BANGKOK — Corruption has replaced communism as the new excuse for authoritarianism, but a changing world means it’s no longer possible for the junta of today to emulate the dictators of the past, according to a political science professor and military expert.
For decades, Surachart Bamrungsuk has been a voice of reason when it comes to the military’s role. He has admirers even within the army, the type of democratically-minded, mid-ranking officers sidelined since the coup. Since then, Surachart is no longer sought out to lecture army officers at various schools, but the professor continues speaking out about what the army can and should become.
Sucharat, whose doctoral dissertation at Columbia University was “From Dominance to Power Sharing: The Military and Politics in Thailand, 1973-1992,” said middle class support is crucial for the junta’s future, along with that of the business elites.
While communism was presented as the existential threat to justify previous coups, he said those of 1991, 2006 and 2014 won the support of the politically conservative middle class by presenting them as antidotes to corruption and failures of the political class.
“After 2014, we witnessed the success of psychological operations which created the image of politicians as entirely negative,” he said. “If we listen to army-broadcast programs, we can detect an equation wherein democracy is equated to corruption, and politicians are the agents of that failure.”
He said the cycle of coups would not be broken so long as people accepted that narrative. As for the longevity of the current junta, which calls itself the National Council for Peace and Order, or NCPO, he said it depends largely on one unsurprising factor.
“Middle class support partly depends on the how the economy performs, and how much longer the elites who control big business will put up with current economic conditions,” he said, saying present economic conditions were far from good.
An Old Justification For a New Era
Surachart said the NCPO’s justification for seizing power is nothing new to the world. Countries in Latin America leveraged ideological opposition to the political class to justify military interventions, but those occurred decades ago.
“In such a context, the military presents itself as national guardian,” he said. “That was normal during the Cold War. They staged a coup in order to defend the country from communism. Today there are no communists, so politicians have become the new justification.”
The professor said other factors have changed since the Cold War, restricting the Thai junta further. Instead of a bipolar struggle between left and right, today’s issues facing society were more complex, including whether democracy should be the political underpinning.
“If that’s the case, then the military must retreat to the barracks,” he said. “Unlike military dictators in the past, this context dictates to the military what’s not permissible.”
He said those comparing junta chairman Prayuth Chan-ocha to those of the past such as Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat were missing an important distinction: Prayuth doesn’t enjoy the absolute impunity that Sarit did in the early 1960s.
“During Sarit’s time, there wasn’t much development in Thailand. The military was powerful to the point where we could say its power had no limits,” he said.
Sarit ruled as dictator with an iron fist after staging a coup in 1957 until his death in 1963. While Prayuth enjoys absolute power, Surachart said he can’t use it to have his opponents executed as Sarit did.
“Article 44 is powerful, but it can’t be used to send people to the firing squad,” he said.
Globalization, international norms on human rights have changed all that, he said.
“Even if the military doesn’t like human rights, they can’t totally violate them like Sarit did,” he said.
It’s Still the Economy, Sir
In the end, no one can say how long the NCPO will be around. But if history is any guide, Surachart said, the performance of the economy under its leadership or that of its proxies poses a threat.
“If we look at the military, after general elections, there will be a regime party or a proxy party acting for the military. Thai history has shown they have never been successful. It must be acknowledged that when it comes to handling the economy, [the junta] has not been successful… The question is, how can they control such a regime party?” Surachart said.
He doesn’t rule out another military putsch in the future.
To end the cycle of coups, Thailand must develop its political systems to create a truly democratic regime, he said. Groups involved in coming up with solutions to strengthen democracy should include civil society at three levels: academic, civil and political.
“We need to rethink the question,” Surachart said. “First, Thailand needs political reform. Second, we need military reform. All these so we can create a base for democracy, and this may also require judicial reform.”
As for failed military reforms, he said it has so far failed to surrender its interventionist prerogative and become a professional corps in service to the public through its representatives.
“It’s not that American soldiers do not involve themselves in politics, but they push for [desired] policy, while in Thailand it’s not just involvement but intervention. … The intervention mentality used to be normal, but not in this global era. I still believe that Thai military intervention is not a ‘new normal’ but an old tradition,” he said.