups is difficult:

Here on New Mandala we recently hosted a discussion about Thailand’s coup history where I suggested that counting the number of coups (attempted and successful) is a complicated business. Often, when somebody asks “how many coups have there been in Thailand?”, the final number that is cited is 18 but I fear that this may be a product of force of habit rather than hard number crunching.

He adds:

As it stands I have 11 “successful” and 9 “unsuccessful” coup efforts in the 20th century [sic. he adds 2006 in] for a total of 20.

The army's real task: coups and repression

The army’s real task: coups and repression

Readers at that thread add several more.

Croissant tells us that “the risk of a putsch remains high,”another point widely discussed, even in the past few days.

Sadly, but not unexpectedly, “Croissant predicted it will be a long time before Thailand can achieve genuine civilian control over the military.”

Oddly, though, in the way he is reported, the professor seems to blame civilians for the problem.

It [civilian control] will depend on not just the military refraining from getting involved in politics but also on strong civilian support and consensus that civilians should have oversight of the military.

“There’s no consensus on that they will not pull the military into political conflicts,” said Croissant, who jointly conducted research on the topic over four years in which more than 180 people in the Kingdom were interviewed.

We guess it depends a bit on who you interview….

Croissant adds:

… the military’s power can be exerted not just through the staging of coups d’etat but also through influence over the government’s decision-making processes. The lack of coups doesn’t automatically mean that civilian oversight exists, he said. “The military can exercise control over policy because democracy is weak.”

And who do we blame for that?Certainly the military, but we will come back to this point below.

On the brighter side, the academic “sees the September 19, 2006 coup as a sign of the army’s ‘eroding military control’ over Thai politics and society.”

What is missing in this account -and, yes,we know it is only a news report – is any discussion of the forces that have institutionalized the military’s coup  mentality.

From 1932, the military became a “protector” of the state. By the late 1950s, the military was transformed – with considerable U.S. funding and advice – into a “protector” of the state with the monarchy as the central defining element. This latter role has demanded a military that was pretty much hopeless in terms of usual ideas about  warfare and was trained and armed for domestic warfare. This meant fighting communists, insurgents,and as required, civilian protesters, who have been murdered by the military in very large numbers.

Protecting the monarchy and state also meant support for and from the Sino-Thai tycoons who expanded their economic and,later, political power through this period. The military was rewarded, with awards, decorations and loot (especially in border zones and in “commissions”).

Of course, the Abhisit Vejjajiva regime represented a complete alliance of military power and civilian weakness. Abhisit was anointed by military and monarchy and was beholden to them.

The alliance of capitalists, monarchy and military is strongly in favor of military interventionism  to protect their interests, political and economic. Some saw Thaksin’s rise as a weakening of this alliance and 2006 was a way to put things right. Some predict this alliance will weaken again at succession.