German Academic Says Thailand Is Coup-Risk Country

Soldiers atop a tank reading Khaosod newspaper a day after the military staged a coup against then-PM Thaksin Shinawatra on 19 September 2006. The headline reads, "COUP!"

BANGKOK – The Thai civilian governments in recent years utterly failed to rein in the influences of the military, Thailand is a ‘coup-risk’ country, and there might or might not be coup in the near future, according to a panel discussion on relationship of the military and democratisation.

The event, titled “Democratic Control of the Military: Thailand in Comparative Perspective”, also serves a book launch for Mr. Aurel Croissant’s “Democratisation and Civilian Control in Asia”. Scores of attendees– largely foreigners – crowded the venue at Prajadhipok-Rambhaibarni Building ,Chulalongkorn University.

Other panelists were Mr. Panitarn Wattanayagorn, former government spokesman under Mr. Abhisit Vejjajeeva‘s administration and Col.Teeranun Nandhakwang, deputy director of Strategic and Security Affairs Division, National Defense College.

The discussion was moderated by Mr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies(ISIS) which organised the event.

* * *

Mr. Croissant, who is based at Heidelberg University’s Institute of Political Science, Germany, began his presentation by expressing his interest in Asia. The region, he said, is so diverse that it is perfect to study as a “natural laboratory”.

Countries in Asia like South Korea, Thailand, Pakistan,and Taiwan have transformed over the time from military dictatorships into“something else”, Mr. Croissant said. Some have become successful democracies,but others are not as fortunate.

One factor that seems to matter greatly in those successes (or failures) is how these emerging democracies – after such long years under autocracy imposed by the military rulers – could develop“democratic control” of the military and turn them into instruments of security of the citizens.

Mr. Croissant elaborated on the term “democratic control”. Control, he pointed out, does not equate with absence of military coups. It is entirely possible that the military in one country might refrain from staging a coup because they are already firmly in control, or because they can intervene by other means.

Furthermore,Mr.Croissant stressed that countries ruled by unelected civilian autocracies can also control the military effectively,such as Communist China and the USSR.

So, what is “democratic control”?  According to Mr. Croissant, it means the ability of the civilian government, through democratic means and good governance, to freely select the leadership of the military, set out policies and strategies for the military, and manage the structures of the military -namely the military budget.

Meanwhile,it also involves how much influence the military has in a nation’s politics, economy, society and the process of democratisation.

Among the more successful in this regard, Mr. Croissant said, are South Korea and Taiwan. Both countries manage to assert decision-making process of the civilian regimes on their armed forces effectively, despite their long history under military autocracy.

Mr. Croissant outlined some challenges that emerging democracies in Asia would face in their attempts to control the military:domestic conflicts or unrest can force the government to rely on the armed force, the unpredictable factionalism within the military can seriously complicate the control effort, and leftover conditions from pre-democratic era can also lay down the path for continual military intervention

 The “maturity” of the democratic system in the country is a crucial factor as well; if there are political parties repeatedly inviting the military to intervene, for example, the armed forces might not be kept away for long.

 

* * *

With all these general principles in mind, Mr. Croissant then went on to examine Thailand’s control of the military, and the verdict is not pretty.

In a slideshow, Mr. Croissant contrasted the situations in different periods to highlight his point. Thailand’s civilian control of the armed forces gradually improved after the Bloody May crackdown in 1992 toward early 2000s, reinforced by the 1997 Constitution which was widely seen as a landmark development of Thai democracy.

The trend continued during the administration of Mr.Thaksin Shinawatra – before plunging in the wake of military coup in 2006. Mr.Croissant thinks the conditions haven’t rebounded since; the situation is hampered even more by the political violence in 2010, which the military played a large role.

Currently,Mr.Croissant said, Thailand lacks an enthusiasm in the government or the public to retain influences of the military (“at least in the way I see it”), some political groups still seek support from the military, and the public is largely kept in the dark about the defense policies or mechanism of the armed force.

Thai civilian government also has no oversight or effective control over the budget, structures, and the policies of the military. One can easily think of the tug-of-war between Ms. Yingluck Shinawatra’s government and the security forces hardliners concerning the negotiation with insurgents in Deep South.

Considering such monumental failures, Mr. Croissant led the discussion toward the inevitable and always-popular topic: prospect of anew military coup.

Mr. Croissant reminds the audiences that Thailand ranks 5th in term of military coup frequency in the world, adding that the military tends to be stage a coup if they could get away with it many times inthe past.

Interestingly,he said,other famous “coup trap”countries like Syria or Argentina witnessed its last military coup 20-30 years ago, whereas Thailand’s most recent one is merely 6 years ago.

Coups are more likely in countries that lack strong pressure from civil society to dissuade the armed forces from doing so or strength of legitimacy in the current regime. Thai military, Mr. Croissant said, likes to claim itself as legitimate “solution” when it intervenes in “messy”political situation.

Therefore,in his analysis, Thailand can be categorised as a “coup-risk” country.

During the Q&A discussion, questions about possible coup were raised again. This time, however, Col. Teeranun of the National Defense College expressed his doubt that the military can ever launch a coup again.

The military always used same scheme and operation order when they stage a coup, Col. Teeranun said, and they are already too outdated in the modern Thailand society.

“Things changed,”he insisted.

Col. Teeranun also countered Mr. Croissant by saying that if there were to be a coup right now, the military would face huge resistance from the (mostly Redshirts) mass. He cited the potential ability of Redshirts community radio stations to mobilise tens of thousands of protesters in matters of hours.

That,Col.Teeranun said, is the proof that Thailand is gradually developing a civil society that serves as deterrence to the military’s ambition.

The officer also took pain to dismiss the regular cycle of coup rumors in Thailand as mere nonsense that some people like to spread.

 

* * *

Another question from the audiences concerns what role the Thai military might play during Thailand’s royal succession period, ie after King Rama IX passed away.

Col. Teeranun simply said that it “depends on who’s in charge” of the military at the time, before teasing that he would have undisclosed his course of action if he were appointed commander-in-chief today.

Meanwhile,Mr.Panitarn said he believed the military is well prepared for that scenario, as “change is expected when there is change to new era”.

Mr. Croissant joined in by remarking that a country in Europe – Belgium – has recently gone through a royal succession but no one ever bothers to ask what the Belgian military might do.

“I think only a few countries in the world will still ask that question nowadays, and, well, Thailand is one of them,” Mr. Croissant noted.

Minor tension ensued after Mr. Panitarn was reminded by a reporter about his role as a regular spokesman for the military operation that violently ended the Redshirts’ protests in 2010, which more than 90 lives were lost, and asked whether he would apologise for it.

Mr. Panitarn didn’t give direct answer but said that, as the case is being processed by the court, he prefers to talk about the issue in court.