Opinion: ‘Coup-Prevention Panel’ a Drop in a Very Dry Bucket

Soldiers posted outside an army auditorium where civilians were being brought in for ‘attitude adjustment’ one day after the coup on May 23, 2014, in Bangkok.

While tearing up during a press conference in the aftermath of the Korat mass killing by a soldier, Army Chief Gen Apirat Kongsompong asked the public not to criticize the army, calling it a “sacred organization.”

The tears, falling after the shooting rampage that killed 29 people, shows how difficult it will be to reform the army into a professional organization that will accept civilian supremacy. The task is monumental and cannot possibly be achieved by the elected Members of Parliament alone – but one party is trying anyway.

The Future Forward Party, led by its MP and sec-gen Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, last week announced a plan to set up a panel exploring measures to prevent future putsch in Thailand. It was both a welcoming first step, and long overdue.

We’re approaching six years since the May 2014 coup, and it’s been nearly a year since the March 2019 general election. Yet little has been done to ensure that the military be consigned to the past for good. Thailand has suffered from 13 “successful” coups in its 85 years of parliamentary democracy so far.

Piyabutr’s proposals call for policies to lower the risk of future coups, and enable citizens to seek legal action against coupmakers under Article 113 of the Criminal Code, which outlawed the seizure of government’s power by force.

Up until the present, the court has always ruled that citizens cannot sue coupmakers so far. Cases were repeatedly thrown out of court because the citizens are not considered damaged parties when they try to hold the generals accountable for their crimes.

The court also follows a long tradition of accepting coups as fait accompli. Piyabutr’s idea is to make this interpretation explicitly unacceptable under the Constitution.

(One should note that coup leaders may change the regime after the putsch, but they don’t touch the judiciary, and the judges usually keep their positions. This might be construed by some as a quid-pro-quo strategy between the generals who launched the coups and the judges who legitimize the said coups. This issue needs to be addressed.)

While Piyabutr’s call to action is an important first step, setting up a house panel alone – even if successful – will be just a humble beginning.

As long as there are a significant number of Thais who are willing to call for military coups to “solve” political problems, such as corruption and abuse of power, perceived or real, the cycle of coup d’ etat will continue to be a detrimental possibility in Thai politics.

Many of those who regret supporting Gen Prayut Chan-ocha back in May 2014 do so because they became disappointed in his leadership skills, not because they now think military coups undermine democracy, human rights, and freedom in Thai society.

A good chunk of the mainstream mass media also prefer to play the wait-and-see card cards when coups happen, rather than outright condemning them. The 2014 putsch was no exception.

As long as the press are willing to pretend that it’s business as usual after an illegal seizure of power by rogue generals, the chance of having to deal with yet another coup is considerable. The generals can always count on the majority of the press to at least give them the initial benefit of the doubt.

And lastly, without a serious reform of the armed forces, particularly the army, current generals and future generals will continue to feel entitled or believe that it’s even their duty to intervene in politics when they perceive it necessary.