Missing the point

20 10 2014

One of the problems that faces “academics,” in Thailand and elsewhere, is that when they become media pundits they over-reach and write about things that aren’t based on their “comparative advantage,” which is writing about things they have actually researched. This problem becomes especially acute when some of these “academic” pundits don’t actually do any research in what is meant to be their day job and they blather on about things they don’t know much about.

PPT recently read yet another op-ed by Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies in the Faculty of Political Science at Chulalongkorn University. It was a view of the military and its politics which while summarizing some well-established information, also left out a pivotal piece of information. We’ll come to this a bit further down. First we’ll summarize some of Thitinan’s summary.

Thitinan remembers the late 1990s as “a promising period of de-politicisation” for the military. He blames Thaksin Shinawatra for “a manipulative re-politicisation in the early 2000s…”. Our view is quite different and we think that Thitinan should actually do some research on this to enable an inevitably more complex picture.

The logical conclusion of this view is to essentially blame Thaksin for the 2006 and 2014 putsches. That the rise of Thaksin prompted the two interventions is not in doubt, but the story is, as ever, more complex than Thitinan allows. He says:

The cradle of political power in the current phase of military rule is a fraternal cohort of senior army officers, known as the “tiger soldiers”, who hail from the 2nd Infantry Division (Queen’s Guard). Never have the former commanders of this division held so much power in Thai politics. Understanding Thailand’s new rulers and the sources of their power requires knowledge of the regimental cradle that bred them.

… Chuan [Leekpai] gambled and appointed Gen Surayud Chulanont from an obscure advisory position to the army commander-in-chief position in 1998. For a few years, it looked like Mr Chuan and Gen Surayud were going to remake the army into a professional fighting force, trying to do away with conscription, reducing the top-heavy number of generals, and scaling down the size of the rank-and-file.

That’s only partly true. His claim that it was when Chuan Leekpai doubled as defence minister that saw “wide-ranging reforms to make the military more accountable and professional” is an exaggeration and missing three critical points.

First, the move to “reform” the military was a defensive reaction by the military to a civilian uprising in 1992 that saw the military (briefly) disgraced for grabbing power in 1991 (which initially saw Chuan’s Democrat Party very quiet, even supportive) and engaging in a massacre of protesting citizens in May 1992. Chuan was dragged along by the public that literally spat on the military, jeered troops in uniform and demanded fundamental change. Chuan, as an indecisive and weak minister, was simply not up to the task of reforming the military.

Second, when Thitinan claims that “Chuan gambled and appointed Gen Surayud Chulanont from an obscure advisory position to the army commander-in-chief position in 1998,” this too is an exaggeration. The most important thing about Surayud was that he was close to powerful figures in the palace. In this sense, nothing had changed, and it was Prem Tinsulanonda and the queen who were managing appointments, not Chuan.

Third, Thitinan’s aim at Thaksin for politicizing the military by promoting his cousin, Gen Chaisit Shinawatra in 2003, to army chief fails to take account of the army brass’s moves against Thaksin, which were often involving the palace and sought to undermine the elected premier and his government, as had happened to Chatichai Choonhavan in 1988-91.

There’s much else that is debatable in this flimsy article, not least Thitinan’s claims that Thailand was about to be invaded by the Vietnamese in 1979.

Most importantly, though, for some reason, Thitinan has decided to muddy the role of Prem, the queen and the palace in manipulating the military for their own political purposes. After all that has happened over the past 15 years, that’s a political choice and an academic failure.


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